Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Southern soil, artificial oyster reefs, & new national monuments

There is a wall in the Legacy Museum in Montgomery lined with dozens of jars of soil gathered from the sites of lynchings around the country. Each is a different shade of brown or red or orange, each clumps in different spots, each was scooped up by the hands of descendants of black men, women, and children murdered by white supremacists.

Soil remembers. It tells us our history and our future. No matter what we do to it, how much we excavate or dump or build, it holds onto our stories. It keeps information about disease and public health outcomes. It floods with water when it rains too much, telling us what the land might look like as precipitation patterns become more erratic. It buries wetlands when canals are dredged for pipelines. It settles after the tops are blown off mountains for strip mining, preparing itself for something else to grow. It stores contaminants—lead, arsenic, cadmium—from eras of industrialization, of war, of development.

Last week, I walked through a yard in rural Alabama filled with raw sewage that had become permanently mixed with the soil. In Biloxi, Mississippi, I waded in the Gulf of Mexico and grabbed a handful of sand that was dirty, a little slimy, and grayish white. This ground had seen a lot throughout history, from the Biloxi “wade-ins” between 1959 and 1963, when black residents stood on it to protest Jim Crow laws that attempted to keep them off beaches, to the record-breaking Deepwater Horizon oil spill that changed the coast. When I got to Houston, I was shocked to find that nearly every inch of the Earth was paved over, and little dirt was to be found. The lack of it told its own story: there were plenty of warnings about the effects of sprawl before Hurricane Harvey devastated the area. 

A dirt road in White Hall, Alabama. Credit: Lyndsey Gilpin

“The soil exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end,” Rachel Carson wrote in “Silent Spring.” She was talking about the ecology of soil, but it seems equally true of what soil tells us about our culture, our economies, and our systemic injustices.

This week, I’ve been thinking about its resilience and power. When I returned home from my reporting trip, I ate arugula and spinach I grew in dirt bought from a hardware store only a month ago. I opened my computer one morning and read a story of 1,475 immigrant children who crossed the border and touched U.S. soil before they were taken into custody by federal authorities, who then lost track of them. I thought of the 4,645 deaths that occurred in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck, when the ground was covered with debris and the government was slow to respond. I left town again to go backpacking in North Carolina and spent hours trying to memorize the colors of the dirt around tree trunks near my campsite after a man said the forest I was standing in would be logged. Driving through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I couldn’t take my eyes off the barren fire-scarred landscape, wondering how the soil is recovering from wildfires in 2016. After jumping into the Melton Hill Lake outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, I felt crunchy black dirt between my toes and thought of the millions of cubic yards of coal ashthat once spilled from Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant. 

I would have noticed these things before, but perhaps not spent so much time thinking deeply about them. This happened because I witnessed the soil bottled up in those jars along the wall in Alabama, in a building set on the ground of a former slave market. The dirt holds such traumatic, haunting, tangible truths about us. When we’re forced to confront those, it can also offer clues about how to break our dangerous patterns, habits, and cycles.

Stories worth your time

A couple of months ago, I visited Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park in Nicholasville, Kentucky. It was a Union army supply depot and recruitment camp where more than 10,000 African American soldiers lived during the Civil War while serving in the U.S. Colored Troops. For years, locals have been pushing for it to become a national monument. I wrote for The Guardian about this effort and a similar push to get Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers’ home in Jackson, Mississippi designated as well.

Babcock Ranch in Florida bills itself as America’s first solar-powered town. This Governing story explains how the long-awaited environmentally conscious neighborhood came to be.

I’ve been binge-listening to NPR’s Embedded: Coal Stories podcast. The latest episode is about the experiences of Black Appalachians.

Bentonville, Arkansas, home to Walmart’s headquarters, is having a bike renaissance. CityLab reports how federal transportation grants and the Walton Family Foundation have funded the bike boom there.

News flying under the radar

Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources appealed a judge’s ruling that it had improperly permitted the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, saying the staff did not violate laws designed to protect the public and environment when it issued permits for a section of the pipeline.

Central Kentucky’s Congressional race between incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and Democrat Amy McGrath will likely revolve around coal. McGrath said the habit of Kentucky politicians using coal as political football has been a “failure of leadership on both sides of the aisle.”

The 70-year-old Republican mayor of Abita Springs, Louisiana is working hard to make sure his town becomes more energy efficient.

Members of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana are helping researchers build artificial oyster reefs to protect sacred burial mounds and their community from coastal erosion.