restricted access Environmental History in the Heart of Dixie
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Environmental History in the Heart of Dixie

This special issue highlights growing scholarly interest in the historical intersections of nature and culture in the South. The natural world, of course, has left an indelible imprint on the region's culture, shaping its folkways and foodways, its economy and identity. It is a region, after all, associated with cotton fields and tobacco sheds; with piney woods, cypress swamps, and wiregrass; and, as anyone who has spent a summer in Alabama can attest, with heat and humidity. Even invasive species like razorback hogs, kudzu, and boll weevils have found a secure place in the South's regional identity.1 So it is perhaps a shade ironic that environmental history proved slow to gain traction among southern historians.

Less than twenty years ago, environmental history in and of the South appeared so anemic that it prompted Otis L. Graham Jr. to wonder if the South was "again the backward region."2 To be sure, Graham found important exceptions to the broader indifference of southern historians to environmental history, calling attention to the work of a small number of scholars who had explored environmental themes in southern history and noting that "writing on the human-nature relationship in the South… appears to be on the increase." [End Page 99] Nevertheless, the fact that he could find "virtually no sign" of the fundamental environmental transformations that had accompanied (and often undergirded) the South's myriad economic and social revolutions in otherwise-admirable syntheses of the region's history offered evidence that those exceptions remained peripheral to the field as a whole.3

Graham's essay amounted an invitation to historians to turn their attention more deliberately to the evolving relationship between nature and culture in the South. Historical accuracy demanded it, and the growing number of environmental crises in the region, he suggested, offered a pressing imperative for such a shift in focus. Moreover, in an era in which political and historiographical currents alike emphasized difference, the South's environmental history offered historians (and, indeed, southerners) the promise of a connective tissue that might bind together the region's inhabitants across race, class, and gender lines. His essay, in short, was a call to action.

In making that call, however, Graham reminded his readers that "environmental history … once had a place" in the main currents of the field.4 To be sure, he may have stretched the definition of "environmental history" by applying it to the work of scholars whose [End Page 100] careers preceded the field's emergence. But there is no denying that some influential strands of southern history had long incorporated environmental factors, even if that tradition had grown somewhat muted by the close of the twentieth century. It was the marriage of this venerable tradition with a newly self-conscious practice of environmental history that Mart Stewart had in mind two years later, when he noted that environmental history "is both old and new in the South."5

Tracing the emergence of a distinctly southern environmental history consequently requires backing up nearly a century. Indeed, a number of important figures among the founders of the field of southern history incorporated the region's environment into their arguments. Ulrich B. Phillips represents the classic example insofar as he opened his iconic Life and Labor in the Old South (1929) with a famous invocation: "Let us begin with the weather, for that has been the chief agency in making the South distinctive." The next sentence, which saw Phillips embrace a facile environmental determinism to blame the emergence of slavery and the South's "lasting race problem" on the region's climate, highlights the ways in which his analysis proved fraught.6

Phillips certainly wasn't alone in placing the origins of the South's regional distinctiveness in its material environment, but historians had other reasons for integrating the natural world into their analyses. Scholars examining Appalachia, for instance, often highlighted the influence of geographic isolation in shaping the identity of the region, and across the South historians regularly turned to environmental factors to help explain regional folkways. Perhaps most commonly, however, southern historians accounted for environmental factors in...