Edmund Ruffin. Nature's Management: Writings on Landscape and Reform 1822-1859. Edited by Jack Temple Kirby. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. xxxi + 375 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-2162-2.
Reviewed by David I. Spanagel (School for Communication Sciences and Disorders, Emerson College)
Published on H-SHEAR (October, 2001)
If Nature's Management is the answer, what is the question?
If Nature's Management is the answer, what is the question?
Nature's Management is a collection of early nineteenth-century agricultural writings by Edmund Ruffin, topically arranged to highlight issues that were of contemporary public and scientific interest. Virginia's fence enclosure laws, municipal public health measures to combat malaria, wetlands drainage and reclamation, and observations of the geology, botany, and culture of Virginia and the Carolinas number among the topics included in this series of essays. From this eclectic mixture of subject matter, an enriched view of the intellectual context of antebellum southern plantation agriculture is certainly made possible. Yet this book falls short in its editor's broader ambition (e.g. to draw meaningful comparisons between Ruffin and twentieth century conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot). The value of reissuing an edited volume of primary source materials ultimately depends on the significance of the original author's life and his ideas. If Nature's Management was intended to enhance the field of American environmental history, one may seriously ask: "Who (besides Edmund Ruffin scholars) will be rewarded by its purchase?"
To take the book on its own terms (and not to impose the harsher test of a publisher's advertising chutzpah), let us begin with the contents of Nature's Management. Most of the chapters were originally published as unsigned articles in the Farmer's Register, an agricultural periodical Edmund Ruffin edited in Virginia between 1833 and 1842. Reading these articles, it is not hard to conjure the vision of some industrious landowner earnestly poring over the latest Farmer's Register. Within its pages, he would find ingenious solutions to the practical problems of plantation agriculture while simultaneously receiving lucid theoretical analyses of the geological and chemical conditions that constrained soil productivity. Ruffin was a persistent and insightful writer. He infused his pages with frank discussions of the political, economic, and moral implications of taking actions to render one's property more capable of producing food. The modern reader recognizes not only a notion of environmental sustainability issuing from these essays, but also a sense of nature's plasticity. Ruffin consistently urged his readers to nurture, to restore, and even to reshape their lands, in order to promote agricultural improvement in the interest of long-term prosperity. Even though Ruffin understood and accepted Malthusian laws of population and subsistence as ultimately valid (pp. 11-13), he insisted that a country's ruin and destitution could be hastened needlessly through the narrow pursuit of individual self-interest. Soil exhaustion was Ruffin's bete noire, and landowners who pursued personal wealth at the expense of general prosperity were to be held accountable (p. 344).
It is almost as easy, however, to imagine some antebellum southern reader suffering through a sweltering summer night, putting light to his midnight candle after a fitful first sleep, and finding Ruffin's extended, arcane, and learned disquisitions to be incomparably valuable for their soporific impact. With a penchant for prefacing his lengthy testimony of personal successes by hollow claims of modesty, Ruffin may well have tried the patience of readers in his own century. For example, the provocative article where he advocates the agricultural "recycling" of "putrescent human and animal matters" struggles under the weight of Ruffin's authorial pose. The transition paragraph reads as follows (minus the bracketed comments I have inserted):
After adducing the foregoing mass [eleven pages' worth already] of evidence, for which I am indebted to others, it will appear very unimportant to add what will follow [four more pages are coming] from my personal observation--especially, as the opinion has been expressed above, that the experience of any one individual, on any one farm, or in any one location, though continued for ten or twelve years must be very insufficient as proof of a permanent change of healthfulness, and of the actual causes of such changes. But, as in the absence of more striking facts, and of practical proofs, my own limited experience was formerly brought forward--it is proper here to add, that the two autumns that have since passed, have brought no circumstances to weaken the opinions advanced, and many that have served, on the contrary, to strengthen them (p. 140).
Editor Jack Temple Kirby urges "[r]eaders not accustomed to nineteenth-century exposition ... to persist" (p. xxx). But in the absence of a strong curiosity stimulated by a specific kind of historical investigation, such as Kirby's own detailed analysis of the environmental history of Virginia and Carolina upland swamps , Ruffin's cumulative rhetorical approach will surely try the patience of a casual twenty-first century reader, even one who is committed to investigating the intellectual roots of "green" thinking.
This volume is not friendly to novices on technical matters. As a historian of geology and soil science, I was prepared to engage Nature's Management as a primary source document. The reader is left to decode and to draw conclusions about Ruffin's ideas independently. The editor's fastidious endnotes help to draw the reader into deeper historical minutiae, but do not extend one's appreciation for the scientific, intellectual, or cultural impact of Ruffin's writings. And, rather than prepare the reader to decode elements of Ruffin's proto-conservationist philosophy, Kirby devotes much of his "Introduction" to how other historians have handled this man's exaggerated and sometimes incompatible twin legacies: the enthusiastically pro-slaveholding Confederate firebrand versus the genius agricultural reformer. In sum, Kirby trusts that Ruffin is intrinsically captivating as a historical figure. While this attitude may ultimately be justifiable, the uninitiated general reader may not "persist" in slogging through Ruffin's words without some further assistance in sifting and evaluating his thoughts and deeds.
Edmund Ruffin's main points actually reduce to a handful of strong views, which he reiterated consistently over the span of the four decades of writings covered by this volume. Essentially, Ruffin was a champion for any farming technique that was aimed at the rejuvenation of soil fertility, for the sake of the people, the wealth, and the long-term political prosperity of his home state and region. His highest praise was thus reserved for a technique which combined the use of marl (fossilized shells) in combination with organic manures (whether composted vegetable matter, animal and human excretions, or the practice of rotating a green "rest" crop like field peas or clover) to restore soils depleted by the heavy chemical demands of Virginia's cash crops (tobacco, corn, and wheat). The effect of this calcareous (lime-rich) marl was to gradually restore an alkaline balance to acid soils without inducing the kind of rapid "combustion" that quick lime was likely to cause when applied to nitrogen-rich manures.
Edmund Ruffin's reputation as "the father of soil science" hinges on his independently having developed an understanding of agricultural chemistry--one that surpassed Englishman Sir Humphry Davy's 1813 version of the humus theory without falling completely into the mineral fertilizer camp that was growing around the teachings of German organic chemist Justus von Liebig during the 1840s. Marling, manuring, and rotating would be an effective home-grown alternative to expensive inorganic fertilizers that would otherwise attract the notice of second-generation farmers despairing over their unproductive mineral-poor soils, and Ruffin deserves credit for imagining and forcefully articulating this combination of "natural" remedies to the ecological damage caused by extractive crop cultivation.
It would be misleading to see Edmund Ruffin as an antecedent of biocentrism in any sense. His sensitivity to the "wisdom of nature" extended only to questions of efficacy, not to intent. In other words, the land was very much a resource to be harnessed to serve human needs. Therefore, Ruffin represents more of a precursor to wise-use conservationism, as can be seen in his scheme for reclaiming stretches of farmland along winding streams. His advice was not to leave untouched, but rather to reshape its contours so that it the farmer might find it easier to plough a straight furrow right up to the water's edge. Only in the details of Ruffin's methods for achieving this alteration of nature can we see his respect for nature's intelligence and economy. The best way to redirect a winding stream into a straighter bed involves a patient, phased process of ploughing a partial course, diverting the flow toward the desired new bed, and then waiting for moving water to complete the task: "It is much cheaper to let nature thus aid your draining operation, than to dig the carrier at once as deep as desirable" (p. 181).
The coherence of Ruffin's attitudes toward the proper relationship between nature and humanity are clearly illustrated in his positive report of a North Carolina farmer:
[Ebenezer Pettigrew] cultivates wheat successfully and on a large scale. As I am informed, he is an excellent manager and cultivator, and besides his swamp improvement here, he has recently drained and brought under good and productive tillage a large tract of the "body land," and thereby created a fine farm, and an entirely new and rich source of agricultural production. If he who merely makes "two blades of grass grow where only one grew before" is a benefactor to his country and to mankind, how much greater is his service who drains a swamp or converts a worthless waste into a fertile farm! (p. 218)
In the hands of skillful environmental historians, Nature's Management will provide valuable insights into antebellum American conceptions and practices of science. Recent work by Conevery Bolton Valencius, who examines the connections between perceptions of land health (soil fertility) and human health , for example, might draw powerfully upon the source materials reprinted in this book, for Ruffin makes explicit the functional identity between farming and the maintenance of health. Unmediated by some analysis, however, this book is likely to find its only satisfied purchasers to be librarians who are conscientiously working to augment their early nineteenth century American collections.
. See Jack Temple Kirby, Poquosin: A Study of Rural Landscape and Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
. See Conevery Bolton Valencius, "'The Health of the Country': Body and Environment in the Making of the American West" (History of Science Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1999).
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David I. Spanagel. Review of Ruffin, Edmund, Nature's Management: Writings on Landscape and Reform 1822-1859.
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