Environmental History

John T. Cumbler, Reasonable Use

“What we have only recently come to appreciate is that there was a whole generation of reformers very much concerned about the environment who were neither antimodernists [like Thoreau] nor wilderness protectors. They were modernists who rejected not the modern world, but the way the modern world was being fashioned…they struggled to make the environment of the most settled parts of the nation more amenable to human habitation.”

“Henry Ingersoll Bowditch…pushed for a radical approach…saw environmental degradation as something to be confronted and ameliorated for the benefit of the poorest and weakest.”

“According to the
Connecticut Valley Farmer and Mechanic, farmers had to practice modern scientific farming in order to keep their farms productive and profitable.” (21, Springfield, May 1853) Other boks to look at might be Sylvester Judd’s History of Hadley, Edwin M. Bacon’s The Connecticut River and the Valley…, and Dwight’s Travels. Other papers might be the Vermont Republican and American Yeoman and the Hampshire Gazette.

Brian Donohue, The Great Meadow

Read this right after Merchant and Cronon. Donohue examines the ecology of colonial Concord farming in extreme depth. Some of my classmates thought this led to questions of relevance, which seems a fair criticism. But Donohue’s detailed description of the land and the agriculture Concordians practiced on it was a welcome antidote to Merchant’s vagueness and ideologically-dominated narrative.

Part of the value in Donohue’s book comes from his approach to the project he’s undertaken. Environmental historians spend a lot of time alluding to sustainability and degradation. Donohue deliberately limits the question: “did the system of husbandry put in place by the first proprietors and their descendants undermine its own ecological foundations, or could it be sustained?”

The answer to this question, it turns out is, it depends. Fields were kept in tillage “for centuries, and some is being plowed to this day.” Despite the arguments of Rothenberg, Cronon and Merchant, that he says “have emphasized the ecological damage that resulted from this revolution to a ‘world of fields and fences,’” Donohue believes “these people knew what they were doing.” He concludes “Colonial husbandry in Concord …was intensive farming, in which…a workable balance among these lands was established and carefully maintained.” Ironically, the market-oriented agriculture that followed, according to Donohue, was “a far more extractive,
extensive way of farming” than the methods used by Concordians for nearly seven generations.

Donohue is so thorough in his descriptions of Concord farming, and his writing is so vivid, that a sense of inevitability seems to creep into the reader’s mind. He tries to avoid it, challenging assumptions as wide as the existence of the Holocene as a distinct period [in a passage that echoes “big history,” Donohue says we’re in a Pleistocene interglacial, and it’s nearly over]. But he does such a good job describing what happened in Concord, and how it was sustainable, that the reader can forget that Concord was not a closed system. The combination of crops is altered toward the end of the period, when farmers begin planting potatoes. In addition to being invisible on the records [and leading some to incorrectly assume that crop yields per acre were decreasing at a greater rate than they actually were], potatoes were a more efficient source of nutrition than the grain they replaced. So even if sustainable, the Concord system was not necessarily optimal.

Similarly, technological change and other resource substitutions complicate the picture at the end of the period Donohue describes. The increase in nearby urban populations, competition from newly accessible western farms [via the Erie Canal and railroads], and the sheer inability of Concord to feed all its people, necessitated openness to the outside world. There are a variety of possible solutions to sustainability, once you decide how many and what types of relationships with the outside are allowed. Maybe the lesson is that humans don’t seem to want to live within the constraints of the closed system [especially with its limits to population growth], and are always seeking a way around it. What happens when there’s nowhere left to look for energy sources outside the system?