Thursday, January 25, 2007

Book Review: "Changes in the Land"

William Cronon's Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England is a brief, coherent and well-written look at the drastic changes wrought in the ecology of what is now the northeastern United States during the first century or so of European settlement. By examining the pre-contact use patterns of Indian tribes, Cronon is able to make useful conclusions about how those patterns changed over time and the impact those changes had on the ecological balance of the region.

From agricultural techniques to the dynamics of the fur trade to the rising demand for lumber (for starters), Cronon offers a remarkably thorough survey for such a brief book (just 170 pages). His style is concise and clear: "eminently readable" in the good sense of that phrase, not the pejorative. I found his juxtaposition of Indian and colonial concepts of property rights quite well done, and the discussion of colonial firewood consumption was staggering (one estimate puts it at one acre of forest per year per household!, some 260 million cords between 1630 and 1800).

Aside from the text, I will take the opportunity to rave about Cronon's citations, which are both extensive and useful. His bibliographic essay is notable for its broad scope (although I wish he'd taken the opportunity of the twentieth-anniversary edition to add some of the more recent scholarship that's appeared since Changes in the Land first appeared).

An important book, well deserving of the many praises which have been sung of it in the past and will continue to be sung of it in the future.