The Newton Tab, July 1, 2000

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Travelling Through Time
By Jesse A. Floyd

Bullough’s Pond dominates the view from Diana Muir’s front porch.

In late May, the water seems to shiver as a light breeze disturbs the surface. A kingfisher stalks its prey from a utility wire.

A swallow performs aerial acrobatics in search of bugs on the pond’s surface. Nearby Commonwealth Avenue is a 
footnote, a muffled, barely audible backdrop.

For Muir, a published author, Bullough’s Pond is something more than just a view: in her latest book, it serves as a 
reflecting pool, a looking glass into New England’s near and distant pasts.

“A lot of what went on in New England is reflected in the history of this small place,” Muir said.

Muir’s latest work, “Reflections In Bullough’s Pond,” has just been released. Published by University Press of New 
England, the narrative is a meditation on the history of New England, a densely researched tome weaving the relation of 
ecology and human economics, starting before the first Europeans settled the area and continuing through the industrial 
revolution.

According to Muir, research first began on the book when she noticed that New England looked different than other parts 
of America. What caught her eye was not differences in nature’s landscape, but differences in the manmade landscapes. 
That led her to research the forces that dictated the development of the New England and the decisions drove that 
development.

What she found was the New England’s lack of natural resources caused a unique evolutionary path for the region.
”This is a peculiar economy,” she said. “For years, we have not had a sustainable natural resource.”

What resources were here – huge trees for ship’s masts, fish and shellfish and timber for lumber and paper – vanished in 
a few short centuries after the arrival of Europeans.

Since the time of Christopher Columbus, Europeans fished the waters off New England, harvesting tons of cod and other 
groundfish, and hunting down giant tuna and swordfish. The bounty was so plentiful, an entire subculture was created. A 
carved cod hangs in the State House, a remark on the importance of fishing in the development of the state.

Just 30 years ago, author Kim Fields portrayed a threatened but still viable fishery off Gloucester in her book “The Finest 
Kind.”

Today, that industry has all but vanished. Fishing boats which once lined harbors in Gloucester and New Bedford are all 
but gone; fishermen have moved on. No amount of government wrangling, regulating or protection seems to work as 
every study of groundfish stocks shows an unchecked decline.

“Through stupidity and greed, we’ve reached a point [where] we can’t fish. I think it’s appalling, and says a lot about our 
ability to plan and behave reasonably,” Muir said.

Surprising finds

Her research for the book brought a few surprises. Native Americans were not the ecology-friendly people they are often 
portrayed as. Groups worked in various ways to tame nature and make the environment provide for them.

Muir also discovered that many of the choices made for industrialization in the past were made with a knowledge of the 
long-range impact those decisions would have.

For example, European settlers opted to end the migration of fish up New England’s rivers by building dams. The dams 
were seen as a cheap, reliable source of energy, and more profitable than fish. Today, efforts are being made to restore 
runs of salmon, alewife and shad to the rivers.

The settlers also decided to use the rivers as sewers, even though they understood what dumping effluent might do to 
the rivers.

Some rivers, including the Charles, are just beginning to recover.

“They constantly chose profitability over sustainability,” Muir said.

According to Muir, those short-sighted choices continue largely because people want cheap power. An easy and 
profitable way to provide it is using coal. Burning coal emits gases linked to global warming. Global warming is blamed for 
a series of ever-more serious and frequent storms and floods. Bad weather destroys crops, houses, infrastructure and 
people. Acid rain, another result, kills trees in New Hampshire, and is responsible for destroying the maple sugar trees in 
Canada.

But, Muir said, those selling the cheap power aren’t asked to pay.

“We don’t do our accounting that way, what is real cost on real people,” she said.

The author’s history

Muir was born and raised in the small town of Old Lyme, Conn. She attended college at Barnard in New York City, where 
she majored in U.S. history. When she and her husband, Dr. Paul Appelbaum, came to Cambridge for medical school, 
she made writing a career. Her first book, “Thanksgiving,” was published 17 years ago. It’s a study on the development of 
the holiday from its beginnings as a regional phenomenon into a national fixture.

That book led to a second – “The Glorious Fourth.” She also has a pair of children’s books, “Cocoa Ice” and “Giants in 
the Land.”

Muir says her writing focuses on making potentially dry, scholarly research accessible and entertaining.

“I try to write intelligent, narrative nonfiction, and I strive to be accurate,” she said.

In her mind, narrative nonfiction – her preferred form – is underappreciated as a form of creative writing. Using a narrative 
form can draw the reader along, making potentially dry material interesting, she said.

If postings on Amazon.com, the popular online bookstore, are an indication, her efforts have been successful.

“Starting from a small pond in front of her house, Muir taker her readers on a wild and varied ride. There seems to be 
nothing this author does not know: from the habitat of flora and fauna you never heard of to industrial processes two 
centuries old to the economic principles of oystering, to Indian forest clearing techniques,” writes Alan Rockoff.

The Internet has helped Muir gauge the size and scope of her audience. Even with “Bullough’s Pond,” she’s getting 
feedback from readers in Canada and the United States. One of the Amazon postings is from Israel.

“A museum director at a fine clock museum in Connecticut called me, and he was thrilled because I had done a 
perspective on the role of clocks in industrialization,” Muir said.

That sort of feedback is how Muir judges her success. A spot on the New York Times bestseller list isn’t on her radar 
screen and a fat royalty check is gravy.

“It would be exciting [to make the New York Times list]; obviously, but I can’t say I expect it,” she said.

Muir, married and the mother of three children, spends her days writing and researching. She’s already begun her next 
book, but is reluctant to discuss her next effort.

“I like to give ideas more shape before I present them to other people.” she said.

This article appeared in the Newton Tab on June 1, 2000.

News

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Reflections in Bullough’s Pond

Reflections in Bullough’s Pond

Posted by admin on March 20, 2012
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Economy and Ecosystem in New England


From the Jacket:

From the vantage point of a nearby pond in Newton, Massachusetts, Diana Muir reconstructs an intriguing interpretation of New England’s natural history and the people who have lived there since pre-Columbian times. Taking a radically new way to illustrate for general readers the vast interrelationships between natural ecology and human economics, Muir weaves together an imaginative and dramatic account of the changes, massive and subtle, that successive generations of humankind and such animals as sheep and beavers have worked on the land.

Her compelling narrative takes us to a New England populated by individuals struggling to make a living from a land not generously endowed by nature. Yankee history, she argues, was a string of ecological crises from which the only escape was to create radical new solutions to apparently unsolvable problems. Young men and women coming of age in the 1790s faced a bleak future. In a time when farming was virtually the only occupation, a burgeoning population meant that there was not enough land to go around. Worse, such land as there was had been worn out by generations of careless use. With no prospects and no options, young men like Eli Whitney and Thomas Blanchard might have resigned themselves to a life of poverty. Instead, they set in motion an industrial revolutions, the power of which astonished the world.

‘Reflections in Bullough’s Pond’ is history on a grand scale. Drawing on scholarship in fields ranging from archeology to zoology, Muir offers an exhilarating tour of Paleolithic megafauna, the population crisis faced by New England natives in the pre-Columbian period, the introduction of indoor plumbing, and the invention of the shoe peg. At the end of this book we understand ourselves and our world a little better.

May, 2000: University Press of New England

ISBN: 0874519098

 

The Massachusetts Center for the Book has a Reading Guide for Bullough’s Pond

 

Reviews

“A masterpiece… History as literature and something every New Englander should read.”
The Providence Journal

“An extraordinary book, a combination of polemic and all-encompassing scholarship.”
The Boston Globe

“You may never look at New England the same way again.”
Maine Sunday Telegram

“This is a beautifully written scholarly book. Highly recommended.”
Sustainable Population

“The intricate interweaving of seemingly unrelated human activities, ecosystems, responses, and human reactions to those responses, is the strength of Bullough’s Pond.”
The Women’s Reviews of Books

“Admirable environmental and economic history.”
Publishers Weekly

“A unique overview of New England history during the last 400 years.”
Conservation Perspectives

“This is history made palpable and personal.”
Economic History Services

“An altogether wonderful book, packed with information, brimming with wisdom and a delight to read.”
Streamer

“A sourcebook for everyone who cares about landscapes and technology.”
ArtForum

“A rich romp through New England’s history.”
Conservation Matters

“An intriguing book.”
Environmental Practice

“The author has done a masterly job in turning a wide range of research findings into an absorbing narrative.”
Cambridge Chronicle

The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 63, No. 2  (Jun., 2003), pp. 607-608
Review by: Chad Montrie

Agricultural History, Vol. 76, No. 1  (Winter, 2002), pp. 134-135
Review by: Christopher McGrory Klyza

Environmental History, Vol. 6, No. 3  (Jul., 2001), pp. 487-488
Review by: Kathryn Morse

The Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 18, No. 4  (Jan., 2001), pp. 7-8
Review by: Jan Zita Grover

Massachusetts Historical Review, Vol. 3,  (2001), pp. 138-145
Review by: Ted Steinberg
Prizes

Massachusetts Book Award, Best Nonfiction Book

 

News

The story of the author and of the book.
The Newton Tab, July 1, 2000
‘Reflections’ wins the Massachusetts Book Award for the best non-fiction book published in 2000.
The Boston Globe, December 9, 2001
AND
The Daily News Tribune, December 14, 2001

David Warsh, the Globe’s business columnist, praises ‘Reflections’ in a piece encouraging conservation efforts.
The Boston Globe, August 20, 2000