Soybeans, Cotton and Sustainability

I’m standing at the edge of a soybean field near the Etowah River. To my left stands River Shoals, a new neighborhood of McMansions, all brown, all with near-identical craftsman-style house plans. To my right, the soybean fields spread across about 15 acres. The soybeans have not been harvested yet, and the fuzzy pods dangle from the brown stalks. I reach down and touch one, the downy pods reminding me of pussywillow in the spring, their soft pods called “catkins” because they look like kitten’s tails.

I’ve never touched a soybean plant before, or really any other kind of crop beyond a few pitiful tomatoes grown in my yard.

I was actually looking for cotton, which is grown on these fields in some years. And I wanted to contemplate the juxtaposition of the fields and the new subdivision. Old Georgia and New Georgia. I am standing at the cusp.

It strikes me that there are some similarities in the flat, brown, orderly rows of plants and houses. The clear-cut uniformity. We used to grow crops. Now we grow houses.

The fields and houses end about 25 yards from the Etowah River, and the Etowah Indian Mounds are directly across the river from here. The Mounds date from 1000-1500 A.D. People have lived in this spot along the river for a very long time.

In the 1800s the Lewis Tumlin plantation occupied the opposite side of the river, and I am guessing this side as well. The river’s alluvial flood plains were prime agricultural property. At that time it was definitely cotton, and it was cultivated by the 117 slaves Tumlin owned, according to the 1860 slave census.

I suspect that few residents of the River Shoals subdivision know much about Tumlin or his slaves.  And they probably think I am a burglar. I’ve parked on the side of the road and brazenly traipsed through a thicket of weeds on an undeveloped lot to reach the soybean fields.

I cringed as I stepped on soggy ground, not able to see what I was stepping on. It looked like water moccasin and rattle snake paradise. At one point I felt something vibrate beneath my shoe and stifled a scream. I’d forgotten to bring the super-cool camo mud boots I bought at Sports Academy for muddy treks.

As luck would have it, a mom with a car full of kids pulls into the driveway directly behind me as I walk along the edge of the fields. I am hoping my purple rain coat and mom jeans and sneakers will allay their concerns about the strange lady trespassing behind their house.  I try my best to look harmlessly engrossed in soybeans.

I’ve been obsessing on cotton because my CCC camp research and my Bob Neel interview about the Sugar Hill mines have led me to read up on the environmental catastrophes of the 1930s.

I’d never thought about it before, but the Great Depression was not just a financial collapse. It was, more than anything, an environmental catastrophe. Stewart Udall wrote in a book called The Quiet Crisis that “In a sense, the Great Depression was a bill collector sent by nature, and the darkest tidings were borne on every silt-laden stream and every dust cloud that darkened the horizon.”

I knew about the Dust Bowl in the mid-West, but I did not realize that the landscape of the South was an environmental disaster area at the time of the Depression.

In North Georgia, cotton farming, timbering and mining all intertwined to create deforested mountains, eroded soil and silted creeks and rivers. Recklessly timbered forests were plagued by fires and blight, while agricultural land was plagued by droughts and floods that exacerbated the soil degradation and erosion. In the 1930s, the boll weevil that destroyed the cotton crops was just the last straw in a process that had started over a hundred years earlier.

Of all the plagues upon the land, cotton was the worst. I’ve been reading two books about cotton, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton and Stephen Yafa’s Big Cotton, and what has struck me the most is how cotton damaged both land and people.

Cotton exhausts soil because it depletes nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. When plantation owners harvested the cotton, they did not leave decaying vegetation to restore the nutrients. They did not practice contour farming or terracing to avoid erosion, and they did not rotate crops or leave fields fallow. They just used up stretches of land and then moved on when the soil was exhausted, leaving it a gullied wasteland.

Lewis Tumlin, whose slaves worked these fields, moved here from South Carolina because by the 1840s the soil there was already ruined by cotton. So did Andrew Jefferson Weems, the man who built my house. On my property, too, cotton was cultivated by Weems’ 20 slaves.

There is no way to separate American cotton from slavery. Before the Civil War, it was picked almost exclusively by slaves. Beckert explains that: “85 percent of all cotton picked in the South in 1860 was grown on units larger than a hundred acres; the planters who owned these farms owned 91.2 percent of all the slaves” (110).

In Bartow County, there were 4800 slaves listed in the 1860 census. The largest slaveholders grew cotton in this plantation belt along the Etowah, starting here at the Tumlin plantation and continuing to Rome.

After the war, cotton was picked primarily by share-croppers and tenant farmers, both black and white. They too, toiled for the large land owners with little to no profit for themselves, as under-nourished, exhausted and depleted as the soil. The boll weevil infestation in the 1930s pushed many share-cropper families into starvation. You can see the weary faces and bodies of these 1930s share-croppers in James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ famous photographic chronicle, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

When nature sent its bill collector during the Great Depression, in the form of drought, boll weevils, and eroded soil that would not yield, FDR formed the CCC as a way to heal both land and people, enlisting unemployed young men to plant trees and ground cover and mitigate erosion.

Today, very little cotton is grown in the United States. There are a few fields like this one along the Etowah, where the alluvial flood plain provides enough nutrients, but even here they are rotating it with the soybeans, which return nitrogen to the soil. The U.S. government has to subsidize cotton grown in the U.S. to make it competitive in the international market.

Most cotton today is grown in India and China. And it is no more sustainable of a crop there than it was here. Cotton requires intensive irrigation in those climates, and it is sucking dry aquifers that took millions of years to form. The Green Revolution that started in the 1960s will hit a wall when the aquifers that enabled it run dry in the next couple of decades.

Cotton also requires intensive fertilizers and pesticides that seep into the water supply. And although agriculture has become highly mechanized, humans still do part of the labor, only now they are subsistence third-world laborers instead of American slaves or share-croppers. The cheapness of cotton still depends, as it has since the 1800s, on cheap labor. It’s just out of sight and out of mind, now.

I buy cheap clothes made in Asia. We all do. It costs us nothing to condemn people who lived 200 years ago, but what might it cost us to think about who (and what) we ourselves are exploiting?

Thinking about cotton has made me think deeply about sustainability. It seems like a metaphor for how we have treated the earth, other human beings, and even ourselves. Forcing the earth to yield in ways that are damaging and unsustainable, both for nature and for people.

I see it also as a metaphor for how I have often pushed myself to “produce” in ways that have depleted and exhausted me, with no regard for the repercussions.

In North Georgia today, the impact on the land is not from crops but from houses, River Shoals and all the rest. In the 1930s the rivers were silted with run-off from eroded fields. Now they are silted with run-off from the impervious surfaces of highways, subdivisions and shopping centers.

Like India and China and much of the world, we are straining our fresh water supplies past sustainability. That’s what the Southern Water Wars are all about – the Etowah and the Chattahoochee are small rivers that can’t sustain metro Atlanta’s swelling to the present 5.8 million or the projected growth to 10 million.

If the Great Depression was nature’s bill coming due, it will come due again. Probably with the next bad drought.

I know that I can’t preach that everyone else should change their lives unless I change my own. So I am asking myself: how can I live sustainably, in relation to nature, to other people, and myself? What is a sustainable lifestyle in 2018?

My first step is to get out into the world. Stroking soybean pods might not be world-changing, but it might be Donna-changing. We learn from tactile experiences in a way that books or screens cannot accomplish. When I walk in the world, whether it is in a field or a subdivision or on the mountain, my depleted psyche takes a step toward renewal and wholeness. Just being there, seeing and touching and smelling what is there, that is a start.


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