Ken-ichi'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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Sep 26, 2010

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bookshelves: learning, history, environmental-history, ecological-history
Read from September 01 to 15, 2010 — I own a copy

As a (very amateur) student of American environmental thought and admittedly inexperienced when it comes to history, it's difficult to view this book critically. Cronon argues so clearly and so thoroughly, and so concordantly with my ecologically-informed mindset, that it's easy to forget he's arguing at all, rather than simply stating the facts. But he is trying to make a point: that the ecological changes in New England during the colonial period were largely due to the cultures of the people present at that time. Superficially, this seems obvious: a white guy replaces a forest and deer with a field and cows, creating a very different kind of scene, but forests and fields have intimate connections with the surrounding landscape, and substituting one for another has implications far beyond line of sight.

I think what I liked most about this book was how apolitical it was. Cronon presents the Indians and the Colonists as two separate people with different mindsets and established practices that result in different ways of interacting with the physical world, and yield radically different ecosystems. The connection between an abstract concept like property and an ecological phenomenon like watershed drainage is really interesting, mostly because I just never studied this stuff in school (wish I had now, of course). We learned about notions like Manifest Destiny in high school, but ecology rarely attempts this kind of integration.


"Our project must be to locate a nature which is within rather than without history, for only by so doing can we find human communities which are inside rather than outside nature." (p. 15)

This is an interesting ulterior motive, ostensibly one that Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry have been pursuing for their whole literary careers, and one that traditional conservationists generally don't value. Part of what makes it difficult to understand is that we generally define "nature" as that which is outside of the human domain, i.e. things humanity did not create or at least does not control. Bill McKibben argued that the atmosphere stopped being "natural" when humanity began influencing it (he defined nature as "the world apart from man"). But Cronon, Berry, and Pollan adopt a view that is more difficult and more accurate: that whatever nature is, it is not apart from man. Rather, nature encompasses man.

p. 20 Cronon mentions off-hand that sassafras was sought as a cure for syphilis. An extremely cursory search supports the assertion, and debunks the plant's curative properties. This sounds like the making of a Bulwer-Lytton entry: "Two liters of root beer had done little to assuage my crippling syphilis."

p. 39 Got me wondering whether "alewife" referred to shad or bunker/menhaden, or something else altogether. Turns out they are all different. Alewife is Alosa pseudoharengus, American Shad is Alosa sapidissima, and bunker (Atlantic Menhaden) is Brevoortia tyrannus. They are all herring, but only the first two are anadromous.

p. 44 It's amazing that men and the meat they hunted provided more than 50% of the food for northern New England Indians. The Ohlone Way suggested that Indian men in the Bay Area provided very little nutrition compared with the acorns and shellfish gathered and processed by women. I see a lot more shellfish and acorns in my wanderings, so I wonder how accurate the New England figure is.

p. 49 Indian fire practices are pretty interesting. How long had they been doing it? Was it sustainable simply because of low Indian population densities?

p. 80 I realize this point about Indian happiness is ancillary, but I'd still like a little supporting evidence, particularly relating to the happiness of modern hunter-gatherers. How do we know they're happy?

p. 112 this discussion of white pine depletion made me want to read a similar book on the post-industrial historical ecology of New England. I wouldn't say white pines were particularly abundant in the post-colonial woods of my neighborhood, but they were certainly there. What are the good sources on the re-wilding of New England?

p. 133 "Individual wolves that were particularly rapacious might have an unusually high bounty placed on their heads: thus, New Haven in 1657 offered five pounds to anyone who could kill 'one great black woolfe of a more than ordinarie bigness, which is like to be more feirce and bould than the rest, and so occasions the more hurt.'" There are at least 5 awesome band / pub names in there.

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Reading Progress

09/04/2010 page 52
09/13/2010 page 133
55.0% ""one great black woolfe of a more than ordinaire bigness, which is like to be more ferice and bould than the rest, and so occasions the more hurt""
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Ooh this sounds great. Unfortunately, I don't teach Social Studies- science instead... but perhaps I can create some integration and get my partner teacher to work with me on a project. do you own this book? (You probably have a nook or kindle eh?)

message 2: by Ken-ichi (last edited Sep 04, 2010 04:37PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ken-ichi Kelly! Park View 4life! I think the subject matter of the book would be great for elementary school kids, but the writing might be a bit dense. The book is pushing thirty, though, so it's possible someone else has already developed some kind of age-appropriate curriculum around it. And I do own a copy! It is made of dead trees. I'll try reading on an e-reader when they get them to smell like ink and glue.

message 3: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Well, I am going to look for it in a couple weeks as soon as i get my yearly book budget-- i'm so lucky, we get $400 to spend on building our own classroom libraries almost every fall. I'm definitely going to start the classroom discussions and get my students using goodreads, it's perfect for the reading workshop model that we do. Every student has choice of what they read. they journal twice a week and are responsible for reading each others' responses and commenting. So I may be buggin you for help with the logistics of using this with all my kids. I think I'll be abel to figure it out once we start. I agree with you about the electronic reading.... books have character, almost like a childhood friend.

Ken-ichi Awesome. Please don't hesitate to ask for anything. If it's of any help, here's a list of school groups that are already using Goodreads, and here are our very brief pointers for starting a school group.

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