Changes in the Land

One of the early messages I wanted to convey to the students in my Honors Seminar last fall was how much influence humans have and have had on our environment.  The assigned reading for this class was from Changes in the Land by environmental historian William Cronon.  This book was one of the first I read as I started becoming interested in the environment, so it is an old friend.

As Cronan explains, when the European colonists arrived in New England, they described the land as being like a park, and they assumed that they were observing a baseline of the natural world.  What they didn’t consider was that the Native Americans were already shaping the environment to their advantage.  For example, the colonists were impressed that there was little undergrowth in the forests, which contributed to the park-like perspective.  The Native Americans found that hunting was much easier without a jumble of undergrowth, so they regularly set small fires to remove the entangling brush without damaging the older and more established trees.

The Native Americans also moved around several times a year spending time with a few families farming in one area, hunting in another, and then gathering in larger groups to shelter over the winter.  When growing crops, they planted several different species intermixed in a single field.  They would begin by making mounds of earth, and in each mound, they would plant two beans and two kernels of corn so that the corn stalks provided the vertical support for the beans.  Between the hills, squash was planted to hold down both the soil and the weeds. Because the beans had the ability to nitrogen to the soil, and because of the mixture of plants, a single field could produce well for eight to ten years before the fertility was depleted and the families would move to a different field, allowing the original area to lie fallow and recover.

All of those habits stand in stark contrast to the European tradition of owning land and staying in a fixed location, which meant that a single field would be used for decades.  Usually farms are also planted as monocultures; a single plant occupying a given area, rather than the polyculture mixtures of the natives.  Thus soil fertility was much more of an issue for a farm.  These practices continue today and are why fertilizer and pesticides are such a large part of farming.

Reports from the colonies tended to focus on abundance, particularly of commodities that were rare in Europe.  Whether fish or animals, berries or trees, the colonists painted a rosy picture of the resources available in the New World, and the assumption was that these resources were present in endless amounts.  That abundance had actually been nurtured by the Native Americans who never used all of a given resource, and who used what they needed locally.  When the colonists not only feasted on the abundance but also harvested the entirety of the resource for export, the illusion of plenty dissipated rapidly.

Just one example of this illusion of abundance was trees.  In Europe, trees were a finite commodity, and people made do with modestly-sized fireplaces and small fires to cook and heat.  With an apparently endless supply of lumber, the new settlers indulged in large fireplaces to keep their houses toasty warm.  Even by the late 1600’s this practice took its toll as the area around Boston, including all of the harbor islands, had been completely logged of trees.  Eventually in the entire distance between Boston and New York City, there were fewer than 12 miles of trees.

On a pretty fall day, I like to take my students on a walk around campus to observe how their immediate environment has been influenced by human activity.  The University of Hartford was built on a farm, and it used to be that the lines of tress used to separate the fields could still be observed.  On the perimeter of the land, we can see the trees that grew up from the farm after it was no longer worked along with the undergrowth that developed rapidly in the absence of fire or clearing.  Most of New England has been logged or farmed so completely that the only small areas of old growth forest are sequestered in the most remote parts of Maine.  The lack of old trees on our campus is entirely due to centuries of human interaction with the environment.

As part of our walk, I also like to identify some of the non-native trees that have been planted on campus as ornamental species.  It’s really a question of whether or not I can name the tree and do I have a good story to tell about it.  For example, there is a sweetgum tree by the door to my building that drops “gumballs” as seedpods each year.  I remember ornaments on my mother’s Christmas tree made from gumballs glued together and spray painted, so the annual arrival of the gumballs on the ground always makes me smile.  Sycamore trees are one of the few species that I can identify by the bark as well as by the huge leaves.  Unlike the bark of most trees, which is elastic and stretchy, sycamore bark does not expand as the tree grows, so the result is a mottled appearance, which looks a bit like tree eczema.  Sycamore trees are excellent at filtering out air pollution, so they are a favorite of urban city planners.

Image of sweet gum tree with cute fruit sycamore bark

I also point out the line of six oak trees lining one of the sidewalks of campus.  They were planted in honor of the six graduates of the University of Hartford who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  Oaks symbolize strength and long life, so these trees were well-chosen to remember our alumni for the long term.

The central idea of this honors seminar was the interaction between natural resources and public policy.  By starting with a familiar environment, my students now get a daily reminder of just how the behaviors and habits of people influence the shape of the world around them.

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