matching the patchwork of the landscape

Changes in the Land gives the best, most readable, sensible, and fair description of the ecology and economy of American Indians that I have ever read.
“… we must be careful about what we mean by ‘property,’ lest we fall into the traps English colonists have set for us” (1983:58). William Cronen carefully delineates the difference between ownership and sovereignity, detailing how “most English colonists displayed a remarkable indifference to what the Indians themselves thought about the matter [of property]” (58). “The struggle was over two ways of living and using the seasons of the year, and it expressed itself in how two peoples conceived of property, wealth, and boundaries on the landscape” (emphasis added, 53).
“Few Europeans, “ Cronen explains, “were willing to recognize that the ways Indians inhabited New England ecosystems were as legitimate as the ways Europeans intended to inhabit them”(57).

“English fixity sought to replace Indian mobility” (53).

“The ecological relationships the English sought to reproduce in New England were no less cyclical than those of the Indians; they were only simpler and more concentrated” (53).
The Indians cultivated “a way of life to match the patchwork of the landscape” (53). The patchwork evolved through ecological succession over 12,500 years, aided prior to the arrival of colonists by “selective Indian burning [which] promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems…promot[ing] …the ‘edge effect’ … creat[ing] ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species” (51). When Indians hunted, “they were harvesting a foodstuff they had consciously been instrumental in creating” (51).
Liebig’s Law [of the Minimum] states that biological populations are limited not by the total annual resources available to them but by the minimum amount that can be found at the scarcest time of the year” (41). (See Haemig, Laws of Population Ecology.) New England Indians (typical hunter-gatherers divided by supplemental agriculture in the south and none in the north) developed their lifestyle to take advantage of the “periodicity” of the New England ecosystem: “tied to overlapping cycles of light and dark, high and low tides, waxing and waning moons, and especially the long and short days which mean hot and cold seasons” (37).
I like Cronen’s writing. His goal is big: “to locate a nature which is within rather than without history, for only by so doing can we find human communities which are inside rather than outside nature” (a reference to Thoreau, 15: his journals have been blogged!) The goal of constituting an “ecological approach to history”is cool (and by now well-established, Cronon’s work marks a paradigmatic pivot point). Some of the problems he names presupposed other contemporary dynamics, such as “the development of a world capitalist system … [bringing] more and more people into trade and market relations which lie well beyond the boundaries of their local ecosystem” (14). Not that he was the only one who knew this, but in the way he recognizes and draws out the complexity in terms plain enough for a non-historian, or non-environmental scientist to understand. “In an important sense, a distant world and its inhabitants gradually become part of another people’s ecosystem, so that it is increasingly difficult to know which ecosystem is interacting with which culture. The erasure of boundaries may itself be the most important issue of all” (14).
Get this: “All human groups consciously change their environments to some extent &emdash; one might even argue that this, in combination with language, is the crucial trait distinguishing people from other animals &emdash; and the best measure of a culture’s ecological stability may well be how successfully its environmental changes maintain its ability to reproduce” (emphasis added, 13). You know I’m making an organizational/institutional parallel! And &emdash; this is big Big BIG! &emdash; “If we assume a priori that cultures are systems which tend toward ecological stability, we may overlook the evidence from many cultures &emdash; even preindustrial ones &emdash; that human groups often have significantly unstable interactions with their environment” (italics in original, underlining added, 13). (I have always found instances of instability more instructive, rewarding, interesting, than (repetitive, unquestioned/able, monotonously predictable) stability.) {Can you say “bias”?!!}
Cronen continues: “if we avoid assumptions about environmental equilibrium, the instability of human relations with the environment can be used to explain both cultural and ecological transformations. An ecological history begins by assuming a dynamic and changing relationship between environment and culture, one as apt to produce contradictions as continuities. Moreover, it assumes that the interactions of the two are dialectical. Environment may initially shape the range of choices available to a people at a given moment, but then culture reshapes environment in responding to those choices. The reshaped environment presents a new set of possibilities for cultural reproduction, thus setting up a new cycle of mutual determination. Changes in the way people create and re-create their livelihood must be analyzed in terms of changes not only in their social relations but in their ecological ones as well” (italics in original, bold added, 13).
The climax concept that ecosystems grow to an ideal state of equilibrium where they would remain in perpetuity without the interference of human beings began to weaken sometime prior to Cronen’s writing, as he describes the shift in academic viewpoint where environmental or natural “change was less the result of ‘disturbance’ than of the ordinary processes whereby communities maintained and transformed themselves” (11). I particularly like his underflagged paradigm critique that the “functionalist emphasis on equilibrium and climax had important consequences, for it tended to remove ecological communities from history” (10).
Note: In the preface, Cronen quotes Marshall Sahlins‘ description of “interdisciplinary research as ‘the process by which the unknowns of one’s own subject are multiplied by the uncertainties of some other science.’ Like Sahlins, I think the benefits of interdisciplinary work outweigh the dangers, but I share his sense of risk” (xvii). Oye!
Note 2: Another blogger’s summary of Changes in the Land: Pacific Views.

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