Archive | February, 2013

Ecology and Southern History

20 Feb

While I have always been interested in the interplay between environment and the development of culture in the South, recent professional projects have highlighted this inextricable connection as never before. I have gained a new understanding of the symbiotic relationship between people and place, and the more I learn the more I find it fascinating. I also find it to some degree taken for granted by historians, even though it is generally not well understood or articulated in history books. The last book published by noted Southern historian Jack Temple Kirby, who passed away in 2009, beautifully fills a gap in literature on Southern cultural and environmental history. Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South, is both a powerful and sweeping account of how the region’s landscape shaped, and has been shaped, by the people who have called it home and an attempt to demonstrate that the one constant dynamic in the relationship between place and culture is change.

Mockingbird Song

It is clear Kirby had both a passionate interest and in-depth knowledge of the currents of Southern history, and he brings both these to bear in his narrative on the ecological history of the region. The book explains that what the South looked like when the first European explorers arrived here is in some ways so different from its appearance today that words might seem inadequate, but Kirby gives us a glimpse. As one would expect, the book has some passages that lean towards being more scientific than others, and there are chapters that are slower reads than others. While he bemoans the damage to the environment caused by mining and hog farming, for example, the book still is far from a eulogy for a corrupted landscape. It is an ode to the people and their attachment to the land Kirby held dear. The book helps Southern historians understand that the South we are familiar with is a very different place from the South those we research and read about knew. Mockingbird Song paints a picture of a land and its use over time that is captivating, informative, and original. It is a fitting final contribution for a historian who has made so many of them for the region he loved.