Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Aimless Reading: The C's, Part 42 (William Cronon)

Cronon, William
Changes in the Land:
Indians, Colonists,
and the Ecology
Of New England

Isn't it funny that I haven't posted about a history book for 30 odd entries, yet suddenly there are two in a row by historians whose last names (Cronin/Cronon) differ by only one letter?

Not that funny, I guess.

Anyhow, this is a pretty fascinating piece of eco-history, which I think I purchased online. I was going to say that Jonathan Skinner turned me on to it, but I don't think that's true. I recall telling him at some point that I was reading it. I think he was in the middle of writing his dissertation at the time and when I told him about it he said, Oh yeah, that's a classic.

from the Preface

I have tried in this book to write an ecological history of Colonial New England. By this I mean a history which extends its boundaries beyond human institutions -- economies, class and gender systems, political organizations, cultural rituals -- to the natural ecosystems which provide the context for those institutions. Different peoples choose different ways of interacting with their surrounding environments, and their choices ramify through not only the human community but the larger ecosystem as well. Writing a history of such relationships inevitably brings to center stage a cast of nonhuman characters which usually occupy the margins of historical analysis if they are present at all. Much of this books is devoted to evaluating the changing circumstances of such things as pine trees, pigs, beavers, soils, fields of corn, forest watersheds, and other elements of the New england landscape. My thesis is simple: the shift from Indian tp European dominance entailed important changes -- well known to historians -- in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations -- less well known to historians -- in the regions plant and animal communities. To the cultural consequences of the European invasion -- what historians sometimes call the "frontier process" -- we must add the ecological ones as well. All were connected by complex relationships which require the tools of an ecologist as well as those of a historian to be properly understood.

(and thus Jonathan Skinner found a calling...

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