John's Reviews > Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

Changes in the Land by William Cronon
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's review
Jun 22, 11

Read in June, 2011

This is another of those that is only really going to be interesting to people who are already interested in the topic; if you ARE interested in the changes to New England's ecology in the century or two after Europeans arrived, however, this really should be the first book you turn to. It's not too long, less than two hundred pages, it doesn't delve into too much complexity. It is still a little dry in certain parts, but it shouldn't be hard for a lay reader to understand.
What is fascinating to me is the extent of change and how quickly it happened. It is easy to think of Thoreau, in his little woodsy cabin, living in basically untouched nature in the 1850s, but Cronon starts out this book by quoting Thoreau on how drastically the flora and fauna of New England had changed since colonial times. Understanding stuff like this really requires the modern reader to puncture his or her assumptions. For one thing, Thoreau's Massachusetts wasn't very woodsy. There are plenty of trees today, so it is easy for us to just think of it as always having been this way, but not so. New England wasn't just deforested by the 19th Century, it was deforested by the mid 18th Century. The European colonists cut down trees to build homes, to heat homes, to build fences, to sell lumber to England, to plant crops, to build ships, and on and on and on. Cronon writes that before 1800, New England settlers had already consumed more than 260 million cords of firewood. That's just the firewood! One cord is a pile of wood measuring 4x4x8 feet. Cripes!
Cronon goes from there to the repercussions of these changes, some of which are not so obvious. Felling the trees doesn't just mean there are no more trees. Often, the land under the trees was very fertile. The settlers didn't always realize, however, that is was fertile BECAUSE of the trees, rather than having trees on it because it was fertile. Cut the trees down and plant crops, and in a couple years the soil is worthless. Not having trees also means that the ground freezes deeper and longer in the winter, which means less water soaks in, which means the spring runoff is faster and shorter, which means floods in spring and dry streams in summer. Which means useless mills.
Maybe this sounds wicked boring to most people, but I thought it was interesting. I am a dork, though.

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