Maine Sunday Telegram

By Joe Appel

You may never look at New England the same way again after reading “Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England.”

Diana Muir aims to weave her own history with a particular Massachusetts pond into the broader and endlessly interconnected history of New England itself, and for the most part she pulls it off admirably well. The result is an engaging, continually surprising book, with the narrative momentum of compelling fiction and the historian’s passion for getting it right.

By looking at many different sub-stories within the grand tale of how New England has come to look the way it does, and how we New Englanders have come to be the way we are, Muir illustrates how complicated history is, and how any one story can — and must always — be expanded upon by countless others.

Whether charting the associations between the Enlightenment of the 18th century, North America’s Industrial Revolution, and the ecological ramifications of the shift from dam power to steam engines, or the breathtaking similarities of the 1980s fish market, the 19th century shoe market, and the budding entrepreneurial spirit among 17th century Indian beaver hunters, Muir is fully capable of taking in the big picture.

It is all the more remarkable, then, that she arrives at that big picture by often focusing humanely on the myriad stories of individuals. Muir initiates this imaginative move by inserting herself into her account; her house on Bullough’s Pond in Newton, Mass., is a recurring touchstone in the book, as she pauses to reflect on how the changes wrought by both humans and nature on one small pond reverberate throughout the history of this region.

And in her democratic imagination, the stories of mass-production clock-maker Eli Terry, of the daily incessant behavior of beavers, of the arduous 19th-century journey toward efficient paper-making, of the delicate fortunes of the Maine woods, all mingle with her own to show how small, hesitant, often mistaken steps lead to the cataclysmic events by which communities define themselves.

This is ambitious writing and thinking, and there are points when Muir has trouble holding it all together. With so much information to contain, often her juxtapositions of different eras or ideas can confuse, and at times her personal observations could be better incorporated into the story she is telling in a given chapter. But these flaws are minor, and especially in the closing chapters, Muir takes on an increasingly impassioned, urgent tone. It is to her credit that such urgency seems a natural product of her assiduous research. Considering humans and their economies as part of “ecology” becomes more an inescapable intellectual leap than a political opinion. “Human exemption from natural constraints still has defenders . . . ” she says, but it is difficult to see how.

Our present status is, as it has always been: tenuous. Each generation considers itself unique and therefore released from obligation to future generations. But Diana Muir feels the full weight of our responsibility, noting that “Bullough’s Pond, like the entire New England landscape, is a mere imitation of nature in a world shaped by human hands.”

Joe Appel is a free-lance writer who lives in Portland

This article appeared on Page 8E of the Maine Sunday Telegram on July 23, 2000.