Dr. Rick Van Noy
September 9, 2000
Facing the Facts About European Settlement and Ecological Devastation in New England:
A Digest of William Cronon’s Changes in the Land
As mere novices in the study of ecocriticism, we are attempting to come to terms with the ecological changes that have occurred on American soil throughout the past four decades, shaping the environment we know today. In order to reach a true understanding of nature in literature, we must first consider the historical implications of ecological change by looking at both the environment and the people who inhabited it. William Cronon, in his book, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, offers a dim but provocative historical account of the changes wrought by the settling Europeans in New England. His thesis, in his own words, is to portray that “the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes … in the region’s plant and animal communities” (vii). Cronon proposes to support his thesis by providing the reader with contrasts of both the ecosystems and the economies in pre-colonial New England to those at the beginning of the nineteenth century. His inclusion of economy as a “subset of ecology” forms a strong framework through which the ecological changes of New England can be more fully understood. From the initial squandering of valuable resources to the ultimate ruin of many areas in New England, the European way of life, including its economy, inevitably changes the “new” land of which it has become a part. Although Cronon’s thesis sounds simple enough, the book itself leads the reader through a provocative and sometimes painful process of recognizing the various stages of European settlement in the new country and the havoc these newcomers caused in the environment.
Cronon begins his historical account with a discussion of Thoreau’s work, Walden, and how the portrayal of nature within this work reflects the changes that had actually occurred in the ecological systems of New England. His use of Thoreau’s spiritual frame of reference provides an overview, or perhaps an introduction, to his factual accounts of these ecological changes. As the reader progresses through the book, he cannot help but be confronted by the moral issues provoked by the actions of the Europeans, thus reinforcing Thoreau’s stance that “squalidness may consist with civilization” (Thoreau 35). The environment that Thoreau writes about is a by-product of the civilization brought about by Europeans, and Cronon’s presentation of both cultural and ecological changes in New England provides a true ecocritical understanding of Thoreau’s work.
By including his resources for his study, as well as their limitations, Cronon strengthens his support for his thesis. Although much of the evidence he uses can be viewed as unreliable and / or biased, he seems to maintain the integrity of the historical events that led to the profound ecological changes in the environment. His evidence includes personal accounts of travelers and early naturalists, legal records, ancient stands of timber, and mere microscopic changes. Part of the unreliability of the evidence rests in the fact that Europeans often applied their own names to American species. Another problem in his study is that some ecological changes were not solely caused by the arriving Europeans. The ecology inevitably would have changed, but the actions of the Europeans directed the course of these changes. Cronon is able to present a seemingly unbiased and powerful account, even with the disadvantage of unreliable evidence. He justifies his need to utilize cultural effects on the environment in his words, “The choice is not between two landscapes, one with and one without a human influence; it is between two human ways of living, two ways of belonging to an ecosystem” (12). The actions of the settlers are inseparable from the changes in the environment, even if certain changes would have occurred in their absence.
The most profound changes in the ecological system of New England, as discussed by Cronon, were caused by the contrasting view that the Europeans had of the land and its inhabitants. Whereas the Indians had learned to utilize their environment simply for the things that they needed to survive, Europeans viewed the newly found abundance of trees, wildlife, and fish as commodities to be traded amongst themselves and with England. Cronon views this as the start of capitalism in the “new” world. The unfortunate results of this economic perception of nature included the near extinction of many species of wildlife, deforestation, and soil exhaustion. Cronon also presents other contrasts between the Indian and European ways of life that lead to drastic ecological changes. Because the Indians moved according to the seasons and when their planting grounds were no longer fertile, the Europeans looked upon them as being “lazy” and wasteful with the land. According to the Europeans, the Indians had no right to own the land because they were not “improving” it through fertilization and were not “settled” and storing supplies. This European conceptualization later led to their justification of taking over lands previously occupied by the Indians. Cronon voices this contrast and its effects: “The struggle was over two ways of living and using the seasons of the year, and it expressed itself in how two peoples conceived of property, wealth, and boundaries on the landscape” (53). Another contrast between the Indian and European interactions with their environment, as presented by Cronon, was their actual perceptions of land ownership. Where Indians viewed ownership as the right to “use the land,” the Europeans maintained their right to actually own the land, thus creating man-made boundaries on land that was previously designated by natural landmarks. Because boundaries created the concept of “trespassing,” Indians were forced to live on smaller and smaller pieces of land, in addition to the fact that they could not hunt on English land. Inevitably, the Indians were forced to change their entire lifestyle. Although some changes may have occurred in the ecological systems of New England, even in the absence of the Europeans, the effects of these early capitalistic endeavors are unmistakable.
In addition to the economic bases for ecological change, Cronon also cites the introduction of disease as an important contributor. Biologically, the Indians were completely unprepared for the epidemics that ravaged their villages; they had always been a healthy people, and thus mothers did not have the antibodies to give to their children. Cronon traces the ecological changes related to disease through the interruption of the Indians’ normal way of life. When many Indians in a village became sick, others fled, interrupting their crop harvest, causing hunger and more chance for disease. This savage cycle also had its effects in the ecosystem – the land began to change due to the lack of burning that the Indians normally performed to ready the land. Again, Cronon forces the reader to accept the fact that although changes in the environment may have occurred eventually in the absence of European influence, there is no doubt that these settlers were dangerous catalysts.
In the final chapters of Changes in the Land, Cronon discusses the ecological changes that occurred after the Europeans had settled in their new communities. He presents deforestation and soil exhaustion as two of the most tragic consequences of the implementation of the European way of life. Instead of burning forests to remove undergrowth, as the Indians did, the settlers burned entire forests to clear land for cultivation. Cronon discusses the drastic ecological changes this deforestation eventually caused: the soil became warmer and dryer; temperatures fluctuated more widely; the wind was stronger and more readily felt; streams dried up or ran into larger rivers, causing flooding; water that had previously evaporated from the tree leaves fell to the ground, causing swamps and insect problems; and eventually, the seasons themselves changed due to the snow melting earlier in the year. In addition to the devastating effects of deforestation, Cronon presents the Europeans’ use of the plow for agriculture, as well as their introduction of livestock, as responsible for serious changes in the soil of New England. Plowing affected the soil at much deeper levels than ever before, thus changing it forever. The grazing of livestock eliminated native grasses, which led to a complete ecological change involving both the types of grass that prospered and new weeds that abounded. Ironically, the weeds introduced by the Europeans became responsible for the “blast” which destroyed a great deal of New Englanders’ crops. As Cronon states, “A European weed, in other words, had brought with it a European disease that made it exceedingly difficult for European farmers, keeping European animals, to raise key European crop” (155). Cronon’s words serve as a valuable encapsulation of the process of European settlement. Whether intentional or not, the Europeans had changed the ecological system of New England, not only for the Indians, but also for themselves.
Cronon concludes Changes in the Land with a recapitulation of the ecological changes wrought in New England during its settlement by the Europeans, and also a restatement of the important role the beginning of capitalism in this “new” world played in these changes. He posits that, by 1800, the Indian way of life had become impossible to practice, and that many Indians began to adopt a more European way of life. After traveling the journey of historical and ecological “progression” through New England, the reader cannot help but make a final connection with Thoreau’s Walden. In Thoreau’s words, “Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads” (321). Though much more factual than Thoreau, Cronon has made a powerful statement to this same effect in Changes in the Land. In their blind desire to perpetuate their way of life, Europeans inadvertently caused the destruction of that which they valued. In doing so, they also nearly destroyed a spiritual and self-respecting nation of people. To many, these actions could indeed be interpreted as sacrificing the “greater to the less.”
Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New
England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.
Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. Ed. J. Lyndon Shanley. New Jersey: Princeton University