- Mockingbird Song Ecological Landscapes of the South
Defining a boundaried and distinctive South has never been easy, and there is a recent tendency for the regional narrative to fragment and blur into national and international trends. Histories of "the American South" are still published, but for college classroom use rather than a large public readership. It was thus a major intellectual achievement when Albert Cowdrey published This Land, This South in 1983, a compelling environmental history of a region traditionally defined with reference to politics and culture. Cowdrey's book stood alone for over two decades. A small but productive cohort of environmental historians interested in pieces of the South expanded the literature incrementally, but no one produced another regional synthesis—until now, when Jack Temple Kirby, perhaps the most productive writer on southern nature-human relations, gives us Mockingbird Song to take its place on the shelf with This Land.
The book bears the same hallmarks—a wide and deep grasp of a range of scholarship, idiosyncratic organization and tastes, a meandering style, brilliant insights arising from a lifetime of study. Mockingbird Song, Kirby tells us, is not a "comprehensive survey" but a weaving together of "narratives to foster understanding" of "human relations with the rest of nature in what is called the American South, from earliest habitation to approximately the present." Readers are warned that there will be "linear diversions" as well as a blend of biography, poetry, fiction, and geography. The diversions begin in the prologue, when twentieth-century writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings comes on the stage before John and William Bartram are allowed to introduce us to the landscapes and creatures of the mid-eighteenth-century South. Chronology takes control in chapter one with [End Page 103] an account of Chicasaw, Coosa, and other native peoples as "ambitious disturbers and manipulators of landscape" and traces their "cataclysmic diminution" from a pre-encounter population of over two hundred thousand in the Southeast. (Kirby here sides with the calculation of two million Indians in North America based on work by anthropologist Shepard Krech and others.) In another chapter he explores the evolution of plantation economics and soil erosion problems, from Eli Whitney's cotton gin to the arrival of kudzu. The next chapter, "Commoners and the Commons," discusses hogs and the contribution of the open range to the formation of the culture of "white trash," before moving on to the naval-stores industry, logging and "the great cut down" that began after the Civil War, and then to forest arson, the extinction of the chestnut, and the building of the Appalachian Trail.
Are we having fun? I was, but you might not be if you value an orderly outline of topics more than a fast-paced, quirky and sometimes inspired romp through topics that are at times only loosely connected but are always interesting. One chapter starts with the careers of Texas marksman Audie Murphy and Tennessee sharpshooter Alvin York in order to explore the role of hunting as both a food source and an orgy of purposeless slaughter. (Kirby, unencumbered by rigidities of chronology, presents Murphy first.)The discussion sprawls forward to include Perdue Farms, the empire of hog factories built by North Carolina's Wendell Murphy, and the pro-hog crowd at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (peta). Another chapter joins stories of the corn diet, pellagra, and gardens and gardeners, leading Kirby to an extensive and appreciative account of the career of Zora Neale Hurston, before somehow bridging over to Chapel Hillians Howard Odum, Arthur Raper, and Rupert Vance. There is a chapter on cities, first especially as sites of yellow fever epidemics and public-health advances, and then as locations outflanked by growing industrial pollution. The book ends in a vast, fast-paced tour of the transformative changes in the southern landscape made over recent centuries—the "grim fate" brought in different ways to the Appalachians, coasts, and coastal plains by industrialization and surging population growth, the once clean southern air giving way to "gloomy shrouds...