This Land, This South
Reviewed by Edward L. Ayers
Vol. 6, No. 4, 1984, pp. 22-23
This Land, This South: An Environmental History by Albert E. Cowdrey. University of Kentucky Press, 1983. 236 pp. $23.00
The land has always set the stage. Our literature, history, memory, and experience have always been permeated by the delta, the mountains, the pinebarrens, the coast. Some students of the South, in fact, have seen the land and the weather as the basic facts of Southern history, the reason for slavery and for staple crops, Southern violence and Southern lassitude. What we’ve never really understood is that the land itself has a history. As Albert Cowdrey makes clear in his evocative, detailed, and impressively researched account, the Southern landscape has played more than a passive role in shaping Southern lives.
Cowdrey’s story immediately confronts us with surprises. The corn which fed so much of the native population of America before the Europeans and Africans arrived, for example, was the product of ingenious selective breeding; the plant cannot survive unless humans separate the kernels from the cob and plant them. “Indians,” too, probably created the South’s vast pine forests by burning off older forests. The apparently natural bounty whites found was not nearly as natural as they assumed, though the deaths of seventy percent of the natives who had contact with Europeans and European disease may have made the continent seem much more empty than it otherwise would.
Disease played havoc with the new arrivals as well, for the South has long proved a haven for microbes and insects. Whites and blacks infected one another with strange maladies, and decade after decade passed before mortality rates stabilized. But eventually they did, and the North American slave population–alone of all those in the New World–survived in numbers sufficient to replace themselves.
Once the slave population began to grow and cotton emerged as the foundation of the region’s economy a new era began, one in which the South’s resources came under new strains. The region’s soils, generally older and more fragile than those of the North and West, began to show signs of wearing out even before the slave regime ended. Yet it remained for the Gilded Age to damage the South the most brutally. As railroads penetrated the forests, lumber companies began to strip huge areas throughout the region, taking the best trees and leaving the worst to strangle the forest. Cowdrey describes the waste and rapacity with understated passion. The beginnings of conservation also appeared in the South during the Gilded Age, but not before much was ruined.
The history of the Southern environment in the early twentieth century repeated the same cycle, though those years did witness great strides against some of the persistent illnesses of the region, malaria in particular. It was not until the Depression and the New Deal that attempts to manage the South’s resources made much headway. The Mississippi River, which had long bedeviled planners, was at least partially tamed. The Tennessee River Valley became the focus of national attention and an admirable–though uncopied–model. The Civilian Conservation Corps began to repair some of the damage inflicted by greed in decades past. Yet even the New Deal had its costs: the Agricultural Adjustment Administration proved a boon to large planters and a curse to thousands of tenants, who were driven from the land and often from the South. The 1930s and the war years that followed, Cowdrey argues, were probably the most revolutionary years in the region’s environmental history.
The balanced account of the postwar years will surprise few who have lived in the South. All can see the effects, good and bad, of development, commercial reforestation, strip
mining, oil fields, suburbanization, landscaping. But to those who read this fine book the South can never look quite the same again. The signs of centuries of struggle with and against the land will be easier to see and more understandable–if no less poignant and tragic.
Edward L. Ayers is associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is author of Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South (Oxford University Press, 1984).