Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

What Gullies Mean: Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon" and Southern Environmental History

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

What Gullies Mean: Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon" and Southern Environmental History

Article excerpt

ON ITS SURFACE--WHAT LITTLE OF IT IS LEFT--PROVIDENCE CANYON State Park could well be the nation's most ironic conservation area. The Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites department describes Providence Canyon--also known as Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon"--as a place where visitors are "amazed" by the breathtaking colors of the canyon walls; "the pink, orange, red and purple hues of the soft canyon soil," the description continues, "make a beautiful natural painting at this unique park." Anyone who has visited would be hard-pressed not to agree; to the eye, it is a spectacular place, reminiscent of the badlands and canyon country of the American West. One might even call it sublime. Indeed, Providence Canyon fits the aesthetic conventions that have guided park making in the United States for the last century and a half. Calling it Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon" is a gesture in that direction. But--and here the irony seeps in, destabilizing things--Providence Canyon is a decidedly human artifact. The park's website admits that its gaping chasms (some would call them gullies), which reach 150 feet deep and several hundred yards wide in places, were "caused by poor farming practices during the 1800s," and the visitor center's introductory video calls the canyon "a spectacular testimony to man and his mistakes." (1) So what does it mean to preserve a place that is the product of what its own custodians suggest were poor land-use practices? What does it mean to celebrate the beauty of an environmental disaster?

It is difficult to get past the irony of Providence Canyon: the incongruity of, even the humor in, the granting of park status to a network of massive erosion gullies. But the more one meditates on this system of gullies and learns about its history, the more one realizes that focusing on irony does the place a disservice. There is something deeper here, and irony is too facile an analytical tool to plumb it. Indeed, the logic behind any assessment of Providence Canyon as ironic presumes a strict policing of the boundaries between nature and culture that does not match the history of the place. What is refreshing about Providence Canyon as an interpretive opportunity is not merely the revelation that this preserved natural area is the product of human agency; Providence Canyon is so obviously not a wilderness landscape that using its history to trouble environmentalist assumptions about pristine nature is too easy an exercise. Rather, the interpretive opportunity here flows in the other direction, from culture back to nature. What turns out to be so interesting about Providence Canyon is just how natural it is.

Providence Canyon also seems at first blush to be a particularly southern place, exemplary not only of the region's distinctive and dramatic history of human-induced soil erosion but also of its renowned New South boosterism. Leave it to southerners to turn a scar into a point of pride. But, as with irony, arguments for regional distinctiveness can only go so far. One can fathom a great deal about southern environmental history by staring into Providence Canyon's multihued abyss, and a substantial portion of this essay will be devoted to making that point--and to documenting the history of others who did the same. But Providence Canyon can also impart local and extraregional lessons that challenge the adequacy of arguments for regional distinctiveness. Providence Canyon's meaning cannot be easily contained within the region, and that is an important lesson for environmental historians as they pay more attention to the South.

As quite a few scholars have plaintively pointed out, southern environmental history has been slow to develop. (2) While the South's landscapes, land-use histories, and traditions of environmental thought are as rich as any region's, southern historians have only reticently embraced the environment as a category of analysis--though there are encouraging signs that that is changing. …

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