CHANGES IN THE LAND: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
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CHANGES IN THE LAND: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

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The first colonists didn't just cut down the pine trees; the Indians didn't just farm according to the dictates of nature. Cronon, a young historian of the frontier teaching at Yale, has written the book of a seasoned scholar: poised, authoritative, full of sense and wisdom, mercifully concise, and bound to provoke both enthusiasm and criticism. Its argument falls into two parts: first, that the shift from Amerindian to European domination in early New England was also a shift from a mode of production oriented to use-value and limited need to an essentially capitalist one oriented to commodities, markets, and unlimited needs; second, that this complex process was simultaneously shaped by, and profoundly destructive of, the plant and animal environment of the region. Although neither of these two propositions is really new, no one before now has thought to develop them in unison or had an adequate grasp of the necessary sources. The result--Cronon calls it ""ecological history""--is an eye-opening excursion through a remarkable variety of subjects: the now-forgotten diversity of New England habitats before the European invasion, and how the native population made use of them; the subtle differences between European and native conceptions of ownership and sovereignty; the social significance and ecological implications of fences; how the demographic havoc caused by European diseases helped push native peoples into the environmentally-catastrophic fur trade; how deforestation transformed the very look and feel of the country; how and why pigs became an important agent of European colonization. But, recurrently: which Europeans and which Indians? Cronon knows that even within the narrow confines of New England it is risky to generalize about the social programs and cultural aspirations of ""colonists"" and ""natives,"" yet he does so with disturbing frequency. This leads him, in particular, to overrate the evidence that the settlers of New England were from the beginning caught up in a capitalist economy and capitalist social relations: a growing number of historians suspect that many were not, and may in fact have resembled their native neighbors more closely than even Cronon allows. He will almost certainly run into some strong objections, then--but of the kind that nonetheless recognizes a first-rate achievement.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1983
Publisher: Hill & Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giroux