- Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South
In Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South, historian Jack Temple Kirby takes on the grand scope of the environmental history of the American South from prehistoric times to the present. Kirby describes the book as “[n]either a text nor a comprehensive survey nor a specialized monograph” (p. xiv). What he has done— with considerable artistic flair, insight, bursts of both pessimism and optimism, and a clear love of most things Southern— is craft an eclectic, idiosyncratic, poetic, nostalgic, cautionary, and perhaps prophetic account of the ever-changing relationships between Southerners and their diverse environments.
Mockingbird Song covers a plethora of subjects and Kirby draws from a vast array of materials and inspirations: from historical accounts to academic treatments to literature and even movies. Readers of this journal will be gratified to know that Kirby hails the contributions of geographers as “irreplaceable to the student of landscapes” (p. xvii). Unlike so many historians, he does not neglect geographers’ tools and includes five well-crafted and useful maps to accompany the text.
The book is divided into nine sections: a preface, a prologue, six chapters, and an epilogue. The Preface lays out Kirby’s intentions and explains—perhaps a bit obtusely—why the mockingbird metaphorically represents the South to him. The Prologue introduces the study area and the use of travel accounts (William Bartram’s Travels) and literature (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling) as touch-stones for appreciating Southern landscapes, in this case the St. Johns River in Florida. In Chapter 1 (“Original Civilizations”), Kirby discusses Native ecologies and landscapes. He does not idealize Native peoples or ecology and thankfully even takes on several myths. Chapter 2 (“Plantation Traditions”) details the ecology of plantation systems, especially in regard to soil exhaustion and erosion. According to Kirby, reforms generally failed in long-settled areas and it was easier for planters to migrate to the southwest, there to begin transformative cycles anew. The plantation system ultimately failed in the twentieth century because of “management failure,” mechanization, and the westward shift of cotton production. Chapter 3 (“Commoners and the Commons”) copes with Southern forests. It begins [End Page 125] with an in-depth treatment of the impact on forests of open-range livestock and naval stores production. Kirby points out that the end of the forest commons dramatically affected many Southerners well into the twentieth century. The New South era assault on forest resources, which denuded whole regions, dovetailed with a growing environmental consciousness. Chapter 4 (“Matanzas and Mastery”) is about Southerners’ relationship with animals. Kirby implies that the long-standing traditions of subsistence and sport hunting created in some Southerners a propensity for cruelty illustrated by stories about cockfighting, gander-pulling, the slaughter of manta rays, and the extirpation of the Carolina parakeet. This has led inevitably to industrial chicken and hog operations and Kirby pulls no punches describing disturbing acts of cruelty, pollution of watercourses, the decline of fisheries, and the identification of bio toxins like Pfiesteria. Chapter 5 (“Enchantment and Equilibrium”), the longest and weakest chapter in the book, begins well enough with a discussion of Southern dietary habits and the battle against pellagra. The discussion of the development of social ecology and later ecological theory by brothers Howard and Eugene Odum is an interesting compliment to earlier discussions of Edmund Ruffin, but I was unable to heed Kirby’s admonition to be patient in his digression concerning the friendship between Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston and their zeal for gardening. There are so many examples of ecological imbalance and attempts at under-standing and ameliorating such problems in the South that this chapter is largely a missed opportunity. One wonders what in-sights Kirby would have brought to the catastrophe of Katrina if it had happened earlier in the publication process. Perhaps something will be included in the paper-back edition. In Chapter 6 (“Cities of Clay...