The South’s ecological woes were well documented in the popular press, geological field guides, and works of literature penned by local authors. William Faulkner, for instance, wrote evocatively of his “postage stamp of native soil,” indigenous terrain scarred by nearly a century of abuse. In novels such as The Hamlet, his mythological Yoknapatawpha County encompassed “old fields where not even a trace of furrow showed any more . . . and crumbling ravines striated red and white with alternate sand and clay.” Students of the interdisciplinary field of ecocriticism have found in the texts of Faulkner—along with those of Erskine Caldwell, Zora Neale Hurston, and other writers of the Southern Renaissance—a sort of cultural reckoning with the region’s natural environment but have had little to say about the period’s visual arts. An examination of works from the Cotton Belt states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia reveals, however, that for a select number of native sons and daughters, the wasted southern landscape offered a subject worthy of contemplation.3
To better understand the particular vulnerability of the region’s terrain, a brief lesson in pedology, or the study of soils, is first needed. The characteristic red clay soils stretching from the Piedmont to the Gulf Coast evolved millennia ago, a composite of intensely weathered minerals forged amid humid temperate conditions. While the discrete Mississippi floodplain and Alabama Blackland prairie comprised rich alluvial deposits optimal for agriculture, the majority of the South offered farmers only a modest layer of nutrient-poor topsoil atop a highly acidic substratum. The explosion of the cotton economy triggered by Eli Whitney’s 1793 invention saw the cultivation of large swaths of ill-suited earth with farmers tilling the land to exhaustion and then seeking unspoiled territory to begin the cycle anew. After the Civil War, market volatility and a diminishing frontier curbed this migratory practice, and growers confronted a new reality of stationary long-term monoculture. Governmental agencies and chemical companies alike promised that commercial fertilizers would ease the transition by replenishing the depleted southern soils, and initial harvests indeed proved bountiful. Such fertilizers, however, were regrettably finite as the additives lacked the necessary minerals, particularly nitrogen, to support long-term growth. As yields steadily diminished, farmers responded by using even more fertilizer, a measure that only worsened the soil’s chemistry. The practice of planting cotton in clean-tilled rows further contributed to the soil’s exposure by creating unimpeded conduits for heavy rainfalls, and within a few short decades, crevasses—some measuring more than a hundred feet deep and several hundred feet wide—split open across the region. The devastation reached an epidemic in the early 1900s South, roughly three decades before the ecological woes of the Dust Bowl and a worldwide economic collapse captured the country’s attention.
Fortunately, one of the first New Deal relief programs engineered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), part of a comprehensive resource management initiative for rural America. Stationed at CCC work camps across the county, young unmarried men took part in reforesting public lands, constructing national parks, and, under the directives of early environmentalist Hugh Hammond Bennett, mitigating soil erosion. The Chapel Hill graduate and author of Soil Erosion: A National Menace had assumed leadership of the newly created Soil Erosion Service in 1933, driven in part by his upbringing amid the weathered terrain of Wadesboro, North Carolina, fifty miles southeast of Charlotte. The Great Plains’ epic dust storms, amply chronicled by historians and journalists, expedited the critical passing of the Soil Conservation Act two years later. But as environmental historian Paul Sutter has argued, it was ultimately the eroded southern landscape of Bennett’s childhood that provided the necessary foundation for the legislation. The government’s attendant media campaign, including feature films, radio shows, and a flurry of press releases, encouraged the public to help restore the local landscapes, and by the mid-1930s, schools across the country had incorporated studies of soil erosion into classroom curricula. In the South—described by Roosevelt as “the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem”—the CCC contoured and terraced farmland to minimize the deleterious effects of heavy wind and rain in addition to planting erosion-resistant crops and ground cover. Justification for such efforts reached East Coast policymakers through the documentary images of Walker Evans, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein, photographers in the employ of the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, later the Farm Security Administration. Purely aesthetic renderings would soon follow, encouraged in part by another Roosevelt relief initiative.4
FDR created the $4.8 billion Works Progress Administration (WPA) by executive order on May 6, 1935, to offer work relief to the nation’s unemployed. Within four months, the Federal Arts Project (FAP), a dedicated program within the agency, was established to provide paychecks to painters, sculptors, and photographers. More than ten thousand artists received FAP commissions during its nine-year existence, not only creating new works but also teaching classes and documenting material culture artifacts. The country’s largest ever program of government arts patronage, the FAP was also critical to the development of regionalism, an indigenous idiom that agency administrators encouraged due to its patriotic celebration of traditional folk values and rejection of European modernism. The native genre, also known as the American Scene, first arose within a cohort of midwestern artists who championed the depiction of local subject matter in an unassuming representational manner. It was within this particular nexus of eco-consciousness and regionalist expression that artistic depictions of the South’s depleted terrain emerged.
Such works were not wholly original. Artists a century prior had utilized ravaged landscapes to explore formal concerns of light and line as well as to offer trenchant social commentary. The earliest landscapes in the western tradition, those that elevated the natural world beyond mere background scenery, notably contained no such environmental destruction. Instead, the seventeenth-century works of French artists Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin presented carefully ordered pastoral scenes in which ancient temples and other monuments of antiquity suggested a kind of nostalgic ruin. Painters of the nineteenth century, considered the golden age of landscapes, rendered more complex works in which scenes of nature inspired both fear and reverence. Termed romanticism, the movement found its fullest expression in America within the Hudson River School, so named for its adherents’ favored locale in upstate New York. Its unofficial founder, Thomas Cole, employed both conventions, the pastoral and the sublime. At the same time, he developed an anti-pastoral visual rhetoric of moralizing scenes that warned against the encroachments of economic progress. Subsequent artists such as George Inness offered even more pointed critiques of the country’s ethos of Manifest Destiny but in more intimate compositions influenced by the French Barbizon School of the late 1800s.