Thirty years ago, when I was living in the little town of Harvard, Mass., a wild rumor took flight: Time magazine was coming to town to write about Harvard as THE quintessential New England village.

Stockbrokers exchanged Brooks Bros. suits and Gucci loafers for plaid shirts and Bean boots, in which they lounged about our classic town common. Route 128 computer-belt executives turned into apple-cheeked villagers, to be seen leaning picturesquely on their garden forks. Even a pony trap — its existence hitherto unnoticed — took to driving up and down Main Street.

Time’s reporters captured it all, but a drastic turn in world events consigned their efforts to the editing room floor.

Joseph A. Conforti prompted this recollection in the opening essay of “A Landscape History of New England”: “All American regions are territories on the ground and countries of the imagination.”

A University of Southern Maine professor, Conforti delivers an insightful account of how New England’s landscape has been transformed by European settlement in the imagination as well as on the ground. Our region is less immutable than we like to assume. It is in constant flux, responding to passing social, economic and political trends.

Moreover, its archetypal “white church” village — the one sought out by Time and happily enacted by an upscale ex-urban town — dates back not to the Pilgrims but only as far as the mid-19th century. It was a cultural statement even then, Conforti suggests, not so different from today’s “commodification” of New England with its “heritage sites, boutiqued waterfronts, historic homes transformed into bed and breakfasts, the fall foliage season, the skiing industry, second homes, and L.L. Bean.”

Another USM professor, Kent C. Ryden, points out that “virtually every bit” of New England’s landscape, no matter how wild it appears today, has felt the ax or plow at one time and owes its character to human use of the land. Ryden examines changing societal responses to “episodes of deforestation and reforestation,” for example, the shift to “thinking of forests not as ‘failed farms’ but as ‘foliage.”‘

He cites Thoreau, who found that country people were blind to the brilliance of fall foliage “because it served no aesthetic or imaginative purpose for them,” but that city-dwellers were impressed. For them, a fall leaf-peeping excursion was an escape into a presumably simpler and happier pre-industrial past.

Mills and factories “sprouting like mushrooms along New England’s watercourses” had changed the region from an agrarian to an industrial one. Ryden is surely right “that the movement from farm to factory was perhaps the biggest demographic, cultural, economic, and natural shift that the region has ever seen”; but coupling it with fall foliage — both are “conditioned by interactions between nature and culture” — as the crux of an essay feels contrived.

Nonetheless, such an approach seems to have been encouraged by the editors of “A Landscape History of New England.” Taking a multidisciplinary approach to this anthology, they asked almost two dozen authors to work “from within the framework of their respective disciplines,” and gave them “free rein to expand on these themes in their own areas of expertise.” The results are by no means without interest, although they can appear unexpectedly scattershot.

The essays by Conforti and Ryden make up Part I, “Landscape, Nature, and Regional Identity.” Four sections follow, each starting with a sound overview essay, several by well-respected experts from Maine. Lloyd Irland draws on his long experience to review New England’s forests to frame Part II, “Forests and Mountains.” Part V, “Villages, Towns and Cities,” receives an authoritative introduction by Joseph S. Wood.

Part III, “Rural Landscapes,” starts with a lively review of conservation planning in Vermont by University of Kansas professor Sara Gregg, while Stony Brook University’s Elizabeth Pillsbury uses the case of Long Island Sound to set the stage for Part IV, “Coasts.”

These five “framing” essays center the book. The essays that complete each section take on a range of topics, some of them fairly arcane. Surely there are better ways to explore Maine’s “Tourist Landscape” than through a literary critique of the works of George Haynes, one-time surveyor and later purveyor of purple prose describing “the historic, the grand, and the beautiful.”

One essay, on “Landscape and Class,” should not go completely unchallenged. According to Phil Birge-Liberman, Boston’s “Emerald Necklace” — Frederick Law Olmsted’s great achievement — “advanced the economic and cultural agendas of Boston’s upper class through the specific interplay of three categories of action: boosterism, aesthetics, and real-estate speculation.”

Perhaps, but the reports of the period that are used in evidence sound remarkably like environmental arguments today that stress economic benefits to garner public support. The value of land adjacent to an Audubon sanctuary may get as much as a 20 percent boost in value, but that is hardly why it has been preserved.

The MIT Press has made “A Landscape History of New England” into a handsome book with (for the most part) clear black-and-white illustrations. However, despite the claims of its editors, this is a specialist’s book, each essay according to prescribed format.

After almost 400 pages, it was a delight to read John Elder’s humanist afterword, in which, as a maple sugar maker, he warns of the greatest threat to landscape (and everything else): Global warming. He even goes so far as to say that “we might move more swiftly toward an ecologically informed society by celebrating the erotics of conservation.” 

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and a contributing writer to “Twentieth-Century New England Land Conservation.”