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Environmental History Series

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Environmental History Series

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Bound in Twine

The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the American and Canadian Plain

By Sterling C. Evans

Before the invention of the combine, the binder was an essential harvesting implement that cut grain and bound the stalks in bundles tied with twine that could then be hand-gathered into shocks for threshing. Hundreds of thousands of farmers across the United States and Canada relied on binders and the twine required for the machine’s operation. Implement manufacturers discovered that the best binder twine was made from henequen and sisal—spiny, fibrous plants native to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. The double dependency that subsequently developed between Mexico and the Great Plains of the United States and Canada affected the agriculture, ecology, and economy of all three nations in ways that have historically been little understood. These interlocking dependencies—identified by author Sterling Evans as the “henequen-wheat complex”—initiated or furthered major ecological, social, and political changes in each of these agricultural regions. Drawing on extensive archival work as well as the existing secondary literature, Evans has woven an intricate story that will change our understanding of the complex, transnational history of the North American continent.

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Building the Borderlands

A Transnational History of Irrigated Cotton along the Mexico-Texas Border

By Casey Walsh

Cotton, crucial to the economy of the American South, has also played a vital role in the making of the Mexican north. The Lower Río Bravo (Rio Grande) Valley irrigation zone on the border with Texas in northern Tamaulipas, Mexico, was the centerpiece of the Cárdenas government’s effort to make cotton the basis of the national economy. This irrigation district, built and settled by Mexican Americans repatriated from Texas, was a central feature of Mexico’s effort to control and use the waters of the international river for irrigated agriculture. Drawing on previously unexplored archival sources, Casey Walsh discusses the relations among various groups comprising the “social field” of cotton production in the borderlands. By describing the complex relationships among these groups, Walsh contributes to a clearer understanding of capitalism and the state, of transnational economic forces, of agricultural and water issues in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, and of the environmental impacts of economic development. Building the Borderlands crosses a number of disciplinary, thematic, and regional frontiers, integrating perspectives and literature from the United States and Mexico, from anthropology and history, and from political, economic, and cultural studies. Walsh’s important transnational study will enjoy a wide audience among scholars of Latin American and Western U.S. history, the borderlands, and environmental and agricultural history, as well as anthropologists and others interested in the environment and water rights.

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Holy Ground, Healing Water

Cultural Landscapes at Waconda Lake, Kansas

Donald J. Blakeslee

Most people would not consider north central Kansas’ Waconda Lake to be extraordinary. The lake, completed in 1969 by the federal Bureau of Reclamation for flood control, irrigation, and water supply purposes, sits amid a region known—when it is thought of at all—for agriculture and, perhaps to a few, as the home of "The World’s Largest Ball of Twine" (in nearby Cawker City). Yet, to the native people living in this region in the centuries before Anglo incursion, this was a place of great spiritual power and mystic significance. Waconda Spring, now beneath the waters of the lake, was held as sacred, a place where connection with the spirit world was possible. Nearby, a giant snake symbol carved into the earth by native peoples—likely the ancestors of today’s Wichitas—signified a similar place of reverence and totemic power. All that began to change on July 6, 1870, when Charles DeRudio, an officer in the 7th U.S. Cavalry who had served with George Armstrong Custer, purchased a tract on the north bank of the Solomon River—a tract that included Waconda Spring. DeRudio had little regard for the sacred properties of his acreage; instead, he viewed the mineral spring as a way to make money. In Holy Ground, Healing Water: Cultural Landscapes at Waconda Springs, Kansas, anthropologist Donald J. Blakeslee traces the usage and attendant meanings of this area, beginning with prehistoric sites dating between AD 1000 and 1250 and continuing to the present day. Addressing all the sites at Waconda Lake, regardless of age or cultural affiliation, Blakeslee tells a dramatic story that looks back from the humdrum present through the romantic haze of the nineteenth century to an older landscape, one that is more wonderful by far than what the modern imagination can conceive.

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