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 remainsranging from legal documents on land ownership to tax records totaling annual amounts of grain harvestedDonahue 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 ...1
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