Introduction: Environment and Environmentalism in Kentucky
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Introduction:
Environment and Environmentalism in Kentucky

Let us begin with the admission that the state is an imperfect unit of study in environmental history. True, natural features define the contours of Kentucky—the Ohio River to the north, the Appalachian Mountains to the east, and the Mississippi to the west—but these features define geopolitical boundaries rather than ecological ones. In much of American history, the Appalachian Mountains separated east from west, but in environmental history the chain united those regions as much as it divided them. The mountain bioregion contains one of the richest, most diverse ecosystems in North America, one that connects Kentucky to West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina and beyond. The Ohio River, a critical boundary in American history, connects the stories of seven states in a single watershed. In human history the river divided the nation; in ecological history it has united a far-flung geography. In other words, political and ecological boundaries rarely overlap. This is clearly the case in Kentucky, where the state seldom contains the environmental history that runs through it.

Still, both of us have written state-based environmental histories.1 To do so is to emphasize the ways that state boundaries matter. Certainly [End Page 125] state and local policies are critical in environmental history—to conservation efforts, the creation of recreational opportunities, in regulating pollution, and in protecting human health, among many other policy areas. For example, in Kentucky, state regulation is essential to understanding the history of coal mining and its myriad environmental consequences. Perhaps just as important, the state serves as a cultural unit, one to which residents attach some part of their identity. The state’s environment matters here, too, as Kentuckians express pride in the commonwealth’s great beauty and natural abundance. Consider the imagery of the Bluegrass, the lore of “the mountains,” even the expansive state park system—all of these environmental features are essential to the state’s self-conception. Just as natural features have helped define the state’s boundaries, they have also helped define the state itself.

This special issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society reveals how vibrant the field of environmental history is in the commonwealth. The issue opens with an historiographical essay by Mark Hersey, a southern environmental historian with a special expertise in agricultural history. As Hersey makes clear, environmental history comes from many disciplinary directions. Scholars from a variety of fields—many untrained in the field itself—have migrated from social, cultural, urban, and labor history, among many others. Environmental history research has been conducted by scholars who recognized the futility of trying to understand historical events without accounting for the environments in which they occurred. As Hersey’s essay also makes clear, Kentucky sits at the intersection of many cultural and ecological regions, as is reflected in the historiography itself. Historians working in southern history speak to the state’s plantation past; others have focused on the mountains. The history of the state’s many rivers, including the Ohio, appears ripe for further attention.

In “Birth of the Bluegrass: Ecological Transformations in Central Kentucky to 1810,” Andrew P. Patrick offers a new periodization of the ecological history of central Kentucky by telling the deeper history of the region, stretching back to the Fort Ancient culture. Patrick [End Page 126] takes an agroecological approach, viewing cultivated landscapes as modified ecological systems designed and maintained for human benefit. The results reveal a complex story of mutual influence and co-evolution between land and people, where the landscape exists somewhere on a continuum between natural ecosystems and more completely fabricated places like cities. By tracing the history of the landscape back to Fort Ancient swidden practices and using recent archaeological and scientific research to buttress the historical record, Patrick reveals that “the Inner Bluegrass was not a pristine wilderness unsullied by human actions prior to European arrival; instead the land was a dynamic factor” that underwent multiple transformations. By the early nineteenth century, the Bluegrass had become a cradle of American agriculture.

Eileen Hagerman’s article, “Water, Workers, and Wealth: How ‘Mr. Peabody’s’ Coal Barge Stripped Kentucky...