Nature Book Review: Changes in the Land

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When I was in graduate school in sociology many years ago there was a woman who wanted to specialize in environmental sociology.  In the heart of the Midwest at Indiana University, most of us–graduate students and professors, alike–would just give her a puzzled look when she stated this intention.  It took me teaching my own environmental sociology course to understand the importance of sociology to the study of the environment.  Here it is in a nutshell: environmental problems are caused by the ways in which society is structured, and understanding how we structure our societies is what sociology is all about.

Of course, if there’s such a thing as environmental sociology, there’s bound to be a field out there called environmental history.  Why is environmental history important?  That’s one of the questions explored in this seminal book in the field of environmental history, William Cronon’s Changes in the Land:  Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England.  Cronon didn’t set out to write environmental history.  There really wasn’t even such an animal when he began the research that would become Changes in the Land.  But his book was one of the first to seriously consider that one could write a history of ecological change and that that history would be both fascinating and important.

This book began as a paper for a seminar at Yale in colonial history.  As a college professor who grades a lot of papers, it’s hard to imagine anything my students produce ever becoming quite as readable as Cronon’s book.  Perhaps he was blessed with good writing skills, or an amazing series of editors.  This is an academic work, but that rare gem of a book which can transcend the mere academy.

In Changes in the Land, Cronon systematically details what New England looked like before the arrival of the first Europeans and how the ecology of the land was changed by the interaction with Europeans.  You learn many fascinating things in this book.  For example, honey bees, ragweed and dandelion are all species that are not native to North America; they were brought over by Europeans.  Can you imagine?  The dandelion and the honey bee are both, technically, invasive species.  You can read about which kinds of trees early settlers most valued, how the Indian method of agriculture compared to the Europeans, the origins of the wampum as a form of currency.  Cronon’s book is a treasure trove of exactly the kind of obscure but carefully documented historical details which I love.  Had I read history like this in high school or college, there’s a good chance I would be teaching history right now.  History like Cronon’s book answers the question that is always foremost in my mind–Why are things the way they are?  Why do our landscapes look the way they do?

You could read Cronon’s book just for that treasure trove of juicy historical tidbits.  But there’s a larger argument being made here as well, and here are the two main points as I see them.  First, Cronon systematically dismantles this idea of a pure, untouched wilderness encountered by the Europeans.  We all know now that the Indians were there, but Cronon directs our attention to the ways in which the Indians had, of course, altered the ecology of New England before the Europeans ever arrived.  A little reading of early colonial history will tell you that the Native Americans had cleared some land for their villages; by the time the first colonists arrived, these spaces were abandoned because of the illnesses that had already decimated the Indian population, and these were the sites of the first European settlements (this isn’t the focus of Cronon’s book, but he does also go into some detail about the biological holocaust caused by European diseases among the Native American population).

Some Native American groups in New England also engaged in controlled burning practices.  The first Europeans were amazed by the open and park-like nature of the American forests.  This characteristic of New England forests was due to the burning practices of the Indians, which cleared out the underbrush and shrubs that would otherwise grow up.  In addition to making it easier to get around in the forests, burning sped up the process of returning nutrients to the forest soil.  It encouraged the growth of forageable plants like raspberries, strawberries and blackberries.  Burning also helped to control plant diseases or pests like fleas.  Perhaps most importantly, controlled burning created what ecologists call an “edge effect.”  The burned forests were grassier than un-burned forests, and resembled the boundary areas typical between a forest and grasslands.  By creating more area of grassland, Indians had manipulated the environment in ways that increased game populations like elk, deer, beaver, hare, and grouse.  Native American groups were intentionally altering the environment in ways to benefit them.

Europeans settlers chose not to recognize the ways in which Native Americans did, in fact, manipulate the land for two reasons.  First, the ways in which the Indians changed the natural landscape were unfamiliar to Europeans.  Indians farmed, but they did not enclose their land, and they did not stay in one place.  After the soil around one village had become depleted, Indians would move on.  Second, recognizing the ways in which Indians were, in fact, manipulating their environment would have made the argument that Indians did not really “own” the land harder to make.  Colonists argued that your right to own land was based on your alteration of it.  You had to plant something or cut down trees.  That the Indians didn’t appear to be altering the land meant they had no legal rights to it.  This is a simplified version of a much more complicated argument Cronon makes about the differences between European and Native American concepts of property and property rights, and even that discussion is kind of fascinating.  If you can make an explanation of property rights interesting, you’re a pretty damn good writer.  The bottom line is, New England, and by extension the rest of the country, was not a pristine wilderness when the Europeans arrived.  It was an ecology that was already affected by direct and intentional human intervention.

From this first conclusion follows the second.  What exactly do we mean by ecological change?  In setting out to write about ecological change, there’s a sense that you establish a baseline and then work from there.  Here’s the baseline and here’s how we changed from that baseline.  The baseline is static and unchanging.  Here’s what New England was like before the Europeans arrived and here’s how it changed afterwards.  Only, it had already been changed.  It had been changing for thousands of years.  Who knows how old the burning practices of the New England Indians were?  What did New England look like before that?  There is always already another foot print on the beach; the island is not ours alone.

This is an interesting philosophical problem until you combine it with the kind of moral and normative perspective we bring to the problem.  It is not just that there is a baseline which we have departed from; there is often a sense that the baseline was pure, untouched, and better than where we ended up.  In ecology this is called a state of equilibrium.  When a natural environment has reached equilibrium, all is well in the world.  When it is disturbed, it is, well, disturbed.  It is a system out of balance, and seeking to return to equilibrium.  But in reality, ecological systems are always in flux, always changing, and not just as a result of human intervention.

The shift in ecology to the model of ecosystems as opposed to equilibrium moves away from a more functionalist perspective on nature.  Ecosystems are dynamic and interactive, and there is no need to establish a baseline before human intervention.  But the question still remains, how do we understand the relationship of humans to ecosystems?  Is any ecosystem that includes humans somehow tainted?  Are some human relationships to ecosystems better than others?  Did the Indians of New England have a better relationship with their ecosystem than the Europeans?  What is the optimal way to interact with an ecosystem?

The book I’ve just started reading in many ways picks up where Cronon leaves off.  Rambunctious Garden is about our relationship to nature in a world without any wilderness left, assuming there was ever any wilderness in the first place.  What do you do as a conservationist?  If we were to restore Clifty Falls Park to its pre-European state, maybe it would mean doing some controlled burning to clear out the undergrowth.  If we don’t like invasive species, should we get rid of all our honey bees?  How do we decide what nature is and whether or not we’re a part of it?

Stay tuned for some possible answers from Rambunctious Garden.

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