Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Re-Greening the South and Southernizing the Rest

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Re-Greening the South and Southernizing the Rest

Article excerpt

In 1759, not long after he was appointed the first governor of the relatively new colony of Georgia, Henry Ellis, who went about the streets of the capital under an umbrella with a thermometer suspended from it, wrote to the folks back home in London that the inhabitants of Savannah "breathe a hotter air than any other people on the face of the earth."1 His calculation of temperature was a dialogue between instrument and body, which factored in prominently his own discomfort and engaged in a hyperbole that participated in a larger projection about the climate of Savannah's latitude. Ellis returned to England soon after, but for English settlers in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and later, Florida, the South was, for part of the year anyway, a distinctively near-tropical land. Historians have long acknowledged that the southern environment was different-that Native Americans lived differently on the land in the southern regions than elsewhere in North America, and that the process of adaptation, or "seasoning," as it was called by early setters-was more complicated for Europeans in southeastern North America than in New England. Part of this region, along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts especially, in environmental terms resembled the Caribbean or West Africa more than Europe. For many European organisms, including human beings (whether with thermometer or not), the South was not a neoEurope. Even those that thrived in southern environments did so in a different way than in other parts of North America.2

It was not quite a neo-Africa, either. Organisms from Africa and Europe met in the environmental circumstances of the South to create much of what was distinctive about the South: open-range cattle raising, a fear of fevers, wet-culture rice production, and the other long-season crops such as sugar, tobacco, and "king cotton." The literature on southern agriculture and labor systems, on diseases and on southern medicine, and on cattle herding practices in the South, is vast, but much of it still does not take into account the intimate-breathing-relationship human and other organisms had with the climate, soils, and waters that they sought to inhabit. Nor does existing scholarship accomplish a groundlevel analysis of the environments that produced the South. Much of the literature about agriculture, disease, and other subjects related to the South in fact has extracted its subject from that which is most crucial to understanding it: the contextual relationship of organisms to the physical environments. Recovering how humans understood these relationships is also important. As Robert Weir advised twenty years ago in his fine history of colonial South Carolina, early settlers paid remarkable attention "to details which only a few individuals would now notice, such as the direction of the prevailing winds, the height of the tides, and the consistency of the soil. These observations suggest something which should be obvious but is frequently overlooked in a period of technological and scientific hubris. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, everyone, even the most wealthy and sophisticated, lived relatively close to nature." Simply, he rioted, "physical geography made a difference."3 How the physical environment, and the organisms that were a part of it, were perceived, experienced, and manipulated was crucial to how the South came to define itself.

Take the cattle raising industry that was so important to southern economies in the colonial period and well into the early republic. Historians have examined m almost excruciating detail the herding and branding practices of southern open-range cattle raising, the possible cultural antecedents (sources of "pre-adaptation") of herding practices, the evolution of "fence" arid then "stock" laws for regulating the relationship between crops and stock, and (to a lesser extent) the economics of cattle raising. A few accounts of cattle-raising have paid some attention to the ecological relationship between cattle, human settlements, and local environments; but most analyses of cattle raising focus on larger patterns and cultural practices. …

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