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How did people change the environment?

Environment and Humans: Native Americans and European Settlers

The Marshfield Airport project is a lesson in the changes and differences in how humans perceive and treat the natural environment. The use of natural resources, and the intimate understanding of their availability, was central to the economic and cultural lives of Native Americans for 10,000 years. They lived off of the abundant bounty of the near-shore land and water resources, and of the sea, and did little to alter nature. They burned underbrush to facilitate hunting in the woods, and they built fish weirs in rivers, but they did not over-hunt or fish, nor did they take any game or food for granted. Native Americans had, and have, spiritual connections with and respect for nature and its bounty that are lacking in Euro-American traditions. Even the Wampanoag society today is no longer dependent solely on natural resources to sustain it economically and culturally, tribal life still maintains close ties with nature. Maintaining herring runs, shellfishing, hunting, the gathering of nuts, berries, cranberries and other natural resources are very important for the tribes to maintain cultural traditions. The tribes hold seasonal celebrations that honor the roles that nature provides, which have spiritual connections without a Euro-American parallel.


The different outlook by European settlers can be seen in the Pilgrims’ actions. The Watermans do not appear to have manipulated the environment except by killing more waterfowl and animals with guns, by growing wheat crops, and by keeping domestic livestock. But since records show colonists did not bother to fence in their livestock, there was consequential insensitive damage and destruction to Native fields.


Elsewhere in Plimoth Colony, as early as the 1620s Pilgrims started digging canals to make travel easier. Then came dams to power grist- and sawmills and other industries. Factories were followed by fields and woods turned into cities and suburban housing tracts. Everything in nature became something to be exploited or harnessed: waterpower, minerals, coal, oil, gas, even wind and sunlight.


The 1872 marsh reclamation project is an apt example of the natural environment being surmounted, neither valued nor accommodated. This massive undertaking of the draining and damming of a healthy estuary to create farmland from a marsh was a failure that was not corrected. Rather, tidal gates were left in place to protect homes from tidal surges. After thousands of years of healthy natural functioning the marsh was compromised, and still is. Homes are safe, but the Green Harbor River is turgid and the associated marsh system is partly choked. The marsh and river, used by Native Americans and colonists alike as a subsistence and travel resource, was no longer seen as an environmental asset, but as a nuisance, because by 1872 marsh hunting was a sport, not a means of subsistence.