Tracing Man’s Imprint on Area Ecology

From Streamer: Spring 2000

REFLECTIONS IN BULLOUGH’S POND Economy and Ecosystem in New England
By Diana Muir 320 pp.  Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.  $26.00
Reviewed by Philip Shabecoff

Bullough’s Pond is a small, sparkling body of water in the heart of Newton, diagonally across two busy thoroughfares from City Hall. I have driven past it dozens of times in the past couple of years and thought only how nice it is to have this piece of nature in our urban community and that it would be pleasant to live in a house on its banks.

Diana Muir does live on its banks. But when she looks at Bullough’s Pond she observes considerably more: reflected in its waters she sees nothing less than the ecological and economic history of all of New England. Beginning with the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who occupied the land after the glaciers retreated, she traces the impact of humans on through the age of Neolithic farmers, the arrival of the first Europeans, the industrial revolution and up to the present day.

The Northeast of the United States, like much of the rest of the world today, is largely a created artifact. Its original physical contours and composition have been changed beyond recognition by human activity _ hunting, gathering, farming, industry, trade; pulling fish from the oceans and estuaries, cutting trees from the forests, washing soil from the fields, smudging the air and fouling the water with our pollution. The changes here may not be quite as drastic, the land not as degraded as elsewhere. The great microbiologist and ecologist Rene Dubos once observed that New England, like the English countryside and the Ile de France is still lovely because the land has been humanized by a “wooing” of its inhabitants over the centuries rather than by rip and pillage conquest.

By Muir’s account, however, the wooing has gone too far. “The entire New England landscape,” she laments, “is but an imitation of nature.” We now need to accept, she cautions, that we humans are but a part of nature and must learn to adapt to it instead of changing it.

Reflections in Bullough’s Pond is an altogether wonderful book, packed with information, brimming with wisdom and a delight to read. Although I have been following and writing about environmental issues for decades, I learned something new and interesting on virtually every page, whether about the ecology and economy and culture of Newton, New England and the world or how each one of those things affect the other. I learned, for example, about the rich variety and abundant numbers of marine organisms that spawned in the Charles River and the vast changes in the river system that explain why we no longer have smelt, salmon, sturgeon, shad and other species thriving in its waters. I learned how tanning, papermaking, the steam engine, even clockmaking and peddling, and, of course, the automobile, helped produce major changes in the New England landscape and its ecosystems. I learned how laws were created to abet the despoliation of the land and how laws to protect it were ignored.

I do have a few quibbles about the book (no self-respecting reviewer would regard an assignment as completed without a quibble or two). For one thing, it could have used a firmer hand with the editing pencil. There is a substantial amount of repetition that could have been excised. Having had a book with the same publisher a few years ago I do sympathize _ the University Press of New England does seem to scant on its copy editing. There are also a few generalizations in the book that seem a bit too broad. For example, Ms. Muir contends that the Irish culture prevented immigrants from Ireland from engaging in the same kind of adventurous entrepreneurship she finds so characteristic of the original Yankee settlers. My own view is that there is a wide range of capacities within any ethnic group.

Reflections ends with a call for a new “revolution” that will replace the destructive technologies of the industrial revolution with technologies that preserve and restore our habitat. It sees, quite correctly I think, an emerging consensus that “our first priority must be to defend the integrity of natural systems.”

Consensus alone, however, will not bring revolutionary change in a political system dominated by the money of special interests and by the rise of the global economy and the mega corporation. Such a change will also require a concerted effort to reform not just technology but our political and economic systems as well.

All of this is implicit in Ms. Muir’s fine book. I do not know whether she is in any way related to John Muir, the transcendentalist, naturalist and writer of a century ago who is one of the patron saints of the modern environmental movement. But the old man would have liked Reflections in Bullough’s Pond.

Philip Shabecoff’s next book, “Earth Rising: American Environmental-ism in the 21st Century,” will be published by Island Press in March. Mr. Shabecoff was for many years environmental reporter for “The New York Times.” He and his wife Alice are residents of Newton Centre.

Bullough’s Pond is on Smelt Brook, a small tributary to the Charles.