In nature, walk softly and carry a big conscience
By Katherine A. Powers
“Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England” by Diana Muir is an extraordinary book, a combination of polemic and all encompassing scholarship that journeys far beyond the pond in question (which lies in Newton). Starting with an admiring description of hunters and gatherers, who fit into nature without despoiling it, Muir goes on to trace through the centuries the development of human activity that has altered the landscape for the worse. If one does not quite share her enthusiasm for the low-impact, itinerant way of life, and existence in tune with nature’s cold, damp, merciless heart, one can still appreciate, in Muir’s telling, the cost of subsequent improvements on it. Agriculture began the destruction of balance in nature; private property and industry demolish it. That’s the general idea. The general solution is that we must curb out appetite for excess and employ our ingenuity to find ways of living a good life without destroying the planet.
There is nothing particularly original about this. Every book I have read recently makes essentially the same point: Walk softly and carry a big conscience. What kept me fascinated here is Muir’s command of the history of trades, manufactures, and industries: of farming, sawing lumber, shipping, trapping, fishing: of the making of hats, shoes, linen, ropes, sails, paper, and more. Equaly impressive and deftly imparted is her knowledge of plants and animals, their habits and requirements, and their links to us and to each other. Finally, she is lucid.
Even if one does not set pristine nature on a higher pedestal than nature as it has been transformed by human activity (and I don’t mean slag heaps and oil slicks), one has to admire the clarity with which she shows that Bullough’s Pond, “picturesque darling of a well-connected neighborhood,” is only “a very fair imitation of nature.” Indeed, she points out (and documents in revealing historical detail) that the “entire New England landscape is but an imitation of nature. Our ponds, woodlands, and meadows are a landscape sculpted, planted, and limited by human activity.” I never saw this so clearly before.
This article appeared on Page C4 of The Boston Sunday Globe on July 30, 2000.