The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord
Yale University Press, 2004
344 pp., 65.93
Reviewed by Eric Miller
Reading and writing history is an exercise in hope: the hope for clarity and truth, but above all, the hope for wisdom to see with new eyes our own moment in time. Few books entirely live up to these promises, but Brian Donahue's The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord offers all of this and more. His remarkable history of this little spot of land in New England is bound to force a rethinking of many of the stories we thought we knew.
Donahue takes us back to a people who, in making their lives dependent on the land they could daily touch and see, became caretakers of it, and so achieved an earthy prosperity that endured for almost two centuries. It was to husbandry that they devoted themselves, Donahue shows, an "ancient tradition of ecological adaptation" centered on "stable, diversified production" and "deeply embedded in the expectation of long–term family and community life in a well–known place." Through an assiduous study of decades of Concord's most dusty and dull remains—ranging from legal documents on land ownership to tax records totaling annual amounts of grain harvested—Donahue concludes that the English tradition of mixed husbandry enabled these Puritans to construct and maintain a "fundamentally sound agrosystem," one that in his estimation could have been sustained indefinitely.
What makes this a new story? Donahue takes on the scholarly consensus that since the 1980s has depicted colonial New Englanders as poor farmers, ecological delinquents, and budding capitalists. Donahue's Concordians could not look more different; indeed, in terms of their environmental acuity (if not its cultural application) they end up resembling, somewhat shockingly, the ecologically alert Indians usually revered by the critics of early New England farming. Donahue acknowledges that among the Puritans the agricultural tradition that uses "land ruthlessly and efficiently for immediate gain" was from the outset in tension with the "tradition of sustainable husbandry." But his own research unveils Concord as at the very least an exception to the market's rule: "The yeoman culture that appeared in New England is interesting precisely because it was something new in the world (and in truth, seldom seen since): a society of freeholders who lived within exacting social and ecological limits."
Contributing to the power of Donahue's argument is the intimacy that he himself has enjoyed with the land—land that he has farmed since the 1970s, including his years as the head of a nonprofit community farm in neighboring Weston (a story he's told in a 1999 volume, Reclaiming the Commons: Community, Farms and Forests in a New England Town). Currently a professor of American environmental studies at Brandeis University, Donahue brings to his analysis of the region the seasoned eye of a native farmer; when he walks the reader through Concord's meadows and over its hills, his voice carries an unusual kind of authority, rooted in knowledge gathered in both libraries and fields.
Despite—or perhaps because of—his own acknowledged stance as both activist and scholar, Donahue writes in a circumspectly descriptive style. If this book is a form of advocacy, it is done in a cool, objective, sophisticated manner; clearly, Donahue wants the facts to speak, so much as they are able, for themselves. But as at the book's end he describes the demographic crisis and the encroaching capitalist culture that transformed colonial Concord, his voice turns increasingly political. By the latter half of the 18th century, he writes, Concord's land "had to support not only more people, but people who wanted more." The consequences were huge: in becoming commercial farmers serving distant markets, Concordians had by Thoreau's time allowed the land to devolve into a state of "ecological disarray."
But it wasn't just their spending habits and land use that changed with the advent of what Donahue calls "agricultural capitalism"—their language did, too. "The Great Meadow," with its 400 acres of rich land along the Concord River, had been at the center of their system of mixed husbandry due to its provision of hay for their livestock and, consequently, manure for their fields, thus maintaining decades on end the fertility of the land. Crucially, the Great Meadow was a commons: owned by the town, maintained by the town, used by the town. But by Thoreau's day, Donahue notes in a powerful closing section, the Great Meadow had become known as the Great Meadows: "Instead of a common entity of which each owned a part, the Great Meadows were thought of as a collection of individual pieces." "The singular," he writes in lament, "had become plural."
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.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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