The farmers of colonial New England have been widely accused of farming extensively, neglecting manure, wearing out their land, and moving on. But did they? And if so, when and why? Brian Donahue offers an innovative, accessible, and authoritative history of the early farming practices of Concord, Massachusetts, and challenges the long-standing notion that colonial husbandry degraded the land. In fact, he argues, the Concord community of farmers achieved a remarkably successful and sustainable system of local production. Donahue describes in precise detail - using among other tools an innovative historical geographical information system (GIS) method - how land was settled and how mixed husbandry was developed in Concord. By reconstructing several farm neighbourhoods and following them through many generations, he reveals the care with which farmers managed the land, soil, and water. He concludes that ecological degradation came to Concord only later, when nineteenth-century economic and social forces undercut the environmental balance that earlier colonial farmers had nurtured.
Beautifully designed book, with great schematic maps of colonial and post-Revolution land use in Concord township (the 6 mile square). Dr. Donahue's story is original and intriguing, but does not shine through the structure of the narrative (nor his prose) as easily as it might. So close study is required!
The book deserves close study, and so the reader's work is rewarded!
Donahue does an excellent job of using a case study to demonstrate that European settlers did not completely desecrate the environment as soon as they stepped off the boat as many other environmental historians have suggested. Instead, he uses GIS technology to map the ways in which early settlers worked with the land and created a different, but similarly diverse and, most importantly, sustainable landscape modelled on the environment they left behind in Europe.
While the writing is clear and the detail is interesting, I am unconvinced by the argument presented - partially because the author fails to acknowledge and substantially address the social conditions which ultimately shifted the "sustainable system" to one which was unsustainable. Also, who tf in the 21st Century writes a history purposefully ignoring half the population? V disappointing.
In The Great Meadow Brian Donahue sought to overturn William Cronon’s interpretation of the degradation brought on by early colonial settlement. While not taking issue with Cronon’s staring point, Thoreau’s catalogue of environmental destruction in mid-eighteenth century Concord, he noticed a problem. The timing of the devastation was wrong. Concord’s population had grown rapidly since its first settlement, doubling in size every twenty-five years, until it appeared to reach capacity after 1750, after which the population leveled off for a century. Yet for generations after it stopped growing, Concord still had forest covering more than a third of its territory. If colonial agriculture was a simple pattern of growing deforestation, why hadn’t the younger generations cleared new farms from the woodlands? To answer his question Donohue paired the preserved deeds, probate inventories and tax inventories with GIS mapping of the terrain and his decade of experience as a small farmer in Massachusetts to reconstruct how the land had been owned and used over two centuries. What he uncovered was a sustainable system of farming that relied on small parcels, appropriate land use, and the rich nutrients that river silt fed to the grasses of the great meadow in the northern part of town. The river fed the grasses, the grasses fed the cows, the cows manured the fields, the woodlots provided game and forage, and the system was maintained without the soil exhaustion later writers would claim to be the hallmark of New England agriculture. The sustainable system was maintained even under the stresses that accompanied the reaching its population limit. “Even a glance at the town’s land use” concludes Donahue, “reveals that dramatic ecological changes did not occur until the second quarter of the new century: a sharp rise in upland English hay and a collapse in woodland mirrored by an explosion of something called unimproved land.” The change had come as market integration and an ethic of personal ambition for profit had taken hold of the countryside, when the landscape was remade to maximize the profits available by growing the crops in demand in Boston. It was then that the ecological changes described by Thoreau and others of his generation occurred. “To this day,” Donahue argued “we tend to view agriculture largely through the sharply critical eye of the self-confident improving men of the mid-century who knew it in its dotage and who wrote its obituary.”
Donahue, a farmer turned historian, makes a strong case that the grass was EVERYTHING to the New England farmers. New England farming was not a closed system but required an input of water (and hay) from the marsh. The communal aspect of the area was eventually destroyed by larger capitalistic market forces beyond the local area, which fragmented the area into private, enclosed farming fields by the 1730s (127). Donahue found that the colonial era of farming was surprisingly sustainable. The meadow setting departs from the myth that the colonial settlers cleared all the forested land. In fact, there were meadows in the area that did not require clearing where the New Englanders farmed.
While the farmers of colonial New England have been widely accused of "farming extensively, neglecting manure, wearing out their land, and moving on," Donahue demonstrates how "the Concord community of farmers achieved a remarkably successful and sustainable system of local production." Using an innovative historical geographical information system (GIS) method, he shows that farmers managed the land, soil, and water, and that "ecological degradation came to Concord only later, when nineteenth-century economic and social forces undercut the environmental balance that earlier colonial farmers had nurtured.”
Anyone interested in Concord (and especially its geography and ecology) will appreciate Donahue's love and care of the subject. He cleverly points out that the city is home to "three American creation myths" (74). The first two are rather well-known--"the shot heard round the world" on April 15, 1775 that marked the start of an ultimately successful resistance to British imperial rule and 70 years later at Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau borrowed an ax, cut down six pine trees for a cabin and launched the American environmental movement. The third creation myth is of the colonial settlement of Concord itself in 1635: a microcosm of American frontier settlement in which settlers transformed and civilized the western wilderness.
It pains me to give a book such a poor review. I would have enjoyed this book, as the theory is very convincing (that it wasn't until the market influenced them, that the colonists began to ravage Colonial NE), but the delivery was pitiful.
Donahue focuses on a small number of families, and their generational growth in Concord. He is uber-specific in his detail of Concord, so much so that unless you're intimately familiar with the landscape and history you will be overcome by the details.
It is considered a defining and groundbreaking works, but I'm getting that was lost somewhere in the details I couldn't sift through ='(