Providence Journal

An epic history of New England
By Robert Whitcomb

New England’s landscape reflects many thousands of years of human habitation, first by “native peoples” from Asia (and maybe even some from Europe, latest studies indicate), then, of course, by waves of European immigrants and now also by newcomers from Latin America and Asia.

Over these millennia, technological and economic change have channeled the use and misuse of the natural environment of our region. No one in my experience has written better about this history than Diana Muir, in her recently published book, which I think is a masterpiece: Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England (University Press of New England, $26).

Ms. Muir, from the vantage point of a pond near her home in Newton, Mass., interprets in limpid and sometimes lyrical prose how ecology and human activities have been inter-related in New England since early pre-Colombian times. Along the way, she explains better than anyone I have read how ecological, economic and demographic necessity spawned New England’s economic, technological and social revolutions, and turned our chilly, rocky little region into one of the world’s great wealth creators. Indeed, New England’s role in the Industrial Revolution and now the Information Revolution is of staggering importance in world history.

And yet, the world’s vision of New England as bucolic green countryside, dotted with white churches, refuses to fade, because, as Ms. Muir demonstrates, it is so deeply embedded in the collective psyche of New Englanders and, for that matter, of most Americans. That Diana Muir suggests so eloquently the power of cultural illusion in the development of a region is just another strength of this impressive work.

Her command of technological, industrial, political and social history is formidable, as is her grasp of zoology, geology and botany. Yet she uses all this learning in an epic narrative devoid of pretension, adopting a literate conversational tone that is eminently accessible.

The result is a vivid tale of transformed (and sometimes ravaged) natural resources, human migration and settlement (from wilderness to village to city to suburb), innovation and exploitation. Her tale is so compelling that when at the end of the book she looks forward, we pay a great deal of attention to her predictions. This is history as literature, and something that every New Englander should read.

This article appeared on Page B-6 of the Providence Journal on September 8, 2000.