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

Southern Quarterly, October 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880. By Lynn A. Nelson. Environmental History and the American South Series. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. 295pp. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-08203-2627-6.)

Pharsalia is the inaugural volume of the Environmental History and the American South Series by the University of Georgia Press. Environmental histories focusing on the American South have grown in number and sophistication in the last couple of decades, and Pharsalia makes a solid contribution to this literature. Environmental history is a broad field that encompasses works dealing with politics, law, engineering, technology, culture, labor, farming, flora, fauna, or biological processes. What unites these diverse histories is a commitment to explaining the relationship between nature and human history in order to more fully understand what has shaped human action and thought in a given place at a given time. All of human history is shaped to significant degrees by the opportunities and limits provided by the natural environment, and human actions continually reshape the natural world in predicted and unforeseen ways. Pharsalia demonstrates how intimate the relationship between humans, in this case planter elites in nineteenth-century Virginia, and nature was at particular historical moments.

Lynn A. Nelson, an associate professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, has written an environmental biography of a Virginia plantation in Nelson County within the Piedmont region east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Meticulously researched, this life history of a spot of red clay land illuminates many of the key trends in antebellum Virginia history, namely the attempt of planters and farmers to make a living and gain (or keep) respectability by turning land into profit-generating agricultural engines. The story begins well before 1800 and ends in the late 1800s, but the bulk of material focuses on the struggle of the Massie family, especially William Massie, to make money from their 1,400-acre plantation before the Civil War. William inherited the "denuded" farm early in the nineteenth century. Before long, he sought new ways of maintaining soil fertility and gravitated to the recommendations of Virginia agricultural reformers such as John Taylor and Edmund Ruffin. The double-cycle method of crop rotation and fertilizers they suggested promised an end to dependence on soil-depleting tobacco crops and the establishment of agricultural and financial stability through ecological independence. Unfortunately for Massie and hundreds of Virginia farmers like him, the reforms rarely worked long-term. Increasing debt and the abandonment of farms for new lands in the west came to characterize countless Virginia farmers.

Starting in 1845 Massie abandoned the double-system and invested heavily in new imported crop strains, mineral fertilizers (such as guano), and new technology via plows and threshing machines. …

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