Martin V. Melosi (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Environment
If you love reading and learning about the South like I do, then you can’t go wrong with Martin V. Melosi’s The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Environment.
You can buy a used copy of this book for only three dollars on Amazon which contains 98 essays that explore various aspects of the Southern environment from the Ozarks to the Everglades and from Chesapeake Bay to Big Bend National Park in West Texas. Each of these essays which summarize a subject is followed by a bibliography of the best sources on each subject for further reading.
I’ve already twice reviewed Melissa Walker and James C. Cobb’s The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Agriculture & Industry which contains 64 essays on Southern agriculture and 50 essays on Southern industry. Over the past two months, I have reread and thought a great deal about both of these books. I recommend reading them together back to back to grasp the degree to which the Southern environment has determined the nature of the Southern economy which in turn has determined Southern culture. There are other major factors in play like religion and the values and attitudes that British settlers brought with them from the Mother Country, but Southerners adapted those things to this land.
These British settlers who came from the West Country, metropolitan London and the north of England and Ulster in Northern Ireland moved into this place:
Geologically speaking, the South is dominated by the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the Gulf Coastal Plain which include all of Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. This area is a raised seabed which is composed of layers of sedimentary rock deposited by our rivers. The Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico have advanced inland and retreated over a dozen times across history.
The second great geological division of the South is the Southern Great Plains and the Central Lowlands which run through North and Central Texas, cover most of Oklahoma and northern Missouri. Just as the Atlantic Coastal Plain extends north through New Jersey and Long Island in New York, the Central Lowlands and Great Plains connect Texas and Oklahoma to the Midwest.
The third great geological division of the South is the highly eroded Interior Highlands which are the Ozark Mountains which cover southern Missouri and northern Arkansas and the Ouachita Mountains which cover western Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma.
The fourth great geological division of the South is the Appalachian Mountains which are flanked by the Piedmont on the east and the Interior Low Plateau on the west which dominates Middle Tennessee and almost all of Kentucky. The Cumberland Plateau and Allegheny Plateau dominate eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The Great Valley of Appalachia runs from Pennsylvania to Alabama through East Tennessee and is flanked by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Ridge and Valley.
The land itself is the source of the division between the Lower South master race of redneck flatlanders and the Upper South master race of hillbillies. Some of these Crackers live in the swamps, sand hills and pine barrens while others live on top of mountains and down in the valleys and hollers. Actually, the poorest people ended up living on the most marginal land in both the Upper South and Lower South while the wealthiest people ended up living on the most fertile soil in the river valleys. The common denominator of the most backward and underdeveloped areas in the South is poor soil, rugged terrain, and a historical lack of access to markets and expensive transportation.
The Upper South was settled by Scots-Irish, Dutch and German Protestants moving southwest through the Great Valley of Appalachia and west through the Cumberland Gap. They were joined by English migrating west from Tidewater into the Appalachian Mountains.
The Lower South was settled by the English and Scots-Irish moving west around the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains and down from the north through Tennessee, the Mississippi River and through the Ozarks into North Texas. There were also European immigrants mainly Germans and Irish who joined them in the few major cities like Charleston, Memphis, Savannah and New Orleans. There were also lots Germans who settled in Texas and Italians in New Orleans.
If the South is divided into four major geographical regions and the two major regions of the lowlands and uplands, it is fairly united by its hot and humid subtropical climate.
It rains a lot in Dixie although not as much as it does in the Pacific Northwest. The 100th Meridian divides the wet and green eastern United States from the arid western United States.
The Mississippi River is the greatest river system which drains the largest area in the world although it is now a shadow of itself when it used to be 80 miles wide.
The South was slower to invest in railroads and industrialize for an obvious reason: we had a climate better suited to export-based plantation agriculture, the best river transportation system in the United States in the Gulf Coastal Plain and Atlantic Coastal Plain which is better suited to commerce and geologically speaking the East was better suited to the earliest stages of industrialization with its short, fast moving rivers and its relative superiority in mineral deposits. Similarly, the Midwest is much better suited to agriculture than the South because of its climate and soils.
We don’t have nearly as many natural lakes as the Midwest because during the Ice Age the glaciers didn’t come this far south. This is why there is more biodiversity in the South than the Midwest which was underneath the ice for thousands of years. It is also why the Midwest has heavier soils and is better suited to agrictlture than the South. The climate of the Midwest is different and fewer parasites thrive there. Most of our natural lakes in the South are oxbows where rivers have changed course while those in the Midwest were formed by retreating and melting glaciers.
The argument between the Upper South and Lower South over internal improvements makes sense. The two regions naturally have different economic interests. The uplands are comparatively much more rugged and more blessed with natural resources like coal, iron and natural gas. It has far greater hydroelectric power potential due to its elevation too. Thus, it is has favored a more activist government to develop its economic potential while the lowlands have opposed a more activist government because it produced rice, sugar, cotton and tobacco which were easily exported to European markets.
The Western South and the Gulf of Mexico has always been in a league of its own in terms of production of crude oil and natural gas and refining gasoline. Similarly, Appalachia and Missouri are blessed with coal, Arkansas is blessed with bauxite and Florida with phosphate. No one asks dumb questions though like why New England didn’t develop an oil and natural gas industry.
The South was never cut out to be an agrarian paradise:
The Southern Agrarians had better advice for the Midwest.
Ultisols or red clay soil are the dominant soil type in the Southeast. Ultisols are deeply weathered, strongly acidic soils that are common in subtropical climates with high temperatures, heavy rainfall and a heavily forested landscape. In most of the South, the nutrients in the soil wear out much faster than in places like Iowa, which is why our ancestors were constantly moving west.
By the Great Depression, the heavy rains combined with cotton monoculture, chronic poverty and underinvestment and poor farming practices had leached and destroyed the topsoil all over the South, which is one of the primary reasons the Cotton Kingdom collapsed.
The South has its own unique weather:
We suffer from erratic weather, droughts, intense thunderstorms, tornadoes, enormous floods like the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and especially from hurricanes:
If there is one theme that runs through Southern history, it is largely how our natural environment was systematically destroyed under free-market capitalism until the 20th century when we began to appreciate the value of government intervention to restrain market forces.
We nearly hunted the whitetail deer, the black bear, the mountain loin, the alligator and the wild turkey to extinction. The Carolina parakeet, Southern beaver and the passenger pigeon weren’t so fortunate. We exhausted and destroyed the topsoil. We clearcut the virgin forest of Appalachia. We nearly annihilated the longleaf pine along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast. We destroyed over half of our wetlands and drained two thirds of the Everglades. There is a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana from all the poisonous runoff that has come down the Mississippi River.
We have transformed the land of the South in all kinds of ways by introducing alien crops and species: rice, cotton, sugarcane and peanuts to name just a few crops, the mosquitoes which brought malaria and yellow fever from Africa, the hogs which run wild now. Some of the most recent immigrants to the South include fire ants from South America, the armadillo and boll weevil from Mexico and Burmese pythons in the Everglades. At the same time, Southern state governments acted very early on to preserve the Live Oaks which can be found along the Southern coast from Virginia to Texas.
The magnolia is another native species that can be found growing wild from Virginia to Texas:
Here are some of the best places to visit in the South which the government has chosen to designate and preserve as National Parks:
Big Bend National Park in West Texas
Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee
Everglades National Park in South Florida
The preservation of the Southern environment is one of the few areas where nationalism was allowed to fully triumph over classical liberalism and free-market capitalism in the 20th century. We were also allowed to develop our national resources through government agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority due to the circumstances of the Great Depression, Second World War and the Cold War which temporarily discredited and sidelined free-market dogma. As a result, we have improved over our ancestors by becoming better stewards of our environment than they were.
If we thought it necessary to set aside land to conserve the Live Oaks, the American Indians and the crocodile, why shouldn’t we have the same mindset about preserving our own people?