Cambridge Chronicle

By Richard Griffin

One of the sweet pleasures of later life is enough leisure to read good books.  And, in my case at least, receiving some newly published ones unsolicited.

That is what happened recently when a reader of this column, Diana Muir of Newton, sent me her splendid “Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England.” From the handsome cover photo to the fascinating chapters within, the book has held my attention with its wealth of fascinating material about this part of the country.

The subtitle will perhaps scare off some potential readers because it makes the book sound too technical. Actually, however, the work comes full of carefully researched information interesting in itself and presented in a pleasing style.
The author’s insights into the natural, economic, and cultural history of our region deserve wide circulation.

During the winter of 1990, Diana Muir and her family moved to a site only some twenty yards away from Bullough’s Pond in Newton. They did not come because of this small pond; only gradually did the writer value being close to it. Its history came to serve her as a focus for appreciating the natural beauty and history of our six-state region.

In the preface, the author sums up her chief message: “Reflections in Bullough’s Pond is an inquiry into why the Industrial Revolution happened, why it happened here, and what the implications of the revolution are.” However, Ms. Muir explains that this is not the only story the book delivers. It also tells of other stages in our regional history, both before and after.

The author has done a masterly job in turning a wide range of research findings into an absorbing narrative. The precise knowledge found here amounts to a treasure store of useful and absorbing lore. Using her scholarly tools, Muir explains many phenomena that otherwise might seem odd.

Chapter four of Muir’s book provides a fine example of its riches of information and insight. Entitled “The Politics of Extermination,” this chapter centers on beavers, animals that were practically wiped out here during the 17th century
because of the fur trade. Without any regard for the work that these animals do in preserving the land and other living things, New England merchants who sold pelts to businessmen in England simply killed off almost the whole beaver

Muir devotes another chapter to shoes, a New England product that Yankee craftsmen found would sell in big numbers. As early as 1783, shoemakers based in Lynn supplied four hundred thousand pairs of shoes for shipment to the
American south and elsewhere.

Similarly with ice. From Fresh Pond in Cambridge and other waters, men sawed out blocks of ice in the wintertime and shipped it to places as far away as Calcutta. Discovering how to pack the ice in sawdust to keep it from melting was a crucial to making this possible.

In tracing the economic history of New England, Muir attributes repeated recovery from threats to survival  and prosperity to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of local populations: “The Yankee was the child of Puritanism. The strong work ethic, respect for manual labor, tradition of assuming responsibility, willingness to accept risks, rational approach to life, and a certain independence of mind inculcated by the Puritan heritage combined to produce the culture that produced a revolution.”

But this book is not history detached from concern about the effect of human choices on our environment.  Instead, especially in her concluding pages, the author makes an fervent plea for us to enter upon what she calls the Third
Revolution.  A fundamental change in attitudes and policies is required, she says, because of “the pressure of population on limited resources.”

The previous two revolutions were accomplished by different kinds of energy use. The first featured the use of such resources as wood and hay as New England developed in agriculture and commerce. Then came the Industrial
Revolution with its discovery of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. The successful leaders of this latter revolution often did nothing to protect the earth from their industrial practices.

Now, given the harmful practices of past generations, we must take a new approach,  Muir says. No longer can we afford to deplete the ozone layer or destroy the topsoil so vital to the flourishing of the earth. There are now too many people for us to rely on automobile use to the extent that we do. “What we cannot do”, she writes, “is to go on commuting to work in Chevy Suburbans.”

I do not here pretend to a scholarly or critical appraisal of this book. Instead my appreciation for it is that of a common reader, one who looks for new knowledge and the stimulation of good writing. These Diana Muir has offered us in abundance and I thank her for these gifts.

This article appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle on December 28, 2000.