Roundtable: Cohen, Notes from the Ground

Notes from the GroundIt’s a classic tale of book learnin’ versus street smarts.

Sort of.  I just finished coordinating a roundtable on Ben Cohen’s first book, Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil and Society in the American Countryside.  I remember seeing it for the first time at a book exhibit during the meeting of the American Society for Environmental History.  I just liked the title.  Aha! I thought.  A sly reference to Russian literature, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, in a book about — what — soil and society in nineteenth century America?  I was a little puzzled, but mostly intrigued.

Later that day I met Cohen and I asked him to let me organize a roundtable on the book, and I was delighted that he agreed.

While reading the book, it was hard for me to get the image out of my head of countless movies I’ve seen when the grizzled, experienced veteran (an Army sergeant, an older partner in a buddy-cop movie, a jaded employee in a corporate office space, you name it) says “there are some things they can’t teach you in college.”  Or movies in which someone is nicknamed “College,” out of disrespect.  There is something about experience and hard work that has a higher value, even in popular culture, than what you might learn from a college textbook.   That’s the kind of cultural value that Cohen explores, during the era when scientific findings from Europe transformed farming practices in America.  While reading the book, I had the movie in my head: a scene in which skeptical farmers in antebellum America rolled their eyes at the new chemistry that was supposed to somehow transform everything, just because of what some laboratory scientists in Germany had found.  The next scene would have these same farmers trying it out and saying some variant of “I’m too old for this…”

I’ve included my introduction to the roundtable below.  I kindly left out my fantasies about farmers nicknaming one another.  It’s a serious book, after all:

To scholars who work at the nexus of agricultural history and history of science, Justus von Liebig stands as an unavoidable patriarch.  In the 1840s, Liebig reduced the mysterious notion of soil fertility to something readily identified: the presence in soil of the chemical elements nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  His and others’ laboratory work provided farmers with tools to increase production and maintain fields that otherwise would have seemed worn out.  As a figurehead in progressive narratives, Liebig stands unrivaled.  With him, the era of chemical fertilizers and scientific agriculture appeared to have begun, sweeping aside the haphazard know-how and quaint beliefs of uneducated farmers.

Anyone who has known a farmer can imagine that changing agricultural practices likely was not as easy as that.  Especially in mid-nineteenth century America, when farmers (including Southern plantation owners) received plenty of unwelcome and unheeded advice, we need to understand in historical context how scientific ideas and practices gained the assent of farmers.  After all, it may have been the province of the scientist to describe the land, but when scientists advocated plans of action, they were competing for authority with the farmers.  Who were the true experts, after stepping into the fields?

Benjamin R. Cohen explores this tension in Notes from the Ground.  The title itself calls to mind two contradictory worldviews, one by Thomas Jefferson and the other by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.  The former’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) embodied the values of the enlightened farmer, hard-working but wishing to increase production and enhance his livelihood with guidance from science.  The latter’s Notes from the Underground (1864) heaped scorn upon those who would pursue progress and civilization, embracing scientists’ mechanistic worldview while divorcing themselves from the soil.  Who could be trusted more, the laboratory scientist or the experienced, practical farmer?

Cohen argues that the new scientific practices did not merely provide higher production and increased material wealth, but that they spoke to the cultural values of the farmers and their communities. He sees agency not just in scientists but also in local citizens, informed by an improvement ethic that had powerful appeal in nineteenth century America. He calls it “georgic science.” The term draws upon the ancient poet Virgil, whose Georgics described a world of hard-working people whose toil brought them both material sustenance and ethical virtue.  In Cohen’s telling, the scientific ideas did not simply replace traditional knowledge, but rather they fueled the georgic ethic that these communities already embraced.

One of this roundtable’s commentators is Steven Stoll, Associate Professor of History at Fordham University.  Like Cohen, he has investigated the circulation of ideas about soil fertility.  In Larding the Lean Earth, Stoll explored what it meant to be a farmer in nineteenth-century America, and he focused on the debates about what to do when soil failed to produce the abundance that American farmers had come to expect.  Stoll pointed to the kernel of the conservation movement, as farmers confronted the consequences of their own practices.  Addressing the problem of worn-out soil meant either the abandonment of fields (and emigration), or to more intensive use of manure to renew it.[1]

R. Douglas Hurt has published so widely on American agricultural history that he was an obvious choice to participate in this roundtable.   He has written books on Native American practices, agriculture under slavery, disasters such as the Dust Bowl, and focused regional studies. In addition, he has written about agricultural science and technology, including an international annotated bibliography of its history. His most recent book, The Big Empty, uses a range of actors, including farmers, scientists, politicians, and business people, to tell the complex twentieth-century story of the Great Plains.[2]

Daniel Goldstein shares with Cohen an interest in the dissemination of knowledge in nineteenth century America.  In a study of local and regional voluntary societies, for example, he shows the extraordinary growth of scientific societies after the Civil War.  These societies acted as the point of contact between local practices and scientific ideas.  Goldstein emphasizes how such societies transformed private activities, previously considered personal hobbies, into public activities that participated in the growth of science.  The proliferation of these societies marked a profound commitment to science after the Civil War.  The act of joining one, Goldstein has written, served as a kind of declaration of intent to contribute to the civic good.[3]

I invited Mark R. Finlay to participate in this roundtable because of his expertise in the history of agricultural chemistry.  In addition to his award-winning book on the importance of rubber to the United States in the twentieth century, he has worked for many years on the history of German agricultural experiment stations. He has noted that American scientists often mischaracterized the Germans’ work, making them appear less utilitarian than they were.  Although Justus von Liebig’s 1840 Chemistry and its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology became the classic text that made agricultural work more “scientific,” Finlay has written that even in Germany there were skeptics—though lesser known than Liebig—who felt laboratory research was unreliable compared to practical work answering farmers’ specific questions.[4]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part.  In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

The roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at
A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is for supporting H-Environment, and special thanks to all the contributors who have made this roundtable a success!

[1] Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002).

[2] R. Douglas Hurt, Indian Agriculture in America: Prehistory to the Present (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987); R. Douglas Hurt, Agriculture and Slavery in Missouri’s Little Dixie (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992); R. Douglas Hurt, The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981); R. Douglas Hurt, The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011); R. Douglas Hurt, The History of Agricultural Science and Technology: An International Annotated Bibliography (Garland, 1994).

[3] Daniel Goldstein, “Outposts of Science: The Knowledge Trade and the Expansion of Scientific Community in Post-Civil War America,” Isis 99:3 (2008), 519-546.

[4] Mark R. Finlay, “The German Agricultural Experiment Stations and the Beginnings of American Agricultural Research,” Agricultural History 62:2 (1988), 41-50; Mark R. Finlay, Growing American Rubber: Strategic Plants and the Politics of National Security (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

One response to “Roundtable: Cohen, Notes from the Ground”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s