Places of Power: Southern Rivers

Before the U.S. Government built the Woodruff Dam and created Lake Seminole, the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers was a place of significance and power for many different peoples across the centuries. Today I understood that a little better when I saw this aerial from 1940 depicting the literal wedding of the waters in Chattahoochee, Florida. The sandy Chattahoochee empties north Georgia on the left in this picture; the tannic Flint empties middle and southern Georgia on the right. Half of the road crossing in the aerial still exists over the original river course, as you can see in the current aerial, but the whole country is radically different just a few hundred yards to the north. It’s still a beautiful waterway; but a vast, stately lake is about as different from the river in this old photograph as you can get while keeping your hair wet.

The confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers, near Chattahoochee, Florida, 1940. Source: UFDC.
The same spot in 2019. Source: Google Maps.

I think a lot about how places like this, where rivers come together or bubble underground, where they cascade over the fall line, or where they break into rapids, have been important to everyone who’s ever lived along their banks. The place where these mighty rivers came together was so important to the United States that it invested millions of dollars, expended the political capital to flood the surrounding country, and devoted itself to maintaining a concrete wall in perpetuity just to try and harness a little bit of that power and convert it into electricity. Think about how important such a place would have been in a world without a GPS to tell you how to get where you’re going. A world where water runs with the literal spirits of the earth and carries life or death in the current. This is why I study environmental history.

The Untamed Mississippi

“The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary it is in all ways remarkable.”

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Here’s a great article that details Louisiana and America’s coming reckoning with the Mississippi River’s tireless resolve carve a new course to the Gulf: “America’s Achilles’ Heel: The Old River Control Structure.”

For those of you who are both fascinated by the prospect of the river choosing a new course and who are into this kind of thing–like me, more or less professionally–there’s a work of environmental history you shouldn’t miss: Beyond Control: The Mississippi River’s New Channel to the Gulf of Mexico. The book is basically a detailed, scholarly statement of the article’s premise: Change is coming to the Mississippi basin.

Nature of Americans

Nature of Americans, a landmark study on the connection Americans feel with nature, is sweeping through the recreation and natural resource sectors of governments across the United States. I listened to a presentation of the study findings last week. Here is the gist of it.

The Americans who participated in the study feel that they are disconnected from “nature.” They told researchers that their neighborhoods feel artificial, that they don’t have enough time to go outdoors. But, at the same time, Americans across demographic lines strongly identify with nature. They see it as an important contributor to their mental and physical and well-being, and as an essential element in the development of their children.

I have some problems with the data collection methodology of the study, but what I really want to talk about today is the meaning of nature. Researchers were interested in how Americans define nature, so participants were encouraged to supply their own definition of the term at the heart of the study. Many of the results indicate that participants felt that they didn’t spend a lot of time in nature, but that they spent a fair amount of time outdoors playing sports or working out.

Something’s wrong here. Participants didn’t reflect upon the differences and similarities between playing at the park or walking through the woods, and the researchers didn’t help them. Instead, they interpreted this as direct evidence that Americans aren’t spending enough time in nature. But is the treed fringe at the edge of the baseball field any less “natural” than the carefully managed nature trail at the end of the road? If you ask State and Federal government park planners, the answer seems to be yes. So the first recommendation the authors of the study suggest is for outdoors advocates and natural resource stakeholders to “redefine nature” to include the state forest or Wildlife Management Area around the corner.

What the researchers found, overwhelmingly, is that Americans identify “nature” with the vast, charismatic open spaces of the West. This is nothing new for students of environmental history. Roderick Nash, Bill Cronon, and others have shown how John Muir and his Progressive era counterparts identified the vast Western expanses of Yellowstone and Zion, mountains and redwoods, with nature. Before Muir and the onrush of modernity after the First World War, Americans saw nature as a darkened frontier of devilish savagery, a place where the devil and his helpmeets dangled temptation and damnation from the trees. After industry, immigration, and war pulled more Americans from farm to city, they came to see nature as an escape. The religious metaphors remained, however. From an imaginary landscape of the damned, rich with demons and temptation, nature became for Americans a sacred temple of the heavenly sublime.

What this history really shows is that nature is constructed. Nash argues that wilderness was the “basic ingredient of American culture,” the construct upon which all of the other American cultural constructs were layered. Think about the “frontier spirit.” The “errand into the wilderness.” Daniel Boone. Lewis and Clark. Confronting nature is a main ingredient in the American cultural stew—the bones flavoring the broth. Now think about driving to Yellowstone. Sitting in the driver’s seat behind a line of RVs looking at a bear in the distance. Think about your backyard. Nature is what we say it is.

Bill Cronon put it best in “The Trouble with Wilderness” when he argued that wilderness is made, not simply preserved or restored. It is not “an island in the polluted sea of urban-industrial modernity,” he says, but instead holds up a mirror in which “we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.” Perhaps this is why Americans persist in identifying nature “out there,” far away from home and city. They want to get away.

It’s too bad, then, that we advertise a sacred temple in the West and offer a crowded museum instead. National and State parks are all too often a “zoo for land,” to put it in Nash’s words, “exhibited in legislative cages, clearly mapped and neatly labeled.” This is only natural when everything in the park is a “resource” to be managed; when paychecks and light bills depend on management dollars from the congress or legislature. But it is unfortunate when the study’s authors also conclude that the promise of exploration is one of the strongest factors pulling children into nature. Instead of redefining nature, then, to include your local state park, take another look at the backyard, too. Look at the woods at the end of the street, the tree in the planter on the sidewalk, and the local park. Nature is what we say it is.

Being There: Intimacy and Distance in History

Let’s start a blog post about history with a bunch of questions about the present.

I’ve had a couple of conversations with a respected local historian recently–we’ll leave names out of it–about a recent book addressing a historical site in Florida. The local historian is unimpressed. The author’s “never been there!” he told me this summer back in June. And again, August, he said the other historian’s “never even visited the site,” as though this indicates a self-evident and basic flaw in the work which bears repeating. I have no idea whether the author has ever visited the site, but the sharpness of this dismissal–and its seeming self-evidence–raises the question: does it matter?

In Swampwalker’s Journal, his meditation on wetlands, David M. Carroll writes, “The foundation of my writing and drawing is personal experience, my ‘being there,’ and what I have learned from having been there through so many epochs of my life.” Though indebted to scholars and other observers, he maintains: “Moments outside of the human world in the shallows of a marsh. with red-winged blackbirds calling and the wind rustling in cattails or reedgrass, or a solitary spell at the edge of a swamp on the edge of winter—these will bring intimations of the spirit that moves with the water, the light, and the life of the marsh.”

The aggrieved local historian seems to think that “being there” is an essential part of doing history—that significant sites somehow convey “intimations of the spirit[s]” of the long dead who once walked the soil long trod beneath that on which we walk today. He may be right. I have seldom met a historian who was not pushed toward the craft by a moving childhood experience at some historical site. Right or wrong, he forces us consider: do the dead inhabit the land, even today, or do their “spirits” live in the archives? Are we enriched more by the dust of the earth or the dust of documents?

He raises a couple of interlocking questions, really, that I can’t hope to answer in a single blog post:

  • Francis Parkman walked the battlefield trod by Montcalme and Wolfe, interpreting their steps, their sights and sounds, with his own senses. Writing in the nineteenth century, though, he looked out over a less complicated palimpsest. (Parkman died in 1893, in fact, just as Turner was proclaiming the death of the frontier he had so lovingly rendered.) For historians of the near past, Parkman’s sensory investigation may still be an option. But what about those who write of the far-gone early American past? What about the literally buried or submerged world of the ancients?
  • In “Historians who Love Too Much,” Jill Lepore describes stroking a lock of Noah Webster’s hair in the archives. That lock of hair, she writes, “made me feel as though I knew him—and, even lee logically liked him—just a bit better.” It is necessary to balance “intimacy” with “distance.” But what is the correct balance? Can I know someone without meeting them?

I am working on an environmental history of the Seminoles, the Seminole Wars, and the Florida we think we know. Like my friend the aggrieved local historian I do not believe that I can tell the history of this munificent Eden without “being there.” But like Jill Lepore I am a little troubled by a sentimental attachment to the things of the past. I must balance “moments outside of the human world,” like David Carroll, against moments outside of the present. This blog is not the place to find the answer to these deep methodological questions, but to lay down the blue lines of my thought. I will begin by challenging myself to breathe deeply: once to taste the dust of the earth, twice to choke on the dust of the archives