A landscape drained of its wealth
The rural landscape in our country has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. I saw this first hand this past week as I traveled in my pickup across the southeast US to do work in Texas and South Carolina. I used to live in the south. I spent two years as a technician in rural South Carolina, then five years as a game biologist in very rural southeast Georgia. During my recent trip, I visited the town in Georgia where two of our three children were born. It was my first time back since we left in 1982.
I was shocked to see how dramatically this rural community had deteriorated. I have to say, many of the communities of southeast Georgia have grown into rural ghettos — including the town of my family’s “ancestral manse”, Nashville, GA. Like many town centers in today’s truly rural communities, Nashville looked all but abandoned. The local stores and other commerce were lost long ago to the gaudy and uniform chain stores built at the southern periphery of town — the Dollar Stores and fast food restaurants are ubiquitous; the Walmart is part of another gutted town nearby. Most of the farming has grown much more intensive and larger scale forcing the abandonment of many farm houses and old barns, some dating to pre-Civil War days. All this a consequence of our national farm policies favoring industrial scale farming that keeps us awash in unhealthy foods and meat. The forests are nearly all owned by large corporations who have created tree farms for the production of pulp. This pulp supplies gargantuan paper-production facilities in other places. Both of these industrial land uses require far fewer people, and at lower payscales, than more traditional uses.
As an ecologist, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the wetlands, many are a peculiar form known as Carolina Bays or Pocosins. The forestry companies did their best to make these wetlands productive by draining them and replacing the native cypress and gum with genetically-modified pine. They left only a few defiant stragglers for no other reason than it probably cost to much to finish them off.
Perhaps the most discouraging sight was the small farmstead where our son, Daniel, was born. In my mind, it was an idyllic southern farm. When we lived there in the late 1970s it was 400 acres of cotton, tobacco, pecan trees and a huge garden and a few pigs and cows from which the family drew most of their year’s food. We lived in a small tenant house next to the main farm house, a modest building surrounded by barns accumulated over the farm’s 150 year history. This farm was never an iconic southern plantation but still a productive and profitable farm that has kept white and black families supported for years. But the landscape was in transition after we moved, from small farms to the large factory farms we know today.
Today the tenant house is gone, not a sign of it exists in the open grassy space where it once stood. Tragically the main house has fallen derelict after years of neglect. The farmstead is abandoned, no longer needed as this farm became part of another, far larger, farm. The family that had farmed this land, since before the Civil War, probably sold out under the weight of too many loans made in a desperate attempt to go big. This farm survived the Civil War but not the industrialization of farming.
And the land fared no better. Gone were the old pine forests that rimmed the even-older wetlands. The current farmer had pushed his fields as close to the wetlands as possible taking out most of the old pine stands. Even the wetland forest had been cut, probably selectively for the bigger timber. Where once existed a typical southern family farm — independent and proud, supporting a small but loyal group of workers — is now a large scale industrial operation that squeezes from the land every ounce of wealth as is technically possible.
Many houses are falling into decay as people leave for better work. Towns have been soaked of their wealth by multinational companies. Farms and forests are managed so they create product with only minimal waste leftover for wildlife or people. This is the face of southeast rural Georgia, and I fear much of the coastal plain of the southern US. It appears that industrial America has successfully drained this land and most of the people of their wealth.
The same thing has happened in rural New Jersey, but the epitaph is destruction by cheaply built houses (“McMansions”) spreading out from the cities. In every place there is a different set of circumstances but one thing is common — conservation collapses when rural people cannot earn a decent living. Very rural states have a true dilemma that can only be solved through large scale population shifts, for example human migration to cities, or serious changes to farm and forestry policy that promote sustainable local food production and wood products that produce a living wage for local people. In NJ we can take advantage of this too, but we can also create new wealth for rural communities because they are close to the cities of the NYC-Washington metro area. The people of this largest of America’s metro areas can make this happen by buying local foods including sustainable local fishery products and helping to create local enterprizes that rely on sustainable resource use.