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Larding the Lean Earth
Let us boldly face the fact. Our country is nearly ruined.
--John Taylor (1819)
The times are changed; the face of the country is changed; the quality of the soil has changed; and if we will live as well, and become as rich and respectable as our fathers, we must cultivate their virtues; but abandon their system of farming.
--The Farmer's Manual (1819)
The changes, which these causes have wrought in the physical geography of Vermont, within a single generation, are too striking to have escaped the attention of any observing person, and every middle-aged man who revisits his birth-place after a few years absence, looks upon another landscape than that which formed the theatre of his youthful toils and pleasures.
--George Perkins Marsh (1847)
FORMING THE FURROW SLICE
Agriculture is an act intimate with the rest of nature. Like the apparent separateness of species in an ecosystem, the boundaries of any farm belie a deeper connectedness. Agroecology is akin to the study of similar triangles, in which the smaller figure shares the proportions of the larger. Take water's path through the biosphere. Small-scale transpiration from roots to leaves involves the entire hydrology of a region, the shape and altitude of its watersheds, the granulation and retention of its soils, and, finally, its climate. Porous borders between human-managed and wild nature appear at every turn. Farms cut out of forests retain all sorts of buried seeds waiting for fire or drought before they can germinate. Deer like to graze the young shoots at edges and corners between clearings and canopies. With all of these relationships unfolding at the same time, where should we stand for a view of cultivation as a subset of the natural relationships in any environment? The most vital place lies between what farmers could control and what they could not, between plants and animals on the one hand and geology and climate on the other. Soil.
As the first and most immovable resource of agriculture, soil was the country. Families carried their corn and hogs long distances, but soil was what they found where they set down and sometimes what they confronted. They might take from it or add to it by treating its fertile nutrients as a rotating fund, but they could change its essential characteristics--emerging from moisture, elevation, and the entire biota--only within tight margins. As a subject for interpretation, soil is rich in material. It formed the living tissue between economy and ecology, the plane that unified food production with events in thegreater environment. Early in the nineteenth century, soil became the focal point for a conception of nature as strictly limited.
The only fertile soil is topsoil, a layer of black loam just two feet deep where all cultivation takes place. All the plants known to dry land grow in topsoil, so it creates most of our food and oxygen. It is the flash point for everything on Earth and unifies, in one body, the three great spheres of life--the gases of the atmosphere, the minerals of the lithosphere, and the organisms of the biosphere. Topsoil is ever being renewed. Pause at any road cut to observe a narrative of biochemical reactions and constant weathering. At your feet are deep deposits of parent rock that blend into higher levels made up of granular minerals, including silicate clays, iron and aluminum oxides, gypsum, or calcium. This makes up subsoil. Just above, in a stratum black in color, soft to the touch, and dense with life, is topsoil. Roots braid through it, and worms and insects tunnel around in it, making it spacious and pliable. Microorganisms consume its dead plants and animals, break them down to basic nutrients, and in this way turn tissue back into plant food. A single gram of it might contain billions of bacteria, a single square foot might host a multitude of bugs and fungi. Topsoil holds most of the available water in any ecosystem. Without this reservoir, moisture finds the nearest watercourse; land dries out; climate changes. It is a filter and a container, a mass of integrated micro and macro matter, and a living substance that cannot be understood by reduction. Its final form contains so many members and symbiotic relationships that it constitutes, in the words of the soil scientist Nyle Brady, the "genesis of a natural body distinct from the parent materials from which the body was formed."1 Soil is the tablecloth under the banquet of civilization: no matter what people build on it, when it moves all the food and finery go crashing. It is the skin of the Earth and is so completely associated with cultivation that it takes a name descriptive of the very act of opening land: the furrow slice.
Farmers gave it names that reflected their work in it, part of a nearly forgotten language of husbandry. There is no better word than tilth to illustrate agriculture as a soil practice. In its earliest, Old English form, with a first recorded usage dated to 1023, tilth referred to any labor applied to land for subsistence. Since work indicates thething being worked upon, tilth soon described farmland under cultivation and the condition of that land. Worked land was land in tilth, or simply tilth. Even more graphically, tilth described the feel of a prepared surface, the depth of it over the top of a boot, the way it fell away from the leading edge--the crumb. Fragrant and deep, with the consistency of butter or stiff dough, tilth defies description as dirt. Why all this attention? Because land includes so much out of human control--the bedrock, the blue sky--and tilth names the one part of land most directly a farmer's burden and responsibility.
Tilth implies the plow, maker of the slice. The plow is an implement used to open the ground by turning it over to form long trenches called furrows. It is a frame with a blade or stick that cuts while being pushed or pulled. There seems to be no recorded reference to the plow in English before 1100, but soon thereafter it began to leave its imprint. It has been sulh and ploh and ar, as in arable. Its spelling could not be pinned down before the sixteenth century, with some writing it pleuche or plwch or pliff. Plough or plow has been in use only since about 1700. It can be combined with a hundred words for various meanings, all related to clay and clod: plough-feast, -harness, -mark, -rein, -servant, -team, -wheal, -woman. In some regions of England plough-boys collected plough-penny on Plough-Monday, when a tenant was bound to plough for his lord. Like tilth, land took the name of the action upon it, as in "they stepped out of the yard and walked through the fresh plow." The plow is at once the symbol of domestication and the world's most feared ecological wrecking ball. It unearths micro environments, destroys nests and burrows, throws open moisture. Whether they accept the charge or not, plow-people become the caretakers of soils. They become the roots and the sod and sometimes even the rain. They become the holders of the fertile layer not only because they depend on it but because they can destroy it. Here is a contract with nature that has not always been honored: rip the earth but be there to stop the bleeding.
If agriculture is a controlled disturbance, then churned-up ground is its worst upheaval, carrying the constant threat of fertility lost to crops and the weather. When they took the trees and broke the ground on a steep slope, when they cut furrows in a wet country or in a dryand windy one, farmers brought on a dreaded reaction. Erosion is the ground giving way, and since that ground feeds counties, countries, and continents, erosion suggests a squandered future, a foolish settlement. Tillage makes soil vulnerable to a rate of weathering by wind and water thousands of times faster than the processes that create soil. Erosion takes the ground in two general ways: gullies and sheets. In the first process, water removes soil by creating small channels or rills that become larger gullies as they widen and deepen geometrically until they consume vast areas. With vegetation removed and the surface broken on a slope of greater than five or ten degrees, rain can bring down a hillside within a few years. Even the raindrops themselves do damage. They strike exposed dirt, loosen it, and destroy its delicate granulation. The smaller particles are then easily transported by running water. Badlands result, with pedestal-like formations and no surface for cultivation whatsoever. In the second process, wind and water sweep and skim the surface for years. Fertility falls, crops are flooded or blown away, or their roots are exposed, or they are covered with dust. Barren expanses result, with subsoil laid open.
One Vermont farmer reported the case of the Tinmouth plains, apparently a region of loose soil over hardpan. A rich "muck" ran away down the watercourse within a generation, silt for harbors, leaving him at a loss:
Twenty-five years ago, I ploughed fields on the Tinmouth plains, which had then a covering of six inches or more of this muck, and they had then been cropped some ten or twelve years; these fields have now not one particle of muck or mold! What has become of it? For the first five to ten years, as I am informed, no fields produced finer crops of wheat than these; the muck has now all disappeared; nothing but the granite sand remains, hardening as we descend, till at one foot or less we get into a perfect hard-pan ... . Where once the sickle paid its annual visits, it is known no longer.2
A soil with little structure, its heavy roots and covering vegetation removed, will slide away, leaving nothing but naked rock.
Exhaustion is another kind of erosion. Although dirt might not fall off the farm, its nutrients can be removed by plants until nothing but poverty grass will grow. As the New York farmer and editor Jesse Buel reminded his readers, "Every crop taken from a field diminishes its fertility, by lessening the quantity of vegetable food in the soil. Unless, therefore, something in the form of manure is returned to the field, an annual deterioration will take place until absolute barrenness ensues." The relationship between profitable yields and the balance of nutrients in soils emerged as one of the most intractable problems in American agriculture before the twentieth century, because, though farmers understood that fertility could be taken, few understood the best way to put it back and almost no one knew the chemistry behind any process. Plants use sunlight to photosynthesize sugars from carbon dioxide and water, and they also synthesize amino acids and vitamins from inorganic elements--especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium--taken up from soil.3 Domesticated animals provided an escape from this one-way alley leading to depletion because their dung was relatively rich in nutrients and, when properly applied to fields, restored most of what crops removed. Erosion and exhaustion were not always easy to differentiate, however, and farmers rarely made any attempt to tell the difference. Lost fertility is itself a kind of erosion, and some forms of erosion are only perceptible, at first, by declining yields. Exhaustion often stood for any noticed deterioration in fertility or the volume of tilth. Cotton planters called land oldfield, a term for acres worn out and fit for pines, whether its topsoil had gone to market or down the gully.
People are anchored in place only as securely as the ground they till. Lost soil is unrecoverable, and the pace of its formation is so slow that the end product must be considered nonrenewable. One survey of a southern district in the 1930s found earthworks abandoned on land not cultivated since 1887. Under the pine crowns, on high ground, the researchers found fifty years of accumulated topsoil one-sixteenth of an inch deep. At that rate of creation the pines would see their first inch in eight hundred years, their first foot in ninety-six hundred years--the age of agriculture itself. In human time it can be lost forever. No matter the mode or the cause, where topsoil is removedor degraded agriculture is impossible and a settled people cannot persist. Subsoils are the bones of the earth. They have no living organisms and no rotting plant food, and they hold little water. All these are lost with topsoils, and people follow.4
When the hunters of the Fertile Crescent ceased moving from place to place in search of food beginning about ten thousand years ago, they commenced a new relationship with the earth. The domestication of einkorn wheat and two-rowed barley did not alter their commanding position as top predators in the food chain, nor did it stop them from hunting and trading over great distances in an extensive relationship with their environment. But one thing did change. When they settled, humans derived a larger portion of their food from the farmstead. Living in one place, tilling there year after year, brought the possibility of scarcity home. Whereas before the great transition they rid a region of game through overhunting and followed another herd or traveled from a place bearing roots to where they could find fish, they now wedded the source of their subsistence. But agriculture is an uncontrolled experiment. For over 99 percent of human history, people hunted and gathered their calories. Place the past three million years of primate evolution equal to a day, and the age of agriculture begins at 4.8 minutes before midnight. Settled society is so new that we are still trying to understand its basic patterns, and it is not at all clear that fixed cultivation is as well adapted or will last as long as the methods of subsistence it replaced.
Historians have often referred to the civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, embracing the floodplain of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq, as the most foreboding example of how the first settled people jerked the ecological rug from under their own feet. A sophisticated network of canals for irrigation captured waves of silt that could be cleared only with extraordinary labor. The ruin of the canals resulted in the near abandonment of Babylonian cities by the last decades of the eighteenth century B.C. One anthropologist described the region as bleak and barren, "yet at one time here lay the core, the heartland, of the oldest urban, literate civilization in the world."5 An epic of urban formation followed by dusty abandonment looks menacingnext to millions of years of hunting and gathering, as though settled societies are inherently unstable.
It should be said that pre-Neolithic hunters also made trouble for themselves. One theory holds that after leaving Africa about forty thousand years ago, early humans caused the extinction of large-bodied mammals (mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, giant sloths) on every island and continent they called home. People live within limits no matter how they live, but by installing subsistence more firmly in one place, agriculture narrowed the niches, narrowed the species, narrowed the limits. Even the earliest farmers understood that their nourishment and comfort depended on what they could transfer from soils to crops and livestock and that if they wanted nourishment and comfort for more than a generation or two they needed to make a transfer back. Soil is a bank account for fertility that farmers draw upon, and the balance is always low.
AN ETHIC OF PERMANENCE
Americans who cultivated the soils of the seaboard spent the balance down. In a common pattern, farmers who had occupied land for only twenty or thirty years reduced the fertile nutrients in their soils until they could no more than subsist. Either that, or they saw yields fall below what they expected from a good settlers' country and decided to seek fresh acres elsewhere.6 Forests cut and exported as potash, wheat cropped year after year, topsoils washed--arable land in the old states of the Union had presented the scares of fierce extraction by 1820. Northern farmers fled rocky hillside fields they could no longer maintain by doing things the old way. Modes once necessary, said one reformer before an audience in Philadelphia, "had been unwisely pursued by the successors of the hardy conquerors of the forest long after that necessity had ceased to exist, until at length the once fertile fields of the parents yielded but a mere competence for their children, and afforded but a pittance for the generation that followed." In other words, as one historian wrote, "The Vermonters used up Vermont."7 Rather than stay and make oldfield provide again, southern planters uprooted with slaves and seeds to Alabama and Mississippi. Throughout the nineteenth century, eastern farmers emigrated--pushed and pulled by a lack they caused but would not replenish.
There is nothing very surprising about Americans on the move. Striking out opened the continent, eventually bringing families to Missouri in the 1820s, to Texas in the 1830s, to Oregon and California in the 1840s and 1850s. Overland families settled up the river valleys in advance of the federal survey; they called for the Army to fight and treat with Indians; they were the speculators and the homesteaders. The people who removed in search of land or minerals left behind one life for another, and it is with them that historians have often traveled, peering into their households and social relations, asking questions about their motives and religions, and following them to where emigrants formed new communities in mining camps and cattle towns and isolated farms. Yet for all its guts and power, the great American emigrant story never carried me away. Instead, I've been struck by the varied collection of people for whom striking out for fresh land represented environmental destruction, moral failure, political decline, and economic disaster. They had a way of looking at the common practices of farming and the movement west that was fundamentally different from that of the emigrants.
The fertility of soil became a source of worry for a group of North American planters and farmers in the decades following the War of 1812. They experimented with agricultural practice and urged their findings through the rural press. Most of all, they recognized a link between an enduring agriculture and an enduring society in the long-settled places and picked up an old word to name their efforts: improvement. Improvement makes anything better by raising it from a rude to a more refined state or condition, but in American usage it specifically applied to the condition of land. To improve land brought it into "better account," claimed it from wilderness, made it serve the purposes of livelihood. A public that had witnessed the joining of lakes and oceans through the Erie Canal and the deforestation of vast regions to build cities and a nation of farms expressed little doubt, irony, or hesitation about the mastery of human hands over theworld.8 Taking off trees and plowing up grasslands brought benefits, not harm, to farmers, to the expanding United States, and even to the land itself. Yet it speaks for the complexity of the word that improvement came to be used somewhat differently by certain cultivators who fretted about the rapidity and the waste of settlement. In this other sense, improvement meant the changes that enabled land to be cultivated in the most prosperous possible way over the longest possible time. It meant to invest in certain crops and animals that, when brought together, formed something unique in the nineteenth century--a highly managed natural environment, an ecology at once profoundly disturbed by humans and made more productive by them. The first sense had nothing to say about the natural environment represented by arable acres; rather, it simply celebrated the happy conversion of forest into farmland. The second sense recommended an enduring occupancy through conservation, pointing toward the creation of stable agro-environments.
Reforming American farmers of the early nineteenth century confronted what they believed to be the depopulation of their counties, states, and the Eastern Seaboard. They reacted by assembling the pieces of a new husbandry. Some historians have called it the Agricultural Revolution, and it was no small thing. It amounted to the most monumental advance in landed practice since the invention of agriculture itself. But the meaning of these events may not be what it seems. It may be logical to assume that the Agricultural Revolution grew like an appendage of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the methods important to this story preceded the steam engine by a century and spun from forces internal to cultivation (though both owe their emergence to a prior capitalist revolution). Until the middle of the nineteenth century, agricultural progress paid no dues to machinery, and American writers scarcely mentioned implements until the 1830s. Without denying the confluence of rising farm production and mechanization later in the nineteenth century, I want to argue that this first leap forward had nothing to do with industrialism. In essence, and in the words of two historians, British farmers and landlords figured out a way to release "the latent powers of the soil on a scale that was new in human history."9
Why did a set of thoughtful cultivators living at the daybreak of American expansion worry so much about land and its inherent limits? What brought them to assert an ethic of conservation? That may sound like a word out of time within a half century of the American Revolution. Conservation did not become a full-fledged program of the federal government until late in the nineteenth century, when Congress and the President set aside various lands--especially forests and extraordinary landscapes like the Yellowstone Valley in Wyoming--that would be managed by new agencies. Elite hunters, the graduates of professional forestry schools, and members of organizations like the Sierra Club made up the citizenry that supported conservation. So what links farmers in Pennsylvania and South Carolina during the 1820s to the same movement? Conservation as a set of ideas for the perpetual use of natural resources is much older than the bureaus established by Theodore Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, improving farmers of the early Republic proposed a measured exploitation of nature as a way of enriching the present generation while promising the same comfort to citizens unborn. Conservation tended to serve materialist, not idealist, ends. The possibility that rural landscape might embody the harmony they perceived in the rest of nature moved farmers, though most drew harder, straighter lines from soils to their fortunes and politics. Whereas progressives of the twentieth century feared that individual opportunity and industrial primacy would fail along with dwindling forest and mineral reserves, improvers of the early nineteenth century feared that population and their state-centered ambitions would fail along with the rural environment.
Even so, improvement differed in fundamental ways from conservation--the former being a matter more of individual restraint than of centralized regulation. Roosevelt appointed government the owner-manager of the public lands with the authority to control devastating consumption. But improvement in the era of Madison packed no federal law and carried no force but persuasion. It urged private discipline in cultivation and criticized the tendency among farmers to plow up too much land at once, spread thin their seed and labor, cut woodlots too quickly. It asked farmers to build fertility as a way to moral progress, a gracious landscape, and worthy wealth. The interpretationof Jesse Buel reads like Enlightenment ethics: "Individuals, it is true, are but units--yet the aggregation of units makes millions, and the aggregation of individuals constitutes nations. We should all act as though individual example had an imposing influence upon the whole." Sounding like Adam Smith, he advised every farmer to adopt the restorative system to promote his own interests, "and by his example, benefit society."10 Improvement represented conservation at the level of comportment--not the centralized regulation of resources but the individual regulation of consumption.
Here was a contrary vision of progress. Improvers dreamed of a gradual settlement flourishing in a limited space and often took their inspiration from descriptions of fleshy sheep ruminating in the rising dew of the English countryside. At times they could be envious of shining white cliffs marking land's end. Or, as one writer meditated:
If a wall, like that of China had been built around "the old thirteen" at the time when they resolved to set up for themselves how different would be their aspect, and how much more highly cultivated, populous, strong and comfortable at this time--But our policy has been, by the prodigal management of our public domain, to set in motion a constant current of emigration, which has not only carried off from the sea-board, all accessions of labor and capital from Europe, but which has drained the old states of their most active and vigorous population. 11
Take stock of these words. They go right to the core and link agronomy to the politics of a certain agrarian class active in the decades before about 1850. What kind of grumbler would imagine a boundary to continental expansion? What kind of complainer, living in a time when steamboats and railroads had begun to erode the once insurmountable nature of space and time, would imagine away everything west of the Appalachians?
The complainers were editors and subscribers to the rural press. Any list of important journals must include the Albany Cultivator, the Farmers' Register, the American Farmer, and the Southern Agriculturist.Niles' Register and De Bow's Review, journals with national profiles and circulations, constantly acknowledged agriculture as the foundation of the American economy. These publications never commanded the attention of a majority of farmers--far from it. Jesse Buel, editor of the Cultivator, estimated that the thirty journals published in 1838 reached about 100,000 people in a total farm population of half a million families. Little more is known about the individuals who subscribed to these publications than that they tended to be men, practical farmers, and more affluent than average. Henry Balcom of Oxford, New York, kept a subscription list with the names of 132 local readers of the Cultivator between 1839 and 1865. A storekeeper, a bookseller, and a builder took the paper. Political leaders read it; so did some of the richest people in town. Most subscribers held a little property; one owned nothing at all.12 The population of conscientious farmers also included the authors of hundreds of manuals, addresses, and columns, as well as the thousands of members of agricultural societies from Maine to Mississippi. The subject embraces the famous as well as the anonymous. There were the major southern thinkers, like John Taylor (Virginia planter and author of Arator) and Edmund Ruffin (also of Virginia, editor of the Farmers' Register), both of whom propagated methods that they hoped would bolster the influence of the southern states and increase the profitability of slavery.13 Northern improvers knew the highbrow Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, whose list of members included the mercantile elite in addition to gentlemen farmers. Reform at the furrow eventually jumped its bounds and left an imprint on the larger culture in the works of people who owed something to the farmers who came before them. By the 1840s a few, like the landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing and the Vermont scholar and statesman George Perkins Marsh, had begun to extend the idea of a permanent, highly managed rural ecology to the whole human landscape.
In sum, the people whose words and works will be central to this book never spoke with one voice and therefore defy definition as a national movement, but they tended to agree on this: heedless expansion represented a threat to the economy and society of the old states.Farmers and planters of this ilk floated a syllogism made up of two premises leading to a conclusion: if a does b and if b does c, then a does c.
1. PREMISE: (a) Improved husbandry (b) cycles nutrient elements.
2. PREMISE: (b) Any practice that cycles nutrient elements (c) ensures the productivity of land into the indefinite future, thus encouraging rural people to remain in the old states.
3. THEREFORE: (a) Improved husbandry (c) holds farmers from westward emigration.
The farmers and planters who referred to themselves as improvers saw the folly of land-financed expansion in the nutrient bankruptcy of common husbandry. They formulated these premises while thinking through the material foundation of their social interests and political ambitions. Their peculiar view of a nation on the move brought them to look harder than others at the uncertain wedlock between peoples and soils.
Improvement is only meaningful in a rich context. As a history of mere scythes and plows, isolated from ideas and ecological change, agriculture has little significance. That farmers in the past shifted their fields between arable and pasture and used cattle to create manure is an unimportant fact. To ask when and why this process gained currency--how, like a pebble in a pond, it altered the world beyond where farmers labored--what larger purpose it served, problems it solved, and events it offset for the people who employed it, is to ask historical questions. Soil restoration and crop rotation existed in their mature forms long before the United States existed, but they soared in importance during the 1820s. The reasons had to do with that periodof stunning maturation that began with the signing of the Constitution and ended with the Compromise of 1850, the early American Republic.
None of the practices discussed here first emerged during the nineteenth century. Major farmers like John Beale Bordley of Maryland and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia acclimatized European crops and rotations to North America immediately after the Revolution, but examples of deliberate experiment on this continent go back to the 1740s, when the Connecticut farmer Jared Eliot published his Essays upon Field Husbandry. The same methods can be found in the papers of Enlightenment-minded planters.14 Their instruction came from Great Britain, where Jethro Tull's Horse-hoeing husbandry (1733) marked the zenith of an era of landed experimentation, not its beginning. By asserting that nature, not trade, underwrote the true wealth of nations, French economists of the eighteenth century, known as Physiocrats, focused attention on the productivity of land and must also be considered forerunners. Stepping back a ways, the Roman agrarian known as Cato advised, "Make it an aim to have a big manure pile. Preserve the manure carefully." The idea that animal dung replenishes organic matter in soils had been around for thousands of years by the time English landlords came along, most of whom took too much credit for promoting what others had worked out long before. Jesse Buel humbled the project in 1838: "What we denominate the new system, has long been in operation in the valley of the Po, in Italy,--indeed it seems to have been practiced there by the Romans, in the meridian of their greatness--and in Flanders,--and for the last half century in Great Britain."
Yet the political setting that lent new urgency to old ideas had never existed before. Consider just a sample of the accelerating pace of events Americans had to absorb beginning in the 1790s: a proliferation of capitalist institutions like joint-stock corporations and lending banks, the rise of factories and wage work, the increasingly common experience of market transactions and entrepreneurship. Then came horrifying Indian wars in the Northwest, the Whiskey Rebellion (1794), the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), and the Louisiana Purchase (1803), which doubled the size of the United States. An old orderin which agriculture formed the uncontested bedrock of political economy seemed threatened by events arising between the War of 1812 and the end of the war with Mexico. The first war invited the quick and shaky rise of a manufacturing sector, soon to be crushed by a decade-long depression following the Panic of 1819. The depression led into an uproarious tariff controversy in 1827 and 1828, whose outcome set off the Nullification Crisis between South Carolina planters and the federal government under Andrew Jackson. The second war resulted in a continental nation. Gold was discovered near Sacramento, California, in 1848, only months after the American takeover. The ensuing rush for wealth made eastern farmers dispensing advice about cattle and legumes sound like cranky elders. The reformation of agriculture had its moment, and these events--especially the depression, the tariff, and the Gold Rush--defined that moment. Still, the context of our subject is far from clear.
Improvement found voice and gathered adherents during the 1820s because it offered, among other things, an intensified production to match the declining value of commodities and real estate after the Panic of 1819. It offered methods for pulling greater product and profit from fixed limits. From here it might make sense to cast improvement as a creature of the market economy and argue that its many disciplines reflected the values that would soon characterize industrialism, but that is inadequate. In fact, improvement appealed for reasons other than rewards from the market. As the historian James Henretta wrote, describing an earlier period: "A convincing interpretation of northern agriculture must begin ... not with an ascribed consciousness but rather with an understanding of the dimensions of economic existence." In the words of two economic historians, "A high rate of return was one goal among many." Merchants became rich by building capital reserves, yet even those farmers engaged in commercial production reinvested everything in their property and remained adherents of a husbandry "not carried on as a means of making money, but rather as a mode of existence."15 It overstates things even to say that farmers made money. They earned little more than 6 percent, often closer to 3, during the 1830s and 1840s. Rates of return from manufacturing often reached double those numbers, butfarmers continued to plow labor and meager capital back into their homesteads. They had their reasons. Most would never own the minimum financing to enter a manufacturing business; they enjoyed a lower financial risk compared with those engaged in other occupations; and, as it turns out, they best employed labor and meager capital when they improved soil and buildings. These fixed assets increased the value of the homestead and brought the surest profit if and when a family sold. Certain farmers and many planters accumulated wealth, but the majority pursued their happiness, in the words of one Pennsylvanian, "where alone it can be found, in a middle fortune--as far below wealth and splendor as it is above want."16
Without question, the majority of improving farmers held a fortune somewhere above middling, including merchant-squires of great wealth who dabbled as members of the more urban agricultural societies, together with the substantial planters who managed hundreds and even thousands of acres. Those who incorporated restorative methods almost always lived close enough to market towns to turn surplus into cash. Some raised the lucrative fibers--cotton and merino wool--not for homespun but for sale. And in a political universe split into two camps, they tended to vote for the party representing tariffs over the free market, the public survey over squatting, national development through internal improvements (like canals) over small government--the Whigs. No improver near great markets, certainly none among the planters, would have been mistaken for a yeoman. In an elastic definition offered by the historian Allan Kulikoff, yeoman farmers "understood land as a means to sustain themselves and their families, not to accumulate capital, even if they acquired substantial wealth and capital." The colonial yeoman family held a collective identity as part of a covey of linked households and sought to advance its material comfort without dependence on markets. Its insistence on noncommercial networks of barter represented an ethic above profit that may be its most defining characteristic.17 The busy, commercially interested people who attended to dunghills in their barns look like the dire opposites of this standard.
Yet this cannot be the last word. As the isolated poles of rural class, yeoman and capitalist obscure more than they reveal and shouldbe understood as points bracing a spectrum of wealth and identity. Improving farmers lived well within the rising market society and never opposed it; they used a manure-centered cultivation for commercial ends; yet they also expressed various forms of agrarian idealism. Some insisted that there need be no contradiction between the latest methods and log-cabin simplicity. Consider the posture of the Plough Boy, the journal of the Board of Agriculture of the State of New York and among the first of the rural newspapers. The editor, Henry Homespun, Jr. (a.k.a. Solomon Southwick), dedicated its pages to all those "who deprecate the moral laxity, the false pride, the dissipation and extravagance, into which thirty years of flattering but fickle prosperity have plunged this infant Republic." He championed the self-sufficient "homespun" family: "It was that family which first raised the standard of Independence in the revolution of 1776; and which never deserted that standard, until great-Britain was taught, that this people would not only make their own 'hob-nails,' but their own laws and government."18 This from the same paper that announced every new breed, weed, and mechanical device and recommended the same intensive husbandry as the merchant-dominated societies of Boston and Philadelphia. No dire opposites here: Southwick never denounced the money earned from surplus crops, only the conspicuous way some people spent it.
All of this bespeaks the complexity of economy and identity in a world that could no longer be divvied up between mercantilism and Physiocracy, between Hamilton and Jefferson. The historian Joyce Appleby has given a name to the messy middle where most improving farmers dwelled. "Liberal republicanism" embraced economic independence without rejecting commercial opportunity. According to Appleby, in the states where wheat flourished between the 1790s and 1819, farmers developed "a core of common interests." The broad affluence of these years convinced Thomas Jefferson that economic independence and commercial agriculture could coexist peaceably. Increasingly, writers on the subject of political economy--merchants and farmers alike--began to regard Agriculture as the trunk of a great national tree, with Manufacturing and Commerce as its branches. This liberalized Jeffersonian vision describes the goals of most ruralreformers, regardless of where they lived: "both democratic and capitalist, agrarian and commercial."19
Improvement also represented an ethic. It is not sufficient to treat improvement as capitalist ambition in agricultural form, nor to dismiss it as just another facet of the market revolution. Those who took up this "good system" of land use no matter what they grew or where they grew it, expressed a desire to endure, to persist, to cultivate as an expression of their stake in local society. The books, articles, and addresses that make up the published corpus of husbandry from the second decade of the nineteenth century into the 1840s asked the same question: What combination of crops and animals would most likely result in an auspicious fusion, feed the larder and the account book, make the agriculture of the United States the "great sources of its riches, and the right arm of its power," and stave off a hunger for fresh starts? Commercial opportunity explains none of the fervor behind improvement, but there is no reason to press the point too hard. Profit and persistence pulled the same cart. As soon as fertility fell below a certain threshold, harvests thinned and so did returns from market. For those incapable of spending the money to make manure, or disinclined to do so, the territories beckoned. "The wealthier the farmer," concludes Kulikoff, "the less often his family moved." Profit, at some minimum level, was integral to persistence. For the majority of farmers and planters who attempted it, improvement simply offered a way to live well enough without having to emigrate and a means of keeping land in good order before it passed to the next generation. Permanence of society, landscape, and home was the paramount value of improvement.20
Permanence was not the paramount value in the culture at large. During the period of its brief ascent, improvement stood in opposition to the most astonishing period of Indian dispossession and white settlement yet seen in North America. Thoughtful farmers understood that much more than soil is brought into question by waste and over-exposure to wind and rain: the prospects of a land-breaking people. The deterioration of soil is the inescapable injury of agriculture to the environment, so its severity is a sign of the fealty or failings of any people who husband land. Signs of failing seemed to be everywhere,according to European travelers and improving American farmers. For them, the richness of well-managed tilth became a standard against which civilization in the United States could be judged.
Americans in the old states saw the bones of the earth after the Revolution. More than a century before Kansas and Oklahoma became icons of ecological debacle, exhausted and eroding land north and south captured the concern of rural thinkers. Humans became parasites of soil. A symbiotic relationship would be the best that could be hoped for, but American farmers tended to drain the body that hosted them, and the vector always pointed to fresh blood in the West. That soils had little to give before they finally gave out became a familiar warning among cultivators who began to demand a better system. Wealth, they said, could be attained not by laying waste but only by that degree of investment in place that Americans found so difficult. The problem turned on a question: Could farmers learn to prosper by generating fertility in one place, even while knowing that numberless acres lay beyond the mountains? Even if waste followed the most avowed logic of self-interest, could it be rejected for another logic? It had been centuries since the farmers of Europe had considered that problem, and many of the first people to record the devastation of American farmland came from the island nation of Great Britain. In the comparison between landscape in the Old World and in the old states many Americans came to understand the bad economy of their agriculture. A tour through the eyes of foreign and domestic observers between the 1790s and the 1830s reveals that although some regions reported full crops and healthy lands, others did not. Though settled in many places for well over a century by 1800, the Atlantic seaboard rarely attained the high degree of cultivation visitors expected from an established country. On the contrary, certain districts seemed badly tended, hard run. Among the first to incriminate American farmers was an English farmer and esquire named William Strickland, who visited the United States in 1795.21
Strickland described a country ravaged by its farmers.22 All the proof he needed that tillage in the United States languished he found in Virginia, which he called unhealthy and "much worn out." He called the red soils at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains good land but for the people who owned it: "A richer district by nature there cannot be ... but, like whatever on this continent has been long cultivated, [these lands] are nearly exhausted." Virginians did everything wrong. They trod their grain in the field to clean it but ended up making it filthy with dust, so the flour came out poor. The wild garlic they failed to weed out of their wheat gave "a most offensive taste to the flour." Oats, a mainstay of English farming, did not appear in many American farms, he stated, "and are every where bad, but those of this state, [are] of the worst possible quality." His deepest scorn went to American crops he hardly knew but whose damaging effects seemed to be everywhere obvious: "Tobacco and maize, which heretofore have been the curse of the slaves, are now, with the slaves, allowed by all men in Virginia, to have been the ruin of themselves and their country: the almost total want of capital, among this description of people, forbids all improvement on a great scale." Strickland's tirade could not be contained: "The land owners in this state are, with few exceptions, in low circumstances; the inferior rank of them wretched in the extreme ... . Land in America affords little pleasure or profit and appears in a progress of continually affording less ... . Virginia is in rapid decline."23
British travelers provided some of the most piercing accounts of American occupancy, but their commentary came with stern assumptions about landscape. They did not always make a distinction between farms well planted and well groomed, and along with their American disciples they demanded neatness and clean till in every instance. Strickland did not come from a country of smoky forest clearings, and he approached the use of resources in a very different way from most American farmers--as an accountant of sorts. He said that cultivation in the New World proceeded as though nature could be disposed of without consequence when in fact there would be a bill to pay. He added up the "costs" of land abuse and factored them intothe money earned by crops at market, concluding that profits from the production and sale of grain are "certainly not nett," because "wheat and maize must pay for their neglected waste, and also for the worn out old-field, which produces little or nothing." He performed his own off-the-balance-sheet audit, reckoning the value of the harvest along with the productive capacity of the land. Well ahead of his time in this sense, he tallied the gross product and compared it with the "external" damage it caused. "Should this deduction be allowed, little profit can be found in the present mode of agriculture of this country, and I apprehend it to be a fact, that it affords a bare subsistence." Americans failed to internalize the cost of ecological damage even when it resulted in smaller and poorer harvests, and rather than make good what they had begun, they could join the "culprits" and other "outcasts" who ran away from the bad balance to the frontier.
Cultivators in the United States had more at stake than English tourists, and they also responded to the decline of farmland. After the Revolution the sight of a countryside increasingly distant from hardwood openings and gentle savannas began to grate on the sensibilities of farmers and travelers. Highbrow planters of an earlier generation, like John Beale Bordley of Maryland and George Washington of Virginia, complained in much the same vein as Strickland. Bordley compared the farms near his own with those of English proprietors, and the exercise sent him into a harangue. The tedious cycle of maize, wheat, and a year of rest with no cover crops resulted in lower and lower yields; and when "resting," the land was "all the while labouring under Oppression from exhausting, binding Weeds and Rubbish,--and the Hoof that beats it to a dead Closeness."24 Washington said the same of his neighborhood: "The system of agriculture (if the epithet of system can be applied to it,) which is in use in this part of the United States, is as unproductive to the practitioners as it is ruinous to the land-holders. Yet it is pertinaciously adhered to. Our lands ... were originally very good; but use, and abuse, have made them quite otherwise."25
Depending on the crops in rotation and the duration of the fallow, this "three-crop system" was either a modest way of restoring land ora rapid and profligate way of wrecking it. After wheat, grumbled Washington, "the ground is respited (except from weeds, and every trash that can contribute to its foulness) for about eighteen months; and so on, alternately, without any dressing, till the land is exhausted; when it is turned out, without being sown with grass-seeds, or reeds, or any method taken to restore it; and another piece is ruined in the same manner." Not English travelers but southern planters coined the phrase "land killing." George W. Jeffreys of North Carolina cried, "Our present, is a land-killing system," which, without reform, would "ultimately issue in want, misery and depopulation ... . There is hardly a farm in the state of Virginia or North Carolina, but what exhibits the effects of this exhausting rotation of crops, in its galled and worn-out appearance."26 In most cases, the problem had to do not with any inherent feebleness of soil but with the easy availability of cheap acres on the other side the Appalachian Mountains, which made any attempt at restoration seem like too much money and trouble. The flip side of the three-crop system could be found on any map of the United States: "Fresh lands of great fertility ... at very low nominal prices, [have] greatly contributed to accelerate among our land killers, the exhaustion of our soil."27
Land killing followed a logic impossible to ignore. The reason American farms often looked so scruffy and downtrodden had to do with one of the most important differences between North America and Europe. One continent had an unimaginable extent of unclaimed land and the other did not. One continent had a severe shortage of available labor, especially in thinly settled outskirts, while the other had concentrated populations of landless people. The colossal imbalance between labor and land in the New World became a catalyst for mechanical innovation and a rationale for waste, because freeholders frequently moved to primary forest or grasslands rather than invest the wages necessary to improve acreage they already owned. George Washington said the same in a letter to the English experimenter Arthur Young: "The aim of the farmers in this country (if they be called farmers) is, not to make the most they can from the land, which is, or has been cheap, but the most of the labor, which is dear;the consequence of which has been, much ground has been scratched over and none cultivated or improved as it ought to have been."28 "Skim and scratch" described a casual cultivation, conducted with the least possible effort, intended to take what was easily available and leave the rest.
The pull of abundance even had the power to naturalize English farmers reared on restorative husbandry and turn them into American profligates. Said one who had seen this conversion in 1819, "I have lost my patience." Superior farmers arrived in the country "with a firm resolve to pursue their own plan of judgment," only to descend "into the slovenliness and absurd customs of the Americans." These once thoughtful husbandmen ended up sowing "the same kind of grain, on the same piece of land, seven or eight, or more years successively." In good American fashion they cared only for convenience "and the saving of labour." The American "seldom or never looks forward to the future and progressive improvement of his land; he uses it as asses are used in this country, worked while they have a spark of life in them, without one care about their support or preservation."29
If farmers had put their assumptions into words, they might have said this: the best way to use expensive labor is to put it to work on the most fertile land possible. Unbroken soils, free for the taking, "finance" maximum yield for minimum effort. Boundless expanses within the boundaries of the United States all the way to the Mississippi River made emigration more compelling than spending the money, learning the methods, and expending the labor necessary to create fertility. Furthermore, freedom from these costs allowed the great majority to own productive farms. Waste was democratic. Conserving land could be an expensive undertaking. Skimming allowed farmers to maintain yields with the smallest possible investment. Consider the political consequences of the landed endowment. Voting rights were pinned to landownership in most states until the 1820s. The Republic as a nation of freeholders--incorruptible so long as they held material independence from any merchant or monarch--found expression in the Declaration of Independence as "the pursuit of happiness." American equality, in some sense, depended on the resourcesthat made every farmer the equal of every other and richer than any European peasant or wageworker. The entire republican project, inasmuch as it assumed that upward growth in population would force the outward geographical extent of the United States, was predicated on the waste of land.
No firm line separated field and forest in the continuum of land use. Every farm in the humid East began with clearing, so the squander of soil entailed a sustained assault against the woods. William Darby, who toured the North in 1818, recorded the consequences of fast turnover in the rural landscape: "The decrease of timber for building, fuel, &c. is already a great inconvenience, and is every day becoming more serious ... . It may be said, that the tenures by which real property is held in this country ... present an obstacle to any plans of permanent improvement."30 Not only did farmers exhaust what they tilled, but they tilled too much and too lightly. "It is the custom with farmers to sow or cultivate a much greater quantity of land than they can properly manage; a consequence of which is that a great deal of good land is thrown away; producing about one third or one fourth of what it would if properly manured and attended to." The idea became fundamental to rural reform and ties that movement to conservationist thought. Farmers capable of making manure and applying it to fields in an intensive system plowed half or a third as many acres as the typical farmer and enjoyed a cascade of benefits: a more productive use of labor, a greater quantity of grain and grass harvested, and a surplus of land that could then be reappointed for the propagation of timber.31
The importance of all these criticisms to a general philosophy of improvement cannot be understated--they formed its core. Maintaining the fertility of soils and a balance between plowland and woodland served a particular conception of society. There will be much more to say about fallow, fodder, farms, and plantations in chapters to come. For now come away with this: these examples of agronomic reproach summoned a form of cultivation that was new and radical in North America. Controversy over the three-crop system only increased after 1800, especially in the South, where a former Presidentof the United States also noticed the troubling decline of cultivated spaces.
One touchstone for the body of thought that began to emerge after the War of 1812 came from James Madison, retired from the presidency and in May 1818 presiding over his local agricultural society in Albemarle County, Virginia. His address appeared on the front page of every major rural newspaper and in the published memoirs and proceedings of agricultural societies in every region of the country. Farmers never simply altered their private property, said Madison; they tampered with environments and became implicated in the rest of nature. Farmers who did not steward their plants, animals, and nutrients lacked the longheadedness, the sense of future, required to build a republican nation. Thinking farmers like Madison came forth as the only people to caution that expansion did not necessarily create wealth or signify progress.
Madison began his lecture by endorsing Thomas Robert Malthus--the doomsaying parson who predicted that population must eventually outpace the supply of food. Though it did not seem to Madison that a "determinate limit presented itself to the increase of food, and to a population commensurate with it," a society could undo itself in other similar ways. The infinite extension of cultivated land would drastically reduce the diversity of organisms that made life possible and pleasant. Madison came up with an astonishing fusion for the time: "We can scarcely be warranted in supposing that all the productive powers of its surface can be made subservient to the use of man, ... that all the elements and combinations of elements in the earth, the atmosphere and the water ... could be withdrawn from that general destination, and appropriated to the exclusive support and increase of the human part of the creation."32 Not only would humans consume themselves out of existence if they kept going, but they had no right to appropriate the entire creation for themselves.
So Madison counted up the creation and set it on a scale next tothe needs of humankind, searching for the balance: thirty or forty thousand kinds of plants, six or seven hundred kinds of birds, three or four hundred quadrupeds, a thousand species of fish, and more reptiles and insects than anyone could count. A hungry humankind would eventually challenge this "profusion and multiplicity of beings" for the resources of land and replace them "with the few grains and grasses, the few herbs and roots, and the few fowls and quadrupeds, which make up the short list adapted to the wants of man." Madison may have discovered genetic erosion, and he used the concept to pound a hole in the hull of progress: "It is difficult to believe that it lies with him, so to re-model the work of nature ... by a destruction, not only of individuals, but of entire species." Such an expansion would amount to nothing less than a "multiplication of the human race, at the expense of the rest of the organized creation." Madison's sense of interconnectedness extended to the fundamental parts of nature, and he seems to have believed that a ratio between plants and animals was responsible for life on Earth: "The relation of the animal part, and the vegetable part of the creation to each other, through the medium of the atmosphere, comes in aid of the reflection suggested by the general relation between the atmosphere and both." If either class should ever decrease too sharply, the atmosphere would be exhausted, the breath of life would cease, and the remaining species would not survive.
Here was a generous and voluminous awareness of nature and human needs, folded into a protean Gaia theory in which the biosphere heaved. It also asserted limits to wealth for any people who derived their livelihood from the ground, and this is where Madison was going. With nature so limited and space for people and other creatures in so delicate a balance, the critical occupation of humans in a populated world must be conducted with great care. Agriculture, the literal mucky methods people used to make food, could cause unimaginable harm. So its perfection would have an effect far beyond the furrow slice. The only safeguard of a republic, after all, is the virtue and good conduct of its citizens. So the conduct of citizens in the care of soils creates the nation or breaks it. In his conclusion to the essay Madison turns to "errors of husbandry." They compose a kind of Constitutionwith Articles, and though the thoughts of a venerated citizen, they are important for being entirely typical of countless tracts and addresses on the new conception of land use:
1. "Any system ... or want of system, which tends to make a rich farm poor, or does not tend to make a poor farm rich, cannot be good ... . The profit, where there is any, will not balance the loss of intrinsic value sustained by the land." This is the First Principle guiding all others: there is an intrinsic value of land that is within the control of all tillers either to realize or to squander.
2. "The evil of pressing too hard on the land has also been much increased by the bad mode of ploughing it. Shallow ploughing, and ploughing up and down hilly land have, by exposing the loosened soil to be carried off by rains, hastened more than any thing else, the waste of its fertility." Madison demonstrated a striking ability that we will see again and again among improvers. He comprehended the large-scale consequences of small-scale techniques. Even more piercing to the ears of Virginia planters, Madison admonished them to concentrate their slave labor on fewer acres as a way of conserving forested land. It was advice few of them accepted.
3. "The neglect of manures is another error." There is so much to say about manure that it will take a section to lay it out. Madison pointed to the key ecological factor in all perpetual cultivation--the ability of farmers to return the nutrients they take. He said more than that. The neglect of manure represented a collision course between nature and the market, because when the entire product of a farm goes to town, never to be consumed where it grew, land suffers a debit. In China land is never turned out to fallow, Madison averred, because "an industrious use is made of every fertilizing particle [from both animals and humans], that can contribute towards replacing what has been drawn from it." He elegantly equated the internal cycle of a subsistence farm to that of a forest, where "the annual exuvae of thetrees and plants, replace the fertility of which they deprive the earth." Thoughtless consumption on a gigantic scale, causing nutrients to move in a one-way direction away from fields, may be the only force of humanity really to be feared: "With so many consumers of the fertility of the earth, and so little attention to the means of repairing their ravages, no one can be surprised at the impoverished face of the country." Madison said that when they exchanged fertility for dollars, planters sold the stability of rural society.
Judicious and precise, the address drew a blueprint for how to cultivate in the same place without the need for emigration. It is the voice of a former Federalist who worried about a delicate natural order falling out and a lack of elite leadership to guide the populace. It is not the voice of a Jeffersonian, for whom nature never came into conflict with republican government, for whom the words "finite amount of land" could never be spoken or thought. Madison, of course, used both voices at different times.33 The address of 1818 was also important for what it was not. It lacks sectionalism and politics. In the mood of nationalism that followed the War of 1812, the Federalist Party crumbled, and parties themselves declined in importance for a time. The appearance of a single national interest lived only briefly while the thorny implications of tariffs and the second Bank of the United States lay unexamined. So in 1818 Madison talked about farmers, not planters, labor, not slavery, and addressed the whole nation on the errors of its agriculture without regard to party or section, as if those things did not exist.
Seven months later the earth shook. Madison must have felt tremors, as did farmers all over the United States, who began to clamor about negligent practice, seemingly conducted by the same invisible maestro. What hit the ground in 1819 did more damage than drunken redcoats with torches. It hit hardest as far away from Virginia as Ohio and ruined livelihoods for the next ten years. The Panic of 1819 set off the first great depression in the United States and caused a panic of a different kind among farmers and planters, who worried that they had lost the value of their land. It is impossible to separatelarger economic and political events from changes in the management of thousands of individual farms, and only by seeing the panic as people at the time saw it will the practices themselves have meaning. A financial panic could be a soil panic, and vice versa.
The explosive postwar economy, rife with debt and speculation, finally went down in late 1818, and the United States entered its first great depression. The shock left no fragment of the nation untouched. And because farmers made the great majority of the commodities and carried the majority of the nation's private debt, their response to the crisis is especially important. Financial events can change the countryside in regions far away from banks, and the panic forced farmers to make difficult decisions in circumstances they had never seen before. Henry Clay described the effects of the depression later in the 1820s: "It is indicated by the diminished exports of native produce; ... by our diminished commerce; by successive unthreshed crops of grain, perishing in our barns and barn yards for the want of a market; ... and, above all, by the low and depressed state of the value of almost every description of the whole mass of the property of the nation." 34 The diagnosis of political economist Mathew Carey hung like smoke over the landscape and captured the fear of the moment: forced sales, bankruptcies, scarce money for borrowing, suspension of large manufacturing, overflowing prisons, countless lawsuits, defaulting families in irons to pay for day-to-day expenses--all added up to a society in economic and social arrears. One speaker at a cattle show told his audience, "I am an alarmist": "Last year we talked of the difficulties of paying for our lands; this year the question is how to exist ... families naked--children freezing in the winter storm ... . As a people we are growing poor." Niles' Register estimated that fifty thousand people languished without employment in the three largest eastern cities, and by another estimate half a million went unemployed throughout the country. Sympathetic stories of desperate theft filled the papers, and the convicted accepted incarceration with gratitude.35
The panic brought into question the profitability (or in economic terms, the rent) that a farmer could expect from quality farmland. During a brief interval, and in certain locations, improvement became a crusade in which concerned planters and farmers articulated practices intended to keep themselves in business and in place during the bust. The reasons for their fear had to do with the panic itself.
Cotton prices, a benchmark indicator of the early national economy, soared between 1815 and 1818, reaching 32 cents a pound. The prices for many other commodities also reflected spectacular growth and runaway demand as the United States concluded its second war with Great Britain. But when European production picked up again after the peace, English textiles began to re-enter American markets. Worse, high prices for American cotton sent British manufacturers looking for a cheaper source, which they found in India. By the end of 1818 the price of cotton at Liverpool had begun to flutter before it fell to 26 cents. American markets reacted with one sharp drop followed by another, so that although the price seemed to bottom out in 1821 at 13.5 cents, after a rally of sorts in 1826 it crashed again, landing at 11 cents.36 The second Bank of the United States once fueled the boom in trade and manufacturing with expansionary credit; it now brought on the bust by demanding its major debts. Autumn of 1818 marked the scheduled repayment for the Louisiana Purchase, and the bank had been in a deflationary mode since summertime, calling in notes from branch banks, holding on to its gold.37 Sinking cotton and shrinking credit threw a one-two punch felt from Atlanta to Cincinnati. Businesses failed; banks failed. The economy, it was revealed, did not stand on solid prairie but quivered on stilts over a swamp.
Planters had purchased additional land to rake in the money during the flush times, and many northern farmers had gone into debt with merchants, thinking that high prices would always be there to help them pay off the cost of furnishings and other goods. The quality of production hardly mattered as long as upland cotton went for 32 cents. Before the crash, planters believed that they could make money with the least imaginable work and attention. Said one from South Carolina, looking back: "In the halcyon days of high prices and prosperity, when mother earth was made to render her treasure at anyand every cost, it was thought sufficient to constitute a planter to be the owner of lands and slaves," while the real management went to an overseer with no interest or stake in the plantation.38 Now, with prices low and lenders asking for payment, slovenly fields no longer yielded at profitable levels. A dismal reckoning took over. The market tied the value of land to the value of crops, so when prices fell, so did any accounting of the invested wealth of farmers. To a family mostly content with producing for themselves and with no thought of moving, that fact might not have mattered very much, but for anyone with heavy loans against their holdings the panic was much more serious. When the work of slaves resulted in lower returns, their value also suffered. Powerless over prices, planters and farmers could either escape to the frontier or look inward to the unrealized productive capacity of their land.39
For rural people the panic began before it began. Some of the most pointed and frightened declarations came the year before, even with cotton prices high. The deflation that began in the summer of 1818 had everything to do with this anxiety, but something else scared planters even more than the banks. Tench Coxe, protégé of Alexander Hamilton, published an appendix to a kind of policy brief he had first issued in 1817 on the subject of the international cotton supply. What Coxe had learned in the meantime about the extent of the trade between Britain and its colony on the subcontinent made him shudder and rush to press. Freight from India to Britain ran cheaper than it once had--bad news, but only the beginning. India enjoyed a longer and hotter growing season, and the extent of its cotton land was greater than the entire Louisiana Purchase. "The ruin of the cotton market at home, as well as abroad, would occasion much of that great portion of population to turn to the cultivation of grain, cattle, tobacco, rice, and sugar, so as seriously to affect their prices, and injure our general planters and farmers ... . No fact or prospect threatens our agriculture with so much substantial evil, as the rivalship of our cotton wool by foreign cotton wool."40 To avoid being pauperized, planters, urged Coxe, should put in other crops, at least during 1819. Even news of high prices carried dark undertones the year leading up to the panic. Niles' Register remarked that the enormous value of cotton"is, to our southern brethren, far more productive of wealth than the mines of Mexico and Peru," but the article ended with this: "The British still talk much about supplying themselves with cotton from India--last year they received 30,000 bales, and they say they expect 150,000 bales in 1818."41 Coxe said that India had 220,000 bales packed and ready to ship.
This is the early intelligence that may have prompted James Madison to write his address, and it animated planters and farmers in almost every other state to call for wiser cultivation. Farmers also felt the lurch and hurl of the manufacturing economy, now up again, now down, with surges in imports countered by tariffs to slow the pace of commerce. Though the panic seemed to affirm agriculture as the only sure fountainhead of the Republic in the eyes of some, it also placed pressure on farmers to make up the difference in national wealth. Another effect of the crisis (mostly in the North) was to drive entrepreneurs back into agriculture, thus, according to Mathew Carey, "converting customers into rivals, increasing production, and diminishing the home market."42 Many of the people who set up factories had recently been farmers, and some had produced the very raw material that they now milled or spun into finished products. The enterprising might wear one hat or another, depending on the advantage of the moment. A writer known only as The Speculator recommended this as a policy of survival: "Every man who reads this, who is gaining nothing or going behind hand, should turn his attention to agriculture." 43 He was talking to the merchant without customers, the physician without patients, the lawyer without clients. This "backward shift," as it was called by those who saw it as a falling back from the march of civilization, had begun in 1815 and continued all through the depression of the twenties. Madison mentioned it too, observing that "the manufacturer readily exchanges the loom for the plough, in opposition often, to his own interest."
For those who refused the lure of fresh fertility, all this chaos made them blink at the sight of land in cultivation. During the expansion that lasted from the 1770s through the Monroe administration, when wheat was high from Virginia to New York and farmers shippedit across the Atlantic, improved land could be bought and sold with confidence and represented nearly all the money that a family would ever see. The bust weakened that confidence and forced farmers into another kind of calculation. If the little capital that farmers invested in arable acres became stagnant, then their only refuge was to make the most of the ground they owned. Not land as paper affluence but land as dirt and plants--that is the change that the panic brought. In an instant, the ways that farmers created food and fiber had enormous implications for their own wealth and the prosperity of the United States. Those farmers who, because of political interest, economic obligation, or moral persuasion, refused to consider a life in the West lashed out at waste as they felt the discomfort of ecological limits.
Gathering in 1818, the members of the Society of Virginia for Promoting Agriculture considered their plantations as links in a chain extending from soil to practice to politics. The metal had worn thin:
A soil originally fertile, has been rarely improved; and has, in many places, been reduced to such a state of sterility as scarcely to compensate the expense of cultivation. Taking possession of an immense wilderness, covered with thick forest, our ancestors were compelled to employ immense labour in clearing it. For a long time their utmost industry scarcely enabled them to open a sufficient quantity of ground to furnish subsistence for their families. Continual cultivation was produced by necessity, and exhaustion was the unavoidable consequence. New lands invited and rewarded the labourer; and cutting down and wearing out, became habitual. The effect belonged to the cause, and flowed naturally from it. But the cause exists no longer ... . That necessity which originally impelled us to cut down, now impels us, with a force no less urgent, to restore the fertility of which our soil has been deprived. 44
The effect belonged to the cause. Landwash and squander became an economic problem when the price of cotton faltered, transformingonce-adequate low yields into a sterility that scarcely compensated the expense of cultivation. Sensing the coming decline months before the banks did, these planters declared themselves against cutting down and in favor of restoration. The Memoirs of the society continue from this preface to papers on various subjects relevant to the dire conditions of land in Virginia: the cultivation of Indian corn, artificial grasses, the Hessian fly, the rotation of crops, plaster of Paris, defects in agriculture.
James Mercer Garnett of Virginia claimed that worn-out land returned to wilderness. He reported seeing farms "now almost entirely overspread with vast and gloomy thickets," deer "more abundant in several of these counties" than when they were occupied by Indians, wolves haunting the night as they once did, pine and cedar sprung like weeds in the footprints of long-gone planters--this was Virginia. Garnett did not shrink from the largest possible implications of the bad system--the slackening of civilization in his state, its accelerated depopulation, its widening poverty. In his own study, the large number of acres recently offered for sale indicated an agricultural crisis. Planters sold for many reasons, he admitted, "yet I believe it may be assumed as a general fact, that very few, not enough to form an exception worth calculating, would sell, unless they found agriculture here, a losing business." Garnett examined two newspapers, where he discovered 21,773 acres advertised. By extending that quantity to the twenty other newspapers published throughout the state, he calculated the number of acres offered in 1818 at close to 500,000.45
Northerners feared the depression no less. Samuel H. Black, speaking before the Agricultural Society of New Castle County, Delaware, described destruction, denial, and emigration:
Whatever diversity of opinion may prevail on the subject of farming and on the value of land, that both at present amongst us, are in the most melancholy and wretched state of depression, will, I think, be readily admitted by all; that crops of every kind, have of late years, almost totally failed; and that, to the laborious husbandman, scarce a single hope seems left at which he can grasp to encourage him to new efforts ... ; thisgloomy truth is felt, and admitted in every sphere of life, from the pauper in the poor-house, to the most wealthy man in the state.
The owners of land attributed the problem to "every other, than the true cause--the seasons, the climate, the Hessian-fly, the stunt, the louse, the grub, the clay and the sand, with an endless variety of other imaginary evils ... . The tiller of the ground has perhaps hardly dreamed, that in execrating the cause of his ill success, he but calls for the vengeance of Heaven on his own head. All these plagues are but symptoms, and not as he may have supposed, the cause of his misfortune." 46 Robinson Crusoe used up all the wood on his island, Black argued, but no one blames the wood or the fire or the sultry air for his loss of comfort. Crusoe's island presented him with obvious limits, while most American husbandmen saw the next county or the next state.
On the brink of depression, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture committed itself to a mutuality of agriculture and commerce. Founded in 1785 and the most respected organization of its kind in the country, the PSPA counted a membership both active and honorary that included Nicholas Biddle, president of the second Bank of the United States; Mathew Carey, a political economist and advocate of manufacturing; Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky; Tench Coxe; Noah Webster of Connecticut; Josiah Quincy, a merchant and gentleman farmer from Boston; and James Pemberton Morris, a farmer from Bucks County, Pennsylvania (whom the reader will meet again).47 Its president announced in November 1818 that all the cash and hard goods changing hands in the merchant houses, evidence of "the rapid accumulation of wealth from a prosperous state of foreign commerce," had the effect of taking public attention away from agriculture, which had been left alone "to struggle against every obstacle." As judges and financiers saw it, the hardships and embarrassments of the depression "prove how necessary a prosperous state of Agriculture is to the success of Trade." After all, "soil is the basis of national wealth, and its cultivation the only permanent source from which its prosperity can be derived."48
Farmers would never join the humming world of commerce and manufacturing as equals as long as they resisted a rethinking of their fundamental practices. Like the Virginians, Frederick Butler of New England argued that farmers needed to learn a new system altogether, one that would be a studied rejection of what they had been taught by the generation before them: "Let us remember, that this system of husbandry which I have laid down, would have no more, and no better, applied to our fathers, than to the present inhabitants of the fertile wilds of Illinois." In both cases settlers lived in the illusion of limitless gain. "The more corn they could plant, and the more wheat they could sow, the more profits they derived." That way of thinking placed rural production on a collision course with capitalist opportunity because it failed to account for scarcity The countryside of the seaboard states had grown to maturity since the Revolutionary generation, and farming would have to change too: "What in them, under that rich state of soil, was good farming, has become to us, under the exhausted state of the soil, bad farming." Some anticipated that the depression would force a new paradigm. As one textbook for schools announced in 1824, "The time will come, and indeed in many places now is, when the land, repeatedly wounded by the plough-share, and exhausted of its riches, shall be too weak, of itself, to make plants grow with their former luxuriance. This may be called THE ERA OF SYSTEMATIC AGRICULTURE."49
With so much converging on it, the furrow slice became a central location where Americans contemplated nature and economy in the early nineteenth century. Uninspired by distant river valleys, disdaining those statesmen who urged Americans to break the continent to the plow, an important minority of farmers and planters decided to dig in, preferring to rethink agriculture rather than remake their world on the frontier.50
At the center of these concerns stood a pile of dung. Unattractive and strange to the uninitiated but a stern monument to those who knew its ways, dung held great power. If improvement and all that it stood for had a single symbol, it was this--the steaming excrement that completed a circle in the land large enough to enclose the riches of rural life, strong enough to make the farm equal in strength to thechanges taking place in the upstart sectors of the post-1812 economy. If the farm would stand with manufacturing or against it, one thing was certain: it would have to make manure. And to those who claimed that the glory of the United States lay in the West and that the unceasing exploitation of soil would result in a prosperous nation, the dunghill argued otherwise. Onto this single hot and aromatic structure improvers heaped all their hopes and goals: a permanent rural society, the leadership of responsible elites, a countryside distinguished for its beauty and neatness, the application of reason to artifice, and various desires for integration or isolation from the wider world--all of it seemed possible when dung got mixed up with soil. The dunghill seemed to offer a way out of the paradox of a declining environment that would provide the raw material for an economic revival. At the moment they realized that agriculture had resulted in widespread degradation, farmers all over Atlantic America came to believe that the same soil could bear a great deal of economic and political weight.
Emerging from the depression in states up and down the Atlantic seaboard was an American response to "land killing" that called for the union of cattle and grass in a synergy that created dung. Not the dung of the riverside and the woodlot, but dung that could be saved, composted, fermented, and applied to specific fields at specific times of year. Many readers from city or suburb, like me, may judge dung on its more obvious qualities. It smells bad and harbors bacteria. Ordinarily it should not be left lying around on the ground. But farmers of the past knew it better. They knew its texture, its tendencies when fresh or rotting, how it piled, how it spread, how to collect its "juices" in the barnyard so that nothing would be lost. They knew the stuff for what it was--the partially digested wealth of their farms in a form that could be hauled to fields and made to turn another crop. The Virginia farmer who allowed his animals to graze along the branch stream or among the pines could never create manure; the Pennsylvania farmer who let the stuff pile up around the barn until it blockedthe doors also let the fountain of fertility run into a ditch. Manure needed to be collected and cared for; it needed to be dug out from pens, layered with straw, covered from the wind and sun. For John Taylor, a Virginia planter and author of a collection of agrarian essays published as Arator, well-dunged soil was to its alternative what the pippin apple of the orchard was to the crab of the wilderness: tame, plenteous, domesticated--a victual that fattens animals and makes the country sweet.
It begins low in the gut of the animal, in brothy, vaporous chambers. Once course fodder from pasture or pen is taken in by lips and teeth, it is chewed, mixed with saliva, rolled into a bolus, and ejected into the anterior rumen, the first of four compartments in the marvelous ruminant stomach.51 Billions of bacteria and protozoa inhabit the vatlike gut. There they ferment the green food and through their own digestion produce great domes of gas, which must be voided to prevent dangerous bloat in the host animal. Rumination is the regurgitation of the ingesta and the re-forming of the bolus for further chewing and re-swallowing. A period of rumination may last two hours. Chomped to fine particles, subjected to more fermentation, still blooming volumes of methane, the ingesta moves through the stomach: reticulum, omasum, abomasum. Most of the nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine before the undigested feed, now fecal matter, spills into the lower tract. Then the muscles get involved, and the bowels finally move, and then comes the exit. A circle in time and space completed, though the cow is unimpressed by it (to say the least).52 The inside of a cow seems designed for the difficult task of extracting nutrition from a substance--cellulose--that does not easily give it up. After the entire process has reached its conclusion, the undigested leftover still contains a surprising amount of its original nutrients. It is as though the cow borrows fodder, then gives it back, only somewhat worn.
Dung that returns becomes manure, the name for any substance that augments the fertility of soils. Manure is both verb and noun--the word is used to refer to the process of applying a particular material for fertilization as well as to the material itself. When it falls out hot, call it dung; when it goes to rot in mounds of straw, call it manure.There is green manure (any crop plowed under) and mineral manure (lime or gypsum). Manure, unlike topdressings (fertilizers applied once crops are in the ground), is always applied before planting. And yet dung by any other name did not smell quite the same to nineteenth-century cultivators as the animal or "putrescent" manures. They included the dung from birds (also known as guano), town dung (from horses), night soil (from people), urine, and fish.53 The domestic quadrupeds all provided farmers with fine feces, but none provided the quality or quantity of that which came from cattle. Farmers prized this stuff most of all, and for many writers manure and cow dung seemed to be the same. As the New York editor Jesse Buel put it, "Cattle and sheep make manure,--manure makes grain, grass and roots--these, in return, feed the family, and make meat, milk and wool;--and meat, milk and wool are virtually money, the great object of the farmer's ambition, and the reward of his labors. This is the farmer's magic chain, which, kept bright by use, is ever strong and sure; but if broken, or suffered to corrode by neglect, its power and efficacy are lost."54 When people structured the farm to feed the furrow, they fed themselves for centuries.55
The payback was remarkable. Not only did cow dung contain all the nutrients that plants took from soils, it contained them at high levels and in a form that plants could easily put to use. The digested plant matter that comes out the hind end is almost identical in its chemical composition to what goes in the front. As a rule, notes the soil scientist Nyle Brady, 75 percent of the nitrogen, 80 percent of the phosphorus, and 90 percent of the potassium found in the feed are voided by the animals. Yet the manure itself is mostly water--between 60 and 85 percent--so it might contain only 2 percent by wet weight of each of the three key nutrients. Manure keeps on giving for years after its last application. Researchers in a famous English study dunged a test plot with thirty-four megagrams of farm manure for twenty years between 1852 and 1872, then stopped. The plot maintained a higher level of fertility for the next hundred years than ground never fertilized.56
The question for any farmer was how much to apply for best results. There was no adequate answer during the nineteenth century,since how much to apply depended on the expectations farmers had for the size of their yields and the nutrient composition of a load of dung depended greatly on the quality of feed that cows consumed to make it. At the average composition of 0.5 percent nitrogen, 0.25 percent phosphorus, and 0.5 percent potassium per unit of solid dung, it takes 2 metric tons (2.2 short tons) to equal just 100 kilograms of the supercharged factory-made fertilizer popular today. Farmers intent on using animal manure to duplicate the punch of synthetic mixes need eighteen to twenty tons per acre.57 Richard Meinert estimates that cows of almost two centuries ago, with lower-quality feed and breeding than their descendants, would have voided about 120 pounds of dung and urine in a day. An annual range of between five and ten tons per acre would probably have satisfied improving farmers of the 1820s. The low end represents the absolute minimum to maintain soil organic matter; the high end equals the yearly production of half a cow. In other words, keeping ninety acres of arable safely in crops required the digestion of forty-five cows.58
John Lorain of Centre County, Pennsylvania, recorded a number of key statistics describing his own production of manure that allow for some of the best estimates of the needs and capacities of the 1820s farm. Lorain calculated the weight of roots, grasses, and cornstalks, added that to leaves from his woods, and had the whole mash "saturated well with the juices of the cattle yard, [to] form a great weight." The weight came to fifty-four tons, gladly consumed by his cattle to produce fourteen loads of manure, thirty-two cubic feet each, in an undefined period of time. A "load" in this case weighed 2,742 pounds, so this dung yield came to over nineteen tons--about what ten nineteenth-century cows could make in one month. The farm in Centre County enclosed 106 acres, of which Lorain used 20 for "convertible husbandry," or the periodic conversion of different parts of the same farm from fodder crops to grains to meadow. He kept 4 in clover or turnips, 4 in wheat or oats, and 12 in grasses. Divide the tons per year by 20 acres, and the result is 11.5 tons per acre per year--the digestive output of about half a cow per acre. Lorain would have emptied his pens once every two or three days because ten cows would have discharged three thousand pounds of dung inthat time. Under this system, said Lorain, "the quality of manure exceeds credibility." He made four times as much money as a neighbor with the same number of acres who did not practice the good system. 59
Improving farmers did not simply keep the stuff--they invested in it. Animals and grass may have been the raw materials, but alone they did not generate fertility. Manure required land enough for pasture, fields for "high feed" like turnips, buildings for keeping animals over the winter or all year and to store the pile inside, labor to take it from where the animals made it to where it needed to be applied. A proper dunghill is more than a reeking mass. Because dung contains so much water, the best advice recommended that it be set atop a broad floor of flat stones at an incline leading to a drain, so that the "juices" and "liquors" of the barnyard might be emptied into a well, then pumped as needed to the land. Those juices needed to be cared for when they flowed in abundance, so farmers needed to build reservoirs and wooded flumes to convey this very special runoff "for the purposes of irrigation."60 The dung itself may be stored by first mixing it with straw to absorb the liquid. "Too often," stated an expert, the fluid "is suffered to drain away from the dunghill, so as to be entirely lost to the farm." Sometimes the hill was set over a layer of peat, marl, and chalk in a further attempt "to absorb those valuable juices that otherwise might be lost."61
The great divide in all these requirements, the one that drove a wedge between those who did and did not practice the new husbandry, came down to labor. How to remove three thousand pounds of dung from a barn twice a week? Farmers either found the hands to do the disagreeable work or lost sight of the sun as their barns filled up. Lorain told of people forced to burn their barns to the ground, a plan they called "more economical than encountering the labour of removing the manure," and it's not difficult to believe. The stuff then had to be shoveled into a cart and moved to fields near and far for an even spread. Those short of workers often put too much on convenient fields and gave little or none to more distant places. Turning it under added another task, but it guaranteed that the manure would become part of the topsoil without being carried away by wind or water.It all added up. Lorain spent $522 a year to pay a man and a boy to haul loads to fields and realized "that much labor, and very considerable expense, will be found necessary to restore the grounds to their original state of fertility."62 A native of Fauquier County, Virginia, said the same: "To make poor land rich, it must be admitted, is at all times an expensive and difficult business--it furthermore is a work of time."63
Though anyone with the desire could plant a little grass and pen a few cattle, the people who operated a complete system raised manure to a top priority. Making manure, more than any other single practice, represented the intention and wherewithal of any farmer to remain on land presently cultivated.
None of this explains very much about the process of making dung in great quantities. To find out about that, we need to reach back to the source of the core practices. The people who thought most about increasing returns from a limited space during the nineteenth century were members of the British aristocracy and their tenants. They called it field-grass husbandry and also alternate, convertible, and up-and-down husbandry--all names for the same intensive integration of animals and arable fields. The best way to understand it is by what it replaced in the English landscape. In the old "open field" system, arable (plowed fields for grains and row crops) and pasture made more or less permanent patterns, with a fallow (year of rest) rotated through, much like the three-crop system of the South. Open fields depended on rotation as a way of replicating in a fixed space the practices that farmers and pastoralists once employed over vast regions. Where ancient tillers cultivated fields once every few years or took roots and other plants without formal cultivation, by about A.D. 800 Europeans had initiated a two-field system in which they fallowed for fertility. Where the keepers of flocks once traveled in seasonal migratory circuits, burning the ground in mountain meadows and forest un-derstories to produce forage for their next visit, by about the same time European animals grazed on permanent pasture. The historianStephen Pyne describes this more sedentary pattern: rather than rotate the farm through the landscape, Old World farmers learned to rotate the landscape through the farm.64
The problem with the open-field system for the British gentry was that fallow very often fell short of replacing all that crops removed. Without the addition of manures or a cover of clover (which transfers atmospheric nitrogen to soils), a year of rest accomplished next to nothing and simply had the effect of wearing out tilth over a longer period of time than constant cropping. It takes much longer than a year for organic matter to accumulate and form a little humus (a name for the decaying organic matter on the surface of forest soils). In fact, depending on the environment where people tried them, systems of burning and deferral sometimes required a downtime of up to ten years. In a time and place of land abundance, long periods of dormancy could be endured by shifting cultivated spaces through an extensive landscape. In a time and place of land scarcity, the restoration of land needed to come from within the farmstead. Historians have long assumed that such a method first appeared during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the British gentry asserted rights over ancient common lands and finally "enclosed" them behind hedges by the blunt force of parliamentary acts. Having abolished all communal rights and obligations, having nullified local custom, they became the masters of great tracts, now squared and consolidated, where they created a landscape that reflected their aesthetic and financial interests. Their desire for profit and continuous cropping led the aristocracy to generate fertility. Here is the crux: without convenient wastes or open-field fallow to provide them with nutrients, landlords required a contained system. They learned to rotate the landscape through the farm with a greater intensity than had ever been attempted before.65
The only problem with this version of the story is that it gives the landlords much too much credit and places the Agricultural Revolution too squarely within the period of enclosure. Enclosure did hasten the new husbandry in some locations, but the innovations that built the "backbone of the Agricultural Revolution" first appeared in England in the 1560s and had emerged more or less in their final formby 1720. The landlords did not invent convertible husbandry; they adopted it.
Keep your eye on the grass as it goes up and down--plowed up for crops, then put back down in temporary pasture, called leys. Progressive farmers kept up to half of their acreage in some kind of pasture (permanent and temporary), with the rest of it in tilth. They converted their arable fields from one use to another in yearly rotations or courses like this: (1) wheat or barley the first year, (2) wheat or barley again the next, (3) clover or peas for hay and soil nitrogen, (4) wheat or barley, and (5) a fodder crop like turnips or back to grass. The return of nutrients in the form of manure resulted in larger crops of grain and fodder, which allowed for a greater number of animals to be kept on the same land, which created more manure--a positive feedback loop.66 What did not go to market or to rent or to feeding the family passed through the guts of animals, so animals became the nexus of the farm or, in the words of John Sinclair, an agricultural theorist and contemporary of Arthur Young, "machines, for converting herbage, and other food for animals, into money." Convertible husbandry did not merely rotate functions within the same limited space; it maintained the dynamic balance between production and decomposition that is one of the crucial control points in any ecosystem. Most spectacular of all for the history of agriculture, the new husbandry eliminated the fallow and made every farm into a manure factory, and under this system the cycling of fertile nutrients became the central ecological function of agriculture. In a word, by conserving its own resources, the old farm replicated in a managed sphere the nature that humans did not manage.67
New intensity came from an old source. The alliance between animals and grasses was nothing new--not in the 1790s, not in the 790s. Until very recently, whenever humans wanted to shake up environments they struck a deal with one or another of the grasses. Paleolithic hunters knew that when they burned the forests and grasslands covering southern Europe, they encouraged the northern migration of the beasts they liked to eat. Perennial grasses thrived on soot because they reproduced through rootlike systems extending horizontally just underground (called rhizomes) that formed a webimpervious to fire. But agriculture did not owe its foundation to bunchgrasses. It exploded from seeds. Wheat is not very impressive held up by the roots, but look at the other end, and here is a plant that invests its sun energy in sexual reproduction. Wheat will germinate in almost every extreme of climate and topography, from mountain meadows to desert heat, from the tip of Argentina to within two hundred miles of the Arctic Circle. It is now the most commonly cultivated plant on Earth. Once unified on the ancient Eurasian farm, the complex consisting of wheat, barley, cattle, and sheep moved along the boundaries of human settlement and European colonization. 68
Convertible husbandry represented an intensification of the Eurasian complex, and it also emanated from the propagation of grasses. The grasses implicated in this revolution came up thick and ripe when planted in rich muck and tasted good to the bovine tooth. Chief among them was timothy (Phleum pratense), the unsurpassed hay-crop species, also known as meadow cat's tail and herd's-grass. Its fruiting head stands six inches off the stem in a long spike of dense flowers somewhat resembling the common cattail of marshlands but not at all like it. It grows well when combined with legumes like red clover, alfalfa, and peas. Timothy seeds weigh forty-five pounds to the bushel--a terrific yield of calories for little more invested than the labor of scattering it. Lucerne, white and red clover, bluegrass, tall meadow oat, sainfoin, burnet, trefoil, tare, and (on occasion) barley--these are the so-called artificial grasses native to England and Europe. They made a richer yield of dung by far than the "natural" grasses, like the wild oat and poverty grass farmers found poking up in the mud around hoofprints in the spring.69 Nothing impressed a northern farmer as much as the sight of large and healthy cows grazing a clean and fine-seeded meadow, and the reciprocity between cattle and grasses is the essential biological relationship in this story.
Timothy leys came to North America as emissaries of a foreign power. The American tutorial conducted by British authors should not be underestimated in its importance, for the image of rural England--sod green and garden damp--deeply affected admirers in North America. The young Frederick Law Olmsted took his firstbreath of it in 1851: "The country--and such a country!--green, dripping, glistening, gorgeous! We stood dumb-stricken by its loveliness ... homely old farm houses, quaint stables, and haystacks ... the mild sun beaming through the watery atmosphere."70 Look! a real Hereford cow, a real hawthorn hedge, a real English cart with a real ruddy-faced "smock-frocked" carter on board ... real flowers! Olmsted sounded as if he had just discovered the original document from which all copies of refined landscape had been made. While Americans seldom said so outright, the mental pictures they held of rural comforts and land in good keeping came from British authorities. County reports in the published volumes of the Board of Agriculture made their way from London to the United States, where conscientious farmers read their detailed descriptions and assembled composite images of ideal landscapes. Cattle and rich grasses drove the greater aspirations of improvement toward a countryside worthy of being framed in the mind and on canvas.71
No English writer made a deeper footprint in this soil than Arthur Young. When George Washington retired to his seat, determined to give it a sense of order and appearance reflective of his own, he opened a long correspondence with Young. More a skilled and energetic publicist than a true innovator, Young took more credit for the new husbandry than he deserved. Yet the manner in which he seemed to scrape the mold off older ways of doing things appealed to certain American farmers looking to lend agriculture the same sophistication they associated with the professions. Young showed them a grassy, burgeoning, and patrician rural life, which remained in the imagination of educated farmers from Washington's time to Olmsted's.72 Americans entered Young's world whenever they opened his many writings, especially his fits of worship at the great country halls. Young believed in the power of the landed class, and he made its success the object of all his effort. He supported the Corn Laws, which placed a tax on imported grain favorable to the rich; he despised the common lands and the wastes, urging their enclosure; and he enjoyed a mutual admiration with George III, known as "Farmer George" for his delight (at a clean kingly distance) in the new agriculture. There may be no better way to make this point than to follow Young during one of hisdiligent tours, and there may be no better place to visit with him than the famous Holkham, seat of Thomas William Coke, Earl of Leicester, one of the most important of the eighteenth-century improvers and inventor of the "Norfolk system," a successful local variation on convertible husbandry.
Even from the page, Young trembles at the thought of Holkham. His ascension from pedestrian along the public road to guest of the manor is related with rising anxiousness. The ascension begins with the slightest gesture of landscape, quiet enough to miss, "a few small clumps of trees, which just catch your attention, and give you warning of an approach." The approach opens to a triumphal arch, from which point it is a mile and a half to an obelisk. First pass the lodges of two porters, then start up a hill, see a number of cultivated fields on both sides of the road, reaching into the distance, finally arrive at the obelisk on the top of the hill, and there see eight views: lake, town, arch, fields, sea, church, planted hill, and the great house. Young finally arrives dizzy and disoriented and, after some difficulty finding the front door, enters "the inside of the house!" Corinthian pillars mark a marble passage in a space so large that "all sort of proportion is lost." He sees the salon and the dressing room and pauses to catalog some of the greatest paintings in Europe: Rubens's Flight into Egypt, Titian's Venus, one by Raphael, a number of pastoral landscapes of Poussin, and Claude Lorrain's Apollo Keeping Sheep.73 But he has been the happy captive of architecture up to this point, ever since the approach framed the great house like a Claudean canvas. He finally leaves the house for the fields.
Young had no doubt that the splendor of Holkham (and thus the power that could be expressed through landscape) derived from the muck in its fields. He claimed that before the events of the eighteenth century, Holkham had been nothing more than "a wild sheepwalk before the spirit of improvement seized the inhabitants; and this glorious spirit has wrought amazing effects." Instead of being full of wilds and wastes, "the country is all cut into inclosures, cultivated in a most husband-like manner, richly manured, well peopled, and yielding an hundred times the produce that it did in its former state."74 At Holkham they laid twelve loads of dung on every acre, marled theground, broke it up for wheat the first year, and from there followed the four-year shift of that country--turnips, barley, clover, and grass. Young described the root crops for the animals, the pens where cattle made manure, the many duties of the lord's tenants, the yields and the incomes that brought the rents that made for lavish houses and great estates. Nothing but a sheep walk, avowed Young, transformed by the master of the house and others like him all over England: "How, in the name of common sense, were such improvements to be wrought by little or even moderate farmers! Can such inclose wastes at a vast expence--cover them with an hundred loads an acre of marle--or six or eight hundred bushels of lime--keep sufficient flocks of sheep for folding ... . No. It is to GREAT FARMERS you owe these. Without GREAT FARMS you never would have seen these improvements."75 A gross overstatement at best. What Young did not seem to know was that the so-called great farmers only extended innovations in use for a century before the Earl of Leicester tried them on the sandy soils of Norfolk.76
Yet the entire effect of these practices, duplicated on estates throughout the English countryside, had no parallel in the eighteenth century. What jumps from the pages of British agronomy are the startling changes to the environment that intensive expansion brought. Throughout the century lasting from 1750 to 1850, landlords and tenants turned up grasslands, replaced old arable with pasture on a fantastic scale, grazed sheep on three-quarters of the surface of the island, reclaimed heaths, planted moorlands, planted hedges and extended enclosures, drained marshes, cut woodlands, and brought at least two million acres of waste under the plow.77 This list includes some of the defining practices of the Agricultural Revolution. John Sinclair advanced the idea that landlords could radically alter the ecology of their farms, and even the overall climate, through bold measures over patterns of land use. "The climate of an extensive region," Sinclair wrote in The Code of Agriculture, "is improved, by cutting down large forests, by draining great lakes, or extensive marshes; and above all, by judicious cultivation."78 English agriculture drove these changes because it drew razor-sharp lines between waste and enclosure, between this side and that side of the hedge. The entiresystem just described allowed farmers to concentrate ecological functions in an enclosed space where a cycle could be established and where nothing with the potential for havoc would be allowed. Fire and fallow threatened the tightened control landlords attempted in agricultural spaces by ignoring new boundaries--fire by erasing them and fallow by inviting any seed on the wind to cross them and take root. Chaos would be leashed, and the nutrient cycle represented by manure would create absolute permanence, perpetual cultivation on the same ground without fallow and without end. The system offered ecological stability in a capitalist mode of production, and it would not be disturbed before the onset of industrialism in the British countryside. 79 Americans did not draw lines in the landscape quite as sharply, but the same ideas appealed to farmers in the old states confronting their own unruly commons in the West, looking for ways to capture the same stability and abundance.
Americans who reached out to British husbandry saw it as the buttress of their wealth and the perfection of their settlement. Jesse Buel never tired of advocating the manure religion: "Farmers should hence regard manure as part of their capital--as money--which requires but to be properly employed, to return them compound interest. They should husband it as they would their cents, or shillings, which they mean to increase to dollars." Writers of lower distinction than Buel said the same thing. According to "A New Theory of Agriculture" (1821), one of hundreds of works on the subject, "Every operation of husbandry, every preparation of land, is calculated to render manure efficacious in its application ... . In fine, it is that part both of the theory and practice of agriculture upon which every other may be said to depend." For John Lorain of Pennsylvania, convertible husbandry carried a kind of charisma that was the extension of the restorative hand of the farmer himself: "The sight and smell of a fermenting dunghill ... quickly demonstrate the course that should be taken with this invaluable article, for when fermentation takes place beneath the soil, the fructifying and exciting properties of the manure are diffusedthrough the whole mass, and nothing is lost which could have been possibly saved."80
Yet the religion also had its doubters, people who insisted that it did not fit the social or environmental conditions of an expansive country. John Hare Powel, a Pennsylvania cattle breeder and a dreaded gadfly among his peers, liked to sling rhetorical dung in the faces of Anglophile farmers. "On the Evils of Soiling in a Country where Land is Cheap and Labour is Dear," he expounded, "I am confirmed that in this climate, soiling can seldom be profitable."81 By "soiling" he simply meant the meeting point between cattle and their well-selected fodder--the wintertime pen where the animals turned out dung for their keepers. Powel argued not against the system itself but that Americans either got it wrong or found it too expensive, and he insisted that cattle failed to thrive in confinement: "The bloated, sleek, and pampered calves, which we have seen taken from soft beds, and dark stables, to be dressed in ribbons or exhibited at shows, are well fitted to deceive dillettanti [sic] farmers, or to decorate the butcher's stall," but they would never be hearty.
More serious than feeble cows was the money out-of-pocket that farmers had to spend if they wanted to impersonate English landlords. It could be done, Powel believed, but only specialized cow keepers and small freeholders "may possibly, if they have the vigilance of New England, succeed." He doubted that south of the Hudson River the balance between land and labor permitted convertible husbandry in any form, for "whilst the richest meadow pastures can be had at $8 per acre a year, and labour can be procured but at the high prices ... no man can profit on a large scale by the system, which in England, has been made successful, by the cheapness of labour, and the high price of land." As for the apparent simplicity of the methods, Powel balked at that too. One reason why many rejected the high husbandry was that it required individual experiment to figure out what worked in a given location. "Hence the great prejudice in the minds of the lower classes of society, against the most improved systems of cultivation," wrote Richard Buckner in the American Farmer. Some raised their voices at the idea that Americans might suffer high costs while bowing over the Atlantic. "Your farming is now all done,and I trust well done," said one manual. "No man has thrown away a dollar unnecessarily upon new and visionary schemes, by making experiments upon English farming in our country."82
British and American farmers may have agreed on the means, but they saw the results very differently. Americans tended not to quibble about or even compare yields, as though they were beside the point. If the new system failed to increase productivity by enough to justify Arthur Young's more sensational claims, that hardly mattered to Americans, for whom any increase was notable.83 British landlords considered yields of twenty-two, twenty-three, and even twenty-six bushels of wheat per acre good but unspectacular, while Americans cheered when that much wheat headed up. One report on domestic grain production estimated the average product of the United States at fifteen or sixteen bushels to the acre, while Germany, England, and France averaged from twenty-four to twenty-six.84 More often than not, big harvests in the United States matched normal levels in England. So although Young may have overstated the power of improvement to generate wealth for the aristocracy, his work carried a different meaning in North America. Recall that farmers usually emigrated not because they had demolished their topsoil but because their land no longer brought harvests and profits sufficient to allow them a modicum of comfort. Improvement offered not riches but stability. For those who stayed east, farming had to be a fair investment, offering at least the possibility of increasing returns, and had to be conducted on land that would never need to be abandoned or sold. That is all the dunghill doctrines promised.
In that simple understanding lay a conception of the old states not as gullied waste but as renewable resource, as the spring of American expansion rather than a casualty of it. Worry over oldfield and depopulation obscured another emotion--an optimism about the capacity of new practices to make the domesticated earth even more plenteous than first nature. Said one author writing for New York schoolchildren: "Instead of farms growing poorer as they grow older, as has generallybeen the case in this country, it is now discovered that they may be made to grow richer."85 Samuel H. Black of Delaware insisted that most farmers sleepwalked for decades "over a mine of wealth, and yet die leaving posterity heirs only to their wretched poverty." Though many sold their land at less than $20 per acre, "or are suffering the sheriff to do it for them," Black concluded that "every acre of it which is arable, whether it be now rich, or poor, is intrinsically worth five hundred dollars." Improvers believed that a generous influence over nature lay in their hands, with which they could create an affluence of fertility leading to the financial kind. Or as John Taylor wrote in a moment of optimism, "The farm well managed according to this system, will, in twenty years at least, return back to its original fertility"86 This is the restored faith of a planting people.
Another point of view gaining ground in the 1830s and 1840s combined an optimism about nature with an overarching pessimism about culture. Nature romantics depicted wilderness as morally superior for being desolate and regarded settled places as morally ambiguous or, worse, fatally corrupt.87 This philosophy contained a critique of rationalism that would have enormous influence throughout the next century, yet it had little to do with actual environments and little to say to those working day to day to manage the disturbances of agriculture. Henry David Thoreau thought all the "many celebrated works on husbandry, Arthur Young among the rest," totally missed the point:
If one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground, and ... it would be cheaper to spade up that than to use oxen to plough it, and to select a fresh spot from time to time than to manure the old, and he could do all his necessary farm work as it were with his left hand at odd hours in the summer.88
Even the richest land exacted the labor of a lifetime in exchange for a life of middling comfort, and all husbanding people knew it. Yet Thoreau dismissed this deliberate economy and asserted that anyfarmer could shift around indefinitely while tilling a small parcel, and do all this with little effort, "with his left hand." Easy for him to say. Thoreau engaged in a thought experiment, camped out in his backyard. He testified brilliantly that people could strip away the suffocating matter that intrudes on a philosophical life, yet he assumed too much about the farmers he referred to as his neighbors. Whoever they were, they lived more squarely than he did at the intersection between economy and ecology.
True, some people had begun to question the meaning of progress. Henry Thoreau's asceticism and Thomas Cole's dismal prophecy in The Course of Empire (1833--1836), an epic painting in five panels depicting civilization's fatal violation of moral and natural parameters and its inevitable destruction, resonated among those who believed that wildness formed an invariable standard. Romantics invented "Nature" as a refuge from "Civilization." Farmers, on the other hand, had no time and no mind for the stark dualities of these intellectuals. Improvers may have composed a minority of all farmers, but they certainly represented the majority culture, with their cheerful conviction in the redemptive power of human hands on the world. Convertible husbandry rejected the idealization of nature by arguing that the full richness of land could only be realized by aggressive human manipulation. The earth did not wilt when touched by people; people wilted from their duty to take good care. These differences, however, obscure what Thoreau and his more conscientious neighbors held in common. Away from the extremes, romantics and improvers grappled with the same problem: how to rescue stability in nature during a time of accelerating change. Many romantic thinkers embraced the middle landscape as an alternative to wilderness, and Thoreau himself felt more comfortable in his bean patch than he did climbing Mount Ktaadn.89 Paintings by George Inness and Frederick Church, especially the graceful Haying near New Haven (1849), confirm the countryside as civilization's steady state. Improvers helped create the very landscape of beauty, compromise, and stability that romantics idealized, seeing it as a realm in which a commercial society might foster both garden and forest.
From this point on, the dunghill doctrines lose whatever unity ofpurpose they might appear to have inspired among farmers and planters in the old states. The nutrient cycles and grassy courses of convertible husbandry never had a single meaning and never represented a single politics; and though James Madison chose not to consider, or even acknowledge, regional aspirations in the restoration of land, others thought of nothing else. No improver in Britain or the United States ever doubted that the reform of agriculture had political implications.
Copyright ©2002 by Steven Stoll