American Colonial Period in Literature
In this book, William Cronon sets out to demonstrate why New England habitats changed as they did during the colonial period and how this was all a process of change. Cronon does this by illustrating how much the landscape and the environment was drastically changed by the arrival of the Europeans. He also argues that the shift from Indian to English dominance in New England saw English property systems taken into effect and the domination of domesticated animals as well.
One fact, often not realized, that Cronon brings out, is that America was not an untouched wilderness when Columbus landed here. The Native Americans had been living on, using, and even managing the land for centuries. And finally, another argument suggested by Cronon reveals that the Industrial Revolution would transform New England ecology by opening up industries to urban centres and building canals to connect cities. Cronon’s argument reveals that the change in New England’s landscape and environment, was not only brought on by the arrival of the Europeans but also made possible by the active participation by the Indian people.
Indeed, Cronon reveals that the New England landscape during the 1800s were drastically different from what the first Europeans described. He uses Henry David Thoreau as a reference to explain how he also saw changes in the land during the 1800s. As Cronon suggests, animals which were once native to the land are now extremely rare due to the domesticated animals of the Europeans.
Because these domesticated animals were able to adapt and reproduce themselves quickly, they were able to takeover the lands. He also explains certain species of trees which used to be in abundance now grow scarce because of its attractiveness as a fuel. In addition to that, the deforestation affected local temperatures that were inconsistent in certain regions, changing the soil texture and causing problems in the drainage patterns. Since there were less trees, as Cronon explains, there would be greater chance of flooding every year because there would be no trees to shelter the forest grounds.
Certainly, the dominance of New England by the English caused a shift in agriculture and earlier village systems. English law forced the Indians to treat and farm their agriculture in a totally different way. Cronon points out that the English property systems prompted the Indians to use their land as commodities. This persuaded them to sell and alter their production towards the commercial marketplace. Cronon explains that the New England agriculture expanded because of this process, and the ecology of the region also became a capitalist environment.
Therefore, capitalism and environmental degradation went hand in hand. The shift in agriculture brought on by the English can also be caused by the domesticated animals the English brought with them. Cronon demonstrates that multitudes of European grazing animals preyed on the plants and soils, and when that was not enough, more pastures had to be cleared for the animals to feed. Thus, English property rights were enforced upon the Indians in which they had to build fences to separate the animals from the crops so that the animals would not devour the crops. The extended effect was to force the Indians to adopt fencing as a new farming strategy. Fences and livestock were thus pivotal elements in the English rationale for taking Indian lands.
Indeed, the Industrial Revolution transformed the New England ecology from being a pristine environment to an unnatural environment. As Cronon illustrates, swamps had to be drained as more and more money was used to improve the agriculture. Many trees were cut down to build new roads and dams were built to flood the lands for irrigation and canals. And so, this caused the destruction of beaver dams and reversed the drying of land. The advancement of iron furnaces, especially in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, raised the wood consumption and increased the cutting of trees. In turn, local forests were cut to be used as fuel in these iron furnaces. Cronon explains that these industries would thrive in urban centres only and where there would be large populations.
And so, Cronon s thesis illustrates that the shift from Indian to English dominance required important changes. One of these changes were that the New England landscape transformed radically since the arrival of the Europeans. For example, species of animals which would commonly be seen roaming the lands were now in common to the area, and native grasses were now inadequate in quantity. Another one of these changes was a switch to the English property system and the domination of domesticated animals. This switch demanded that the Indians change their farming methods and to build fences to accommodate to their domesticated animals. And finally, the last change was the Industrial Revolution which transformed the New England ecology to an unnatural environment. As the geographer Carl Sauer wrote: Ecological abundance and economic prodigality went hand in hand: the people of plenty were a people of waste.
Cronon provides a very insightful look at the different uses the Native Americans and European Colonists saw in the land. The book does a very good job of incorporating early American literature. Cronon starts out very early in the book discussing Thoreau’s view of nature. Some other early American writers he quotes include: Thomas Morton, John Winthrop, and Crevecoeur. This is a landmark book in the field of environmental history, looking at the complex relationship between people and the world they are a part of.