The Lay of the Land: Environmental History, the South, and Kentucky
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The Lay of the Land:
Environmental History, the South, and Kentucky

Donald Worster began the principal essay of a now-classic roundtable on environmental history by harking back to Aldo Leopold’s invocation of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region. As part of a wider plea to cultivate a land ethic in A Sand County Almanac (1949), Leopold had called for an “ecological interpretation of history,” by which he meant a history that took seriously people’s place as members of a larger biotic community in its analyses. For Leopold, “the cane-lands of Kentucky” offered an example par excellence of the fact that many “historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and land.” What might have happened, Leopold wondered, if in the wake of the conquest and settlement of the region by Anglo-Americans, the processes guiding ecological succession had produced “some worthless sedge, shrub, or weed” rather than bluegrass? The implication, of course, was that the region’s history would have proven quite different, that nature had been an active agent in shaping the course of human events. “It is with such matters,” Worster maintained, “that the new field of ecological or environmental history . . . deals.”1 [End Page 129]

In retrospect, it might appear ironic that Worster placed Kentucky at the forefront of an essay intended to frame a research agenda for environmental history as the field coalesced and sorted out its theoretical underpinnings. The ensuing years, after all, have seen comparatively few self-identified environmental historians turn their attention to the state. To be sure, the Bluegrass State represented as promising a place as any to develop the kind of agroecological history for which Worster called, but a quarter century later even the most sanguine observer would acknowledge that its promise in that regard has only begun to be tapped.2

In important ways, the apparent lag in the development of Kentucky’s environmental history mirrors that of the American South as a whole, a region into which the state is often folded. As for the South writ large, complaints about the comparative underdevelopment of [End Page 130] Kentucky’s environmental history are not entirely misguided. There certainly remain yawning historiographical gaps awaiting ambitious scholars attuned to them. Nevertheless, for both Kentucky and the South, focusing on the relative dearth of historical studies deliberately framed as environmental histories obscures as much as it reveals. There is, for example, a growing scholarly interest in the environmental history of both the state and the region, evident among other ways in this special issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. Moreover, there is a long tradition of historical scholarship for both Kentucky and the South that has incorporated the natural world in a significant way. Indeed, a quick survey of the development of a self-consciously southern environmental history proves instructive for the more specific case of Kentucky.

For this reason, the essay that follows lays out the broad frame of the emergent field of southern environmental history, offering a thumbnail sketch of the field’s origins and the key moments in its development before shifting focus to Kentucky. In turning to the relevant historiographical tradition of the Bluegrass State, the essay pays particular attention to Appalachia, employing the subregion as an example of the ways in which the broader environmental trends of southern historiography might be seen in the more specific case of Kentucky.3 In so doing, it has no pretensions of identifying a definitive or comprehensive historiographical tradition. Instead, it seeks to highlight the sorts of work upon which historians might draw in shaping a more deliberate environmental history of the state, one ripe to be developed along any number of avenues.

As recently as 2009, Christopher Morris could reasonably observe that “environmental history has yet to catch the full attention of southern historians.” Things had certainly improved since 2000, when Otis L. Graham published an essay lamenting the anemic state of the region’s environmental history. The promise inherent in pursuing research at the intersection of environmental and southern [End Page 131] history, Morris acknowledged, had at least begun to be realized. If...


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