Nature’s Agent

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Born in Missouri, US, in the 1890s, George Washington Carver became the only black man in America with an advanced agricultural science degree. Fascinated by the harmonies between humans and the environment, his life and words remain relevant today.

The second half of the twentieth century witnessed monumental changes in the ways that farmers around the world practiced agriculture. New technologies, like chemical fertilisers, insecticides, and high-yield crops, ensured that global food production soared. More farmers turned to monoculture, but soon found that these new practices came at great biological costs.

Critics ofthe rise of industrialised agriculture around the globe, from Wendell Berry, in the US, to Vandana Shiva and Jesus León Santos in India and Mexico, have pointed out the ensuing ecological problems, from erosion and pollution to diminishing soil fertility and climate change. Some environmental scientists are arguing that we should look to regenerative agriculture, a type of farming that emphasises biodiversity and the health of soil, as a way to capture harmful greenhouse gases and redress some of these problems. Although the term was not coined until the 1980s, many of regenerative agriculture’s concerns were preempted by George Washington Carver, an African American botanist who was born into slavery more than 150 years ago.

Carver is familiar to many Americans for his work with the peanut, an association that earned him the moniker “the peanut man”. Indeed, in 1916, Carver published How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption, a tract that was meant to break the vicious grip that cotton monoculture had on southern farmers. The American public latched on to Carver’s work with the legume, and in 1941,Time Magazine labeled Carver “the black Leonardo”, specifically because of his work with the peanut. However, many of his preparations were commonplace and unmarketable for farmers and, in the end, his myriad uses for the peanut did little to impede cotton’s clutch on the region.

George Washington Carver picking flowers, 1930 (opening image). Photograph Courtesy of Tuskegee University Archives. / Portrait of Carver standing in field holding a soil clod, 1906 (this image). Photograph Courtesy of Library of Congress, Johnston, Frances Benjamin, photographer.

Mark Hersey, an environmental historian at Mississippi State University and a biographer of Carver, maintains that Carver’s work with the peanut clouded his true legacy as an integral character in the development of American conservation. Scholars have long documented that John Muir was instrumental in the preservation of Yosemite Valley, Gifford Pinchot was integral to the development of the US Forest Service, and Theodore Roosevelt oversaw new legislation that protected more than ninety-three million hectares of American land. But most of these accomplishments dealt with the protection of western lands that were uninhabitable for settlers.

By protecting these areas, many conservationists constructed a view of “wild” nature that failed to acknowledge the long history of human-land interactions, particularly those of Native Americans who had subsisted off the natural environment for hundreds of years before European-Americans set aside the land for reverence. In Hersey’s biography, My Work Is That of Conservation, he argues that Carver differs from his contemporaries because he constructed his unique form of conservation not on pristine, untouched land, but on populated and overworked croplands. Carver was most likely born in 1864 or 1865 to an enslaved woman named Mary on a farm in southwestern Missouri. Mary’s former owner, a white man named Moses Carver, raised the child as his own, because renegades had kidnapped Mary when George was still an infant.

There is little in the historical record that explains why Moses chose to foster the offspring of a slave. While Moses had been sympathetic to the abolitionist movement and a supporter of the the Union army during the civil war, he was also a slave owner. Apparently, Moses did not discern any inconsistencies with this paradox, because he made sure that George learned basic necessities like reading, writing, sewing and cooking. Moses also taught the child about diversified agriculture and convertible husbandry. Waste was anathema to the pastoral farmstead. Later in life, George fondly remembered that as a child, he “had an inordinate desire for knowledge,” and that he spent “day after day… in the woods alone in order to callect [sic] my floral beautis [sic], and put them in my little garden”. Beginning in 1877, George Washington Carver spent all of his weekdays in a town eight miles away from the farm so he could attend a segregated school for black children.

Carver in art class at Simpson College, 1892. Photograph Courtesy of Simpson College Archives.

By 1888, Carver had moved to Iowa, where he attended a local college. Carver excelled in all of his courses, but he particularly enjoyed art. After only one semester at the institution, Carver’s art teacher discerned his intellectual prowess and suggested that he study botany at the Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) because he also displayed a passion for botany. When Carver arrived at the campus in 1891, he was the school’s sole black student. At the university, professors, including a future secretary of agriculture, introduced Carver to the new field of ecology. In fact, one of Carver’s teachers - Louis Pammel - was the first American to use the world “ecology” in a book title, when he published Flower Ecology around the time that Carver registered at the school.

Ecological sciences blended with Carver’s devout Christian belief that a divine hand was omnipresent in nature and gave him a new tool set to interpret non-human nature. His collegiate research mirrored his fascination with the harmonies between humans and the environment. In his undergraduate thesis, Plants as Modified by Man, he conducted hybridisation research, a new botanical science, and found that a delicate balance existed between the scientist and the natural surroundings. He also noted that while humans could manipulate nature to their advantage, they were “simply nature’s agent, or employee, to assist her in her work”, and could not exert complete control over the earth.

Carver inspecting a yucca plant. Photograph Courtesy of Tuskegee University Archives.

Carver graduated from the Iowa Agriculture College in 1894 and immediately began graduate work at the school, where he also taught classes in systematic botany and led the lab for bacteriology. This work furthered his belief that the one true way to understand nature was through studying and working in the natural world. Only after considerable research, Carver maintained, could the scientist discover the environment’s natural equilibrium. Balance existed everywhere, and Carver heeded students, farmers, and landowners to respect the “mutual relationship of the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms, and how utterly impossible it is for one to exist in a highly organised state without the other”.

When he finished his Master of Agriculture program in 1896, Carver soon found work as the head of the Tuskegee Institute’s new agricultural department. The institute, located in rural Alabama and nearly one thousand miles south of his Iowa home, was the country’s most-recognised African American school. At the time, Carver was the only black American to hold an advanced degree in agricultural sciences, so Booker T. Washington, the president of Tuskegee, was eager for him to assume duties at the college. Carver was quick to notice differences between Iowa and Alabama. The dominant crops in the former state were corn and wheat, while the latter’s landscape was dominated by “acres of cotton, nothing but cotton”. Moreover, a majority of the cotton farmers were former slaves or the descendants of enslaved Americans, who did not own the land they worked. When Carver arrived at Tuskegee, the county boasted 19,000 black inhabitants, but only 157 of these African Americans owned their own homesteads.

Students studying botany at the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, c. 1910-1915. Photograph Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Balance existed everywhere, and Carver heeded students, farmers, and landowners to respect the “mutual relationship of the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms, and how utterly impossible it is for one to exist in a highly organised state without the other”.

The rest of the black cotton farmers were sharecroppers, or labourers who were legally required to pay white landowners a percentage of their crops in exchange for land, seed, livestock, and supplies. Over time, this crop-lien system became a powerful force in the subjugation of African Americans, because it provided white landowners a legal mechanism to propagate Jim Crow - the racial caste structure that developed in the American south after the civil war. Perpetual debt became yet another weapon in the ever-growing arsenal for landlords who wished to exert complete control over a newly-freed workforce.

But it was not just the Alabama workforce that Carver identified as exploited. Decades of cotton monoculture left an eroded landscape that led to massive gullies in the surrounding environs. When he was in his seventies, Carver recounte to a radio audience that he was shocked by the “fields and hill sides cracked and scarred with gullies and deep ruts” when he first viewed the Alabama landscape. Wasteful agricultural practices, Carver perceived, caused the gullies that plagued the area. In the 1930s, Carver estimated that erosion cost the south $400m annually. More recently, environmental historian Paul Sutter declared that the “story of staple crop agriculture and the erosion that it produced ought to be central to the south’s environmental history”.

Students studying agriculture at the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama,c. 1910-1915. Photograph Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Throughout his career at the university, Carver used the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station to publish bulletins that aimed to uplift local farmers, and the land they worked, through sound, ecological principles. While white landowners pushed artificial fertilisers and mechanised equipment on black sharecroppers to increase cotton production, Carver advised alternative practices that he hoped would improve the soil and provide sustenance for tenants. In reports, like How to Build Up Worn Out Soil (1905) and How to Build Up and Maintain the Virgin Fertility of Our Soil (1936), one-on-one talks with individual farmers, and discussions with students, Carver provided resources for black farmers that he hoped would revive both their soils and livelihoods.

Solutions ranged from crop diversification to filling gullies in with “pine tops, bark, leaves, and organic rubbish of any kind that will decay and ultimately make soil”. Carver fundamentally believed that humans were both a product of and inhabitants in the natural world, so exploitation of one meant the misuse of the other. In 1938, he argued: “Wherever the soil is wasted the people are wasted. A poor soil produces only a poor people - poor economically, poor spiritually and intellectually, poor physically.”

Wherever the soil is wasted the people are wasted. A poor soil produces only a poor people - poor economically, poor spiritually and intellectually, poor physically.
George Washington Carver (second from right) teaching a chemistry class at the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, 1902. Photograph Courtesy of Library of Congress.

He eschewed industrialised agriculture and looked forlocal solutions to solve the south’s problems of land and labour. In a 1907 bulletin,he wrote: “nature endows or blesses each state or section with an indigenous flora and fauna best suited to that particular soil and climatic conditions.” In the same bulletin, he also encouraged the black citizens who worked in the cotton fields surrounding Tuskegee to pick wild plums native to the region.

He noted that southerners neglected thousands of plum bushels and provided farmers with more than 40 recipes, from plum croquettes to three different versions of plum soup. Carver never attached his land ethic to a political ideology. Perhaps this is because Jim Crow laws ensured the disenfranchisement of practically all black southerners. For example, Alabama created a new state constitution in 1901 that reduced the number of black voters in Carver’s home county from 2,000 to 65. Carver, instead, wanted to help poor farmers by distilling in them a respect for the natural world that was based on scientific understandings of environmental limits.

Carver in his lab. Photograph Courtesy of Tuskegee University Archives.

Carver’s conservation crusades ultimately failed. His ecological principles ran antithetical to both the intellectual origins of industrial agriculture and the racial realities of the Jim Crow south. But, as Hersey states, his persona as “the peanut man” lingered long after his death, even though it was “shrouded in mythology”. And it was not until the publication of Hersey’s biography in 2011 that any historian treated Carver as a self-conscious conservationist bent on uplifting both people and the land they interacted with daily. A man ahead of his time, Carver’s agroecological approaches to modern farming offer lessons to all environmentalists, who continue to live in a world where agriculture continues to test nature’s boundaries.Carver’s statement that “you can’t tear everything up just to get the dollar out of it without suffering as a result”, has never been more prescient.

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Fraser Livingston

Fraser Livingston is a PhD candidate and the principal researcher for an anthology about conservationist George Bird Grinnell. His current work foc… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #4

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Mutualism / Interxonnectedness / Pandemic

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