Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England

Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England

Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England

Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England


With the arrival of European explorers and settlers during the seventeenth century, Native American ways of life and the environment itself underwent radical alterations as human relationships to the land and ways of thinking about nature all changed. This colonial ecological revolution held sway until the nineteenth century, when New England's industrial production brought on a capitalist revolution that again remade the ecology, economy, and conceptions of nature in the region. In Ecological Revolutions, Carolyn Merchant analyzes these two major transformations in the New England environment between 1600 and 1860.

In a preface to the second edition, Merchant introduces new ideas about narrating environmental change based on gender and the dialectics of transformation, while the revised epilogue situates New England in the context of twenty-first-century globalization and climate change. Merchant argues that past ways of relating to the land could become an inspiration for renewing resources and achieving sustainability in the future.


“Down on the shore,” wrote Rachel Carson about the New England coastline, “we have savored the smell of low tide—that marvelous evocation combined of many separate odors, of the world of seaweeds and fishes and creatures of bizarre shape and habit, of tides rising and falling on their appointed schedule, of exposed mudflats and salt rime drying on the rocks.” the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, uniting scattered spots on the Maine shoreline, commemorates Carson’s research along the ocean and her love of its sea life.

The Rachel Carson refuge, however, reflects only the latest use of Maine’s coastline. Native Abenaki peoples who had lived there for hundreds of years experienced a major transformation with the arrival of French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1604 and European settlers in the 1600s and 1700s who introduced fishing, fur trading, lumbering, and farming—a transformation I have called the colonial ecological revolution. in the 1800s, textile mills moved up coastal rivers and rushing streams along the New England coast where waterpower initiated an industrial transformation—part of what I have called the capitalist ecological revolution. These two ecological revolutions, elaborated in the ensuing book, each entailed major changes in ecology, production, reproduction, and consciousness. Where do these revolutions stand from the perspective of the twentyfirst century? Twenty years after the initial publication of Ecological Revolutions (1989), I have had an opportunity to reflect on this question, in the context not only of environmental history’s unfolding as a discipline but also—as addressed in a new epilogue—of how a changing New England has evolved new possibilities for a third, the global ecological revolution.

1. Carson, The Sense of Wonder, p. 66. For the history of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, see U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.”

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