- Juicy or Dry:Investigating Culture and Climate in 'Southern' Environmental History
In a 2013 essay outlining the state of American environmental history, Paul Sutter identified the field's "hybrid turn" since the mid-1990s. Defined as a rejection of the division between nature and culture, hybridity "allows environmental historians to find cultural traces in what they thought was the natural but also to find the natural thriving in places swamped by human activity." Jack Temple Kirby's Bancroft Prize-winning Mockingbird Song (2006), Martha Weisiger's Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country (2009), and James Giesen's Boll Weevil Blues (2011) exemplify this shift, focusing as they do on the interrelationship of material environmental change, cultural identity, and memory. Scholars' embrace of hybridity ameliorates the difficulties of using nature as a category of analysis, for it sidesteps the problem of defining what "nature" is, and complicates the field's earlier reliance on declensionist narratives of human destruction of the natural. While Sutter laments what he sees as hybridity's moral relativism—how it hinders the ability of environmental historians to call for action—he celebrates how the hybrid turn solved the field's addiction to the use of "agency" as a way to describe the relevance of environment to human narratives. Can oil reserves, cotton, or topsoil have agency? Sutter suggests not, and argues hybridity allows environmental historians to move beyond the thorny issue of historical causation.1
The two volumes under review demonstrate the usefulness of Sutter's observations on recent American environmental histories, but hint that the problem of agency continues to haunt the field. William Thomas (Tom) Okie's monograph, The Georgia Peach, epitomizes the hybrid turn, interweaving [End Page 280] natural conditions of the South, human actions to shape them, and cultural constructions of both. This is not surprising, given that Sutter directed Okie's award-winning dissertation on which the book is based. The Georgia Peach is a richly nuanced portrait of the social creation of a "natural" commodity. It details how the peach's production, pricing, and marketing reinforced white supremacy in the South. In contrast, Kevin Sweeney's Prelude to the Dust Bowl tries to establish the agency of an environmental force in human events (without saying so), and fits poorly within Sutter's categorization of the current state of the field. In Sweeney's work, oft-discussed hallmarks of nineteenth-century Plains history, such as Indian removal, the disappearance of the bison, and the exoduster movement, play out against a not-so-well-known backdrop of crippling drought. The book provides a much-needed addition to the history of that region, for its conclusions shift our perspective on these topics, all of which have extensive non-environmental historiographies. Yet the issue of causation complicates the overall effectiveness of Prelude to the Dust Bowl, and suggests that rather than moving beyond the troubling notion of "agency," in some cases, environmental histories might be better off confronting it.
Okie's The Georgia Peach invites readers into a story of myth, landscape, and identity. The juicy Georgia peach, it turns out, drips with ironies: a cultivar celebrated as an icon but grown by only a few, a fruit that promised to free the state from slavery yet relied on exploitative labor, and a commodity central to "southern-ness" but funded and developed by northerners. "The peach has been a locus for visions of prosperity and the good life," Okie writes, "[but] it has also been a way of denying the good life to whole classes, ornamenting the maintenance of poverty with paeans to agrarian harmony" (p. 9). For this reason, what could have been a parochial study of a plant and the people who grew it is a persuasively argued, beautifully written narrative that touches on the major themes and events of...