Revisiting Themes through Down to Earth

In his book Down To Earth, Steinberg writes a stirring but surprisingly persuasive text about the role of the environment in shaping American history. This book reminded me of several themes we have discussed over the course of the semester and also introduced me to several new ways of thinking about how nature has guided the history of the United States.

While reading Down to Earth, I was struck to see how this work connected with numerous other texts we have read this semester. In beginning his narrative with the split of the mega-continent Pangaea 180 million years ago, Steinberg paralleled his history with that of Crosby’s in Ecological Imperialism (3).  Furthermore, Steinberg’s characterization of nature as the primary actor in history has similar qualities with that of Ecological Imperialism. For example, Steinberg notes that after farmlands in New England were abandoned, the old oak and chestnut trees that once stood on the land did not return. Rather, new forests of white pine trees emerged because of their adaptability to growing in open landscapes (53). I found this section reminiscent of Crosby’s discussion of weeds and their ability to grow on land often uninhabitable for other plants.

Steinberg’s book also shared many themes found in Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. First, both authors acknowledge the ability of “industrial capitalism” to redefine perceptions and uses of nature. Steinberg and Cronon even use similar examples, including the evolution of markets for grain and lumber, to demonstrate how capitalism quickly transformed natural resources from entities originally processed in small amounts to mass- produced market commodities (71). Both Steinberg and Cronon also discuss the problems wrought by the uncontrollable consumption of natural resources in American cities. Examples of this include the inability to dispose of garbage in cities like Chicago, and much of this waste was eventually dumped into bodies of water like Lake Michigan (168).

Apart from being able to compare this book with themes presented throughout this semester, I also especially enjoyed reading Steinberg’s chapter “King Climate in Dixie.” While Steinberg’s argument that the climate conditions of the South facilitated slavery is apparent to most historians before approaching history through an environmental lens, it does provide valuable insight into the development slavery in the South. Steinberg provided particularly interesting analysis when discussing how nature precipitated the emergence of the task system of slavery. Due to the partitioning of land into quarter acre lots and the hardiness of the rice crops, slave labor on rice plantations in the Low Country of South Carolina evolved from the gang labor practiced across cotton and tobacco plantations (79). I also found it interesting how Steinberg noted that cotton’s boom in single crop agriculture came after the introduction of Mexican cotton allowed slaves to pick five times as much cotton as they could using green and black staple varieties – this meant more profits for plantation owners (84). This, accompanied with the emergence of the Cotton Belt, helps to bolster Manish’s claim about our desires to exploit with sights only set on the benefits of our actions and not the consequences. As Steinberg indicates, the desire to exploit cotton ultimately led many southern farms to produce cotton as their only crop (83). Eventually, this lack of foresight would cost the South in the Civil War, as cotton farms were incapable of producing food for Confederate soldiers (98). Moreover, this struggle with nature during the Civil War hearkens back to the battles with the environment presented in Brady’s War Upon the Land. With this in mind, Steinberg’s Down to Earth provides an excellent medium through which to reflect on all we have read, discussed, and learned in class this semester.

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