So spoke the southern historian U. B. Phillips at the start of his book Life and Labor in the Old South, which was published in 1929, and in which he argued the environment as having a very existent role in cultural development. Several generations of historians later, and the field of environmental history has expanded considerably in scope and range of topics and sources involved. Not to mention, we are slightly more aware as a society (and planet) of our responsibility to the earth and the of the frivolity of some of our past business with it.
In a very significant way, much of the discipline of history focuses on the human story: human relationships, triumphs, failures, innovations, war, spirit, and, occasionally, growth. It becomes quite easy to forget the very scene on which this all takes place; but as it likes to remind us from time to time, nature trumps human power when it wants to. Man wields great machines to change the shape of it, but he cannot invent enough devices to fully manipulate the land as he wants.
This week we focused on environmental history in my Georgia history class, and we read Mart A. Stewart‘s “What Nature Suffers to Groe:” Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920, and it struck a chord with almost every person in my class. Besides the author’s obvious mastery of prose, he told the story of the Georgia coastal plane where nature itself becomes a character in the narrative. I can honestly say no one had ever presented history to me this way before, with such a significant role being played by something that is always there, yet essentially absent–unless it is in relation to its interaction with man. We certainly learn about landscape, and we can identify geological traits of specific areas of the globe, and we hopefully learn a fair bit of geography so as to give the world spatial organization; but through Stewart’s eye, the land itself is center stage, in a shockingly exciting way.
The most striking and significant fact to take away from Stewart’s work on low country history is that there were three main characters in the drama of the low country: the natural landscape, which had been there thousands of years prior and forced its inhabitants to cooperate and adapt, African American slaves, who worked the land to the point that they developed an immensely intimate connection to it, and the white men, who tried in earnest to manipulate and coerce these other players, both of which were in fact much too powerful to ever completely defer to the European plan.
The importance of place in understanding history cannot be diminished; landscape–that is, latitude, weather, soil, water, tide, flora and fauna–is inextricably entangled with every cultural era and social episode in our past. Yet it rarely plays as large a role in the history of a region, beyond a brief geography lesson as a primer. I risk sounding hyperbolic in my description, but it was a profound thought, for many of us in my class, and one that we discussed in earnest earlier tonight. Let us not separate the very material that creates our world from the existence it has allowed us to assemble. Let us begin with the weather, indeed.