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Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

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The book that launched environmental history now updated.

Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize

In this landmark work of environmental history, William Cronon offers an original and profound explanation of the effects European colonists' sense of property and their pursuit of capitalism had upon the ecosystems of New England. Reissued here with an updated afterword by the author and a new preface by the distinguished colonialist John Demos, Changes in the Land, provides a brilliant inter-disciplinary interpretation of how land and people influence one another. With its chilling closing line, "The people of plenty were a people of waste," Cronon's enduring and thought-provoking book is ethno-ecological history at its best.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1983

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About the author

William Cronon

88 books121 followers
William "Bill" Cronon is a noted environmental historian, and the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was president of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 2012.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 258 reviews
Profile Image for Becky.
85 reviews
February 12, 2012
How wonderfully enjoyable and informative this compact book turned out to be! Though I'm sure environmental history doesn't elicit much excitement from most people in general, I could see how most anyone could enjoy this book, at least anyone who has some curiosity as to the chain of events in nature in some fundamental ways or anyone who has an interest in the Indians' versus the settlers' ways with the land.

This book starts out describing the Native American Indians’ relationship with their environment (in this case, the New England environment) which is very interesting in itself because of how cleverly in sync they were with what the land had to offer - that is the way they molded their way of life to fit what nature had to offer them as opposed to molding nature to fit their way of life. It reminded me of things I'd read in the books 1491 by Charles Mann and American Colonies by Alan Taylor, the first of which disappointed me due to its confusing and semi-hostile delivery, and the latter which I appreciated very much. This book greatly complimented both for me by honing in on some interesting environmental details. It was great at telling the why and how of what it told you, such as the influence of the old world system on the settlers ways of using the land and how deforestation changed soil composition in crucial ways.

I learned so much from this book. I learned what trees were valued for what such as white pines being valued for their height and straightness and their use to build ship masts. I learned that black oak worked best for the bottom of ships because it was more resistant to some of the sea life that would bore into the hulls of ships. I learned how deforestation specifically affected the soil and subsequently water shedding and flooding. I learned how livestock too wreaked havoc on the soil. In sum, I learned what occurred to the New England environment from the beginning of the settlers’ arrival with reasoning as to why it happened, whether that reasoning was good or bad, and I learned how and why the land was used in ways unique to both the Indians and the Europeans. With all the details given in this book, one clearly sees how the land was depleted and drastically changed from what it had been and one sees why this happened from both cultural and economic standpoints.

I have to admit that I occasionally ponder the idea of existing in nature a little more like how the Indians did, especially in the way that they placed a priority on mobility as opposed to accumulation of things. And I guess you could say that our world is, in its own way, evolving to a style reminiscent of this, for example, streamlining of goods & entertainment through technology, the increase in renters versus home owners, organic diets, etc.
Profile Image for Esther Espeland.
255 reviews17 followers
November 7, 2020
Rly a good companion to braiding sweetgrass! Took me forever to get through bc I was reading while annotating/looking up vocab words to help w GRE study but reminds me how much a love a history tome :’)
Profile Image for Richard Reese.
Author 3 books151 followers
March 25, 2015
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, Indians could go ten days without food.

In the south, the Indians were engaged in a high-risk experiment by growing corn, because agriculture is rarely 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 didn’t breed like colonists. They adapted to their ecosystem and lived like genuine conservatives, not looters. This was a path with a future, until the looters arrived.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,057 reviews52 followers
October 16, 2020
A well written, straightforward and cogent book — really a long essay — on the environmental changes to New England after the pilgrims arrival.

Three years after Plymouth was founded there were no livestock. Ten years later however there were more livestock — cows, horses, oxen, pigs and sheep — than colonists. It became common for the average colonial ship from England to bring more than 50 large animals in its cargo.

5 stars — if you enjoy reading about the environment and history.
Profile Image for Cat.
183 reviews32 followers
August 23, 2007
Even though I live in San Diego, I found this book to be well worth the read. Dense but short, "Changes in the Land" gives a close reading to the ecological impact of British colonization in New England. As Cronon states in his conclusion, this transformation has ramifications far outside New England, since the environmental degradation that accompanied early colonization forced settlers farther and farther afield.
Twenty years after it was published, the scholarship is still, what I would consider "cutting edge". Cronon cuts across disciplines and primary sources to produce a nuanced model of the interrelationship of humans and the environment. Cronon's work is just as interesting for his (to me, anyway) novel technique of writing a history where the personalities of humans take a back seat to the consequnces of their decisions.

The effect is at once radical and main stream. Radical, in that Cronon strips away traditional justifications for human decisions that reinforce the implicit assumptions that cause those same decisions. Main stream, in that he manages to stay away from the hyperbole and argument that plague revisions of history.

I've also read Cronon's "Nature's Metropolis", which is his book about the development of the city of Chicago. I would recommend that book, as well as this one, to anyone interested in the subjects that Cronon covers. His scholarship is top notch.

Profile Image for Jonny.
Author 1 book21 followers
January 28, 2009
I used this text and compared to Crosby's "Ecological Imperialism." This text offers a different approach to environmental hsitroy, once that is much more "homo-centric" if you will. Whereas Crosby discusses humans as being a small part of the bursting dam that is nature, Cronon argues that human beings are the chief agents of environmental change. I personally side with Crosby on this one, and as a result, I like Cronon's work less. But it is still a solid piece of writing in a field starving for them. Read them both if you can (and you can add one star to this review if you do that). Put another way: this book is better in the context of Crosby's.
Profile Image for Taylor *Sits on the Top Shelf*.
218 reviews34 followers
November 9, 2021
Don't let the title put you off; yes, this is a book about the European conquest of New England through agriculture, but it's done well. It's interesting and is full of plenty of myth-busting facts surrounding the colonial days of New England and the interactions between the Europeans and the native peoples. It explains the ecology before the arrival of the Europeans and the cultural differences from the natives that led to the destruction not only of the native populations, but the landscape itself. I'm not doing it justice. Just trust me.
Profile Image for Adam .
1,230 reviews157 followers
September 21, 2021
Great read in an area I'm not super familiar with. Gonna comb through that bibliographical essay at the back someday and find more good reading. Did a thread of parts I found interesting here.
Profile Image for William Kerrigan.
Author 4 books21 followers
December 24, 2012
William Cronon begins Changes in the Land with a discussion of a journal entry Henry David Thoreau made in January of 1855. Thoreau, a keen observer of the natural landscape, had just finished reading William Wood's New England's Prospect, a 17th century tract in which Englishman Wood describes his visit to New England in 1633. Thoreau reflects on the radical transformations that have occurred to the environment of New England since Wood's time. Thoreau concludes "When I consider . . . the thenobler animals have been exterminated here,--the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverene, wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc.,--I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country."

It is hard to believe that Changes in the Land was published thirty years ago. It seems as fresh today as it did when I first opened it shortly after its publication. It was my first introduction to something called "environmental history," and while it may not have invented the field, it was certainly critical in popularizing it and expanding its boundaries.

Changes in the Land is not simply about the ecological transformation of the New England landscape. It is a history of European and Native American early encounters in New England that puts the natural world at the center. It was not until I read this book that I really understood that the contest between Europeans and Native Americans for control of the Americas was not so much a war waged with varied weapons technology, but a contest between to conflicting and largely incompatible ways of getting a living from the land. Ecological factors, including the introduction of Old World plants, animals, and pathogens, and well as European practices of environmental transformation, were critical in determining how this contest played out. That might seem obvious today, especially in the wake of best-selling books like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. But it was not so obvious when Changes in the Land was first published. And for those who have not read it, Cronon's Changes in the Land is still a worthwhile counter-perspective to the broad, sweeping strokes painted by Diamond and others. By taking a micro-approach, and focussing exclusively on one small region, Cronon avoids the sweeping declarations that made Diamond's work so popular.

By placing environment at the center of the story, Cronon has influenced a generation of historians in varied ways. One of those ways has been to elevate the role the Euro-American farmer played in the transformation of North America over that of the role of the soldier. Had changes in the land not blazed a trail, works like Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord, and my own work,Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History, would not have followed. But ultimately, you shouldn't simply read this book because of its influence. You should read it because it is a very good read.

To learn more about the history of apples in America, check out my blog, http://americanorchard.wordpress.com
Profile Image for Karen.
515 reviews60 followers
August 24, 2015
5/26/2015 - Upon re-reading this book, I upped it to 5 stars. My appreciation for Cronon's ingenuity has grown tremendously during the intervening years in which I first read it. This work has held up incredibly well and I can see its footprint on a multitude of other historians, myself included. It's a work I should re-read every few years to remind myself to and how to thick creatively about sources and to ask the big questions of the sources I have.


7/1/2008 - Excellent academic read, but his ideas, which were once revolutionary, have been so accepted and proliferated into regular histories that I encountered nothing new.
Profile Image for RJ.
100 reviews6 followers
February 3, 2012
Essential reading for anyone interested in environmental history and the relationships among ecology, culture, and economic systems. This was a paradigm-shifting book when it was first published and a breakthrough for me, personally, when I read it after four years of working internationally on environmental issues. It crystallized and made sense of urgent questions about cross-cultural encounters and differing notions of economic productivity and environmental ethics. It's an in-depth look at a single incident that might have been included in a book like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel," but the research is better and the ideas more subtle.
Profile Image for William.
299 reviews88 followers
February 21, 2017
A brilliant book that contextualizes and links the environmental history of New England to larger historical forces of colonization, the transAtlantic trade, and global capitalistic economy.

Cronon persuasively and effectively argues for ecological history as assuming "a dynamic and changing relationship between environment and culture" or as "dialectical"--that one cannot exist without the other (13).
Profile Image for Max Potthoff.
75 reviews9 followers
October 5, 2017
Let me preface this by saying that I think William Cronon is the most important ecological voice of our generation. When environmental historians are piecing together the canon in one hundred years, it will go Muir, Leopold, Cronon (with many more sprinkled in between). That being said, you can tell that this was born out of a doctoral thesis. The writing isn't nearly as literary and compelling as it is in Nature's Metropolis. That being said, I derived a tremendous amount of joy reading this in Sterling Library, humbly acknowledging that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

Changes in the Land rests on the idea that land in New England-well before the industrial revolution-became a form of capital for colonists that fundamentally changed the landscape in ways that we underestimate. The "land-capital equation" created two central ecological contradictions of the colonial economy: the first being the conflict between Indian and colonial land use, and the second being that colonists' ecological relations of production were self-destructive. The colonialists did not discern the difference between "yield and loot", and we live with their legacy today.
Profile Image for Laurabeth.
148 reviews
August 24, 2021
How often do I immediately read a book again after finishing it? Why this one?
Profile Image for Samuel.
430 reviews
January 26, 2015
Cronon is a very clear writer. His thesis is simple enough to be sustained but nuanced enough to be believable. This is a seminal work in environmental history. I will allow his preface to demonstrate: “My purpose throughout is to explain why New England habitats changed as they did during the colonial period. It is not my intention to rewrite the human history of the region: this is not a history of New England Indians, or of indian-colonial relations, or of the transformation of English colonists from Puritans to Yankees….Although I attribute much of the changing ecology of New England to the colonists’ more exclusive sense of property and their involvement in a capitalist economy—both present to some extent from the 1620s onward—I do not mean to suggest that the nature of the colonial economy underwent no fundamental alterations between 1620 and 1800. It of course did, and some of those alterations, by accentuating tendencies already present, accelerated the process of ecological change. Equally importantly, the reader must be very clear that the Indians were no more static than the colonists in their activities and organization. When I describe precolonial Indian ways of life, I intend no suggestion that these were somehow ‘purer’ or more ‘Indian’ than the ways of life Indians chose (or were forced into) following their contact with colonists” (xvi).

Cronon goes on to describe not only how the Indian populations of New England (whether conscious or subconscious we don't know) maintained a much more sustainable population before colonial settlement altered their way of life and imposed a much less controlled population increase/strain upon the land, but he also focuses on the paradox that colonists saw in Indians: the natives seemed to be suffering wants in a land of plenty. Deforestation was the ultimate and most ecologically devastating effect to the region. Not only did clear-cutting (as well as girdling and burning to lesser degrees) remove forests and change the land use, but it also changed how water was stored in the region, how nutrients cycled through the soil, and how the land would be viewed and used. Worm fences--wasteful uses of wood would only be replaced by stone fences in the late 18th century as forests turned to fields were dug up and their stones along with them. Ecological changes influenced by human behaviors began well before industrialization; Native Americans caused changes in the land and then colonists did in accelerated ways. Land use is a dynamic process that can be depicted falsely as static if historians don't treat it as such:

"Although we often tend to associate ecological changes primarily with cities and factories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it should by now be clear that changes with similar roots took place just as profoundly in the farms and countrysides of the colonial period....colonists and Indians together began a dynamic and unstable process of ecological change which had in no way ended in 1800 " (170).

Finally, the afterword of the book is worth reading. It explains how the book came to be: a grad school seminar paper flushed out into a book by fortuitous circumstances. Cronon got into Yale for his History PhD intending to write about nineteenth century Chicago and its Middle West hinterlands, but instead began with his first success in writing about New England two centuries earlier. It is a lesson not only in luck and good fortune but also flexibility in research interests and running with a good idea.
Profile Image for Billy.
90 reviews11 followers
October 25, 2010
William Cronon’s Changes in the Land compares Europeans’ and Native Americans’ impacts on the ecology of colonial New England. He argues that the European worldview and lifestyle did not just affect native peoples, but New England’s ecology as well. New methods of farming, hunting, and gathering prompted this ecological system to respond to colonists’ “changes in the land.” In making this argument, Cronon gives nature itself agency. This paradigm shift away from human agency and towards nature’s role in the past signifies a broad theme of environmental history. Traditionally human institutions—such as economy, government, class, and gender—are the subject of historical study. With environmental history, ecology gains equal prominence in its ability to explain historical changes. For this reason, Cronon’s work has gained a prominent place in American environmental historiography. His investigation into a changing New England ecology adds new dimensions to our colonial past. His arguments, however, are based upon a dichotomy between Anglos and Indians; capitalism and sustainability; both false dichotomies that form the basis of this critique.
Cronon’s two other notable works include Nature’s Metropolis, which tells of Chicago’s emerging economy, and Uncommon Ground, a collection of essays on contemporary environmental issues. In each of these works a common theme emerges: nature and humanity are seen by historical actors as standing in binary opposition to each other. For example, in his article entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness,” Cronon describes the problems with any dichotomy that sees humanity and nature as polar opposites. He points out that such binaries make any idealized place for humans within nature impossible and that humans are “unlikely to make much progress in solving [environmental] problems if we hold up to ourselves as the mirror of nature a wilderness we ourselves cannot inhabit.” The theme of binaries continues in Nature’s Metropolis. In this book, Cronon argues that participants in the windy city’s economy viewed nature and city as separate spheres. Regardless the hinterland and urban center shaped each other equally. Cronon’s first attempt with they type of dichotomous paradigm of environmental history, however, came in 1983 with Changes in the Land.
Cronon’s first book compares “New England ecosystems in 1600 with those in 1800 as if examining two snapshots—New England before the Europeans and New England after.” Anglos brought a new economic worldview across the Atlantic, one that vastly differed from the ideas of Native Americans. This argument is nothing new. Previous scholars have also attributed the shifts in New England’s environment with the onset of a European capitalist economy. But Cronon’s approach is slightly different. He shows that environmental factors themselves played a significant role in the shifting power structure of colonial New England. Power shifted away from Indians and towards Anglos. European conceptions of land use, especially the Old World practice of pastoralism, a practice that “antedates capitalism by four of five thousand years,” played a huge role in helping colonists conquer the land.
Pastoralism forced Anglos to shape New England’s ecology to fit their animals’ needs. Imported animals overgrazed on abundant fields, but over time pastorialism caused wear and tear took its toll on the land. Animals forced Europeans to create new pastures. Animals also exerted tremendous influence in changing New England’s ecology. To Cronon, colonists exerted ecological pressures because their “livestock—whether raised for market or for home consumption—were themselves a major reason for the dispersal of colonial settlements.” These “hordes of European grazing animals…constituted a heavier burden on New England plants and soils” than the New England’s ecology had previously experienced.
Anglo settlers and Indian inhabitants stood in ideological opposition to one another. Chapter seven, entitled “A World of Fields and Fences,” dissects the opposing views Anglos and Indians had of the land. It investigates the man-made boundaries that Europeans superimposed onto the landscape and reveals how their conceptions of land were based on Old World traditions. To settlers, land was owned precisely because it held property value and could create wealth. Colonists “brought with them concepts of value and scarcity which had been shaped by the social and ecological circumstances of northern Europe, and so perceived New England as a landscape of great natural wealth.” Native Americans, however, had a different view of the land. They endorsed a “usufruct” conception that viewed land not as something to be owned or quartered off. Instead, land was a common ground onto which all parties could take what they needed. These divergent worldviews led to an inevitable “conflict between the land uses of the colonists and those of the Indians.”
Indians’ place in their environment, to Cronon, was natural, while European’s uses of the land were not. Native Americans attained equilibrium with their surroundings, only taking what they needed when they needed it, even at the risk of going hungry. One Native American reflected on long bouts of hunger by stating “it is all the same to us, we shall stand it well enough; we spend seven and eight days, even ten sometimes, without eating anything, yet we do not die.” Europeans scoffed at such practices. They clung to their commodity-driven worldview and spent much of their energy commodifying nature. Anglos ultimately induced Indians to convert to a commodity driven worldview. Soon, Indians were using wampum for currency; they became relegated to manmade borders. Confined to lands outside well-defined grazing pastures, they sold beaver furs and excess crops for profit, just like Anglos. This dichotomy between necessity (Indian) and commodity (Anglos) driven economies reveals Cronon’s disdain for capitalism. On page 161, he bluntly states that in colonial New England “capitalism and environmental degradation went hand in hand.”
There are a few problems with this binary view of colonial New England. First, by separating its inhabitants into separate spheres—Anglo/Indian, Capitalist/Usufruct—Cronon makes value judgments of neatly divided groups. Anglos come across as being capitalistic and ecologically unfriendly. He states that “the colonists’ economic relations of production were ecologically self-destructive.” Conversely, Cronon sees Native Americans as being un-capitalistic, and therefore ecologically friendly. “Indians held their demands on the ecosystem to a minimum by moving their settlements from habitat to habitat [and] made sure that no single species became overused.” His distinction is clear: Anglos are ecologically destructive while Indians are in equilibrium with their surroundings. But this distinction between Anglo and Indian is a false dichotomy. Native American scholars, and many Native Americans themselves, might view Changes in the Land and its binary categorization as shortsighted. Native Americans did not view themselves as a large, coherent group which stood in opposition to Whites. In the colonial period, Indians belonged to distinct tribes, each with a unique culture and dialect.
Not all Indian tribes approached the environment in a similar fashion. Shepard Krech’s 1999 book The Ecological Indian explains that many Indian tribes endorsed ecologically harmful practices. Widespread burns and mass slaughter of animals were in no way uncommon. Not all Native Americans acted in similar ways, nor did they all follow environmentally-friendly practices. When Cronon does recollect Indian’s practice of mass burnings, he touts the ecological benefits of these actions--ecological benefits that were lost on Europeans. They “failed to see its subtler ecological effects. In the first place, it increased the rate at which forest nutrients were recycled into the soil [as well as] promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems.” Cronon has no Native American written documentation to back his ecological insights. Native Americans might take issue with a white scholar appropriating their culture simply to endorse modern day environmentalism.
Cronon’s binary groups of Anglo/Indian and Capitalist/Usufruct are a little too neat. While he explains the roots of these two views of land use and economy, Cronon still underscores the nuances of European economic worldviews. For example, his contention that European settlers endorsed a “capitalist” worldview might be better articulated. The term “capitalism” gets his point across—certainly Europeans sought to commodify nature. But these colonists were not “capitalist” in a strict sense. They arrived under the auspices of a Mercantilist government and a Mercantilist worldview. Mercantilism emphasized both resource extraction and the systematic creation of markets via government intervention. It also helped colonists rationalize global confrontation and domination. Cronon’s “capitalism” is a loaded term. He uses it to set up a dichotomy between Native American usufruct ideology and European worldview. In the process creates a tension that he never really resolves with a term that he never actually articulates. Arguing that “economic and ecological imperialisms reinforced each other,” is not wrong, but colonial New England is not the place to view “capitalism” and ecological destruction going hand in hand.
For all of his digs against capitalism, Changes in the Land never sets forth any viable alternative. Not to say that historians need put on paper how they think the past should have played out, but keep in mind that the book is, at its core, a political work. First published in 1983, the book stood as a polemic against the ultra-conservative Reagan administration. Cronon’s continued bashing of “capitalism” speaks to his political stance of the early 1980s. He calls into question capitalism’s effects on ecology at the peak of Reagan’s anti-big government rhetoric. Reagan’s de-emphasis of environmental policies would not sit well with most avowed environmentalists. Cronon’s rant against capitalism is not necessarily unwarranted, but if he is going to write a book degrading an ecologically devastating economic system, he might also want to provide an alternative.
Within this “capitalist/usufruct” dichotomy environmentalists have only two options: capitalist devastation or pre-capitalist sustainability. This false dichotomy mimics the sentiments of Deep Ecologists, a radical sect of ecological theology that believes nature cannot co-exist with mankind. They maintain that these two entities need to remain separate and argue that humanity does not hold dominion over nature. Essentially, humans must treat nature as a separate entity. Cronon argues against deep ecologists in his article “The Trouble with Wilderness.” In it, he finds false the premise that these radical environmentalists “express the popular notion that our environmental problems began with the invention of agriculture.” Yet much of Changes in the Land focuses on agriculture’s role in New England’s ecological devastation.
Deep Ecologists’ views of a clear separation between man and nature are eerily similar to 1983s Changes in the Land, even if Cronon has eased his stance since the Reagan administration.
More moderate environmentalists take issue with Deep Ecologists and William Cronon for similar reasons. Environmental historian Samuel P. Hays contests Cronon’s dichotomy by calling such arguments elitist. To Hays, environmentalists need not be a separate group from working class people who view wilderness as separate. Nor does wilderness need to represent a sphere apart from work or home. Hays argues that the environment’s boundaries are more fluid—perhaps including one’s own backyard. French philosopher Luc Ferry also took issue with these binaries in his book The New Ecological Order. Ferry argued that binary separations between man and nature could ultimately lead to eco-fascism. This is not to say that Cronon is a radical by any means; educated at Yale and Oxford, Cronon might not necessarily fit into that political category. This critique simply suggests that Cronon’s tendency to setup dichotomies in one book and then criticize groups who endorse them in an article twelve years later are worth examining.
Changes in the Land remains an important work in the field of environmental history. It maintains its popularity because of its clear prose and modest length of 170 pages. The book provides students with an excellent introduction to environmental history and gives scholars ammunition for debate and discussion. Cronon was one of the first to incorporate ecology into the greater historical framework of American history. For these reasons, Changes in the Land promises to intrigue scholars for some time.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
273 reviews3 followers
June 1, 2021
I liked it. It's more like a 3.8 stars, but I'll round up.

Despite its initial publication almost 40 years ago, I think there were still important things the book had to say about the change in ecology (and economy) in 17th-century New England.

It's pretty straightforward when you think about it, but what the European settlers did was try to recreate their home, with all the same virtues, biases, and failures. That meant clearing and enclosing land; Cronon's argument that what differentiated colonial settlements from indigenous settlements, and what eventually made the colonists' way if life win out (aside from disease and guns), were livestock and other domesticated animals. Seriously, the parts about who was liable if a cow wandered into a field or garden were fascinating. Plus, Europeans grazing their herds eventually (and accidentally) replaced native grasses with European ones, on account of them grazing/mowing away the native ones (which they didn't like), which then allowed the imported ones (again by accident -- seeds transferred in the dung of the cattle) to proliferate because they had evolved to handle frequent cutting and chomping. Pigs, too, were pretty rampant and detrimental to indigenous life because they rooted out indigenous horticulture and carries infectious diseases.

The cutting of trees forced loads of changes (duh), because it changed the moisture content of the soil and promoted erosion. I was surprised about the amount of flooding. Plus, with forests wholesale cut instead of patchworks intentionally burned by indigenous folk, the soil content was depleted more rapidly (especially with the European penchant for single-field crops which sucked out nutrients faster especially with maize fields, unlike the indigenous practice of three sisters plantings).

I also learned more about wampum (essentially indigenous value-carrying tokens, ie money), and how colonization forced the indigenous peoples to change their way of life, often not for the better.

Overall, a very interesting book. I have a slight preference, though, for Engelbrecht's "Iroquoia," but that focused more on the cultures of more inland Natives, as opposed to the coastal Natives and their initial interactions with Europeans (though some of the Native practices overlap).
Profile Image for Simon Butler.
140 reviews5 followers
June 12, 2022
"Land in New England became for the colonists a form of capital, a thing consumed for the express purpose of creating augmented wealth. It was the land-capital equation that created the two central ecological contradictions of the colonial economy."


A fascinating history of the ecological consequences of the European invasion and colonisation of New England. Thorough, engaging and deservedly influential, this book has made it certain I'll read a lot more William Cronon.

"An ecological history begins by assuming a dynamic and changing relationship between environment and culture, one as apt to produce contradictions as continuities. Moreover, it assumes that the interactions of the two are dialectical. Environment may initially shape the range of choices available to a people at a given moment, but then culture reshapes environment in responding to those choices. The reshaped environment presents a new set of possibilities for cultural reproduction, thus setting up a new cycle of mutual determination. Changes in the way people create and re-create their livelihood must be analyzed in terms of changes not only in their social relations but in their ecological ones as well."
Profile Image for Dan Allosso.
Author 8 books23 followers
December 12, 2014
This is the first Environmental History book many students read. Partly because it’s one of the books that helped establish the field; partly because it covers a time period at the beginning of traditional American History courses (my own course includes two units before North American colonization, but lots of people still start there). Cronon begins with an introduction called “The View from Walden,” that not only acknowledges some of the changes Henry David Thoreau saw in his neighborhood, but explodes the idea that these changes represent some “fall” from a pristine, ahistorical initial state. The landscape is always changing, and was changed by the Indians before white people arrived. Cronon states: “There has been no timeless wilderness in a state of perfect changelessness, no climax forest in permanent stasis.” (11) Cronon criticizes first-generation ecologists for assuming that all systems tend toward a stable equilibrium, and also for assuming “humanity was somehow outside the ideal climax community.” (10) This may be unfair to ecologists, who recognized their error and developed more complicated systems theories, but it’s an instructive metaphor for historians.

Cronon’s economic argument centers on the idea that European visitors’ and colonists’ response to New England was colored by their cultural baggage (valuation of the abundance they discovered was influenced by scarcity back home, as in the case of timber and firewood), and on the assertion that the colonists were part of a transatlantic capitalist market and drew the Indians into it as well (in his afterword, written on the twentieth anniversary of publication, Cronon seems to regret the slightly oversimplified depiction of “capitalism”). The pre-colonial landscape he describes is quite different from the trackless wilderness I’d always imagined, and Cronon’s detailed descriptions of the difference is one of the most attractive features of the book. Along the way, I picked up a lot of interesting details: for example, that the colonists were generally healthier and longer-lived than the people they left behind, since they were no longer exposed to the European disease environment (24). Of course, the diseases the colonists brought with them killed 90-100% of the Indians in many affected villages. But the Puritan settlers saw this as a sign of their God’s providence. (90)

Cronon observes that “Many European visitors were struck by what seemed to them the poverty of Indians who lived in the midst of a landscape endowed so astonishingly with abundance.” (33) He argues this is a misunderstanding of the Indian approach to life and land use. In a passage that reminds me a lot of Colin Tudge’s argument about agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers in Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers, Cronon says that not only did the Indians have a noncommercial value-system that led them to shun accumulation, but they were actually managing their environment in sophisticated ways that the colonists completely failed to recognize. Burning the forest understory created “edge” environments preferred by game animals. Gardening in “tangles” of maize, beans, and squash maximized crop yields, reduced erosion, and increased soil fertility (relative to the colonists’ monoculture). (43, 51)

Cronon’s point is that the Indians had a more stable, sustainable approach to their environment than did the colonists. He frequently accuses the colonists of “mining” the soil, but the fact that their society treated land as a commodity doesn’t necessarily mean that individual farmers deliberately set out to put short-term gains before sustainability. Cronon may be leaning too heavily on Frederick Jackson Turner when he assumes the colonists all simply planned on moving west when they’d exhausted their farms.

The Indian approach clearly required mobility, which made it incompatible with settled European agricultural culture. In another passage that Tudge echoes in his 1998 book, Cronon contrasts the Indians’ seasonal migrations with the colonists’ construction of fences – even their pastoralism was sedentary! Cronon admits that Indian “conservation…was less the result of an enlightened ecological sensibility than of the Indians’ limited social definition of ‘need.’” (98) He invokes Leibig’s Law to explain low Indian population densities (“biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of year” 41), but doesn’t elaborate on the mechanism of population control (was it by restricting fertility, or by the starving of the weak?). Clearly, though, the Indians are the “good guys” in Cronon’s account. (I don’t disagree, I’m just pointing it out)

The second half of the book continues these arguments but doesn’t extend them much. Cronon throws in several interesting items for me, though. Springfield, begun by William Pynchon in 1636, was the latest in a string of “fur posts” on the Connecticut River. (99) English colonists who had been restricted by the Game Laws in their home country, overhunted to the point that “Hunting with us,” said Timothy Dwight, “exists chiefly in the tales of other times.” (101) A typical New England household consumed thirty to forty cords of firewood a year.” (120) “Roads…were typically between 99 and 165 feet wide…since they facilitated moving large herds to market.” (140) And Narragansett sachem Miantonomo made a speech in 1642 that complained about ecological degradation and warned “we shall all be starved” (162), so the colonists assassinated him in 1643. Overall, Changes in the Land is a very good read. Cronon makes a strong case for and environmental understanding of early America, and the book helped establish the field of Environmental History in the US.
Profile Image for Beth.
443 reviews9 followers
May 27, 2019
I'm fascinated by the natural environment. What I learned in this book was you can't let nature just be nature if you intend on using it. The Native Americans knew this and treated the land in a way to make sure they could continue using it to live off. The other thing I took from this book was perspective, we know how things are now and read history with a current perspective, we know how it turned out, well the folks back then were living it and it was their reality. They did not have a crystal ball to see the future and how things would change from their reality of 10, 20, 50, 100, 150, 200, 300, 400, 1000 years from then.
Profile Image for Jason Chavez.
82 reviews
June 20, 2021
The quote by Carl Sauer on Americans not knowing the difference between yield and loot rang true during the colonial period and still so today. It just turned out the yield in this land with the help of modern technology is bigger than what anyone had foreseen. Unfortunately, that fact does not change that the loot taking place will eventually result in the collapse of this society.
Profile Image for Sam Gilbert.
112 reviews8 followers
January 13, 2021
A book to revolutionize one’s thinking. Yet it is just a rough sketch, a set of ideas not yet worked into a comprehensive thought. Like too many historians, Cronon allowed the details to dominate without bending them to his will.
Profile Image for Raul Alonzo Jr..
32 reviews1 follower
July 25, 2021
I actually would say this is closer to a 4.5. I love history books like this. Concise, reflective, and boasting a great deal of detail — written in a way that makes it all the more inviting for folks with only a passing knowledge of U.S. colonial history. My favorite passages were all the primary source descriptions of what the land looked like in those early days. Vivid.
Profile Image for J. Jones.
Author 6 books31 followers
February 29, 2020
A great book, which saddens the soul to see how the new world's natural world was ruined by greed and miss-management.
Profile Image for yare.
137 reviews2 followers
Shelved as 'read-later'
December 30, 2022
dec 30, 2022: i did get through half of it, i think im going to reread the half i did read again bc i want to annotate as i go along. the source material is so interesting and i don't just want to read it to get it over with yanno
Profile Image for Amy Blair.
8 reviews
August 30, 2022
A masterpiece, although so foundational to the field that I found I had already heard most of the things he argues and explores in more recent works.
Profile Image for Isabel.
365 reviews
January 16, 2011
I thought this book was incredible. After reading it, I can't stop looking at things around me differently, so automatically it got a 5 star from me. Some of the material can get a little dense, but the author breaks it down and analyzes it regularly and walks the reader along in his conclusions, most of which I was formulating at the time, anyway.

The final chapter was a great cap to the whole book. His ultimate conclusion, which was the one I was coming to terms with bit by bit through the pages is that even though we believe environmental degradation started in the 1800s with the Industrial Revolution, it was actually well on its way when the first English settler imported land grazing animals and their economic way of life into a land that was not initially suited to it. The ramifications continue to effect us today.

I had always associated the colonies with self sufficiency and independence, but in reality, it was an offshoot of an economy that had already ground up its natural and human resources. In order to "prosper" the English colonists continued to interface with English markets and commodification in a proto-global economy.

The author addresses alien species (animal, vegetable, and mircroorganism), societal conflice, legal mismatches, economic imbalance... all of it!

I'm still sorting out how the impact of English settlement altered the landscape, which in turn irrevocably changed the entire lifestyle of the Native Americans who had established a symbiotic relationship with it. The environmental balance was tipped and to this day our settlement patterns, politics and economy spill over and tumble chaotically in a direction that has led to environmental degradation, climate change, poverty, food shortages... the list goes on and on. How strange to be able to trace it back over 500 years...

"The colonial interaction of forests, furbearers, hunters, axes, grazing animals, plows, crops, weeds--and the rival ways of owning and selling these things--all contributed to a redrawn map of New England." W. Cronan. Not sure if that constitutes a "spoiler," but that, in a sentence is what this book sets out to illustrate and it did an awesome job of it.

Fact: corroborated that an Indian (I've already forgotten the name) was essentially orphaned when his entire village died due to illness brought by the English. This left him in receptive to joining the English and assisting them.
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