The Dirt Issue

The Soil Stripped Bare

A Twining History of Slavery in America's South


“Open soil, land where plants could grow but don’t, is rare. When man started creating open situations, a special group of plants moved in on him—the sort of thing we call weeds.

Weeds seem tough and vigorous to us, when we try to get them out of our garden or lawn, but in the competition of the natural community they stand little chance… Thus the weeds of our gardens have adopted man just as surely as the rats, mice and cockroaches of our houses.”

American zoologist Marston Bates, The Forest and the Sea (1960)

In the wake of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the marine science blog Deep Sea News turned its gaze inland from the Gulf Coast to point out that a massive stripe of Democratic voting history lined up perfectly with the long-buried shoreline of an ancient tropical sea. 100 million years ago, this was the site of an explosion of prehistoric marine life, the skeletal remains of which sank to the seafloor to be crushed to powder by the weight of the ocean. As its waters receded, plankton exoskeletons and plesiosaur bones spiked the surrounding bedrock with delicious organic carbonates, which do to soils what lime does for failing gardens, the porous microscopic structures of the carbonate molecules storing ample water for the ecosystems above. The first humans to venture into the grassy plains and lush hickory-oak forests that grew up out of those alkaline remains in America's deep south must have found it a paradise of large game and soils teeming with life.

When European colonizers arrived in what would eventually be called the Black Belt in the early 1700s, the descendants of those first Western humans–– including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Mvskoke (Creek), and Choctaw––were cultivating crops in careful rotation and harvesting enough to feed vast and complex societies.

Colonists saw the fertile land differently. Every year, seekers of cotton fortunes moved West into Native territory, fleeing the agricultural destruction that followed each season of their own calamitous farming practices. A century and a half of Native resistance preserved the Black Belt’s biodiversity until a series of disastrous treaties and European pathogens pushed the indigenous populations south and east into Florida.

Under colonial management, the rich, dark soil of the Black Belt, a crescent-shaped region spanning Alabama and Mississippi was transformed into an economic juggernaut. Any monoculture can suck the life out of the land and its laborers, but in the American South, cotton was especially cruel. A delicate, finicky plant and the epitome of a cash crop, cotton also requires labor-intensive processing to turn a profit, with or without the help of a cotton gin. The primacy of cotton would not be negotiated in the name of the law or morality, even once the Emancipation Proclamation turned slaves into tenant farmers. Two decades after the start of the Civil War, the collective agricultural ardor of the American South produced 5.4 million bales of cotton, surpassing prewar output. By 1900, production hit 10 million bales annually.

Around the time of peak production, agricultural schools and government officials joined a growing chorus of soil-savvy advocates calling for farming reform, especially crop diversification, challenging the agricultural monopoly cotton held over the region. One such voice belonged to George Washington Carver, who wrote in 1902 that farmers of the South had been “too slow to admit that the old one-crop and primitive implements are quite out of harmony with the new, up-to-date methods and machinery.” Carver himself was chiefly concerned for farmers’ self-determination, but his warning—largely unheeded—prophesied the dangers of monoculture to the South’s greatest treasure: the soil itself.

Thus the poisonous legacy of the global lust for Southern cotton seeped into the land. By the time the U.S. government turned its attention to the destruction wrought by its favorite export in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, the fury of cotton monoculture and the persistence of its attendant pests had set the stage for the first great American ecological disaster.

Hugh Hammond Bennett thought kudzu was the answer.

After graduating with a Bachelor’s in chemistry and geology in 1903, the burly Carolinian got his start in the region taking what was supposed to be a temporary assignment doing county soil surveys for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A decade later, Bennett was ankle-deep in dirt, his work growing frenzied with urgency.

Consumed by the impending threat of erosion to the survival of American agriculture, Bennett set out to cure the dirt of its exhaustion. In 1928, he published a USDA bulletin titled Soil Erosion: A National Menace, in which he and his co-author lamented the lack of existing research on methods for land enrichment and warned of impending doom in the region. In a nearly sixty-page treatise full of statistical rainfall shortage analyses and proper potash percentages, Bennett refers to soil erosion as no less than an unfathomable harbinger of economic doom. “To visualize the full enormity of land impairment and devastation brought about by this ruthless agent is beyond the possibility of the mind,” he proclaimed in a particularly ominous section titled Looking Forward. “An era of land wreckage destined to weigh heavily upon the welfare of the next generation is at hand.”

Soon after, the young scientist’s career blossomed in the great prelude to the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, which would consummate a hundred-year ecological tragedy. The once-legendary productivity of the Black Belt Bennett's parents had worked was, by the early 1930s no more than a bitter memory for the farmers still bound to that land for sustenance. Fueled by the mounting desperation among farmers of the American Southeast, he made saving the soil of the region his life's work.

Having first hit farmers with its sinking commodity prices and natural disasters, by 1935, the Depression radiated outward from urban epicenters, as workers and families flooded the countryside in the hopes of living off the land. They joined forces with the older farming populations of the South—along with those newly returned from failed attempts to make a living in the cities—to wring short-term sustenance out of the exhausted soil in the form of cheap starches like beans and corn.

Meanwhile, Bennett, at the helm of the newly-established Soil Conservation Service, equipped with emergency New Deal employment funds and data from his decades of soil surveys, fanned out over the plains and valleys to transform devastated soils back into productive farmlands. Teams of young men cut terraces into the hillsides to limit drainage, turned under thousands of acres of fallow crops to hold loose dirt to the earth, and taught farmers to rotate grazing animals throughout the available fields. Still missing from the comprehensive soil rehabilitation program, however, was a means of shielding untethered soils from the ravages of the fierce storms that were rapidly turning the Great Plains to the west into a rootless wasteland. Without ground cover, all the rejuvenated dirt in the South might shortly be no more than silt clogging its creeks.

Who or what first introduced Hugh Howard Bennett to kudzu is lost to history. The vine debuted innocently enough in North America, along with other never-before-seen artifacts like bananas, the QWERTY keyboard, popcorn, the Bell telephone, and an ominously named “horse cutting machine” displayed alongside “circular cutters for cutting the teeth of the above machines,” at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

Coiled around a pergola at the Japanese agricultural exhibit, Pueraria montana var. lobata perfumed the air for the pleasure of the event’s ten-million-odd visitors. Many returned home laden with memories of the lush, dark-green foliage and the bright, grape-like scent of its tiny violet flowers; imported kudzu seedlings soon found a modest market among wealthy Americans, who set the plant loose in their gardens as an exotic ornament.

In late summer, when kudzu growth reaches its top rate and the cotton harvest begins, the deep greens and purples of the twining vine must have looked fine against the backdrop of endless white fields to its early planters––the final dance of the cotton monoculture, whose economic power had propped it up even beyond the collapse of legal slavery. Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers still struggled under the weight of the same bales they’d carried before emancipation; white landowners, many of them former slavemasters, rarely offered more money or mobility than what satisfied their obligation to the weakly-enforced sharecropping laws, and freedmen had little recourse to demand better options.

Anyone who works with plants knows that soil is a deceptively complex, sensitive, and specialized organ. It takes thousands of years and countless plant life cycles for healthy topsoil to form—especially one so robust and nutrient-dense that it can support large-scale agriculture. Healthy farming practices require that constant attention be paid to the depth, moisture, and nutrient content of the soil, as well as the internal arrangement of rocks, roots, humus, and clay that holds the earth together and keeps it from washing away with the first rain. A single ill-informed planting season can damage the integrity of the layer’s delicate structure. Annual crops—including cash crops like cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco—require yearly destruction, giving the soil no time to recover from the loss of its ground cover, aeration, and waterways.

But kudzu doesn’t obey the normal laws of ecology. Early American observers noted that even as the vine grew at explosive rates in the most depleted soil, it seemed to enhance the soil’s nutrient contents, rather than stripping them. Like other legumes, kudzu is nitrogen-fixing, meaning its root network chemically transforms one of the most essential soil components into something other plants can’t normally assimilate.

By the time Bennett discovered kudzu, the plant had already garnered an earnest following among the wealthy landowners who had been charmed by its visual appeal at the Centennial Exposition. Among these fans were the Quaker couple Lillie and Charles Pleas of Chipley, Florida, who discovered by accident that their new decoration doubled as an attractive appetizer for grazing animals. The Pleases soon turned their small nursery into a mail-order business, shipping kudzu seedlings and root crowns to distant farms, hawking the vine as a cheap, fast-growing feed, as nutritionally dense as alfalfa but vastly easier to grow once the seedlings took root. Their advertising campaign made such extravagant claims about the hardiness and growth pattern of kudzu that a postal investigator paid a visit to the nursery to root out the possibility of mail fraud, a charge he immediately dropped when he saw the 35-acre kudzu patch in all its glory.

Thanks to the zeal of advocates like Hugh Hammond Bennett, the kudzu vine was officially recruited in the government’s war on soil erosion at the height of the Dust Bowl disaster in 1935. The SCS built special nurseries to house over 70 million kudzu seedlings. Rural farmers were offered up to eight dollars an acre to plant the vines on their property. According to historian Mart Allen Stewart, between 1935 and 1946, “more than half a million acres in the South were planted in kudzu, most with seedlings grown on Soil Conservation Service nurseries.”

The per-acre kudzu benefit also applied to a growing contingent of transit industrialists across the American South, whose sprawling infrastructure projects multiplied under the New Deal. “Railroad and highway developers, desperate for something to cover the steep and unstable gashes they were carving into the land, planted the seedlings far and wide,” writes naturalist Bill Finch for Smithsonian.

Cultural figures like Georgian radio personality Channing Cope promoted the plant as an economic panacea and a rallying point for rural Southerners suffering under Depression economics. It was in this period that Southern traditions like kudzu queens and kudzu festivals also took root. The vine even crept into the literature of the time, a marker of authentic Southern-ness and a potent metaphor for the juggernaut of time, poverty, modernity, foreign influence, and rural neglect that overtook the region.

The vine, however, was not a total panacea. While mature kudzu is hardy, its seedlings are surprisingly vulnerable to frosts and competition. Blossoms only grow from the hanging vines, so the plant has to grow safely in proximity to a tall, sturdy host in order to reproduce. Additionally, the vine is a challenge to sow without the artificial warmth and care of a nursery. “Kudzu produces few seeds and these have low germination rate,” wrote Bennett in the Georgia Historical Quarterly. “In any case, kudzu cannot usually be established from seed in the United States.”

To keep the dream alive, farmers like Pleas and the SCS botanists offered the vine a safe home during infancy and transferred the mature plants to soil habitats that were too unhealthy or too recently devastated by human activity to fight back. Far from its native predators, the plant quickly expanded its domain across southeast North America, filling the soil with nitrogen and rooting it in place. The vine was especially successful not only because of the ambition of its advocates and the desperation of the U.S. government, but because of where it was planted in the South. The monoculture-stripped soils of Black Belt farms offered little competition for the fragile seedlings, which, once established, were virtually immortal. Kudzu was most at home on the American highway banks, where forest cover had been decimated by human activity; the web of New Deal interstate projects would eventually take the invasive plant as far north as Quebec.

By the time the SCS payments tapered off in the early 1950s, kudzu’s brand had been turned on its head. A new cultural myth, spurred on by the ubiquitous photographs of roadside forests drowning in green leaves and popular essays lamenting its inexorable spread, began to grow alongside the pro-kudzu mysticism of the previous decades. Just as kudzu fulfilled its promise of restoring the growth potential of the soil—one report from the SCS in 1940 reported a fourfold increase in corn production for fields planted with the vine—it so too exceeded all forecasts in its ability to overtake native species, choking off their access to sunlight with its superior growth.

Sometime in the 1970s, when kudzu's conquered territory reached its apex, it earned the dubious title “the vine that ate the South.” In a 1997 report for the federal government about the invasive plant, a team of Alabama agronomists wrote the vine's new image as an environmental scourge was an accepted tenet of Southern rural culture. “Problems caused by kudzu are the result of its rapid growth and its ability to climb over trees or shrubs, killing them by heavy shading… the vines may grow up to 60 feet in a single season and as much as 1 foot during a single day in the early summer.” From their root crowns—woody knots on the soil surface, hidden by copious vines—grow the plant’s ecological ace in the hole: “starchy, tuberous roots that can reach a depth of 12 feet in older patches and weigh as much as 200 or 300 pounds.”

In 1998, Congress added the kudzu vine, Pueraria montana var. lobata, to the official list of invasive agricultural pests under the Federal Noxious Weed Act. Pamphlets on its control and eradication circulated in the ensuing decades, supplemented by recipes for kudzu jelly and kudzu flour and photographs of kudzu monsters—the kudzu-draped corpses of trees, frozen in threatening shapes on highway berms and abandoned farms.

The extent of the takeover was obscured by its location. “It was an invasive that grew best in the landscape modern Southerners were most familiar with—the roadsides framed in their car windows,” explained naturalist Bill Finch. “It was conspicuous even at 65 miles per hour, reducing complex and indecipherable landscape details to one seemingly coherent mass. And because it looked as if it covered everything in sight, few people realized that the vine often fizzled out just behind that roadside screen of green.”

Today, some kudzu stands older than the Civil Rights Act are faltering, faced at last with their natural predator, the kudzu bug. Despite an oft-quoted statistic that has kudzu covering between seven and nine million acres of the United States, the most recent Forest Service survey, part of the Southern Forest Futures project, found only around 227 thousand infested acres. Other fast-growing, but less appetizing, invasive species have long since eclipsed kudzu’s range: Japanese honeysuckle, which arrived in the South fifteen years before Emancipation, now controls some 10 million acres of Southern land.

Threats to Southern soils too, have not ceased. Pollution, factory farming, and neglected sanitation infrastructure dope the ground in rural areas with pathogens and toxic chemicals; the suburban sprawl for which the South is famous continues to eat forestland at astonishing rates. The same Forest Service survey speculates that kudzu will cover around 353,000 acres by 2060 without human containment efforts, at a rate of around 2500 acres per year.

The projection does not account for the potentially explosive impact of spiking global temperatures, nor does it note that, in addition to choking off other plant life, mature stands of kudzu actually drive carbon out of the soil and into the atmosphere. The warming soils of the climate crisis are a boon to the vine, which creeps north every spring; already, kudzu has worked its way up the Eastern seaboard of the United States and was recently discovered in Ontario.

Anywhere humans have cleared away trees, ground cover, the soil itself, kudzu thrives; it is our shadow, our dutiful parasite, marking the graves of ancient forest biomes. While the ecology of the far future is obscure, it will likely contain kudzu: blurring the visible edges of North American woodlands; kudzu, persisting, blooming resolutely in the lengthening summers. In July, the blossoms will smell like grape perfume.