Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Pilgrims & Land Use

If you missed Nathaniel Philbeck's NYT bestseller from 2006, Mayflower, November is a good time to check it out as we approach Thanksgiving 2009.  Philbeck gives new insight into the question, "How did American begin?"  Of interest to land use types, among other issues, are Philbeck's accounts of town planning and land management practices.  In regards to town planning, Philbeck describes the military origins of Plymouth's design:  "Miles Standish apears to have had a hand in determining the layout of the town.  At lectures on military engineering at the University of Leiden, soldiers could learn from the Dutch army's chief engineer that the most easily defended settlement pattern consisted of a street with parallel alleys and a cross street.  The Pilgrims created a similar design that included two rows of houses 'for safety.'"  Philbeck, at 84.  Only seven houses, however, were constructed the first year; the others included four buildings for common use.  Id.  The common greensward and adjacent church combination associated with New England did not develop until later.

Moreover, the terrain around these primitive structures did not resemble the dark, thick, primeval forest one typically imagines.  Philbeck explains:  "For centuries, the Indians had been burning the landscape on a seasonal basis, a form of land management that created surprisingly open forests, where a person might easily walk or even ride a horse amid the trees.  The constant burning created stands of huge white pine trees that common grew to over 100 feet tall, with some trees reaching 250 in height as as many as 5 feet in diameter.  Black and read oaks were also common, as well as chestnuts, hickories, birches, and hemlocks.  In swampy areas, where standing water protected the trees from fire, grew white oaks, alders, willows, and red maples.  But there were also large portions of southern New England that were completely devoid of trees [because of burning]."  Id. at 87. 

Will Cook, Charleston School of Law

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