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crafted ku # 6 - they're everywhere # 2

No use crying over water over the damclick to embiggen
At one time they were everywhere in the Adirondacks - dams, that is. It seems that every river and stream was harnessed for one use or another, ranging from logging and power to recreation.

The dam pictured here is in my hometown of Au Sable Forks. It was first built and used to power the iron ore mill (none other than Benedict Arnold owned a mine here), which in turn 'powered' the village. Later the mill was converted to paper product production and the dam served that industry as well. Today, it just stands there although it does help create some nice recreational water above its confines.

There are still quite a few (most likely, hundreds) dams hanging around on the rivers. They are a form of the 'living history' of the Adirondacks and they fit right in with a book I am reading - Down To Earth, Nature's Role in American History. The author, environmental historian Ted Steinberg, 'offers a bold new critical synthesis od American environmental history ... by demonstrating the myriad but all too often unacknowledged ways in which familiar historical events have been intimately tied to the transformation and exploitation of the natural world ... [he] places the enviromment at the very center of our story ... [he] reminds readers that many critical episodes in our history were, in fact, environmental events ...' - from the book's dust jacket.

The premise of the book is simple - the causal effect of the environment in shaping human history. In effect, turning history on its head - looking at the nature world, not as a backdrop to human events, but rather, as one of the primary shapers of human events.

When viewed through the lens of the environment, one particularly stunning example of this 'causal effect' is the natural world's considerable influence in creating slavery, the Civil War and the eventual defeat of the Confederacy.

Think in these terms - without question, the environment in the South - length of growing season, days of sunshine, rainfall, average temperature, soil quality, etc. (aka, the climate) - was the primary reason southerners turned to a 'one-crop' agricultural economy based on cotton (and to a lesser extent, tobbaco). The agricultural particulars of growing cotton/tobacco, especially the labor-intensive system of land rotation which required ongoing labor at the lowest possible cost, was ideally suited to slave labor. Bingo! Slavery seemed like a damn good idea. And, it's also interesting to note that slavery has never taken hold in a cold northern climate.

Most obviously, the institution of slavery was a primary causal instigator of the Civil War and, fittingly, in a form nature's poetic justice, it was the South's slavish (pun intended) devotion/commitment to King Cotton that came back to bite it in the ass - with it's land tied up in the production of cotton, there was little land left or the economic inclination to grow food. Once an effective naval blockade of southern ports was in place, the South was literally straved to death. General Lee wondered as early as 1862 whether starvation, more than enemy forces, might prove the greater threat to the South. In the end, it was starvation (military and civilian) which brought the South to its knees.

What about military action, you might ask? Sure, but in the latter half of the war, many of the South's military decisions were based on/restricted by it's inability to keep its troops (and horses) fed.

What an idea - the course of human events as decided by the landscape. The moral of the story is evident - ignore or abuse the environment, it's gonna get you in the end.

PS - in case you missed a slightly subtle moral herein, be aware that the decisions to grow just cotton/tobacco and use slave labor to do it were based on unregulated market forces. Seems like the much-idolized 'invisible hand' didn't get it quite right.

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