Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880

Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880

Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880

Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880

Excerpt

Hugh Hammond Bennett, founder of the Soil Conservation Service and one of America’s leading twentieth-century conservationists, liked to tell a story about his first experience with the agricultural and environmental history of Virginia. In 1905, Bennett had just graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in chemistry. His boss in the Bureau of Soils sent him, along with South Carolinian W. E. McLendon, to map the soils of Louisa County, in the center of Piedmont Virginia. The Piedmont was the heart of the South, extending from the Fall Line to the mountains, stretching south and west across the old slave states, through Virginia and the Carolinas into Georgia and on into Alabama and Mississippi. The Virginia Piedmont was a country of low, rolling hills covered with a rich, dense red clay soil underneath forests of oak and hickory. The region was also the cradle of the South and the United States: First settled by planters and slaves moving west out of the Tidewater, by the time of the Revolution the Piedmont was the home of Virginia’s revolutionary patriots. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all lived on “red land” plantations, while their mentor Patrick Henry farmed land in Louisa County itself.

By the time Bennett arrived in the Piedmont, though, that tradition was a melancholy memory, marked on the land by a few evocative placenames and run-down mansions. Louisa itself was a rural backwater— scraggly, impoverished farms and old field pine stands broke up the forests, barely connected to the outside world by muddy roads leading to poorly served branch rail lines. In addition to the normal survey . . .

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