Paul S. Sutter. The University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA. 2015. 248 pp; notes, bibliog., and index. $34.95 hardcover (ISBN13: 978-0-8203-3401-1)
The title of Paul Sutter’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies is derived from James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), in which Agee and photographer Walker Evans chronicle the lives of southern tenant farmers during the Great Depression. As Sutter states, Agee, Evans, and other artists of the time refused “to simplify and package, for propagandistic ends, the complex lives of the poor and [End Page 214] powerless in word and image” (p. 5). Sutter’s aim is parallel, but he contends with the environmental politics of representation, as opposed to the social. In Famous Gullies, Sutter seeks to harmonize the contradiction between the beauty of Georgia’s Providence Canyon and the poor land stewardship it represents, but Sutter also refuses to simplify and package southern gullying as the sole product of ignorant farming. Indeed, the title and cover imagery of the book refer specifically to Providence Canyon, but this is somewhat misleading, as Providence Canyon really serves as a launch point for a broader exploration of human impacts on a much underappreciated resource: soil. Readers seeking a detailed natural history of the canyon itself will not quite find it, but what they’ll find instead is a more comprehensive story. Sutter has compiled a thorough examination of people’s relationship to soil in the southern US, alongside the parallel narrative of scientific and public understanding of soil conservation. While Famous Gullies most thoroughly covers the years between the 1850s and 1940s, there is ample resonance of the key issues through the present day. Sutter shows how the perception of landscape depends on the lens through which one looks (e.g., as a geologist or farmer, or among subdisciplines of geography), and he makes an earnest effort to represent different views and reconcile their contrasts.
Providence Canyon is a massive, spectacularly colorful gully in Stewart County, Georgia that formed in a matter of decades, during historical times–a mere blink of an eye in the context of most geomorphic processes. If you are familiar with the site, you have likely encountered one of its many apocryphal origin stories, such as the one in which a woman initiated the gullying by repeatedly dumping her wash water in the same place. Sutter catalogs these stories in the text, along with the more accurate claims that poor farming practices during the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras caused massive regional erosion. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Sutter’s assertion that even this accepted origin is only partially accurate, that there are much more nuanced human-environment interactions that characterize the place, beyond the broad-brush assertion that southern farmers did not know what they were doing. Famous Gullies does address numerous agricultural follies that exacerbated erosion, but it goes beyond this to consider the physical geographic setting within which people were acting, along with the socioeconomic drivers that encouraged the poor farming practices. Thus, Providence Canyon itself serves as the arresting focal point of erosional processes on a regional scale. Not only is its physical scale staggering, but to Sutter, so too were the efforts made by Georgians in the mid-twentieth century to market the site as a natural wonder, Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon. In his words: “So what does it mean to preserve and celebrate a place that is the scenic product of … poor land use practices? What does it mean to naturalize such a seemingly unnatural place?” (p. 1).
Providence Canyon is gullying writ large, but it represents a regional catastrophe of myriad smaller gullies, which we easily overlook now that the southern landscape has reforested.
There has been a temptation to blame the rampant gullying solely on the farmers, with many different twists. Some authors have judgmentally attributed the [End Page 215] problem to the ignorance of southern farmers, or even of the slaves, while others have shaped more complex arguments for how the institution of...