Learning from failure: Agricultural sites as environmental sites of conscience

Al Hester, SC State Park Service

For me, one of the most compelling questions we are considering in this working group relates to connecting histories of agriculture to issues in the present, particularly modern concerns about “health, the environment, sustainability, or other polarizing subjects.” We are all aware of the transformative power of farming when it comes to landscapes and natural resources. And as historians and humanists, we’re also cognizant of the role that power and inequity play in these changes. The “environmental sites of conscience” concept has the potential to make these lines of connection much more apparent to the public, especially at historic sites. This argument, best expressed by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, is probably a familiar one to most in this group. The Coalition defines a “site of conscience” as:

. . . any memorial, museum, historic site, memory initiative or non-governmental organization that commits to . . . interpreting history through site; engaging the public in programs that stimulate dialogue on pressing social issues; sharing opportunities for public involvement and positive action on the issues raised at the site; and promoting justice and universal cultures of human rights.[1]

Others have taken this model and applied it to sites associated with environmental catastrophes, or even places that simply help us explore our country’s “past and present relationships with the environment.”[2] Agriculture is often the central story at many of these places, and more often than not, struggles about race, gender, ethnicity and class are also critical parts of their history. Not surprisingly, the interweaving of past environmental damage and human oppression are what makes them places of conscience.

Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site, located in Union County, South Carolina, has a complex history that reflects the consequences of the slave-based plantation agriculture of the southeastern cotton region. The site is the former home of Governor William Henry Gist, a pro-slavery planter and politician who worked diligently to bring about southern secession on the eve of the Civil War. Rose Hill, because of its association with the history of slavery, secession, the outbreak of the Civil War, racial terrorism during Reconstruction, and land degradation, could be considered both a social and environmental site of conscience.  As an historic site, Rose Hill is already interpreting history through the site’s cultural and natural resources. However, it is not yet formally addressing the present in its interpretation. Pressing modern issues that Rose Hill could address include the legacies of slavery, tenant farming and Jim Crow; racial terrorism; the decision to go to war and its consequences; environmental stewardship, especially of forests and soils; and environmental justice.

Environmental historian Paul Sutter has written on the historical and present meanings of land destruction in the southern piedmont, which suffered from extreme soil erosion prior to the 1930s. He noted how southern cotton land experienced severe degradation over a century, caused by interwoven environmental and cultural factors, ranging from the farming of highly erodible soils to the effects of the racism central to slavery and sharecropping. For Sutter, these areas “are grave markers of a sort, memorials to a land killing past.”[3]  Places like Providence Canyon in Georgia and Rose Hill in South Carolina can serve as reminders that historical abuse of people and land has lasting consequences that can still be felt and seen today.

This long-lasting impact of the past on the present especially stands out in the research of scientists working at the Calhoun Critical Zone Observatory (CCZO), which surrounds Rose Hill. Beginning in 1947, the Calhoun Experimental Forest measured the impact of efforts to restore the land in Union County. After soil erosion reached its peak in the 1930s, the U. S. Forest Service worked to convert damaged cotton cultivation areas to productive forest across the new Sumter National Forest, which included portions of surrounding counties and large areas of Rose Hill Plantation. Despite 80 years of Forest Service stewardship, CCZO researchers are finding that restoration of the land is incomplete and may ultimately be impossible. According to lead investigator Dan Richter, “our study is guided by a hypothesis that the impressive-looking reforestation masks fundamental alterations to the local and regional hydrology, biology and chemistry, . . . much of the Piedmont may not be recovered so much as it has been re-stabilized in a highly altered state.”[4] The implications of this long-running study are potentially of global importance, since the type of soils found at Rose Hill, ultisols, are also common around the world, especially in tropical areas where some of the poorest people live. In these areas, intensive conversion of forest to cropland is occurring at a rapid pace. At the heart of the CCZO project is the idea that lessons learned on the South Carolina piedmont can inform present-day environmental choices.[5]

Rose Hill’s connection to the present seems clear, and I think encouraging dialogue among visitors about these topics could help make the site more relevant. But some historic site managers (not necessarily at Rose Hill) have shied away from the sites of conscience approach because its emphasis on action seems potentially too political. Though some sites pursue a more activist type of history, there is little consensus about what constitutes “action.” How does this type of interpretation square with the work of peer agencies, such as the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, which is more focused on business promotion? Are there non-political approaches that staff can use to encourage change? What about visitor expectations, especially when public memories of agriculture are often infused with nostalgia? Finally, can sites like Rose Hill engage in conscience work that helps visitors see problems on a global scale, without falling into formulaic narratives about rainforest destruction that have dominated environmental education for decades? Soil erosion in the Southern piedmont has largely been solved, so does this emphasis on past agricultural damage there direct us to think mainly about international issues, to the exclusion of the local? Shouldn’t we focus on the lines connecting histories of slavery and Jim Crow directly to modern racial struggles happening much closer to home? What other agricultural sites have successfully taken on these challenges, and can they serve as examples to emulate?

One option is to focus on the modern issues surrounding cotton itself, both locally and internationally. We could encourage visitors to consider labor and environmental concerns when they buy cotton (since everyone uses this fiber). Such issues range from damaging fertilizer and pesticide use in the Southeast, to human trafficking and forced labor in cotton-producing countries like Uzbekistan and Cameroon. Organic cotton farming is underway in North Carolina, and visitors could reflect on how it could be done in Rose Hill’s neighborhood as well. Textile history sites, such as Lowell NHP, might provide a good model for this approach.

[1] International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, http://www.sitesofconscience.org/en/who-we-are/faqs/, accessed 13 July 2017.

[2] David Glassberg and Sarah Pharaon, “Witnessing Climate Change: Toward a Network of Environmental Sites of Conscience,” in Public History in a Changing Climate (National Council on Public History, 2014): pp. 5-6.

[3] Paul Sutter, Let us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2015), p. 198.

[4] Sarah Farmer, “The Calhoun Critical Zone Observatory: Recovery after Extreme Soil Erosion and Land Degradation,” online article at https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/compass/2014/04/22/the-calhoun-critical-zone-observatory/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-calhoun-critical-zone-observatory, accessed 13 July 2017.

[5] “Study of Earth’s “Critical Zone,” 15 Jan. 2014, http://criticalzone.org/national/news/story/introducing-calhoun-czo/, accessed on 13 July 2017.


  1. Julia Brock says:

    Hi Al,
    These are really thoughtful questions about interpretation at Rose Hill and more broadly, and I was fascinated to learn about the CCZO experiment. It called to mind something I read recently–Jane Bennet’s _Vibrant Matter_ (2010), in which she argues for “thing-power”: “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.” In this case, the landscape refuses to be restored. What if we included in our interpretation the “vibrant materialism” inherent in agricultural practice–soils, the weather and climate, invasive flora, etc. This is a tangent to your central questions, I know, but it keeps coming up as I’m re-reading our case studies.
    I wonder how possible it is to avoid the political in presenting the environmental and social histories of Rose Hill, inasmuch as those are so tangled in politics and policies, past and present. And, what strikes me about the Sites of Conscience network is that they offer models and training for dialogue-based public programming that allows for multiple perspectives. Another effort you might be interested in is that of the Humanities Action Lab–its coordinators are at Rutgers and the New School and are currently launching an initiative on migration and environmental justice: https://www.humanitiesactionlab.org/projects. Again, the question is what is “action”? But, they are looking for community/university partners across the U.S. to participate (and it looks like USC is not too far from Rose Hill?). At any rate, just a thought as your plans progress.

    1. Al Hester says:

      Thanks Julia, this is really helpful, and I’ll check out both Vibrant Matter and the Humanities Lab leads. I don’t think vibrant materialism is a tangent at all–it’s something I need to think about more, and I think it could be an interesting angle for our working group. I’ve talked more with the CCZO folks and they’ve cautioned me not to over-moralize, and are encouraging me to think more about the power of things and natural forces. So your thoughts are really helpful to me in understanding a more scientific point of view too. Thanks!

  2. Cathy Stanton says:

    I’m struck by the parallels between the people at your site who are resistant to engaging with political issues and the scientists in the Forest Service who seem to be thinking about the Piedmont in relation to some supposedly original state that might ideally be “recovered,” if only humans hadn’t changed things fundamentally. In both cases there’s a reluctance to see the work of our own agencies and disciplines as always active in changing whatever settings we’re a part of. I think this attitude is shifting in both historical and natural agencies (as the adoption of the Sites of Conscience model definitely shows) but I know there’s still lots of resistance.

    In terms of thinking about land use and agriculture, this seems like a good site for inviting visitors and perhaps staff into the complicated question of how agriculture sits within “nature.” Depending on how it’s practiced, agriculture can be highly compatible with a given ecosystem or immensely damaging to it – like the question “what is agriculture?” that can be posed at the “whiskey farm,” this could be a valuable thought experiment to invite people into!

    1. Debra Reid says:

      Cathy – I like your statement about “how agriculture sits within ‘nature’…..agriculture can be highly compatible with a given ecosystem or immensely damaging to it.” This offers a whole new perspective to thinking about interpreting exploited people in exploited places. Ecofeminists link exploitation; that model can apply to this place, too.

  3. Debra Reid says:

    Al – This overview of Rose Hill has really helped me think more deeply about nature and agriculture. Cathy summarizes it with her comment — “how agriculture sits within ‘nature’.” Rose Hill history extends earlier as a location of pre-contact indigenous land use, as well as that of exploitative colonial production systems (rice? indigo?), colonial and antebellum cotton production within plantation systems, 20th century industrial-scale cotton production, and public policy implementation (possible through private landowner cooperation). That’s a lot, but there is more! I am very interested in African American land-ownership, community formation and loss and dissolution. This site can contribute to that history. Also, even the most exploitive farmers had reason to work within natural landscapes (that is, before synthetic chemicals became prevalent after World War II). Families in this area likely took advantage of natural spaces to sustain hogs and cattle (thus reducing the need to harvest hay). Families may have hunted and fished even as they transformed natural areas over time through intense engineering. Can you document when (at any time in the past) a system of agriculture in the area became non-sustainable. When an agricultural system collapsed from its own inherent vice (slavery as a vice) what happened in consequence? What changes did freedom bring to agriculture? Was farming as practiced by free people over decades (1870s to 1920s) more sustainable for the people and the place? What compromised the systems they established? How did heir property factor in? For a good overview of heir property, see Thomas W. Mitchell, https://works.bepress.com/thomas-mitchell/3/
    Finally, farm families often foraged, and a site such as Rose Hill can stress that reliance on “nature’s vegetables” (as George W. Carver described weeds) as well as fauna and fish.
    Arguing for a plantation landscape as a site of consciousness seems defendable to me.

  4. Leisl Carr Childers says:

    One of the ways environmental historians have been thinking about some of these issues is not just through sustainability, but through resilience – particularly through the ways in which communities interact with place. It strikes me that conversations about slavery, Jim Crow, and the environment in which they were situated may be fruitful. If you haven’t looked at Tiya Miles’s work, that might be an interesting place to begin. Also see Tim Cole’s “‘Nature Was Helping Us’: Forests, Trees, and Environmental Histories of the Holocaust” in Environmental History. Just some thoughts here!

  5. Amrys Williams says:

    Your contribution raises important questions about labor and landscape. I am grateful you’ve drawn attention to slavery—so much a part of American agriculture—as well as to forestry and the Forest Service—housed in the USDA. Most Americans probably don’t think of trees as a crop, but they certainly are. And there’s been some great work on the environmental history of southern forestry of late.

    I was drawn to your idea about using cotton as a way of connecting visitors to some of the big questions at the site. It reminds us that farming is not just about food, but also about fiber. It also connects local stories to global ones, as you point out. And it is concrete and immediate—visitors are probably wearing it. But I’d be wary of taking the think-about-your-purchasing-decisions tack, which implies that these big issues of human conscience that your piece raises can be solved through buying different stuff. That’s another rainforest-like formulaic narrative. Focusing, as you say, on what alternative labor and land use regimes could offer different paths is a good one.

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