Saturday, December 5, 2009

Born of the Piedmont Soil

To see and know a place is a contemplative act. It means emptying our minds and letting what is there, in all its multiplicity and endless variety, come in.
- Gretel Ehrlich

The voice of the land is my voice.
- from the Navaho

Our last instruction to our new explorer and frontiersman is to hold ever in sight his final goal – to reveal within our innate country a land in which to live, a symphonious environment of melody and mystery.
- Benton MacKaye

Anson natives Hugh Hammond Bennett and Blind Boy Fuller

In his books Blue Highways and River Horse, William Least Heat-Moon crosses the continent on land and on water, respectively. For PrairyErth, he stops in the middle of the country to explore Chase County, Kansas.

As I perambulate through Anson County, North Carolina I think of Heat-Moon’s words from the tallgrass prairie:

I aimed to write about a most spare landscape, seemingly poor for a reporter to poke into, one appearing thin and minimal in history and texture, a stark region recent American life had mostly gone past, a still point, a fastness an ascetic seeking a penitential corner might discover.

People might drive through Anson County, as they might drive through Chase County, concluding “There’s nothing here.”

I would disagree. William Vogt discusses the need to recognize “something there”:

We must come to understand our past, our history, in terms of the soil and water and forests and grasses that have made it what it is. We must see the years to come in the frame that makes space and time one. Our philosophies must be rewritten to remove them from the domain of words and “ideas,” and to plant their roots firmly in the earth.

In Characters and Their Landscapes, Ronald Blythe makes the point even more concisely:

Does landscape enter the blood with the milk?

In the case of the Anson landscape, the answer to Blythe’s question is found in Elder Ralf, Lockhart, Hazel, Buck and Scarlett. And I’ll add two more Anson Countians to that list: Blind Boy Fuller and Hugh Hammond Bennett.

Whenever I listen to the Piedmont blues, I can hear the rolling farmlands and mill towns where I grew up. One of the great guitar players and singers of the Piedmont blues was born in Anson County.

Blind Boy Fuller (1907-1941, born Fulton Allen) recorded with and influenced other blues musicians like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. After Fuller died, McGhee recorded The Death of Blind Boy Fuller and even performed as “Blind Boy Fuller No. 2” to capitalize on the late blues man’s popularity.

Like Blind Boy Fuller, Hugh Hammond Bennett (1881-1960) knew his way around a cotton field. Bennett’s father managed a 1200-acre plantation in Anson County, and he managed it well during a time when many, if not most, farmers were squandering the nation’s richest topsoils.

One of young Hugh’s first tasks on the farm was to help lay out contour plantings to prevent erosion. Eventually, Bennett built upon those early lessons and became known as “the father of soil conservation in the United States.”

As director of the Soil Conservation Service during the Dust Bowl Era, Bennett fought for the cause with visionary zeal.

In 1935 (the same year Blind Boy Fuller recorded Rag, Mama, Rag) Bennett went to Capitol Hill to justify establishing the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency of the government. Bennett biographer, Wellington Brink, graphically describes the event:

The witness was not cheerful, but he was persistent, informed, and courageous. He told a grim story. He had been telling it all morning. Chapter by chapter, he annotated each dismal page with facts and figures from a reconnaissance he had just completed. . . . The witness did not hurry. He did not want to hurry. That extra ace he needed was not yet at hand.

Well he realized that the hearing was beginning to drag. Out of one corner of his eye, he noted the polite stifling of a yawn, but Hugh Bennett continued deliberatively. . . . Bennett knew that a dust storm was on its way.

He had newspaper items and weather reports to support this knowledge. But it seemed mighty slow arriving. If his delaying tactics were successful, the presence of the swirling dust—material evidence of what he was talking about—ought to serve as a clincher for his argument.

Presently one of the senators remarked—off the record—'It is getting dark. Perhaps a rainstorm is brewing.' Another ventured, 'Maybe it's dust.' 'I think you are correct,' Bennett agreed. 'Senator, it does look like dust.' The group gathered at a window.

The dust storm for which Hugh Bennett had been waiting rolled in like a vast steel-town pall, thick and repulsive. The skies took on a copper color. The sun went into hiding. The air became heavy with grit. Government's most spectacular showman had laid the stage well. All day, step by step, he had built his drama, paced it slowly, risked possible failure with his interminable reports, while he prayed for Nature to hurry up a proper denouement. For once, Nature cooperated generously.

Bennett’s dramatic appearance before the committee secured passage of the Soil Conservation Act, with no dissenting votes cast. It was the first soil conservation act in the history of this or any other nation.

Now that all our food comes from the supermarket rather than the soil, Hugh Hammond Bennett’s words may lack the relevance they once did. Despite that, here’s the opening of his classic 1939 text, Soil Conservation:

In fifteen decades, Americans have transformed a wilderness into a mighty nation. In all the history of the world, no people ever built so fast and yet so well. This will be a land of liberty, they said in the beginning, and as they hacked the forest, drove their ploughshares deep into the earth, and spread their herds across the ranges, they sang of the land of the free that they were making. All that they finally built upon this continent is founded in that faith – that here there would be opportunity and independence and security for any man.

Those things are the power and the hope of this democracy. And they have sprung, very largely, from the goodness of our land, its capacity to produce rewardingly. Yet with astonishing improvidence, Americans have plundered the resource that made it possible to realize their dream.

Moving across this country in the greatest march of occupation ever known, they have exploited and abused this soil. As a result, our vital land supply has been steadily sapped by the heavy drain of soil erosion….

A permanent agriculture…is possible, even where the land is highly vulnerable to erosion, when people are willing to pay the price of protecting it. Where the price had not been paid, civilizations have disintegrated and disappeared.

Take us out, Mr. Fuller...

Not done yet, back to the goose pond soon...

[Click here for all stories on Gaddy's Geese.]


Anonymous said...

I read about Sneedsboro and Allenton and then walk the places, imagining what was there.


GULAHIYI said...

Quite a sight, isn't it? The canal, the port, all that cargo being loaded and unloaded from the big boats...