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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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.
 International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, http://www.sitesofconscience.org/en/who-we-are/faqs/, accessed 13 July 2017.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 “Study of Earth’s “Critical Zone,” 15 Jan. 2014, http://criticalzone.org/national/news/story/introducing-calhoun-czo/, accessed on 13 July 2017.