Nature's Metropolis

by William Cronon

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

Nature's Metropolis, William Cronon's highly original ecological history of the city of Chicago, covers the most explosive period of its growth in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it morphed from a prairie trading post into a vital, sprawling metropolis at the center of an industrial empire. He emphasizes the ecological interdependence of the city and frontier hinterlands, and the manner in which the dramatic spectacle of urban transformation often came at the cost of the depredation of the landscape and its wildlife.

The prime location of the city, and its proximity to Lake Michigan and the mouth of the Chicago River may have accounted for much of its success as a center of trade. Yet it wasn't only these features of what Cronon terms "first nature," that was so influential, but the man-made "second nature," the system of canals, railways and lake shipping routes, that expanded regional trade, further fueling the city's growth.

Meat, grain, and lumber comprised the bulk of the commodities that were the lifeblood of Chicago's commerce. But Cronon also illustrates the centrality of the link the city provided, not only to the frontier, but also to the manufacturing cities of the east:

The Iowa farm family who raised corn for cattle purchased from Wyoming and who lived in a farmhouse made of Wisconsin pine, clothed themselves with Mississippi cotton that Massachusetts factory workers had woven into fabric, (and) worked their fields with a plow manufactured in Illinois from steel produced in Pennsylvania . . .

He describes the famed Union Stockyards, opened in 1865, with a capacity of 21,000 head of cattle, 75,000 hogs, and 22,000 sheep, "born in one place, fattened in another, and killed in still a third," as another example of the economic complexity and geographic extent of "second nature."

And he is quick to point out the inhumanity of this hitherto unknown distancing of consumer from producer and production process, telling of the mass slaughter of buffalo herds by shooting parties from the cars of moving trains. As he says, animal's lives were "redistributed across regional space." In a similar vein, he reflects on the scores of other species that were also rendered extinct by the unleashed juggernaut of enterprise.

In the last section of the book, Cronon explores the economic effect of Chicago on the hinterlands, and the development of the retail outlets, which later included mail-order stores, that sprang up to handle Chicago's wholesale trade. Its economic influence was such that, "from the Appalachians to the Sierra Nevada, the Great West was Chicago's domain." He concludes with a description of the city's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, a celebration of Columbus's discovery of America, and of the progress of the city itself at the peak of its influence.

Yet, in likely the most memorable passage in this book, drawn from its prologue, the author offers a more balanced statement of his ecological message than some might have expected:

Just as our own lives continue to be embedded in a web of natural relationships, nothing in nature remains untouched by the web of human relationships that constitute our common history. And in that fact lies the measure of our moral responsibility for each other and for the world, whether urban or rural, human or natural. We are in this together.

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