Historian William Cronon was one of a group of scholars that pioneered a new and improved way of understanding the past. Environmental history put the spotlight on many essential issues that were ignored by traditional history, and this made the sagas far more potent and illuminating.
His book, Changes in the Land, is an environmental history of colonial New England. It documents the clash of two cultures that could not have been more different, the Indians and the settlers. It describes the horrific mortality of imported diseases, and two centuries of senseless warfare on the fish, forests, soils, and wildlife.
The prize at the bottom of the box is a mirror. The patterns of thinking that the colonists brought to America are essentially our modern insanity in its adolescent form. We are the unfortunate inheritors of a dysfunctional culture. It helps to know this. It helps to be able to perceive the glaring defects, things we have been taught to believe are perfectly normal.
Cronon was the son of a history professor, and his father gave him the key for understanding the world. He told his son to carry one question on his journey through life: “How did things get to be this way?” Schoolbook history does a poor job of answering this question, because it often puts haloes on people who caused much harm, folks who faithfully obeyed the expectations of their culture and peers.
In Cronon’s book, alert readers will discover uncomfortable answers to how things got to be this way. We have inherited a dead end way of life. In the coming decades, big challenges like climate change, peak oil, and population growth seem certain to disrupt industrial civilization, as we know it.
We can’t return to hunting and gathering anytime soon, nor can we remain on our sinking ship. To continue our existence on Earth, big changes are needed, new ideas. This presents a fabulous opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to live slower, lighter, and better. Cronon’s book reveals important lessons — what worked well, and what failed.
In the 5,000 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Europe had been transformed from a thriving wilderness to a scarred and battered land, thanks to soil mining, forest mining, fish mining, mineral mining, and a lot of crazy thinking. During the same 5,000 years, the Indians of northern New England kept their numbers low, and didn’t beat the stuffing out of their ecosystem, because it was a sacred place, and they were well adapted to living in it.
In southern New England, the Indians regularly cleared the land by setting fires. This created open, park-like forests, which provided habitat attractive to game. Burning altered the ecosystem. One early settler noted a hill near Boston, from which you could observe thousands of treeless acres below. This was not a pristine ecosystem in its climax state.
In the north, the Indians did not clear the land with fire. The trees in that region were too flammable, so the forests were allowed to live wild and free. Indians travelled more by canoe.
In the south, where the climate was warmer, Indians practiced slash and burn agriculture. Forests were killed and fields were planted with corn, beans, and squash. Corn is a highly productive crop that is also a heavy feeder on soil nutrients. After five to ten seasons, the soil was depleted, and the field was abandoned. The Indians had no livestock to provide manure for fertilizer. Few used fish for fertilizer, because they had no carts for hauling them.
This digging stick agriculture was soil mining, unsustainable. Corn had arrived in New England just a few hundred years earlier, too recently to produce civilization and meltdown, as it did in Cahokia on the Mississippi. Corn spurred population growth, which increased the toll on forests and soils. (Other writers have noted that corn country was not a land of love, peace, and happiness. Most Iroquois villages were surrounded by defensive palisades, because more people led to more stress and more conflict.)
The colonists imported an agricultural system that rocked the ecological boat much harder. Their plows loosened the soil more deeply, encouraging erosion. Their pastures were often overgrazed, which encouraged erosion. They aggressively cut forests to expand pastures, cropland, and settlements, and this encouraged erosion. Harbors were clogged with eroded soil. Their cattle roamed the countryside, so little manure was collected for fertilizer. They planted corn alone, so the soil did not benefit from the nitrogen that beans could add. They burned trees to make ash for fertilizer.
Cronon devotes much attention to the eco-blunders of the settlers. A key factor here is that their objective was not simple subsistence. They had great interest in accumulating wealth and status, and this was achieved by taking commodities to market, like lumber and livestock. The more land they cleared, the more cattle they could raise. It was impossible to be too rich.
This silly hunger for status has a long history of inspiring idiotically reckless behavior. When a colonist gazed on the land, his mind focused on the commodities, the stuff he could loot and sell. He noticed the enormous numbers of fish, the millions of waterfowl, the unbelievable old growth forests, the furbearing animals — all the things that his kinfolk in Europe had nearly wiped out.
Indians hunted for dinner, not for the market. They did not own the deer, elk, and moose that they hunted, so nobody freaked out if a wolf ate one. These wild animals had coevolved with wolves, so a balance was maintained. Colonists introduced domesticated animals that had not coevolved with wolves. The slow, dimwitted livestock were sitting ducks for predators, which boosted wolf populations, which led infuriated settlers to launch wolf extermination programs.
Indians were not chained to private property. When their fields wore out, they cleared new fields. Colonists owned a fixed piece of land, which narrowed their options. In the winter months, Indians moved to hunting camps, selecting sites with adequate firewood available. They had nice fires and stayed warm, while the colonists shivered in their fixed villages, where firewood was scarce.
Colonists suffered from an insatiable hunger for wealth and status, which drove them to spend their lives working like madmen. Instead of belongings, the Indians had a leisurely way of life, and this was their source of wealth. They thought that the workaholic settlers were out of their minds. Indians were mobile, so hoarding stuff made no sense. By having few wants, the path to abundance was a short one. Even the least industrious wanted nothing.
Liebig’s Law says “populations are not limited by the total annual resources available, but by the minimum amount available at the scarcest time of the year.” So, despite the seasonal fish runs and bird migrations, life was not easy in February and March, when the game was lean and hard to hunt. Indians stored little fish and meat. In rough winters, they could go ten days without food. They didn’t breed like colonists.
In the south, the Indians were engaged in a high-risk experiment by growing corn, because agriculture is almost never harmless, and it often opens the floodgates to numerous troublesome consequences.
In the north, the Indians were lucky that their home was unsuitable for farming. They adapted to their ecosystem and lived like genuine conservatives, not looters. This was a path with a future, until the looters arrived.
Cronon, William, Changes in the Land, Hill and Wang, New York, 1983.