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The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord
The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord
Brian Donahue
Yale University Press, 2004
344 pp., $35.00

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Reviewed by Eric Miller


Rediscovering "Husbandry"

What Colonial farmers have to teach us about living with the land.

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Donahue's turn to language at the book's end is a brief but telling analytic shift, underscoring what sort of work needs to be done to advance beyond the point at which he leaves us. His argument, persuasive as it is, leads naturally to questions about who these people were, and what it was that drove them, against increasing odds, to maintain their way of life as long as they did. At several points he gestures toward the culture interwoven into their agriculture; noting "the larger communitarian and spiritual goals upon which their towns rested," he occasionally quotes from a will or deed to give some hint of the nature of their relations one with another. When in 1690 the aged settler William Hartwell passed along his earthly goods, for instance, his parting words reflected a culture weighted with a thick admixture of kinship, obligation, and continuity: "I warmly desire my said two sons John and Samuel & as their father charge them to maintain brotherly love and unity between themselves, living as becometh brethren in mutual helpfulness each to other."

By Thoreau's day, some 150 years later, Hartwell's world was being radically altered by those Donahue dubs "the improving men of quiet desperation." If we, their children, are to forsake, in Donahue's words, "the shortsighted environmental blunders" of the world they helped to create, a probing of the relations this earlier people guarded between ecological practice, politics, and faith will provide necessary illumination. What kind of soul does husbandry take? What kind of soul does husbandry make?

Eric Miller is professor of history and humanities at Geneva College.

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