William Cronon

Changes in the Land

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  • Features 8 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis.
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Changes in the Land Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 36-page guide for “Changes in the Land” by William Cronon includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 8 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Commodification of the Wilderness and Ecological Changes Due to European Attitudes about Land.

Plot Summary

Changes in the Land is a seminal work in environmental history. The book was first published in 1983. Cronon’s narrative addresses the evolution of New England’s ecosystems, highlighting the effects on these systems by colonial beliefs in capitalism and property ownership that dated back to the early settlements, such as Plymouth in 1620. This interesting study changed the fields of ecology and history, and is still a powerful tome for many environmentalists and thinkers to this day.

The first section of the book addresses the colonial period, delving into New England’s ecology both before and after the early settlers, as well as highlighting the limits of knowledge concerning this time period. Cronon also breaks down New England’s landscape into northern and southern regions, and discusses the general traits of each, as well as commonalities and differences. Though this section may come off as academic, or didactic, it effectively sets the groundwork for understanding Cronon’s argument in later chapters.

The argument Cronon lays out in the book centers on the differences between how colonists and native Indians use the land of New England. Ultimately, says Cronon, the two systems of use are incompatible with one another. Cronon explains how native Indians did in fact have a concept of land ownership, thereby debunking many myths perhaps perpetrated by colonists concerning the seeming ignorance of native Indians in relation to land and its ownership. The book explains how land ownership was a communal effort for native Indian tribes, and that land use was something agreed two between tribes through rights and recognition.

Cronon contrasts this communal system of land use and ownership by native Indians with the colonists’ system. For the colonists, owning land meant holding all rights to that piece of land, and it was held for the most part by an individual. In this way, colonists marked off their land with fences or posts to show their ownership. The land was then designated for an individual’s use, as opposed to being available for communal use like the native Indian’s way of land use.

Cronon then moves on to discuss agricultural differences between the two. The native Indians approached agriculture from the standpoint of land use, not land ownership. In other words, a field might be tilled for a few years, and then left alone in favor of another one. They also used methods like controlled burning to clear fields with minimal damage, and created borderlands for specific types of plants and wildlife.

The colonists, however, tended to over-farm, thus destroying the soil by depleting its fertility. They also destroyed any abundance of trees by logging too much, and hunted animals to near extinction in the New England area. Likewise, the colonists interpreted foodstuffs and other resources as commodities to be owned and used, not to mention sold for a profit. This way of viewing resources was completely at odds with the way native Indians viewed creating and keeping resources on a seasonal basis.

By comparing and contrasting the two systems of land use, Cronon effectively argues that New England’s commoditization by colonists was the true beginning of capitalism. The ignorance of the colonists in destroying their own ecosystem is also highlighted over and over again, whether from introducing invasive plant species to introducing diseases that the native Indian population had no immunity against. Cronon’s insight into the ecology of the New England area also…

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