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Response to Review of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy: Transforming Nature in Early New England

I would like to thank Dr. Winchcombe for her praise of Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy and especially for her words of appreciation for the book’s first two chapters, which I believe lay the ground work for the rest of the book by highlighting the astonishingly profound ecological changes that English colonial commercial networks were able to wreak upon New England within just a few decades of settlement. Towards the end of her review, Dr. Winchcombe refers to the book as a study “grounded in the mundanity of everyday life,” a phrase that eloquently captures my intentions as a scholar. The word “mundane” is very rarely employed as a compliment, but here I like to think that it is. That is certainly how I take it. To strip the word down to its Latin roots, my intentions always were to present a very “worldly” or “earthly” history that firmly grounded itself within modern research in the natural sciences as a way to better understand the material ecological relationships that undergirded historical commercial expansion. It is gratifying to know that at least one reader has appreciated my efforts to explain how worldly commercial concerns led ordinary 17th- and 18th-century men and women—both settlers and Native peoples—to radically transform the ecology of one corner of the rapidly globalizing early modern world.

With regards to Dr. Winchcombe’s critique of the book’s third chapter, it must be admitted that the Connecticut Valley’s trade in firewood was “Atlantic” only in the sense that some shipments found their way into Long Island Sound on their way to satisfy the burgeoning urban demands of Boston and New York. On the other hand, in an age where fuel meant wood, colonial expansion required constant access to hardwoods for cooking, heating, metal smelting, and brick making. Other forms of natural resource exploitation all presumed a population with access to this necessity of early modern life. Without wood imports from the hinterland, Boston and New York could not have grown into the bustling entrepĂ´ts they did, and both New England and New York would have languished for lack of a commercial hub to connect them to external markets.

In responding to Dr. Winchcombe’s other major critique of the book, I can only say that there is often but a thin line separating thoroughness from repetitiveness. However, I fear that Dr. Winchcombe’s dismissal of later chapters as “overly repetitive” may obscure for potential readers the historical importance of the differing geographies and ecologies that could be found both regionally within New England and more locally within the bounds of individual towns. Colonial New England (in)famously lacked a foundational staple commodity—e.g., gold or silver, sugar, tobacco—around which its early economy could be built. To overcome this environmental handicap, colonists instead exploited an array of marketable resources. But, importantly, the arable lands where colonists cultivated food crops differed qualitatively from the meadows where they grazed their cattle. The lands that grew the best hardwoods for the intra- and inter-regional trade in firewood were not the same as the lands which grew the softwood pines which made up the lion’s share of New England’s timber exports. The impetus for ecological change on all of these lands can be traced to a common set of causes: the market demands of consumers scattered throughout the Atlantic world, and most especially the need for raw materials and supplies in the Caribbean’s specialized, slave-labour based economies. I can see how the book’s continual return to this organizing theme may, at times, seem repetitive. But it is important to understand that the operation of markets for particular commodities were unique both in their chronology and in the specific economic and ecological pathways through which they operated. 

To wit: The fur trade of the early seventeenth century brought the destruction of river-adjacent wetlands that, in turn, facilitated the cultivation on drained lands of field crops for regional consumption and export. By the late seventeenth century, Caribbean demands for barreled pork and beef encouraged colonists to seek pastures and mowing lands beyond the rich bottomlands where they grew their crops, expanding the ecological footprint of English imperialism. Around the same time, the sugar islands’ insatiable demand for timber drove colonists into the pinelands of the Connecticut Valley, urging them onto new northern lands where these softwoods grew the thickest. Without Caribbean and European markets, exploitation of these lands may not have occurred or would have occurred more slowly or at later dates. The production of each export commodity brought its own ecological effect. The timber trade, along with the clearing of woodlands for firewood and new farmland, led to deforestation that, in turn, altered rainfall patterns and brought changes to regional micro-climates. Over-farming and over-grazing led to erosion and the silting up of streams and even of the “Great River” (the Connecticut) itself, imperiling the ship traffic upon which all of this commerce relied.

Each of these ecological transformations (along with myriad others) could be traced to the market demands of the larger British Empire and Atlantic World. But each also operated through different mechanisms on different portions of the landscape, fueling a series of inter-related environmental changes that shaped New England’s historical development. Ultimately, the relationship between these changes and external markets drove New England’s transition from a colonial site for extracting natural resources for the benefit of the British Empire, to establish the region as the industrializing center commanding the raw materials of other portions of the new continental empire of the United States. I regret that this theme – salient in the book’s concluding chapters – failed to capture Dr. Winchcombe’s scholarly attention or find its way into her review.

Of course, no one knows a book as well as its author. Indeed, authors often know their own work too well, blinding them to its lacunae, idiosyncrasies, and (I am loath to say) failings. Which is why the promotional material and dust-jacket abstracts often written by authors themselves could never replace the valuable work performed by reviewers in scholarly journals such as this one. Reviewers represent the voice of the reader and I am grateful to have had Colonial Ecology, Atlantic Economy reviewed by so eloquent and critically insightful a reader as Dr. Winchcombe.