Book Review: Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies

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Sutter, Paul S. Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015) Hardback

Providence Canyon is a state park in southwestern Georgia, in a county where the Piedmont uplands meet the coastal plain. It is part of a larger area of badly eroded land, bottomland forests and upland pine forests that have become something that looks a bit like Bryce Canyon in Utah – dissected, eroded, colorful, but “a hell of a place to lose a cow” or in this case, several farms and a church and a school. What happened? The easy answer is that bad land use caused erosion. The real answer is a lot more complicated, and serves as a framework for the history of the US Soil Conservation Service, soil conservation, and the tangled and oft-times fascinating history of farming in the South.

The title of the book is a nod to Walker Evens and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a photo-essay book about three share-cropping families. One question Sutter brings up over and over in the book is: how do we think about Providence Canyon? What stories does it tell, and do we tell? According to local tradition, the eroded landscape began from water dripping off the eves of a barn. Or perhaps where a woman threw out her dishwater over and over. Or it was cut by runoff draining from an old Creek Indian trading trail. And then “it just growed,” as is said about other things in the southeastern US.

Sutter places Providence Canyon in the larger story of soil erosion, attempts to encourage “better scientific farming” and the rise of modern soil conservation efforts by the US government. He also looks at the rise of tourism, and how the leading citizens of Stewart County, GA tried to get the area declared a national park, then a state park (it finally became one in the 1970s.) in order to trade cotton and tobacco for tourists.

Some of the names in the story are very familiar to me, because they appear again in the US west and the Dust Bowl. John Wesley Powell, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Hugh Hammond Bennet of the US Soil Conservation Service – they are people I’d encountered at the other end of the continent. Edmund Ruffin, who tried to get planters to improve their land by crop rotation is another familiar name to me. Those readers who have not read the story of conservation in the US might get a little bogged down in some of the details and soil science, but Sutter does a good job of putting ideas into context.

This is not a straight chronological story of either Providence Canyon or of conservation in the US. Sutter follows a more thematic approach, and only in the last two chapters do we learn why Providence Canyon formed. Hugh Hammond Bennet used Providence Canyon and similar landscapes to argue for major federal soil conservation efforts, and for removing farmers from marginal land. One place Sutter missed is that Bennet and his fellow-travelers pushed for re-locating farmers in the late 1920s, before the Dust Bowl and New Deal made it possible to try their experiment.

Most people who think about soil conservation look at it from the western story. Sutter gives us more of the eastern story, one far more complicated in terms of human interaction. Chattel slavery and the “gang” system of labor discouraged soil conservation, Texas fever stymied efforts to bring in better livestock to provide more manure, misunderstandings about plant nutrition led to accidentally feeding too much phosphate, and efforts to control run-off and limit erosion actually made things worse in the parts of the south prone to heavy tropical rains. Upstream erosion that buried rich bottomland soils in gravel and sand and clay, turning them into swamps, did not help.

Sutter doesn’t tell a simple tale. Good environmental history is always complicated and rich, and Sutter tells the untidy story well. The book could use more maps, especially in the early chapters, but the illustrations are well chosen. A bibliography would also be very useful, but he has extensive and well-done endnotes.

I’d recommend this for people interested in the history of land use, in soil conservation, and in a good book about a little-visited corner of the country.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.

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