Thursday, September 04, 2008

For those readers interested in local ecology, I thought I might present a few things to shed some light on the local environment and our changing relationship with it. I'll begin with a quote:

"At this day, the upper country of South Carolina presents a very different aspect from that of the same territory in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was then new and beautiful and as remarkable for the luxuriant richness of its landscape as it is still for the striking features of its rolling hills and its towering mountains, but under the iron tread of what is called a progressive civilization, its ancient glories of forest and flora and fertile soil have been well nigh washed and ruined."

If you're tuned in to environmental issues, you almost certainly wouldn't be surprised to read a quote like this in a modern publication, where people are increasingly aware of the changes our society is making to the ecology of the planet (as well as the ecology of our backyards). What might be a little surprising to you, though, is that this was written in 1859... long before asphalt, kudzu, gasoline, non-biodegradable plastics or any number of modern environmental ailments plagued this area.

John Henry Logan, who wrote the above in his History of the Upper Country of South Carolina, goes on to describe the native forests and wildlife of this area. The details are astonishing.

It is estimated that one in four trees was a towering American Chestnut, now extinct.
The trees were large and widely spaced, such that you could easily deer or buffalo at a great distance, with none of the scrubby undergrowth of today. In lush bottomlands, there was said to be nearly six feet of rich dark topsoil above the red clay we now consider to be the ground. Every waterway was crystal clear. You could see catfish swimming along the riverbeds in the six and ten feet deep waters of the Pacolet River.
Elk, buffalo, panthers (after whom the Tyger rivers were erroneously named), Carolina parakeets (native parrots that were later wiped out by lowcountry rice farmers), bear, wolf, otter and other rare or entirely gone animals were all common in our native woods. There were also patches of prairie formed by grazing buffalo, who established many of the trails that became Indian paths, which became wagon roads, etc. Blackstock Road and the old Georgia Road (one of the ancestors of I-85) are two examples of old buffalo trails.

The primary problem that Logan was referencing was intensive agriculture. Agriculture had existed in the Americas for over a thousand years by the time European settlers arrived, but most Native Americans used it in conjunction with hunting and gathering. Agriculture formed only a part of their diet because it is more susceptible to drought and requires a ton of work. And who wants more work than necessary?
Our native woods were in many ways the handiwork of Native Americans, who used controlled burns to clear out forest undergrowth and enrich the soil. They are also thought to have spread North America's largest native fruit, the Pawpaw.

Not only did intensive agriculture, as practiced by European settlers, clear forests and disperse wildlife, it dislodged the rich dark soils that had been held in place by the deep roots of the native forests and grasslands. As a result, even by 1855, much of the productive soil had washed away with every rain. This problem remain mostly unaddressed until the 1930s, when the Soil Conservation Service established one of the first erosion control projects in the country right here in Spartanburg County.

The Soil Conservation Service should get credit for a lot of things. They increased awareness about erosion control, they found practical methods to prevent erosion and they implemented those measures on dozens of farms in the county. And it's my understanding they did it for free, saving Great Depression-strapped farmers hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately, though, the SCS itself had to learn about the dangers of non-native invasive species as a result of their efforts. They found a miracle plant that was entirely edible, took root easily in local soils and prevented erosion even in the worst gullies. The only problem is that once established, it entirely dominated the landscape, preventing native and more stable plants from reestablishing themselves. As you might have guessed, the plant they spread for many years was kudzu. Another non-native invasive species that has posed slightly less of a problem is lespedeza.

But despite their mistakes, the SCS made major advances in the cause of local environmental activism, long before the modern environmental movement came into being. Spartanburg in many ways is only now reawakening to the detrimental effects of runaway human activity on our landscape. But with any luck, effective land management, planning, and grassroots awareness will have even greater long-term repercussions. Just this past weekend, I stumbled across a small family, whose house stood close to a creek and nature preserve. They were watching with disgust as another neighbor was clearcutting land and moving loose soil with a bulldozer on the banks of that creek. As disheartened as I was to see the bulldozer and the irresponsible land use on the opposite bank, I was comforted by the awareness and strong feelings of the Mabry family, standing by their cozy little home. It's beyond me why some folks think that having concern for the local environment is an elitist, foreign idea. It strikes me as about the most down-to-earth practical belief one could have.


Allyn Steele said...

Great post, man. Ginna sent along the link to your blog, and I've enjoyed reading through it. I imagine that you have (1) heard about the "ghost hunting" some folks were doing out here in Glendale at one of the old mill mansions over the summer; and (2) have probably perused work related to the varieties of cotton and associated technologies/labor that made it possible to help exhaust that deep soil we once had around here. There are a few chapters in an environmental history primer (Down To Earth: A Natural History of America, by Ted Steinberg) that deal with some other components of the Piedmont's commodification/industrialization. Might be a good read if you're interested.

Anyhow, thanks for doing this blog. Now that I know about it, I'll try to check it out regularly!

Take care.

Bradfordington said...

Thanks, Allyn. I'm not very familiar with the different agricultural varieties and farming techniques promoted during the 19th and 20th centuries, but I am very interested in their effects on current soil conditions. That's a good thing to look into. I remember seeing lots of "South American guano!" ads in the early newspapers. There should be a lot of information out there on that. I'm trying to get an environmentally-themed exhibit in the museum at some point, and those would be some great resources to check out. My goal is to surprise visitors with how concerned most folks were with our region's environmental health just a few generations ago. Their livelihood depended on their land's health! Somehow over the years there's been this huge disconnect.

Thanks for your comment. I'll want to talk to you more about all this when I get this exhibit on the calendar. Thanks again!