Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South (Anglais) Relié – 15 octobre 2006
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It is probably impossible to write an ecological history of 'the South.' It is too big and too various. Even Kirby admits its 'irreconcilable varieties.' The book is heavily skewed toward the flat, sandy and swampy coastal plain. The piedmont gets less attention, and the mountains less yet. The transMississippi South almost none.
Second, I have some doubts about using fictional remembrances to bolster what are supposed to be historical arguments; although, at the same time, Kirby is to be applauded for at least mentioning the undeservedly forgotten novelist and storyteller Julia Peterkin.
I have other objections, which will become clear in the summary of the narrative of the book.
This begins with the first people, who conquered the land with fire. This is as good a place as any to show in detail why 'Mockingbird Song' is simultaneously fascinating and infuriating.
The book is mostly, but not entirely, free of PC babble, but on one page Kirby writes how the noble red men 'didn't waste' anything, then a few pages later blandly writes how they exported woodpecker beaks as far as Colorado and Ontario. At the same time, he debunks the timeworn children's story about how Squanto taught the Pilgrims to bury a fish in each corn hill for fertilizer. In a land full of raccoons and similar varmints, that could have guaranteed a ruined garden. Peterkin made the same point in a story she wrote 75 years ago.
The truth is, the Indians disturbed the environment to the extent that their limited technology allowed, as all human groups have at all times -- except one, which we will get to later.
Then Kirby leads us through the European impact, in which the South became a provisioner for a world market. The main initial product was deerskins. The statistics here are problematic. Millions of skins were exported, but the South (and Midwest) ought to have been able to support that level of harvest. Kirby does not discuss why the deer population crashed. Probably it is the indiscriminate taking of does.
Farming, logging and, in some places, mining ravaged the natural South, as did the trampling Eurasian livestock and crowding weeds. Queen Anne's lace, probably the characteristic plant of the southern summer, is an import.
Unlike Donald Edward Davis in his more geographically limited 'Where There Are Mountains,' Kirby makes little of the blight that eliminated the chestnut from the southern mountains. It is surprising, though, that when Kirby gets to industrial pollution, he does not use the example of the copper smelter at Ducktown, Tenn. Davis also underplays this, still the most graphic instance of industrial pollution anywhere in the South. Miles and miles of east Tennessee were denuded of even a single green leaf. This was the real acid rain.
Ecological change becomes complexly intertwined with slavery and plantation agriculture, and this section of the book was, to me, the most interesting. Kirby contends that rural southerners treated the land as a commons. It was not, as in Europe, legally so. All the real property was assigned to someone. Kirby does not make this distinction, which I think an important one.
For Kirby, the signature tree loss was not the chestnut or the cypress but the longleaf pine, eliminated by the turpentiners and kept from recovering by the pulp industry.
In this long section, he brings in the importance of hunting, but in a strange way. There are pages and pages about hunting devil fish (manta rays), although the number of devil fish hunters can be counted on the thumbs of two hands. Not a line about coons, little about dogs, little about horses, nothing about quarterhorses.
To me, the characteristic animal of the South is the chigger. Chiggers are absent, too.
The discussion of the closure of the free range and the criminalization of forest arson -- which had been practiced by everybody -- threw new light on those topics for me.
As he gets closer to the present day, Kirby's sharpest ire is reserved for suburbia, green lawns and sprawl. It is hard to worry about sprawl in an area with as much acreage as Europe and only one fourth as many people. And since arable peaked in 1860 in the South, there's no economic demand for the land to be used for anything else.
Here is where we meet the one group of people in history who do not alter the environment as much as they can: Once people become rich enough and secure enough in their food supply to afford it, they can establish nature reserves. Kirby seems ambivalent about these, and would have preferred, apparently, that the South had evolved as a land of small farms.
He cites the North Carolina tenant farmer's daughter, Linda Flowers, who in her memoir, 'Throwed Away,' writes of the displacement of the Southern small farmer. Actually, most small farmers couldn't wait to give up what Hank Williams memorably described as resurveying the same 40 acres again and again over the hindquarters of a mule. Flowers herself could have continued to farm if she had been willing to exist on the $15 a week her parents made; but, unsurprisingly, she preferred to work as a college teacher. (See my extended discussion of eastern N.C. tenantry in my Amazon review of 'Throwed Away.')
Kirby cites an instance of genuine environmental disaster in the South that, to me, illustrates just what is wrong with his and Flowers' regrets. When a horridly poisonous dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria piscicida, broke out in eastern waters, the identification was made by a woman aquatic biologist at North Carolina State University. As recently as 1962, there were no women (and no black people, either) at State, as students or teachers. If the commons and the old lifeways had to be extinguished to bring this about, then they were well lost.
Kirby, in one of his thought-provoking excursions, talks about the significance of bricks and observes that in the dying era of premodern agriculture in the South, some working class people managed to live in brick houses, including in eastern North Carolina. So they did, although the Flowers family was not among them; and in northwest Georgia, the schoolhouses were built of solid marble. But I am a Southerner, too, though I no longer live there, and the characteristic houses I remember were tarpaper shacks with backhouses. The comfortably middle class, as Kirby came from, may regret the changes in the 21st century South. Most Southerners embrace them.
Although Kirby's outlook on change is disagreeable to me, his writings are valuable and deserve attention from anyone interested in the past and future of the South. After finishing 'Mockingbird Song,' I immediately ordered his earlier books 'Poquosin' and 'Rural Worlds Lost.'
Lastly, Kirby and I both love the South, and I agree completely that 'Barbecue . . . is as much as anything the unifying substance of that pesky abstraction, the South.' But we disagree on what barbecue is. Kirby is a Virginian and partial to North Carolina barbecue, seasoned only with vinegar; while I am a Tennesseean and partial to a sauce of molasses, tomatoes and spices. It's no wonder our interpretations of the South are so different.