“Yankee wealth is the creation of human hands, not of nature”–so writes Muir (The Glorious Fourth) in this admirable environmental and economic history, which follows the six New England states from Native Americans’ neolithic agriculture through the 19th-century factory boom to its destructive aftermath. When proto-Pequots switched from hunting to agriculture, their “cornfields… nourished the population” with remarkably “little effect on the ecosystem.” Europeans introduced change for the worse. Increasing in numbers and in population density, 18th-century whites replaced fields with orchards, beer with hard cider, but nevertheless wore out their land in “destructive husbandry.” With its depleted soil and few mineral resources, Massachusetts and the states around it would have been destined for poverty, but New England’s industrial revolution intervened. Muir shows how local culture and international trade combined to make the space from New Haven to New Hampshire the headquarters of mid-l9th-century manufacturers. Demand for water power replaced a network of streams with a wall of dams. Sewage (along with duck farm runoff) devastated the oyster beds that once made the shellfish abundant and cheap. Though some species have made a comeback today, New England tomorrow promises more ecoproblems: the Maine woods are still being logged unsustainably, and too many people drive too many cars. Mountains of research power this book, while Muir’s direct yet conversational tone distinguishes it: the titular pond, hard by Muir’s house in Newton, Mass., gives the book’s lyrical bits a visual center, while her politics tint its prose a shade of green. Serious students of New England’s original peoples, watersheds and forests, of its farms, suburbs and cities, or of its near future will seek out Muir’s volume. (May)
This article appeared on Page 77 of the April 24, 2000 issue of Publishers Weekly.