- The Slain Wood: Papermaking and Its Environmental Consequences in the American South by William Boyd
By William Boyd. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. Pp. 376. Hardcover $55.
This well-sourced history of the pulp and paper industry’s evolution reveals how the U.S. South became the “woodbasket of the world” (p. 19) in the twentieth century. As Boyd tells it, the industry’s story is one of success with consequences. Not unlike the textile industry, pulp and paper migrated into the region with capital, tapped regional raw materials, sought cheap labor, and required clean water. However, pulp and paper outlasted the more portable textile mill.
This pulp and paper history stands apart because it is an “upstream” story (p. 19) about where the timber came from, who supplied it, and who processed it into bulk paper products. Furthermore, Boyd advances a compelling [End Page 171] argument that regional social, economic, legal, and environmental conditions shaped the industry as much as the industry shaped the region. Focusing on the period between the 1920s and 1970s, Boyd’s South stretches from Louisiana to the Carolinas. There are many points between the wars, during the New Deal, and in the post-1945 era where the industry could have fallen apart. But the pulp and paper industry survived—and continues to turn pine trees into a product destined for bags, boxes, and TV screens—because the industry was adaptable and highly invested in land, a supply chain, and mills that were not portable.
Thankfully, Boyd does not treat the South as a colonial outpost or as exceptional. Instead of replicating an industrial system, pulp and paper executives worked with regionally specific social, economic, and legal systems to build something new. He brilliantly unpacks the relationships—between the local wood dealers responsible for procuring timber from private landowners, the contract woods workers felling trees, and the union labor in the mills—that contributed to creating “worlds of production.” For example, private landowners learned to see trees as a crop, and were rewarded with changes to the tax code that transformed timber into a financial instrument. The industry also reinforced discrimination: segregated mills made it nearly impossible for African Americans to acquire skills and seniority.
Boyd’s research agenda has always successfully blended histories of technology and environment. Here he carefully lays out the pulp and paper industry’s “industrial metabolism,” (pp. 219–23) and its insatiable demand for trees and water. Scientists subordinated the biological systems of trees, and technicians simplified diverse forests into monocultures. But there is no deep discussion of the engineering behind the industrial forest. Boyd does reference various technologies—including the versatility of the Four-drinier paper machine, the Kraft process’s significance to chemical digestion, and the eventual rise of mechanical harvesting—but these discussions do not drive The Slain Wood. And as an “upstream story,” we don’t learn about the end products downstream. But because paper, as Boyd explains, “was not a true simple commodity but rather a spectrum of commodity variants” (p. 113), I do think more detail about a mill’s ability to shift from one product to another (or not) would have helped the reader understand the dynamics of “wood flow” through continuously operating mills constantly seeking to recoup capital investment.
The excesses of the industry propelled national efforts to build an effective regulatory state. The industry consumed copious amounts of free, clean water to process pulp, and then relied on public waterways to serve as pollution conveyances. While the pulp and paper mill’s odor became synonymous with economic betterment, communities’ health and air suffered. Boyd paints a picture of Sunbelt environmentalism’s rise in Savannah, where the Citizens for Clean Air challenged Union Camp. When it [End Page 172] came to water, downstream property owners in Louisiana overwhelmed by foul, black waters and fish kills could only initiate nuisance suits. They could not stop the pollution but did often win monetary settlements. As Boyd expertly details, this state of affairs persisted until the 1960s because the industry successfully blocked and captured what limited...