Nature’s Metropolis

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

William Cronon, whose Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England won the Francis Parkman Prize, again demonstrates his mastery of economics and ecology as he recounts the dramatic history of Chicago from its founding in 1833 to its economic dominance in 1893, the year it hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. In some ways, Cronon’s history is a biography of Chicago, which he treats as a “natural” force with a personality of its own. Unlike traditional economic historians, Cronon adds an ecological dimension as he explores the complex interdependence of country and city, which he regards as one system encompassing “the commodities of our economy and the resources of our ecosystem.” In the preface, he declares that he attempts “to understand environmental change in relation to the actions of human beings.”

In order to justify his oxymoronic title, Cronon follows Hegel and Marx in defining “nature” in two ways: “first nature” is original, prehuman nature; “second nature” is the artificial nature people construct over first nature. While the growth of cities has traditionally been seen as a consequence of “natural” geographical advantages (access to water, for example), Cronon shows how second nature was more important than first nature in establishing Chicago’s economic dominance. Chicago’s natural advantages included the sluggish Chicago River, with its protective sandbar, and its position on a ridge “atop one of the chief natural boundaries of North America, separating the two greatest watersheds east of the Rocky Mountains.” Cronon points out, however, that there were also natural disadvantages, geographical/geological consequences of the advantages: the river that had to be dredged, the marshlands that had to be drained and built upon—both instances of second nature at work.

Before people “improved” on first nature, the marshlands area known as “Chigagou” (“the wild-garlic place”) existed, but it did not become “Chicago” until the Native Americans were defeated at the Battle of Bad Axe on August 2, 1832, and their last claims to the area were relinquished in 1833. In that year the population of Chicago doubled, and soon the inroads on nature began: first the canals, an addition to nature’s rivers, then the railroads (with their accompanying telegraph lines); both created the “artificial corridors” to the West that became Chicago’s “hinterland.” Chicago’s growth, according to Cronon, can be attributed to people—the boosters who touted Chicago as the next “natural” metropolis and the entrepreneurs who improved on nature—rather than to its natural advantages. Though Cronon never makes the analogy, Chicago’s growth on its swampy site is reminiscent of the biblical house built on sand and foreshadows its decline.

In order to discuss the relationship between economics and ecology, Cronon analyzes “commodity flows,” the movement of grain, lumber, meat, and retail goods in and out of Chicago, especially by railroad. Just as the Native Americans were replaced by Euro-Americans, so the various prairie grasses were replaced by corn and wheat, improved by technology and grown through the use of steel plows. The barns and fences which farmers added to the natural landscape altered the landscape in other ways, thereby undermining the prairie ecosystem: “In addition to plowing up the sod, farmers did their best to stop the annual fires—many of them set by Indians—that had formerly kept trees from invading the grassland.” With the advent of railroads, there were other changes. Grain had moved by sack on boats; now loose grain could move into the newly created grain elevators in Chicago before being shipped east by boat or rail. When the Chicago Board of Trade and the futures market developed, grain was seen as “a commodity, not as a living organism planted and harvested by farmers as a crop for people to mill into flour, bake into bread, and eat.”

A similar exploitation of nature occurred in the lumber industry to the north of Chicago; there, vast white pine forests were cut down and the logs floated on rivers to Lake Michigan, where they were milled before being shipped to Chicago buyers. These buyers, in turn, had ready cash and markets to the west, where existing lumber had been converted to barns and fences. The railroads, which benefited from the grain flowing east and the lumber going west, eventually replaced the ships as the means of transporting lumber. As the railroads reached further into the forests, they carried goods north and lumber south. Better transportation, however, only brought the end of the lumber trade closer, and eventually the railroad brought yellow pine from the south. When the cutover was...

(The entire section is 1953 words.)