Environmental History Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

human acts occur within a network of relationships, processes, and systems that are as ecological as they are cultural. To such ?basic historical categories as gender, class, and race, environmental ?historians would add a theoretical vocabulary in which plants, animals, ?soils, climates, and other nonhuman entities become the coactors ?and codeterminants of a history not just of people ?but of the earth itself.

William Cronon

The connection between the history of nature and society defines the very concept of history itself. Both Cronon and Merchant purport that examining how and why human communities transform over time and their relation to the land that changes and is changed by them is most integral to the development of "New World." As it focuses on the confluence of nature and society, environmental history covers the history of the United States begins with the changes brought by the pilgrims, whose reestablishment of Native American territories as Colonial New England birthed two polar histories of American land, wilderness, and landscape by 1800.

Worster defines environmental history in the most commonly accessed manner in Changes in the Land and Major Problems in American Environmental History. "Defined in the vernacular then, environmental history deals with the role and place of nature in life."

The environmental history of New England takes into account the idea of nature, the idea of wilderness, and the important realities of water flows, gene pools, oceans, forestation, and the intertwining of autonomous agents and the land they use. "Wherever the two spheres, the natural and the cultural, confront of interact with one another, environmental history finds its essential themes."

Cronon constructs a picture of the New England as an intricate relationship between ideology and practice that leads it to become a construction of Western and American views rather than the values of the Indians native to the land. This process began very early in the history of modern America, and its occurrence was, in actuality, in direct contrast to the stories of national origin taught in most classrooms. In Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, Cronon refutes the widely-held falsehood that the colonists arrived in America with better technology, increased infrastructural capabilities, and a better understanding of the land. Instead, Cronon deludes the theoretical atmosphere of collective historical understanding and brings to light the fact that the Europeans actually came with their own imported farming techniques that, when applied to the crops commonly used by the Indians and native to the land, they actually destroyed the land's resources and the land itself.

The cultural consequences of the influx of European settlers to the New England are far better known than the ecological ramifications. But the shift from the Native American approach to the land to that employed by the demanding settlers involved a previously undetected but historically critical reorganization of plant and animal communities. Cronon engages this discussion not only in the use of, home on, and production by the land, but also takes into account the very minute differences between Native American lifestyle approaches to the land and those of the settlers, like the domestication of animals.

Between 1600 and 1800, there were fundamental changes in the plant, animal, and bird lives in the New England area.

These differences were the direct result of the approach each culture brought to the land; Cronon paints a picture of the Indians as the more natural, or globally-sympathetic, terra-oriented than their European peers. The Native Americans relied on their hunting and farming products for their inherent value of usefulness, not for the status taken from them as a source of accumulation. By contrast, the European settlers saw both the land and its animals as theirs, something to be owned, purchased, or sold. Cronon uses the memories, notes, letters, and histories of various settlers, conquerors, and European figures to lay the groundwork for their approach to the land as a source of commodity. As colonists described the new world, they repeatedly wrote home about the "commodity" value there; they saw it as a source of future economic game. As commodities, the land and animals were separated from the understanding of their usefulness, and were exploited and squandered by the newcomers. These vastly different cultural norms formulate Cronon's formal paradigm underlying his thesis; the "Children of Nature" saw the land as an eternal source to be fostered and appreciated, and the settlers saw it as something that could instead foster and appreciate their capital.

The settlers approached the New World as an Eden bestowed upon them by God, not a holy mother earth in need of their care and respect. As a result, they sucked the livelihood from the land that was present when they arrived there, despite the Indians' previous successful history on the land. Merchant portrays this as the natural result of capitalism, and the idea of "radical ecology," which amplifies the dominating personality of capitalism on the natural world. Within decades, New England changed from a world of trees, forests, and free foragers, to a land of fences, property lines, and domesticated animals.

According to Cronon, the Indian people who offered a set of invaluable lessons t the settlers had lived there for over ten thousand years. During that time, they created a world of abundance, stability, and regular supply of food by working carefully with the land. When the settlers first came, they were fascinated by the patterns the natives had established to create a viable relationship with the land.

"What most impressed English visitors was the Indians' burning of extensive sections of the surrounding forest once or twice a year. 'The Salvages,' wrote Thomas Morton, 'are accustomed to set fire of the Country in all places where they come, and to burne it twize a yeare, viz: at the Spring, and the fall of the leafe."

By burning the forests, the Native Americans found a way to clear the underbrush and make their hunting more fruitful. Since the regular patterns of extracting nature's bounty was the source of their food, shelter, and clothing, it was vital that they created and maintained an operable system to do so.

Their clothing and homes were made from the skins of many of the foraging animals, who also benefited from the careful forest clearing, and so creating the open space was not merely self-serving, but also provided a higher purpose that assisted in the successful life of the land. Their hunter-gatherer societies were not without the infrastructure of the Europeans, contrary to repute, but were actually more adept at determining the need for infrastructure and what type was useful.

"By removing underwood and fallen trees, the Indians reduced the total accumulated fuel at ground level. With only small nonwoody plants to consume, the annual fires moved quickly, burned with relatively low temperatures and soon extinguished themselves. They were more ground fires than forest fires, not usually involving larger trees, and so they rarely grew out of control. Fires of this kind could be used to drive game for hunting, to clear fields for planting, and, on at least one occasion, to fend off European invaders."

Fending off the Europeans would have been more useful, but Cronon paints a picture of the Native Americans that makes it clear that they could not fathom a culture of such natural destruction. When they burned, it was not to destruct, but to build; even their fires had explicit, multi-fold, and worthwhile purpose.

"Because the enlarged edge areas actually raised the total herbivorous food supply, they not merely attracted game but helped create much larger populations of it. Indian burning promoted the increase of exactly those species whose abundance so impressed English colonists: elk, deer, beaver, hare, porcupine, turkey, quail, ruffed grouse, and so on. When these populations increased, so did the carnivorous eagles, hawks, lynxes, foxes, and wolves."

Because their relationship to the land was so tied to its usefulness and their ability to not only make use of its products but also to replenish its supply, the Indians were not aware that they were selling the land to the European traders; Cronon says they thought they were only giving up usufruct rights. As he notes, concepts of land tenure mimicked systems of ecological use."

The settlers' approach to buying land likewise mimicked their use of it; they killed animals not to eat, clothe, and house themselves, but instead to provide fodder to the fur trade and furnish Londoners with fanciful hats and the accessories of current fads.

The fur trade played an integral role as a secondary agent in the environmental history of New England between 1600 and 1800. Combined with the shift from maize to wampwum and the heavy demand for select species in European markets, Cronon foreshadows the decline of the beaver as inevitable, one of many species whose exploitation by the settlers affected not only the European markets and the "New World" land, but also the Native American species, both human and animal. The hunted game animals that…

Sources Used in Document:


Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Merchant, Carolyn. Major Problems in American Environmental History. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Donald Worster, "Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History," A Roundtable: Environmental History, Journal of American History, 76, no. 4, March 1990, pp. 1087-1106. Selection quoted from Merchant, Carolyn. Major Problems in American Environmental History. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. p. 4.

Worster as quoted in Merchant, p. 5.

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