This week I’m sharing my thoughts on Changes in the Land by William Cronon. It was actually referenced briefly in the last book I read (1491) so I was a little worried that reading it would be redundant. But it totally wasn’t! What I love about Changes in the Land is how specific it is — it goes into great detail based on thorough research including a plethora of first-hand accounts, which provided a nice contrast to 1491, which speaks in more big sweeps and generalities.
Here are my four biggest takeaways from Changes in the Land.
1. Indians and English didn’t get each other. A lot.
One of the big takeaways for me from this book was the extent to which English colonists and Indians didn’t get each other culturally, as illustrated here:
Indian men, seeing Englishmen working in the fields, could not understand why English women were not doing such work. At the same time, they failed to see the contributions colonial women were actually making: gardening, cooking, spinning and weaving textiles, sewing clothing, tending milch cows, making butter and cheese, caring for children, and so on. The English, for their part, had trouble seeing hunting and fishing — which most regarded as leisure activities — as involving real labor, and so tended to brand Indian men as lazy. (p.52)
When you have no idea why another culture does something differently than how you do it, it’s pretty hard to understand each other and pretty easy to make up inaccurate stereotypes based on your incorrect interpretation of the differences. And when one side has most of the power (as the English did once they outnumbered and started to dominate local Indian tribes), that can lead to some pretty bad and oppressive policies:
[T]he English used this Indian reliance on hunting not only to condemn Indian men as lazy savages but to deny that Indians had a rightful claim to the land they hunted. European perceptions of what constituted a proper use of the environment thus reinforced what became a European ideology of conquest. (p.53)
Because the English believed that hunting wasn’t a legitimate use of land, they used that cultural difference to justify their land theft and make it “legal”, because they were simply taking custody of land that was “empty” and not “in use”. This is where we start to really take a look under the hood of some of the “legal” gymnastics underpinning the process of European colonization of Native land. Speaking of which…
2. English property law was obsessed with productivity and “improvement”.
One idea that cropped up early in Cronon’s book was that of “improving” the land as the ultimate goal and value in land ownership and use. This belief was held by many Pilgrim/Puritan/English leaders, and basically stated that those that cultivated, subdued, or “improved” the land had a “superior right” (p. 56) to possess the land, as opposed to the Indians’ mere “natural” right of occupancy without being as “productive”. The English practiced this same policy among their own as they divided the land they took into individual parcels:
Land was allocated to inhabitants [of early New England villages] using the same biblical [sic] philosophy that had justified taking it from the Indians in the first place: individuals should only possess as much land as they were able to subdue and make productive. … A person with many servants and cattle could ‘improve’ more land than one who had few, and so was granted more land. (p. 73)
I read this idea the first time and kinda went “huh,” but then it began to crop up EVERYWHERE in the history of English settlement:
- How do you “improve” a piece of land? Farm the heck out of it!
- How do you “improve” a forest? Cut down all the trees for timber!
- How do you “improve” a forest if you can’t afford to cut down and transport all the trees? Burn the trees to ash, which you can sell to soapmakers to make soap!
This leads to a new part of the problem, which is that the cheapest way to “improve” land was to clear new land… which means the doctrine of “improvement” supported continued territorial expansion on the part of the settlers. Cronon sums it up this way: “Ultimately, English property systems encouraged colonists to regard the products of the land — not to mention the land itself — as commodities, and so led them to orient a significant margin of their production toward commercial sale in the marketplace. The rural economy of New England thus acquired a new tendency toward expansion” (p.161). And this right here is what leads to later issues with the U.S. Government not being able to control its white settler creep across Indian borders (as we saw over and over in Little House / Wounded Knee) — because the ideology of moving further west to make money by “improving” on Indians’ “empty” land was established right from the get-go.
3. English settlers turned the land they took into New England… LITERALLY.
Rather than arriving and learning from the Indians or even adapting to the existing ecosystems, English colonists basically came and started imposing their ways and their values, and even their environment! In Changes in the Land, Cronon makes it clear that the way the English colonists changed the land was that they basically destroyed or made impossible the careful balance of systems previously set up by Indians (see the 1491 post for more on those) and began creating LITERALLY “New England” — in name as well as ecology:
- English viewed forests (and other resources) through English eyes. When the English arrived in North America around 1630, they did so in the midst of a lumber shortage back home in England. Of course, then, this “New World” seemed full of riches, because there were trees everywhere! The settlers immediately started gobbling the lumber, using only the best quality wood for even simple things like fences, exporting boatloads of lumber to England, and building whole houses out of wood where in England they would have used mostly stone. This led to massive regional deforestation and firewood shortages as early as 1638 (p.121). And even as early as the 1790s most contemporary naturalists agreed that deforestation had changed the land significantly enough to notably change the weather in New England.
- Indians practiced mobility; English imposed fixity. Many Indian groups had multiple seasonal dwellings — usually one for summer and one for winter — that coincided with where food could be found at a given time. This had the added benefit of allowing the various places they inhabited to recover rather than be used up. The English, however, treated habitation, land use, and land ownership as a permanent thing, which led to quicker soil exhaustion, deforestation, and game extinction. (This book provides a detailed case study of how this led to the extinction of the beaver in New England, p. 97-107.) In addition, the English basically propagated two “proper” uses of land: farming and grazing. The problem is that when cattle graze freely, sometimes they eat tasty farm crops. English law held each individual landowner responsible to guard their own property (including crops and cattle), and this led to all English-settled land being parceled and fenced off. Eventually, this fencing off of the land had huge impacts in restricting the mobility of Indians and in causing many foundational food and livelihood species for the Indians (e.g. bison, beaver, salmon) to dwindle significantly due to lack of habitat.
- English settlers brought some “friends” over from England with them. The English brought over and raised domestic cattle in large herds. These herds ate all the native grasses (e.g. broomstraw, wild rye, and Spartinas), which were not adapted for long-term grazing, and in their place sprung up “English grasses” that had stowed away in cow fodder and cow dung: bluegrass (aka your lawn), white clover, dandelions, chickweeds, bloodworts, mulleins, mallows (yes, marshmallows), nightshades, plantains (aka “Englishman’s foot”), and stinging nettles are all European imports! (p.142) As Cronon puts it, “Many of these European weeds — to say nothing of grains, vegetables, and orchard trees — would eventually be among the commonest plants of the American landscape, their populations sustained in all places by the habitats human beings and domesticated animals created for them” (p.143, emphasis added). A few animal immigrants include the black fly, the cockroach, the honeybee, the gray rat, and the house mouse (not to mention cattle, pigs, and other farm animals).
The extent to which English settlers turned the land they took over into a New England can be seen in this example:
“The most serious threat to English crops, especially wheat and rye, was… a fungus: the ‘blast,’ or black stem rust, an Old World disease which first appeared in New England in the early 1660s. … It resulted in the virtual elimination of wheat raising in a number of settlements…. Colonists soon discovered that the blight was most common in areas where barberry bushes — another imported European weed…– were growing…. Barberries were indeed the host which supported one phase of the rust’s life cycle, and so produced thousands of spores that destroyed any wheat plants which lay down wind of them. A European weed, in other words, had brought with it a European disease that made it exceedingly difficult for European farmers, keeping European animals, to raise a key European crop. The blasting of wheat was thus a kind of metaphor for the extent to which Old World ecological relationships had been reproduced in New England” (p.154-5, emphasis added).
In addition to the genocide of millions of people (which I read about in Little House/Wounded Knee) the advent of European colonization also caused the decimation of native ecosystems to such a massive extent that we now have forgotten many of the actual native species and think of the immigrant species as natives. (Sadly, this sounds awfully familiar.)
It’s one thing to argue about the merits of, say, Europeans adopting potatoes from Peru, or Africans adopting bananas from Brazil… but it’s another thing to talk about an ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM, BASICALLY A WHOLE CONTINENT, STEAMROLLERING ITSELF IN CARBON COPY OVER ANOTHER ALREADY-EXISTING ECOSYSTEM AND CONTINENT. (Not to mention the accompanying decimation of the people.) It just makes me feel lost and sad. Single-minded conviction that one’s own system is superior to all others leads to a world — literally an entire continent — of destruction.
Tune in next time for “Names on the Land” by George R. Stewart, a book about the how and why of place names in this country.