Conservation Matters

By Debra Simes

With New England as the frame of her loom, Diana Muir has used a single shuttle–the dynamic of increasing human population and finite natural resources –to weave the economic and environmental stories of the past four centuries in this corner of North America. Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England suggests that the region has, repeatedly, reached and then exceeded the population that could be sustained by then-current economic subsistence strategies. It illuminates how New Englanders, from indigenous inhabitants to contemporary denizens, have answered the population-resource dilemma, and in so doing, generated both intentional outcomes and unintended–and potent –consequences.

Muir uses the reflective capacity of Bullough’s Pond and its eastern Massachusetts surrounds (which include her kitchen window) as touchstone for her connection to the historical material, and as local lens through which to sample the mutual impacts that ecosystem and humankind have weathered. She does it beautifully, demonstrating how, from its beginning as a byproduct of the construction of a 1664 gristmill on Smelt Brook, Bullough’s Pond has been consumed (commercial ice), modified (dredging), and otherwise impacted (development-related flooding) by human conceits.

A rich romp through New England’s history, the book distills a massive amount of data to chronicle the development of agriculture; fishing and shipping trades; craft trades precedent to the Industrial Revolution; transportation infrastructure; applied energy sources (animal, wood, hydro, fossil fuels); early public works for water and sewage; and more, more, more! Muir travels the causeways among the micro, macro, and meta worlds, rendering a path invisible to the casual observer, but wholly engrossing to the curious reader. In one moment, she identifies a paradigm shift (the emergence of scientific rationalism) that helps set the Stage for the coming (industrial) revolution, and in the next, gives an account of the intricacies of shoe-making innovations, or the role of clock-making in the evolution of mass production, machine tooling, and interchangeable parts.

The course of the narrative is delightfully unpredictable. As the reader gambols through this history of technological and strategic developments, Muir artfully explains their impacts on natural systems: we begin to understand, for instance, the myriad and insidious causes of topsoil destruction. (The most tragicomic of these may have been colonial farmers’ decision to graze their cattle on the grassy dunes of coastal Massachusetts, only to watch “in horror as the denuded sands `walked’ over richer lands, burying cultivated fields and fences.”) For all that hydropower has offered New England’s people and their industry, we witness in Muir’s accounting the concomitant opportunities for fouling of precious waterways. And readers are treated to a truly digestible explanation of the nasty algebra of acid rain, ozone depletion, and the burning of fossil fuels.

These chronicles offer historic context and precedent for many of the crises New England (and the world) encounters today: habitat destruction, overexploitation of resources, industrial pollution of air, water, and soil. Muir contends that New Englanders’ particular problem-solving bent has repeatedly rescued the region from starvation and economic ruin. But she does not permit us to rest in the naive hope that this alone can save us from ourselves in a dramatically changed world. “Unlike all of the generations that came before us, we cannot take the functioning of nature for granted. We continue to depend on the daily miracles of photosynthesis and the water cycle as utterly as did our remotest ancestor. The difference is that nature now depends upon us as inevitably as we depend upon nature. Human actions now plot the course of life on this planet.”

Bullough’s Pond insists that hope for the future lies not in a return to some Jeffersonian idyll, impossible in any case. Muir suggests that a Third Revolution (following the Neolithic and the Industrial) may be at hand, citing an emergent societal consensus that “views our common interest in the functional integrity of natural systems as more important than the right of individuals to extract a profit from [them].” Such a revolution would see the generation and use of new kinds of energy and inert materials, in lieu of the petrochemicals on which we so depend; require the use of environmentally responsible accounting methods that reflect the true “cost of doing business”; and “result in a planned and orderly decrease in the numbers of human beings on this planet, even as it results in improved standards of living for all.” People “cannot enter a landscape without changing it.” While the last glacial age generated the canvas, brushes, and paints, human activity and its sequellae have created the vista that is modern New England. From the draining of wetlands and damming of rivers, to the virtual elimination of old-growth forest, human need–and lust–for resources has made “the entire New England landscape … but an imitation of nature.”

On reading Reflections in Bullough’s Pond, one feels, almost as counterpoint to the pleasure of the read, a sad tug–of loss, of guilt–at the monumental up-heaval our species has caused on and in these lands and waters. Muir invites us to understand how we’ve come here, to register how interdependent all life is, and to change our ways, so as to do the least harm to the only place we call home.

Debra Simes is a psychotherapist, writer, and editor in the greater Boston area. She works on issues of environmental and human health.

This article appeared on Page 34 of the Summer 2000 edition of Conservation Matters, the journal of the Conservation Law Foundation.