Nature's Metropolis (Norton, 1991)

What we talk about when we talk about William Cronon

Nature's Metropolis (Norton, 1991)

Some years back I was a judge on the American Society for Environmental History’s prize committee for the book of the year. It was a great opportunity to take a measure of the field, and to get a lot of free books. At some point, I noticed that almost all of the 30 or so books, whether dealing with parks in California or cattle in Tanzania, mentioned William Cronon. His work was said to speak directly to the topic, or it was an inspiration. Or maybe he was the author’s graduate supervisor or editor. Or all of the above. In one case, Cronon was cited in the dedicationand the first sentence of the acknowledgmentsand the first sentence of the introduction! A crippling case of Cronon’s disease.

That experience has got me noticing how Cronon tends to be cited these days – for example, in the leading journal in our field, Environmental History (full disclosure: I’m on the editorial board). Far too frequently he is the recipient of drive-by mention: a quick, often unwarranted reference to his work, and then the author moves on. Some examples? There’s the uncited, “Those who take seriously William Cronon’s sage admonition to focus our attention on issues of sustainable use ….” Or how about a second author’s, “More recently, William Cronon encapsulated this sentiment with the idea that nature ‘is a profoundly human construction’….” Did we really not know that before him? Apparently not, because, as a third author states, “Doing so helps remind us, as William Cronon argued in his celebrated essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness,’ that humans are part of the natural world….”

Let me get out of the way what I’m not saying. I’m not saying the emperor has no clothes. William Cronon is – assume the “arguably” in all that follows – the leading historian in our field, the best essayist, one of the best stylists, editor of the leading monograph series, author of our field’s best bridge to historical geography, supervisor and mentor to a slew of scholars, and a leading academic activist. Teaching in Wisconsin, the emperor’s not just clothed, he’s layered.

I am saying two things. My general point is that scholars do scholarship a disservice when we overquote, overcite or, let’s face it, simply namedrop. We should quote other scholars only when they’ve stated an idea so perfectly that we couldn’t possibly do better ourselves – or when they’ve stated an idea so wrongheaded or wrongheadedly that we must quote them in disbelief before disputing or improving upon them. We should cite scholars only on the same occasions. We are in the “yes, but” business. If all we’re doing is encouraging readers to read another scholar’s work, we’d be better off not writing at all, because we’re only increasing the textual noise in the world that keeps their work from being noticed in the first place. If you can only say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.

My specific point is that environmental historians have been doing William Cronon a disservice in recent years by referring to rather than responding to his work. About sixty different Environmental History authors of essays and book reviews have mentioned Cronon over the past six years, but only one has really engaged his scholarship for more than a sentence or two. Cronon’s books have tended to be so good and so debated when they’re first published that after a while they’re not really debated at all. He’s become the sort of author you’re supposed to “reread” rather than “read.” But the man’s too young for us to make him the field’s patron saint, and his writing’s too valuable to be treated as sacrosanct. I read Nature’s Metropolis in big gulps when it came out in 1991, and never really returned to it, so much of my understanding of it today is undoubtedly contaminated, secondhand. It’s time I reread – no, read – it.

Alan MacEachern is Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario and the Director of NiCHE

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Currently, Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society, Munich. Otherwise, Professor of History, the University of Western Ontario, London, Ont. Formerly, Director of NiCHE. Reachable at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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5 Comments

  1. Your post led me to imagine a Devil’s Dictionary of Environmental History — a repository for historical dyspepsias. I will undertake the definition for “Declension” to complement your entry on “Cronon’s Disease.”

  2. Let me do “inextricably linked” in your dictionary, Will, as in “nature and culture are inextricably linked” — a phrase that yields me 2760 Google hits. Surely, they’re somewhat extricable! I’m pretty sure they have their own dictionary definitions.

  3. Sean Kheraj says:

    Alan:

    Your post coincides well with a first-year environmental history class I am currently teaching. My students, believe it or not, read Changes in the Land last week. Several of my undergraduate students had some very insightful remarks about Cronon’s 1983 classic. One student was frustrated with Cronon’s use of evidence regarding Aboriginal hunting practices during the winter in northern New England. He thought that, in a few examples, Cronon used too little evidence to support some of his broader statements about indigenous people and their relationships with nature. And I agreed. There are a number of instances in that book where Cronon generalizes about the food production practices of Aboriginal people. For example, he argues that “the low Indian populations of the precolonial northern forests had relatively little impact on the ecosystems they inhabited,” a point that my students regularly challenge in tutorial discussions. [1]

    I suppose then there are lessons that environmental historians can learn by listening to their students. Undergraduate and graduate students engaging with these classics for the first time can often offer a reading of such texts that is unencumbered by uncritical reverence for the canon.

    With that said, we should also remember that environmental historians have gone to some length to address and critique the work of Cronon and other leading figures in the field. Brian Donahue’s The Great Meadow stands out as an exemplary case of new research that directly challenges the arguments of William Cronon and Carolyn Merchant. Perhaps one of the problems is that other environmental historians, in a scramble to make a cursory reference to Cronon, forget the work of Donahue. [2]

    Or maybe William Cronon has had such a tremendous impact on the field because of the quality of his writing and his unique ability to craft persuasive and compelling narratives. As a great historian once wrote, “narrative remains essential to our understanding of history and the human place in nature.” [3]

    [1] William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 41.

    [2] Brian Donahue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 21-22.

    [3] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative” Journal of American History 26 (1992): 1350.

  4. Offhand, I’d say that the preponderance of references to Cronon in recent years are to Uncommon Ground first, Nature’s Metropolis second, Changes in the Land third. I don’t think Donahue’s revisionism has gone unnoticed, any more than Cunfer’s on Worster. I think you’re on to something, Sean, when you suggest that the quality of Cronon’s writing has had a great impact on the field. Has the early impact of some pretty committed stylists — I’m thinking Cronon, Pyne, Worster — made environmental history more committed to narrative than it would have been otherwise, or is that commitment thanks instead to the field’s commitment to synthesizing the work of a range of fields? Or is that what directed those stylists to environmental history in the first place?

  5. Sean Kheraj says:

    Ironically, you pose a chicken and egg question.

    I think you are right that one of the great successes of environmental history has been its capacity to synthesize interdisciplinary research with a strong narrative form. That is probably what makes historians best suited to bridge humanities and social science research with natural sciences. Humanistic scholarship, I think, is also necessary for explaining the complexities of human-nature relationships and the various, and often convoluted, contingencies of the past that are not easily explained by scientific methodologies or theory. We do this best, however, when we avoid what Cronon refers to as “the disease of literary theory,” that is the proclivity to “write too much in abstractions, so that even the simplest meanings become difficult if not downright opaque.” Or, as Orwell wrote long before Cronon, “if one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly,” and perhaps purge “pretentious diction,” “meaningless words,” and the “catalogue of swindles and perversions” that can be found in the very worst of English writing. [1]

    [1] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative” Journal of American History 26 (1992): 1349; George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” Horizon 13.76 (1946): 256-258.

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