My expertise is in environmental history and the history of the American South, primarily during the long nineteenth century (1790s-1920s-ish). My research explores the intersections of capitalism and nature. More specifically, I am interested in how ecology, markets, and communities created landscapes of subsistence in the southern countryside and how and why those landscapes changed over time. These landscapes, products of nature and culture, included both agricultural and non-agricultural ecosystems, a fact that many agriculture-oriented rural historians tend to overlook. Non-agricultural landscapes, such as streams, rivers, lakes, forests, and swamps provided valuable sources of food, medicine, recreation, and supplemental income. Rural communities developed a complex system of use rights under which unimproved, non-agricultural land remained something of a de facto commons where people harvested plants and animals for both their use value and their market value. Questions of who could access these spaces and what resources they could use were answered partly by negotiations on a local level between landowners and commons users and partly by global currents of capital and national-level politics. Indeed, the social, political, cultural, economic, and ecological factors that created this complex web of use rights changed significantly over time. The framework of political ecology offers an instructive way to explore these layers of interactions that determined who could access what resources.
The conservation movement that emerged around the turn of the twentieth century took aim at these common rights and attempted to impose another use regime onto the landscape. Conservation historiography has long been dominated by a focus on federal conservation policy as it applied primarily to the western United States, including forestry, reclamation, and grazing. But the conservation impulse was present across the South as well, where it involved more of a widespread renegotiation of common rights on the local and state level. From this vantage point, we can see that movement was a more general attempt to replace the vernacular landscapes of subsistence with a more rationalized and orderly landscape, and it involved the grassroots as well as policy makers.
In my dissertation, “Root Diggers and Herb Gatherers: The Rise and Decline of the Botanical Drug Trade in Southern Appalachia,” I argue that the Appalachian forest commons underwent significant changes over the course of the nineteenth century. During the antebellum era, the forests of Appalachia was utilized extensively by yeomen and landless farmers as a way to supplement farm production. Over the course of the late nineteenth century, animal furs and skins declined in commercial importance and, in some parts of Appalachia, roots and herbs became the dominant commons commodities. As markets for indigenous medicinal plants grew and expanded around the globe and as the agricultural economy of the southern highlands struggled to recover from the Civil War, more people became more dependent on roots and herbs. In areas like northwestern North Carolina where the botanical drug trade reached unparalleled heights, people could find a wide variety of marketable roots and herbs on the forest commons, and many became specialists at harvesting them. This greater reliance on medicinal plants had significant impacts on the forest commons, as well as perceptions of Appalachian people. It led to the rapid depletion of some of the more lucrative plants like ginseng, or “sang,” as it was widely known. In communities like Pocahontas County, West Virginia, the disappearance of ginseng and the emergence of a class of people called “sang diggers,” who spent half the year searching for the root, generated tensions within communities. This led to a renegotiation of common rights that took the form of state conservation laws aimed specifically at the sang diggers. In the 1870s, the name “sang digger” was used in local politics as a derogatory reference to someone opposed to progress, and over the next decade, a sang digger myth emerged in the pages of urban northern newspapers and magazines that painted the group as lawless, lazy, and degenerate. This myth served to reinforce the changing political ecology in the United States.
In addition to the botanical drug industry in Appalachia, my other research projects include a social history of fence laws in the South. From the 1870s through the 1920s, the grazing commons underwent a significant renegotiation. In the antebellum era, many livestock owners turned their stock out into the forests—regardless of who owned it—to forage on chestnuts, acorns, and other spontaneous productions of nature. However, by the late nineteenth century, southern communities took measures to curtail these rights and impose order on the landscape by passing a new round of fence laws that required livestock owners to fence in their stock. Because states like Georgia and North Carolina allowed local communities to vote on these measures, historians can access a plethora of sources that uncover the seams of conflict that divided communities over the fence question. Much of the scholarship on fence laws in the South are highly localized studies, and scholars generally disagree over what animated fence law proponents and opponents. In the future, I hope to place the fence laws in a broader discussion of the changing political ecology of the southern countryside.
My M.A. thesis addresses another aspect of this shift in political ecology in the South. It examines the campaign of rural reformers, such as Wilmington, North Carolina, businessman Hugh MacRae and University of North Carolina Professor of Rural Economics, Eugene C. Branson, to reconceptualize the relationship between rural communities and their environment. Part of the Progressive attempt to impose order on the countryside as a way to stifle what they saw as the deterioration of rural life, this group of men and women sought to redirect the modernization of Southern farms toward what I call the “community ideal,” a cooperative community model based on intensive cultivation of truck crops that aimed to preserve the small, independent yeoman farmer. This impulse created a few experimental communities and led to an influential but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to secure federal funding to create model communities. These progressives diverged from many of their contemporaries who believed that agriculture should adopt industrial methods of organization and production. However, these reformers, like other agricultural reformers, all but ignored the importance of non-agricultural landscapes of subsistence to the maintenance of rural communities. Indeed, they all wanted a rationalized and ordered landscape oriented toward efficient production. As a future project, I hope to write a more comprehensive study of how elite reformers, from country lifers of the Progressive era to the Regionalist school of the 1920s and 1930s, sought to reconfigure the rural landscape. I would also like to examine the history of utopian experimental communities from an environmental perspective, something that has not yet been done.