NEWTON WRITER WINS NONFICTION AWARD
By Kenneth Rapoza
NEWTON – She’s an economist. Then, again, maybe she’s really an ecologist. Although some book critics and readers consider her a New England historian. Actually, Newton author Diana Muir is probably all of the above.
Her blend of economics, environmental science, and history made her book, “Reflections in Bullough’s Pond,” a success among readers when it was published last year. It was cheered not only by bookish nature lovers in the mainstream press, but by historians, scientists, and economists writing in niche market publications that Muir never knew existed. It got reviewed in magazines like Wild New England, and scholarly journals such as Environmental History and Economic History.
“But my favorite surprise review was a magazine called Population Australia,” said Muir, laughing at the arcane publications her book turned up in. “I understand Australia’s interest in it, though. One of the themes in my book was how population increases change history, and Australia has always been conscious of its own environmental sustainability. Australia has very little water.”
Last month, Muir was awarded the Massachusetts Book Award for best nonfiction book by a local author at the Boston Public Library. She was handed a check for $1,000 from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress. “Reflections” also received honorable mention last year by a local award-granting group, The Boston Authors Club.
Just as the sitcom “Seinfeld” was heralded as a show about nothing, “Reflections in Bullough’s Pond” is a book about everything. “That can be confusing in some sense,” Muir said, “because natural historians don’t usually share information or talk much with economic historians. But that’s what made this project interesting, and it’s what grabbed such a diverse audience.”
It’s also a book about fashion. In the 17th century, beaver-felt hats were all the rage in North America and Europe. Those large musketeer hats were made of beaver felt. So were the hats used by the Pilgrims. An entire industry grew up around the beaver. But by the latter part of the century, the trend had wiped out the beaver population. Not until the beaver-felt craze died down did the animal begin to repopulate New England.
Although her book was well received by economic historians who like to look at how industries rise and fall, Muir doesn’t call herself a lay economist. “I’m an historian,” she said. “And it seems to me that any intelligent person has to enjoy nature and care about the environment, and so those interests all came together.” So, she’s a shameless environmentalist, too.
Muir keeps interesting historical-environmental facts in her head. None of them are pretty. For example, in the early years of the Reagan administration, the president commissioned the American Academy of Sciences to study whether acid rain was posing a problem to the environment. “Their members said yes. Whole lakes in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine died because they achieved acid levels that made them life-free,” she said.
Nothing was done to reverse the acid-rain problem, which is caused in part by burning fossil fuels, such as coal.
Years later, the Clinton administration asked the academy to study global warming. “And what he did was basically say that `OK, OK, global warming is real,’ but then he did nothing about it,” Muir said. “So he acknowledged the problem, but didn’t care to remedy the problem.”
To remedy the problem, Muir said, governments should provide grants for studies in fuel-cell technology or low-interest loans for installing solar power in homes.
More bad news? Georges Bank off Boston Harbor is fished out. Once full of cod, halibut, and flounder, it is now teeming with dogfish and skate, a shark-family fish that looks like a tiny stingray; both are considered by many to be inedible.
“Today in New England, our land use is purely decorative,” she said, talking about renewed interest in preserving open space. “We just leave it as vacant meadows, but we don’t use it to graze cattle or grow food.”
The good news comes in Bullough’s Pond itself, located in front of Muir’s home in Newton. “It’s alive, flourishing, with lots of fish and is right in the center of a busy neighborhood,” she said.
She then described the pond’s history. Bullough’s is a 17th-century mill pond. Mill ponds were manmade. They powered gristmills that were used to grind corn. “You couldn’t have a New England town without a gristmill,” she said. “What would you eat?”
It took Muir, then a stay-at-home mother of three, seven years to write “Reflections,” her most popular book. She’s written three before – two children’s books and two history books, one about Thanksgiving.
She is working on a new book on the same theme. No longer a stay-at-home mom, she’ll write much of this one on the road with her husband, Paul S. Applebaum, the president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association.
“As for now, I am up to my elbows in research,” she said. Her last book had more than a dozen pages of footnotes. “It’s back to the bowels of the library for me.”
This article appeared on Page 13 of the Globe West section of The Boston Globe on December 9, 2001.