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REFLECTION CONNECTION: "Here Is Good Living for Those That Love Good Fires"

     "You suffer from the oldest delusion in politics. You think you can change the world by talking to a leader. Leaders are the effects, not the causes of changes."  ― Alasdair Gray, from his novel, Lanark - A Life in Four Books, published in 1981
The forests early English settlers found in New England delighted them, having been accustomed to a scarcity of wood for fuel in old England. If anyone doubts what these woodlands meant to these early settlers, the Reverend Francis Higginson made it clear that they meant being warm in winter, warmer even than the nobility of England could possibly hope to be.
     The Reverend Higginson's aphorism that, "Here is good living for those that love good Fires" said much about English settlers appreciation of New England forests’ bounty.
     In 1630 Higginson wrote, "Though it bee here somewhat cold in the winter, yet here we have plenty of Fire to warme us, and that a great deale cheaper then they sel Billets and Faggots in London: nay, all Europe is not able to afford so great Fires as New-England. A poor servant here that is to possesse but 50 Acres of land, may afford to give more wood for Timber and Fire as good as the world yeelds, then many Noble men in England can afford to do.”
     Beyond wood for fences, buildings and ship's masts, the greatest use of the New England forests - by far - was fuel. In addition to the early settlers love of large fires and warm houses, apparent from the 1630’s onward, New Englanders burned their wood in open fireplaces, which were four or five times less efficient than the closed cast-iron stoves of the Pennsylvania Germans.
     European travelers of the time were astonished by American consumption of firewood. The Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm remarked with that "an incredible amount of wood is really squandered in this country for fuel; day and night all winter, or for nearly half of the year, in all rooms, a fire is kept going."
     He estimated that a typical New England household consumed as much as thirty or forty cords of firewood each year, which can be visualized as a stack of wood four feet wide, four feet high, and three hundred feet long. Obtaining such a woodpile meant cutting more than an acre of forest each year.
Caleb Butler’s History of Groton affirms this level of firewood consumption. He quotes Groton town records from December 14, 1685 when voters agreed to compensate the town minister, in part, with 40 cords of firewood per year. “At a general town meeting legally warned” the town voted to give the minister “Mr. Hobart fourscore pounds this year” plus “forty cords of wood, which is to be paid yearly by the last of January next, and so annually from year to year."
     In 1800, the New England region burned about eighteen times more wood for fuel than it cut for lumber. When the effects of such burning are summed up for the whole colonial period, it is probable that New England consumed more than 260 million cords of firewood between 1630 and 1800.
Changes In the Land
Much of the above was taken from Changes in the Land - Indians, Colonists and the E cology of New England, by Yale and University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, who won the Francis Parkman Price in 1983 for the book. The prize is awarded yearly by the Society of American Historians for the best book in American history of that year.
     Changes In the Land offers an original and persuasive interpretation of the changing circumstances in New England's plant and animal communities that occurred with the shift from Indian to European dominance. With the tools of both historian and ecologist, Cronon constructed a brilliant interdisciplinary analysis of how the land and the people influenced one another, and how that complex web of relationships shaped New England's communities. This book is an invaluable tool for interpreting some of the seemingly obtuse actions and decisions taken by early settlers in Groton as described in Caleb Butler’s History of Groton.
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