The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | Articles | United States/20th Century | Post-Modern Landscapes of the American South

Email to a friend
Printer friendly

Post-Modern Landscapes of the American South

by Jack Temple Kirby

"You can't change history if you are [weighed down by history]."

Clint Mathis, May 2002

The suburban Georgian, Clint Mathis, only twenty-five, addressed the United States' experience of invisibility (or humiliation) in quadrennial World Cup competition on the eve of 2002 match play. A fleet and improvisational striker whose boyhood hero was the unglued Argentinian Diego Maradona, Mathis was instrumentally blunt about U.S. soccer's unglorious past: Deal with it and move on, he advised. Reminding me of Professor Fred Hobson's post-modern southern fiction writers, beginning with Walker Percy, who were and are "autochthonous." Unlike modernists such as William Faulkner, who were possessed by and obsessed with history, post-modernists interrogate memory in relative independence and discover the funny as often as the morbid.(1) If with Faulkner, Pickett's Charge is still happening, with Percy it's over yet still signifying everywhere, often in absurd manifestations. (In The Thanatos Syndrome, moldy, crumbling former slave quarters are converted to hip $300,000 condos.) Post-modernism as fiction or historiography might dismiss the past as casually as the mature writer Richard Ford or the maturing athlete Clint Mathis. More often post-modernism engages and questions history with a wit and improvisation resembling Mathis' flamboyant play. Which brings me to the brilliant work of a pair of Minnesotans, and to a poetically imagined historical southern landscape.

The brothers Coen, Ethan and Joel, have been making what I would call comic regional films for years-e.g., about the sentimental working classes of the Southwest, in Rising Arizona; contemporary southern California slacker culture, in The Big Lobowsky; and most famously, the maddeningly bland yet redemptively persistent Nordic midwesterners ("you betcha!"), in Fargo. Then early in 2001, the Coens brought forth a "southern," O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is more historical than their previous regionals-and one might add, allegorical, since the script is "Inspired by The Odyssey, by Homer." The scene is the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta during the 1930s, high age of the "American Congo,"(2) when tiny white minorities coerced enormous black majorities in cotton fields and on chain gangs, when Dixie demagogues roused the rednecks with oratorical vacuity and fiddle tunes, when the legendary Robert Johnson, having exchanged his soul for virtuoso guitar licks at a delta crossroads, riffed and yowled in smokey juke joints, and when publicity-hungry rural outlaws roared over the countryside in V-8 Fords, sticking up banks, exchanging heavy fusillades with the cops, and providing witty summaries to the press. O Brother offers bits of all this and more-a Klan ceremony, for instance, that resembles the overture to "Springtime for Hitler" in Mel Brooks' The Producers. There is even a public works project, typical of the '30s-a new dam will flood a hidden "treasure" sought by the film's three hapless protagonists. And the Delta's low, flat profile itself figures large throughout, conferring a sultry, dangerous verisimilitude.

But O Brother's landscape is really a mondo bizarro in which most everything is wrong. The film opens with a chain-gang scene of black men making large rocks into small ones beside a dusty road. Then three white guys, just escaping, pop up, and we follow their wacky odyssey thereafter. A blind, elderly black man (The Oracle, probably representing Homer, himself) appears memorably but briefly. Robert Johnson-here rendered "Tommy Johnson"-accompanies the escapees' vocal group, "The Soggy Bottom Boys," as the only persistent Afro-American character in a very Afro place and time. None of Johnson's or his contemporaries' blues are heard, either. Instead we get T Bone Burnett's remarkable assemblage of "ole timey" white music, which is the film's plot motor and pleasure; and this, too, is wrong in another way.

"Ole timey"-the descriptor spoken by the movie's blind white radio station manager and recording engineer-hardly seems appropriate to Jimmie Rodgers' "He's in the Jailhouse Now" or Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis's "You Are My Sunshine," both new in the '30s. "Ole timey" really means traditional mountain music, the deathly lamentations of Appalachians such as the Carter Family and Stanley Brothers. (Ralph Stanley, himself, won a Grammy for his rendition of "Oh, Death" on the film's soundtrack, which became a hit CD.) I am persuaded that differing elevations and geologic morphologies yield differing sensibilities and musical styles. Not that flatlanders and highlanders were unaware and/or unappreciative of each others' musical traditions in the age of automobility and radio. Rather, I suggest, the Coen brothers and musical director Burnett were engaged here in a playful homogenization of upland and lowland white Souths. A historical Appalachian band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, becomes the ad hoc Soggy Bottom Boys, rather like one of Walker Percy's characters' hilarious misappropriations of legend. The "South," then, always a singular idea despite its irreconcilable varieties, is effectively leveled. And O Brother becomes, to me, a wistful poem to us about southern landscapes in our own lifetimes.

Consider first southern Appalachia. Never a great agricultural commodities empire like the South's piedmonts and deltas, the mountains nonetheless were home to many farmers for a long time, many of them participating in remote markets. Appalachian farmland was typically "cove land," narrow, fertile stream-side settlements. Hardly anyone lived on heavily forested ridges and peaks. This land held rains, filtered water, and provided fuel, building materials, and selectively cut timber for downriver markets. Then came railroads, timber and coal corporations. Forests were clearcut, and mines, whether "slope" or "deep," brought forth not only coal but slag wastes including toxic minerals that tumbled down ridges onto farms and into streams. Farmers went to work in the mines or left for the Midwest; and by 1960, agricultural census-takers dismissed most of the subregion as either "industrial" or some rural-undeveloped descriptor.(3)

Then appeared a quantum leap in mining technology-giant machines that would strip away vegetation, dirt, and rock to reach seams of coal approximately parallel to horizon or slope. Federal and state legislation during the 1970s required operators to "restore" landscapes once coal seams were depleted, but legislators did not intend replication of original morphology and ground cover. Instead they insisted that mined landscapes be returned to some economically useful form, and this usually meant near-flat, grassy (i.e., treeless), would-be beef pastures.(4) The literal leveling of the South was underway.

Now, after four decades of eastern strip-mining and "restoration," coal operators have engineered ever-larger machines and a new (during the 1990s) method called "mountaintop removal." Actually, miners now refer to mountaintops as "overlays," since peaks and ridges cover coveted seams of low-sulfur coal, so "overlay removal" is the interchangeable term. The removal procedure begins with blowing up mountaintops; then teams of towering mining machines, each twenty-stories high, manipulate monster drag-lines to dump millions of tons of rubble into valleys, most with streams. People living below such overlays are typically bought out, their villages to become "valley fill." The Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for filling watersheds in coal country, concedes that about one thousand miles of Appalachian streams have disappeared as a result of landscape leveling. The concession may be too modest, and destructive flooding in southern West Virginia during Spring 2002 suggested to many a causative relationship with wholesale obliteration of forests. In 1999 and again during the floods of '02, the chief judge of the federal district court of southern West Virginia condemned government permits for valley filling as an "obvious perversity" of the Clean Water Act. The judge's first ruling was overturned on appeal, and King Coal marched on, imperiously confident in a cozy consensus with the rest of the federal judiciary and the current administration.(5)

Now consider the coastal South. Here a much older-and pervasive-perversity of several clean water acts(6) is evident everywhere, from Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula to Key West to Padre Island. Mile after mile, as any beach-goer or pelican has observed, any patch of land, dry or soggy, not already built upon is for sale and "development." Since World War II, but explosively since the 1960s, the eastern riviera has risen, quite literally (even as parts of the mountains have fallen). Most of this low landscape consisted of wetlands of some sort or another-flood-plain pine barrens, pocosins, tidal marshes, estuarial swamps. Ocean and Gulf beaches are themselves deserts, of course, delicate, shifting, windblown. Yet ironically, even as wetlands' ecological functions and beaches' impermanence became generally understood-in the '60s-Americans herded to the coasts to live, permanently or on regular or extended holidays. Private landowners obliged private developers and eager local and state governments; but it was the Army Corps of Engineers (again) who dredged and straightened creeks, dug canals, and drained thousands of acres of wetlands, using spill from massive excavations to build (relatively) high and dry landscapes for safe homesites and convenient business districts. When environmentalists recoiled in horror at losses of wildlife habitat, natural fish hatcheries, and estuarial function-as early as the mid-1960s-the Corps resisted or ignored checks by Congress, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and private conservationist groups.(7)

Florida, the lowest southern state with the longest coastline, was (and remains) the epicenter of re-engineered hydrology and runaway development. During the late-'60s and early '70s, in a move astounding in its secrecy and state-corporate collusion, the Walt Disney company bought miles of orange groves and wetlands near Orlando, established a private government for its domain, and built Disney World, transforming a low, pastoral landscape into a soaring tourist attraction, the biggest in the East, that supports a year-around population in sprawling suburbs. Northeast of Orlando, along the Intestate-95 corridor from Jacksonville past St. Augustine toward Daytona Beach, good drained farmland is now under wholesale conversion to golf course-gated community developments. This despite the shocking news, in 2001, that Florida's water supply is compromised by pollution and limited in relation to population growth, which passed fifteen millions in the 2000 Census, heading for at least twenty millions by '10.(8)

It is South Florida, however, that has become the most elevated of all southern coastal places. Limestone foundations support impressive skylines of office towers and multi-story condominiums from Palm Beach to Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg to Naples. Corps of Engineers-sanctioned canalization yields more and more (and expensive) "water-front" property, which is essentially fill from canal-digging. Truck and auto traffic-and air pollution-render life hectic and dangerous to all but the sequestered wealthy. Gail Fishman, a Miami native, writer, and conservationist, has moved permanently to Tallahassee, declaring recently that she could no longer bear Dade County, where over-development had broken her heart. Carl Hiaasen, another Dade native, famously remains, where his arch send-ups of South Floridian life appear in the Miami Herald. Hiaasen is also author of a series of over-the-top "ecological" novels featuring a disaffected ex-governor, now gone feral in the Everglades, and a mad young man obsessed with highway litterers. Both characters are avenging nemeses not only to the publicly messy but to developers and their shady politician-accomplices.(9)

What is called development in South Florida includes also a well-drained agricultural empire. Below Miami, around Homestead and Florida City, down the eastern border of Everglades National Park, endless fields of vegetables and citrus stretch out between arrow-straight canals. Workers speak en español and live in colonias. Were the air not so humid, and were the canals not carrying water away, rather than to, the croplands, a visitor might mistake this surreal scene for the Imperial Valley at the bottom of California. More disorienting-is this another aspect of the "post-modern"?-on my road atlas this landscape is part of the Everglades, indicated not only by a printed label but the cartographer's symbol for wetlands. So, too, is the rural countryside northwest of Miami, up to Lake Okeechobee. A drive up US Route 27, from Miami's suburban fringe, reveals not grass, standing water, or alligators, however, but forty miles of continuous sugar plantations. Then, from the western shore of the Lake, down Florida Route 80 beside the dredged and locked Caloosahatchee River toward Fort Myers, spread more miles and miles of orange groves-also in territory designated Everglades. All this inland agricultural gigantism, like the sprawling coastal built landscape, results from the twentieth century's modern engineering, the disastrous drainage of most of the Everglades. Arguably the recent multi-billion dollar plan to un-do large parts of the last century's engineering triumph and restore natural hydrology, could be termed a profoundly post-modern dialogue with the modern past-in this case, employment of techno-genius to condemn techno-genius. But we must wait and see.(10) There is no such thing as perfect restoration of historical landscapes, and the pressures of migration and greed are not to be underestimated.

Now move a short distance inland, to the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, to the piney woods of legend and fact, an enormous southern subregion always rivaling Appalachia in rustic poverty. With a few notable exceptions, little of this tidewater landscape was under cultivation before the Civil War. Instead, entrepreneurs established naval stores industries, especially turpentining, among towering stands of longleaf pines. North Carolinians over-boxed their tree plantations and exposed their stands to insect invasions. The longleafs were destroyed by about 1850; then the Carolinians moved on to fresh trees in Georgia. When those were also exhausted, during the 1880s, the turpentiners migrated to longleafs in northern Florida, Alabama, and westward. Farmers often replaced the forest industrialists, but with poor prospects-tobacco being the great exception, peanuts another-on sandy, acidic soils. State-sponsored industrial plants came and went during the second half of the twentieth century. Nothing succeeded in stabilizing this poor country. The young and ambitious left; others hung on in despair. The coastal plain was, simply, in Linda Flowers' memorable eastern Carolina expression, "throwed away."(11)

In the meantime, however, and hardly visible at first, another sort of industrial transformation was underway. During World War I an ambitious Swedish-born chemist arrived in West Point, Virginia (east of Richmond) and established a mill to make woodpulp from local loblolly pines. The pulp first went to an Ohio papermaker for finishing; but by the mid-'20s the Swede's Chesapeake Corporation had become the pioneer papermaker of the South. In 1936 the New York-based Union Bag and Paper Company built an enormous paper mill in Savannah, signaling the real beginning of the national industry's shift to the region. By 1950 the South produced 55 percent of U.S. wood pulp, by 1990, 71 percent. The great shift was by no means a natural consequence of regional advantage, once the so-called "sap problem" of young southern pines was resolved, back in the '30s. But rather, vast southern loblolly plantations and papermaking dominance signify a hard-won victory for fire suppression, the rationalization of supplies form hundreds of thousands of small, private woodlot owners, of the "reform" of state and local tax policies, of tree genetic engineering, and finally of the chemical management (not at all unlike conventional agricultural industry) of loblolly monoculture.(12)

By the 1970s, then-a bit earlier in some places-a geographically enormous and economically powerful paper "complex" had appeared. Denizens of (say) West Point and Franklin, Virginia; Plymouth, North Carolina; Savannah and St. Marys, Georgia; Jacksonville, Florida; or Bogalusa, Louisiana, needed no reminders of the complex's existence. They see and smell mills' smoke; they live in the physical monotony of loblolly culture, where sometimes for miles, all plants are one species, all the same size-unless they drive past the ugly remains of a recent harvest. Nearly everyone else, I suspect, especially drivers on I-95 (all the way from Fredericksburg, Virginia, to Jacksonsville) or I-75 below Atlanta to Lake City, Florida, or I-10 from Jacksonville to Beaumont, assumes s/he travels through "forests." Not so. Forests-even predominantly coniferous ones-are complex ecosystems including many plant and animal species. Plantations are single-plant constructions; they are effective deserts-except that my allusion gives deserts an undeserved bad name. Increasingly since the 1940s-'50s chemical revolutions in agriculture-and notwithstanding the Environmental Protection Administrations' banning of the notorious pesticide, DDT, and the once-popular herbicide, 2-4-D--paper companies and private "tree farmers" have employed countless tons of pesticides to kill insects judged dangerous to loblollies, and stupendous quantities of herbicides (nowadays, Roundup) to kill hardwood tree seedlings and other competitors with loblollies. A pine plantation, then is nature grotesquely simplified, a monochromatic grid bearing little similarity to original landscapes-unless the original were cotton fields. White oaks, for instance, are not permitted, nor the stately longleaf, which is almost gone. Animal life is also impoverished. Woodpeckers that normally feed upon insects that damage trees have been virtually extinguished by pesticides, along with dozens of species of ground animals, worms, fish.(13)

I suggest to Midwestern vacationers headed south on the interstates that they try to find a high prospect-maybe a bridge span-slow down, and admire the remarkable geometry of pine plantations in the South. Think of Disney World (a probable destination, anyway). Think, too, that the Orlando creations may last longer than the paper complex. This because today there is a global oversupply of paper, and the American industry is in flux once more. Chesapeake was taken over by Saint Laurent, a Canadian company, about three years ago, and this year became part of yet another multinational. Most distressing to northern hemisphere with the advantage of plantation "rotations" even shorter than the fifteen years southern U.S. geneticists have achieved. The complex, conceivably, could collapse-they will suffer at least a dramatic downsizing-in the near future.(14)

This must be the prognosis, too for another, newer, much smaller wood-products industry, one that resembles agriculture not at all, and that produces no monochromatic geometry: wood chips for export. The Pacific Northwest's timber businesses have blown sawdust and chips into the holds of Japanese vessels at Coos Bay, Oregon, for years. Southeasterners chipped pulp bolts at domestic paper mills. Then in 1985 the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway opened to navigation. At two billion dollars the most expensive public work to date, the project was to enrich the impoverished counties along the Alabama-Mississippi state line, from remote Tennessee hill country down to Mobile Bay. After a decade, though, it became obvious that the Waterway would not replace or even rival the Mississippi (not to mention railroads) in delivering midwestern commodities to the Gulf. More than half of barge cargoes consisted of wood chips or wood-for-chipping that had been harvested in adjacent counties-where the poverty rate, incidentally, had actually risen by 1996.(15)

American corporations with familiar names-Weyerhaeuser, Scott Paper (now merged with Kimberly-Clark)-sell the chips to the Japanese in Mobile for processing into paper and composition board. But here the corporations do not practice monoculture on plantations. Chip suppliers are small, simple-technology operators who buy the woody cover on small private properties. Pine, oak, sweetgum, poplar, hickory-any species of any size will do. All these are bush-hogged or bulldozed, dumped into large barrel-like contraptions with spikes inside, that tear off bark and reduce sticks and logs to chips. These are poured onto "Tenn-Tom" barges bound for Mobile. The government of Alabama "advises" landowners to replant stripped plots; but so far as we know, few oblige, and those who do replant pine, which grows to harvestable size years before deciduous trees. Thus pine cover in the South expands yet further, beyond fall lines well into upcountries. And meanwhile, family-sized sawmillers, backbone of many rural upcountry communities, find themselves without mature hardwood to cut and sell.(16)

Elsewhere the coastal plain witnessed a horror more Spielbergian than Mobile's mountains of yellow chips. During the '60s, a Duplin County, North Carolina, high school vocational-agriculture teacher named Wendell Murphy decided to go into the pork business. Expanding the model set by "integrators" in the poultry broiler business back in the '40s, Murphy confined every-larger populations of pigs in an industrial system of production that by the 1980s rendered small-scale hog-raising economically unfeasible. Giant new slaughterhouses appeared along the lower reaches of the Cape Fear and Neuse rivers to process the enormous bounty of Murphy Farms and other confinement operations. By 1997 North Carolina (principally its eastern counties) rivaled Iowa as premier U.S. pork producer. Murphy became "Boss Hog." And at the beginning of the new century North Carolina surpassed Iowa.(17)

Industrial marvels in meat production are no less problematic than in plants. Animals confined in crowded quarters from birth to near-death live in their own feces and atmosphere and must be fed antibiotics. (They are also fed growth hormones to hasten fattening and shorten life.) Swine are extraordinary in their production of wastes-on average, relative to poundage, no less than twice the volume of humans. Millions of hogs' feces and urine soon became disastrous in coastal Carolina, where the soil is porous and the water table high. So-called "Lagoons" of wastes, whether lined or not-"Boss Hog" and his legislative allies assured weak or no regulation-are prone to leach into groundwater, creeks, rivers. Then during the 1990s, usually during storms, enormous lagoons burst and flooded high-oxygen refuse into the Cape Fear, Neuse, and the New River (near Jacksonville). Red tides appeared-not an unknown phenomenon. But these new tides killed unprecedented numbers of fish, and watermen and -women and doctors reported extraordinary human symptoms: lesions on hands and arms, and mental disorientation, anxiety, hostility.(18)

The medical mystery presented itself, quite by accident, in a veterinarian's laboratory fish tanks at North Carolina State University. Puzzled by persistent deaths of his fishes, the vet called in a young aquatic biologist, recently arrived from her native Midwest, JoAnn Burkholder. Ultimately (and painfully), Burkholder identified the "new" red tide, a dynoflagellate she named Pfiesteria piscacida. (She and others also called it "the cell from hell.") Pfiesteria apparently lie dormant on river and sound bottoms; then, aroused by huge, sudden oxygenization-swine and/or chicken wastes, fertilizer runoff, probably human sewerage, too-the cell changes shapes, becoming a dynoflagellate, and attacks fish in a terrifying frenzy. Aquatic victims, dead or dying, emit fumes that sicken humans. Burkholder soon found herself both a heroine and a villain-blessed deliverer to fishery and recreational businesses, and evil despoiler of an important industry and of economic development generally. This particular story has not ended in North Carolina.(19)

Nor elsewhere, for that matter. In 1997, scientists confirmed Pfiesteria in a Pocomoke River, Maryland , red tide. Careless (or criminal) distribution of chicken wastes from industrial scale broiler producers were the primary suspect. The appearance of Pfiesteria in the already-crippled upper-Chesapeake fishery was, sad to say, only the latest horror in this agribusiness's half-century history. Midwestern (principally) integrators had first appeared in marginal, worn-out cotton country, during the '40s, as saviors of small farmers searching for means of survival. Representing big grain millers, the integrators offered contracts to rural landowners who would build feeder houses and accept delivery of corporate-supplied biddies, feed, and medicines. In eight weeks biddies became broilers, to be fetched and paid for by the integrators. Farmers hastily cleaned out the chicken houses-presumably spreading wastes on their own cropfields-and accepted a new batch of biddies. Chicken farmers' hard work over time actually grew harder and riskier, even as technology and operational scale grew apace. Farmers discovered they had become in effect sharecroppers of a new sort, utterly dependent upon and subject to the supervision of their singular supplier-customers, who commanded that farmers indebt themselves for ever-larger feeder houses, new medicines and hormones, automatic waterers, etc. Sympathetic economists calculated farmers' effective labor value (i.e., "wages") as low as $.75 per hour, during the mid-1970s and early '80s. The so-called chicken farm came to signify something quite modern and simultaneously old-i.e., that much of the coastal and upland rural South remained poor.(20)

Monetary poverty usually equates with environmental poverty. Both grow in a world market for meat in which American producers understand that they compete not only with subsidized European Union farmers and packers, but increasingly with the southern hemisphere, where wages are a fraction of the northern hemisphere's, and environmental regulations are slight or non-existent. Beginning in the 1960s, IBP (then Iowa Beef Producers) began to grow at the expense of smaller, older companies such as Swift, to de-skill packing house jobs, and to recruit immigrant workers-the model for what was called "New Breed" meatpacking by the '80s. The Midwest was innovator yet again; but just as southern businesspeople had ultimately taken over industrial poultry, during the '90s they became imperial in meats, generally. Don Tyson of Springdale, Arkansas, son of the founder of Tyson Chicken, created Tyson Foods (with his son and heir, Johnny), by aggressive growth and acquisition. In 1989 Tyson bought Holly Farms (for $1.5 billion) and became the largest U.S. poultry producer/processor. Then in 2001, they won a bidding war for IBP. The Tysons' competitor was Smithfield Foods, the prestigious ham curer of Virginia, which is led by a native of Smithfield who lives in Manhattan. Smithfield itself had just bought out "Boss Hog" Murphy's pork operations in North Carolina. A grim triumph for the South, because both Tyson and Smithfield are notorious polluters of soil and water, and brazen scofflaws. Tyson is by far the worse, being larger, and perennially in court answering charges of recruiting and harboring child laborers and illegal immigrants-this despite the Tysons' famously huge political contributions to Democrats and Republicans alike.(21) Virginians ought take no pride in a tidewater corporation's new dominion in eastern North Carolina; nor might southerners generally gloat over Arkansans' tainted reach into the rural Midwest.

Finally the plantation heartlands-the red-clay piedmonts, black-land prairies, the deltas. It was here, during the 1960s, that sharecropping ended and that plantations, after generations of functional subdivision, were re-centralized in a new regime of mechanization closely resembling big agriculture in the West. The early-1980s revival of cotton following introduction of a new boll weevil pesticide seemed to signal a weird restoration of the Old South. During the mid-'90s in Southampton County, Virginia, a black farm laborer named Turner drove a cotton harvesting machine for a powerful white planter. Anything but insurrectionists, Turner and other workers of Southampton and a few other counties in the narrow tidewater landscape below the James and between the towns of Emporia (by I-95) and Suffolk, picked so much cotton that year that much of the crop was spread upon runways at the Franklin airport for weeks, waiting its turn at local gins. Below the Carolina line, on down toward "Boss Hog's" domain, cotton also displaced tobacco and peanuts. By Christmas-time each year, here and in other spots across the South, especially in Texas, endless fields and roadsides are generously sprinkled with white-not snow, but cotton lint escaped from harvesters and transport trucks.(22) Here is a familiar landscape, then, from which representatives in Congress, allied with western Big Ag, produced the shameless farm subsidy legislation of 2002.

More typically, however, the former plantation South is no longer recognizable as such. Commodity agriculture of any specialty is largely abandoned-in the sprawling Georgia lower piedmont, the old Natchez district, much of central and northern Louisiana, and so on. Suburbs now sprawl over thousands of disappeared "Taras," and they are shaded by ornamental trees where trees were before never permitted. Or more likely, old cropfields' row-hills may be discovered deep within the shade of loblolly plantations. In the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, where cotton but especially corn, soybeans, and rice culture survive, remnants of a formerly large but scattered farm-worker population are now re-centralized, like the plantations, themselves, in housing proximate to machinery sheds. Yet even in the Delta most people are not employed in farming, but in a variety of industrial and service jobs; and they live in along-the-highway "hamlets" (as the geographer Charles Aiken terms such settlements), close to churches in clean country air.(23)

Or is there such a thing as clean "country" air in any part of the contemporary South? Actually, not much. For many decades the tall stacks of midwestern electrical power plants have sent sulfates, nitrates, and other particulate matter to the Northeast, poisoning trees and water not only in the Adirondacks, but penetrating the lungs of Pennsylvania farmers and Brooklyn pedestrians. More recently the vast expansion of power capacity in the South, itself (as well as in the lower Midwest), has reduced a large subregion called the "Mid-South" to the dubious distinction of the worst air in the nation. The atmosphere over central and western Kentucky, Middle and East Tennessee, most of western North Carolina, and most of the upper halves of Alabama and Georgia commonly suffer greater than six micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter from power plants-compared with, say, zero-to-one microgram on average in the western half of the U.S. (We do not address air pollution from autos and trucks here.) So now trees and water in southern Appalachia follow the grim fate of the Adirondacks. There have been massive tree die-offs in the mountains before, from disease epidemics, and there is now an epidemic of human denial that TVA smokestacks might cause tree deaths in the Great Smokeys and the Black Mountains over in North Carolina. We ought not have to choose between air-conditioning, Sub-Zero friggies, powerful computers and other work tools, and blast-away stereos, on one hand, and "pristine" forests with neat camping facilities, on the other.(24) Our latest new South is American, by God, and entitled. Such entitlement, and the national government's captivity by energy interests, allow no foundation for optimism. Anyone paying attention to southern landscapes must be the "eco-pessimist," the unhappy witness to a literal and figurative leveling of the region, leveling meaning in nearly every sense degradation.(25)

My own cherished trace of optimism, nonetheless, is rooted in the South's food cultures, arguably the best and most distinctive in the nation. Southerners loved fresh local produce and inspired cooking long before the founding of Chez Panisse and Southern Living magazine. "Garden" to most southerners means corn, beans, squash, and tomatoes, rather than azaleas, peonies, and roses-although the latter are not to be dismissed, for there is truth in beauty, too. Suburbanized southerners, given sufficient lots, have vegetable gardens. Virtually all rural southerners do; and from USDA Zone 8 (beginning southeastern Virginia) southward, they are able to keep productive gardens all year, eating sweet greens in winter, putting in potatoes in mid-March, other crops soon thereafter, and canning a cornucopia every fall. Such a culture as this must grasp the elemental ecological concept that how and what we eat elementally structures the landscapes in which we live.(26) Millions of food-loving Southerners need simply to enlarge their private and local good works to encompass a region, perhaps a country and a globe.


1. Jere Longman, "Feisty and Fearless, Mathis Swaggers Onto World Stage," New York Times (NE), Sunday Sports, 12 May 2002, 1 (epigraph), 4; Fred Hobson, The Southern Writer in the Post-Modern World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).

2. I borrow the expression from Nan Elizabeth Woodruff's title for her forthcoming book (Harvard University Press) on the "deltas" of Arkansas and Mississippi during the interwar period. The NAACP, according to Woodruff, first employed "American Congo" as descriptor of the region during the 1920s.

3. See Wilma A. Dunaway, The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Mary Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings, and Altina L. Waller (eds), Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and on the near-end of mountain farming, Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 80-113.

4. See A. Dwight Baldwin, Jr., "Rehabilitation of Land Stripped for Coal in Ohio-Reclamation, Restoration, or Creation?" in Beyond Preservation: Restoring and Inventing Landscapes, eds. A. Dwight Baldwin, Jr., Judith De Luce, and Carl Pletch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 181-91.

5. See Michael Lipton (a West Virginia editor), "The Fight for the Soul of Coal Country," New York Times (NE), 17 May 2002, A25. For useful overviews of mountaintop removal and recent legal and administrative struggles, see Francis X. Clines, "Judge Takes On Bush Administration on Strip Mining," ibid., 19 May 2002, 16; and Elizabeh Kolbert, "Comment: Bad Environments," The New Yorker, 20 May 2002, 35-36.

6. Congress passed "Clean Water" acts in 1960, 1965, 1972, and 1977. Most singular references seem to refer to the 1972 law. See Samuel P. Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence" Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 53, 58, 78-80, 153, 162, 252, 324, 420, 466, 496, 508, 517.

7. Ibid., 148-51.

8. On the rise of Disney World see: Alan Bryman, Disney and his Worlds (London/New York: Routledge, 1995). Observations on northeastern Florida, development, and water are my own, (some based upon local newspaper-reading) during four visits, 2001-02. See also John Sayles' latest film, Sunshine State (2002), which depicts scheming would-be developers of "Lincolnville" (actually the historically black American Beach), in northeastern Florida.

9. Gail Fishman, Journeys Through Paradise: Pioneering Naturalists in the Southeast (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), esp. 246; Carl Hiaasen, Stormy Weather (New York: Warner Books, 1995), and Sick Puppy (New York: Warner Books, 1999). On Florida (esp. its South) as new American mondo bizarro (replacing California), see: Michael Paternite, "America in Extremis: How Florida became the new California," New York Times Sunday Magazine, 21 April 2002: 28-35, 66, 74, 82.

10. Most of this paragraph reflects personal observation (in 2002) and local newspaper-reading, but see also: David McCally, The Everglades, An Environmental History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999), esp. 154-81; and Andrew C. Revkin, "Stockpiling Water For a River of Grass: New Plan Redesigns Plumbing of Everglades, New York Times (NE), 26 March 2002: "Science Times" D-1, 4.

11. See Robert Outland, "Another New South: Patterns of Continuity in the Southern Naval Stores Industry" (PhD dissertation, Louisiana State University, 1999); Linda Flowers, Throwed Away: Failures of Progress in Eastern North Carolina (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991).

12. Jack Temple Kirby, Poquosin: A Study of Rural Landscape and Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 197-235; but see esp. William Boyd, "The Forest Is the Future? Industrial Forestry and the Southern Pulp and Paper Complex," in The Second Wave: Southern Industrialization from the 1940s to the 1970s, ed. Philip Scranton (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 168-218.

13. "Complex" is Boyd's appropriate term. In Poquosin (also above) I suggest further negatives, relating to human social classes and local political systems; but on loblolly monoculture see also Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1999), which includes lists of extinct and endangered species in the Lower South pine plantation belt.

14. On "short rotation" supplies in the southern hemisphere, see Boyd, "Forest Is the Future?" 202.

15. See Jeffrey Stine, Mixing the Waters: Environment, Politics, and the Building of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Akron: University of Akron Press, 1993); but esp. Eric Bates, "Exporting Southern Forests," Doubletake, 3 (Winter 1996): 88-95.

16. Ibid., esp. 90-93. On Pines' antebellum progress over deciduous forests (owing esp. to farmers' fire culture), see Kirby, Poquosin, 95-125.

17. Michael D. Thompson, "High on the Hog: Swine as Culture and Commodity in Eastern North Carolina" (PhD diss., Miami University, 2000), 165-95.

18. Ibid.; and esp. Rodney Barker, And the Waters Burned to Blood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997).

19. Ibid. See also the "Science Times" profile of Burkholder: William J. Broad, "In a Sealed Lab, A Warrior Against Pollution," New York Times (NE), 25 March 1997: B9-10.

20. On Pfiesteria in the Pocomoke, see John R. Wennersten, The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2001), 226-27. On chicken farming, see Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 355-60; and William Boyd, "The Real Subsumption of Nature? Science, Technology, and the Industrialization of American Poultry Production," Technology & Culture (2002) forthcoming.

21. Deborah Fink, Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), on IBP (for whom Fink, an anthropologist, worked, undercover); and David Barboza, "Chicken Well Simmered in a Political Stew: Tyson Fosters Ties to Officials But Is Unable to Avoid Scrutiny, " New York Times (NE), 01 January 2002: C-1, 8.

22. Personal observations plus those (and occasional press clippings) of one of my sisters, who teaches school in Southampton County. But see also (on accelerating corn culture and the 2002 farm subsidies law), Michael Pollan, "When a Crop Becomes King," New York Times (NE), 19 July 2002, A21.

23. See Charles S. Aiken, The Cotton Plantation South since the Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), latter chapters.

24. See Katharine Q. Seelye, "Senators Plan Joint Hearings On Clean Air," New York Times (NE), 09 January 2002: A-18; and on mountain tree deaths, Timothy Silver, Mount Mitchell and the Blacks: An Environmental History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming).

25. A grimly thorough overview of not only the ecology of the South but the sociology of writing southern environmental history, is Otis L. Graham, "Again the Backward Region? Environmental History in and of the American South," Southern Cultures, 6 (Summer 2000): 50-72.

26. Of the huge literature on gardening and cooking in the South, see, e.g.: Diane Spivey, The Peppers, Cracklings, and Knots of Wool Cookbook: The Global Migration of African Cuisine (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999); and Edmund N. O'Rourke, Jr., and Leon C. Standifer, Gardening in the Humid South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002).