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  • Holding the SoilA Note on the Conservation of Midwesternness
  • Jason Weems (bio)

In August 1938, the United States Department of Agriculture published a call to arms against soil erosion, To Hold This Soil.1 Authored by government conservationist and agrarian writer Russell Lord, the text identifies soil as the foundation of national life, decries its rapid depletion at human hands, and pleads for a vigorous embrace of conservation efforts. Equal parts paean, elegy, and call to action, Lord's prose blends the technical language of modern soil science with a passionate cultural narrative of rootedness in the soil. This was no accident. By channeling what was arguably the best feature of the New Deal philosophy of governance—its sensitivity to both innovation and tradition—Lord envisions for his readers the material, cultural, and even personal stakes of seemingly abstract forces: natural, technological, economic, and historical. Land, he asserts, is not simply quantified space nor soil merely an inert substance. Together they are imaginatively, essentially, and even intimately foundational to the character of individuals, regions, nations, and all of humanity. "The fabric of human life," Lord's opening epigraph declares, "has been woven on earthly looms."2

In the context of 1938, a congressional election year and a moment when New Deal programming faced a hardening of conservative backlash, To Hold This Soil had many audiences: agricultural and political, regional and national. Its purpose was to persuade these readers to support government initiatives and also, more importantly, to embrace the proposition that maintaining certain bedrock cultural ideals—primarily those of Jeffersonian agrarian democracy (which though considerable, were never so fulsome as many liked to imagine them)—required radical changes in both belief and practice. This meant engaging new attitudes toward the land, as well as life upon it. [End Page 125]

Like many New Deal publications, To Hold this Soil marshals images—in this case photographs—to craft a visual narrative that complements its textual message. Of the thirty-nine photographs selected by Lord from landscapes across the nation, the fourth one (featured on this issue's cover) warrants special attention. Captioned "Time Builds Soil. Profile of a virgin field in North Dakota," it provides a view of several vertical feet earth. The image, which shows a cross section of soil at close range, seems far from something 1930s audiences would recognize as a "landscape." Instead of long horizons and panoramic agrarian country sides, the picture pulls its viewers underground into the depths of the land. It asks viewers to see as soil scientists: plumbing the vertical axis of vision to perceive the layered structure of matter normally hidden from consideration. Emphasized is the complex, layered geology that takes form beneath the surface of things: the penetrating roots of cover grasses, a band of rich dark topsoil, a mottled layer of sandy subsoil, and at bottom a foundation of chunky clay. As much as any other vision and perhaps more so, Lord indicates, this is a consequential picture of both an agricultural and social terrain.

Then as now, soil was a cultural matter. But this was especially true for the rural Midwest, a region and culture where a particular notion of the land provided both the material and imaginative basis for a mythos of identity and practice. To be midwestern, as the title of O.E. Rolvaag's 1927 prairie settlement saga Giants in the Earth intimates, was to be of the land and soil.3 Yet too oft en, this construct and its habitual, almost sacral evocation by regional lore makers has covered over, like a well-seeded field, the layered complexity and nonsustainability of rural "midwesternness" as a reality and as an ideal. By prompting a different kind of vision—in depth rather than width—the "Time Builds Soil" photograph and the conservation effort that it supports offer up an alternative means for penetrating the meaning of the rural Midwest, accounting for its possibilities and shortcomings, and evaluating the trajectory and process through which the idea of midwestern identity as rooted in the soil came into being.

While I will later argue that Lord believed the "Time Builds Soil" photograph would be revelatory to his readers, this is...