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Changes in the Land

Not quite a year ago, I wrote with great enthusiasm about William Cronon‘s 1992 book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, calling it a “thrilling experience” and “the most astonishing blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology that I can imagine.” Since then, I’ve been intending to read his first book, from 1983, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. I mentioned a month ago that I had downloaded it. Monday night, after finishing Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War, I started it. It’s a short book, much shorter than the Chicago book, and last night I finished it.

Changes in the Land is another fabulous blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology, plus culture. Highlights include the treatment of the differing conceptions Indians and colonists had of land rights and ownership, the complex nature of the forest ecology circa 1600, and the deforestation that took place over the next two centuries. The blurb for the book at Amazon gets it right:

In this landmark work of environmental history, William Cronon offers an original and profound explanation of the effects European colonists’ sense of property and their pursuit of capitalism had upon the ecosystems of New England. Reissued here with an updated afterword by the author and a new preface by the distinguished colonialist John Demos, Changes in the Land, provides a brilliant inter-disciplinary interpretation of how land and people influence one another. With its chilling closing line, “The people of plenty were a people of waste,” Cronon’s enduring and thought-provoking book is ethno-ecological history at its best.

I do have one major complaint, not about the book itself but about the rotten thing that was done with its Kindle-ization. A year ago, when I finished Cronon’s Chicago book, I looked on Amazon for this one and saw that it was available only as a paperback, that being the 20th anniversary re-issue described in the blurb above, with preface and afterword. Had there been a Kindle version, I would have downloaded and begun reading it instantly. Instead, I simply put added it to my list of books to read.

A month ago, I went looking again and was surprised to discover that there was a Kindle version. I didn’t see it at first. In contrast to Amazon’s normal setup, in which when one goes to a book’s webpage, one sees listings of all available versions, including Kindle versions, the paperback page does not show a Kindle version. I stumbled on it in a separate search, not usually necessary, revealing an independent listing of a 2011 Kindle version at the unusually low price of $6.99. That’s what I downloaded a month ago.

Just today, in looking for the Amazon webpage to insert in this post, I saw the blurb quoted above and was reminded that there’s such a thing as the 20th anniversary edition. That’s great, but the Kindle version is the 1982 original. No preface. No afterword. And no warning. Geez. I feel cheated. I’ll have to find a copy of the new version in the library and read the missing pieces. I’m especially interested in Cronon’s afterword.

But don’t let me distract you from the main point. Cronon is brilliant. Read his books. If you read only one, make it Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. If you don’t read it all, read the three central chapters, each with a separate theme: grain, lumber, meat. As I wrote a year ago, “each is a gem. I can think of no better microeconomics primer, as we watch capitalism take root and transform the western regions of the country along with the way of life of its population and the land itself. Prairie makes way for farming, the white pine of the north woods makes way to fence the prairie and house its inhabitants, and plains buffalo make way for cattle range land. People’s lives improve, but at a cost, which Cronon always keeps in our field of view.”

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Categories: Books, Environment, History
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