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Land Matters: This Land Is Your Life

If you are, as they say, what you eat, you are also the land you live on. The land provides or fails to provide what you eat according to privilege or poverty. These connections are understood in the landscape realm. In the historian Nancy Isenberg’s illuminating new book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, one striking theme is the eternal and even fatal link between land and the health and social mobility of people during the development of this country. It has always been there. Since England sent its first waves of “waste people” to these shores to fend for themselves in a “waste land,” as North America was considered by many Europeans (read the historian Vittoria Di Palma’s book Wasteland for a thorough appreciation of that term), there has been the continuous presence of poor, ostensibly free, whites whose humiliations long intertwined with those of the enslaved, the indentured, and the doomed natives, as Isenberg documents. Their imposed identity evolved into that of “white trash,” and their physical and mental well-being tracked downward with it.

The early leaders of this country managed little to lift them up. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both gain a fresh repulsiveness in Isenberg’s account for their disdain of people who were not elites. They each had dreams, or delusions, for Europe’s rejects, who were being sent off to alien landscapes with few land-clearing or farming skills. Franklin regarded lower-class people as little more than seed, preferably dispersed toward the frontier to become leaders in loss until the hostile terrain could be conquered—“expendable” people, as Isenberg puts it. Jefferson built entire fantasies around his “cultivator” theory. He likened citizens to soil, found in various grades of productivity, a kind of terroir for humans. Jefferson thought of the poor as “rubbish” but conjectured that many a lesser farmer could be turned into an artisan producer, though he was surrounded by many Virginians who had no idea how to sustain soil, or themselves, for that matter. They burned through land and moved on, leaving it and themselves the poorer.

Isenberg captures how land tenure, or lack of it, determined a person’s life and any purchase on mainstream society. With no land, you had no vote and no voice. People came to be defined by epithets—crackers, squatters, sandhillers, clay-eaters—relating directly to their degrading relationship with lands they did not own. They were described by observers as having “tallow” faces, to be “gaunt,” “ill looking,” or with “bilious” eyes. Eating dirt was not unheard of, and from their diets and exposure the poor developed illnesses such as pellagra or acquired parasites such as hookworm, which caused deformities. These conditions led better-fed types to fear that a whole new breed of degenerate whites was evolving on a fast track, and the elites on up to Theodore Roosevelt were susceptible to the persuasions of eugenics. The Depression and the Dust Bowl bared the results of abusing the earth, Isenberg writes: “long stretches of terrain destroyed by dust storms, floods, and gullies—all caused by destructive farming, irresponsible lumbering, and traditional mining techniques.”

The country today has not escaped the strains of malaise that Isenberg describes, and they distribute, if not always evenly, across racial lines. If you don’t own the land, the land likely owns you. This goes for shacks and slums, as ever, but also for things like automobiles, sprawl, bad water, on up to the climate perils of floods and fires. Landscape architecture commits itself to health and safety, and also welfare, which more broadly is the condition the country has failed to ensure for everyone since its formation. It is useful to recognize that continuum in processing all the new evidence of inequity we constantly take in. For all of Jefferson’s wishfulness, he was onto something in thinking, as Isenberg writes, that “class was a creature of topography…shaped by the bond forged between producers and the soil.” The bond is constant. Its quality is variable.

Bradford McKee
Landscape Architecture Magazine

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