Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England – Book Review


Changes in the Land by William Cronon

Since the mid-1980s, William Cronon’s contributions to environmental history remain pivotal. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1992) combined environmental, ecological, and economic histories to explore the effects of the Midwest’s largest city on the region and surrounding lands. Likewise, Cronon’s earlier effort, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983) attempts to extend historical boundaries past “human institutions – economies, class, and gender systems, political organizations, cultural rituals – to the natural ecosystems which provide the context for these institutions.” Cronon cautions readers to not draw the wrong conclusions from his work. Though European and Native American ideas about property and land use differed, neither proved “purer” rather each illustrated ways humans altered the environment, “the reader must be very clear that the Indians were no more static than the colonists in their activities and organization. When I describe pre-colonial Indian ways of life, I intend no suggestion that they were somehow “purer” or more “Indian” than the ways of life Indians chose (or were forced into) following their contact with colonists.” (viii)

For the newly arriving European settlers, the landscape held, in addition to environmental and economic value, symbolic meaning. Cronon points out that for Enlightenment thinkers like Benjamin Rush, “the landscape was a visible confirmation of the state of human society. Both underwent an evolutionary development from savagery to civilization.” (6) In this way, Cronon notes that colonists did not arrive on “virgin lands” but rather an environment that had been altered by Native American practices. When these practices collapse in the face of colonial settlement, Cronon carefully notes that “The destruction of Indian communities in fact brought some of the most important ecological changes which followed the Europeans’ arrival in America. The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and own without human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem. The riddle of this book is to explore why these different ways of living had such different effects on new England ecosystems.” (12)

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Categories: Environmental history

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