Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Notes from the Ground

Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Notes from the Ground
    Book Description:

    Notes from the Groundexamines the cultural conditions that brought agriculture and science together in nineteenth-century America. Integrating the history of science, environmental history, and science studies, the book shows how and why agrarian Americans-yeoman farmers, gentleman planters, politicians, and policy makers alike-accepted, resisted, and shaped scientific ways of knowing the land. By detailing the changing perceptions of soil treatment, Benjamin Cohen shows that the credibility of new soil practices grew not from the arrival of professional chemists, but out of an existing ideology of work, knowledge, and citizenship.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15492-4
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Innotes from underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s unnamed narrator decries Enlightenment rationalism and the progressive ideology ushered in by a materialist scientific worldview. It was a mid-nineteenth-century commentary on the disenchantment of a world fostered by eighteenth-century Enlightenment values, a view that was already echoing from the Romantic movement. Dostoevsky’s audience considered quantification, technical analysis, disembodied logic, and the values of efficiency and rationality to be hallmarks of modernity, guarantors of progress, and the underpinnings for political and economic success. The Industrial Revolution and the rise of the professional scientific class helped forward those values and confirm the alliance between science,...


    • CHAPTER 1 Distinguishing the Georgic
      (pp. 17-48)

      John spurrier was ‘‘an old experienced farmer’’ and a late eighteenth-century British transplant living in America. He farmed the Brandywine region of Delaware in the decades surrounding the Revolution, seeking the well-advertised fertile land of the Americas and the cultural improvement the agrarian world offered. He recorded years of rationally planned experimental observations in cultivating his soil. In 1793, he finally publishedThe Practical Farmeras a compendium of those experiments ‘‘to contribute to the public good’’ and to appeal in ‘‘plain language’’ to neighbors and friends alike. ‘‘I trust that such observations as tend to promote the public welfare...

      (pp. 49-80)

      In the early american republic, book farming—the practice of guiding field management by reference to written works on agriculture—was either a problem or a solution.¹ The dispute between those two positions turned on the perceived role of science for the cause of improvement. For those who favored it, book farming represented the pinnacle of modern thought and the very underpinning of improvement. The best methods and most detailed studies could be published and distributed for all farmers, equally and at the same time, to see. Also, sharing knowledge with one’s neighbors was an important sort of communication, simultaneously...

    • CHAPTER 3 Knowing Nature, Dabbling with Davy
      (pp. 81-124)

      Agricultural improvers were adept at chemical philosophy and practice on their respective lands, formulating their own ideas in relation to the leading chemical theories of the day. For them, chemistry was understood as an active prism through which to see and with which to act upon the soil. But how was agricultural chemistry used to inform perceptions of cultivated or cultivatable nature? What did it take to ‘‘know’’ the soil and land this way? And how did these questions fit within the tension between vitalist and materialist philosophies of nature then current in the broader post-Enlightenment, or Romantic, era?



    • CHAPTER 4 The Agricultural Society, the Planter, and the Slave: PRODUCING SCIENTIFIC VIEWS OF VIRGINIA COUNTY LANDS
      (pp. 127-165)

      In the fields of the early Republic, science sat at the nexus of soil, fertility, and improvement. This chapter and the next put a spotlight on that nexus. They bring a geographically circumscribed focus on Virginia alone to explore how improvers there used field-based experimentation, a particular kind of science, to re-envision those fields. Such a process of conceptualizing soil was implicit in new ideas about fertility and explicit in new practices of fertilizing and land management. In those practices, members of Virginia’s agricultural societies (this chapter) and the contributors to the Old Dominion’s first statewide geological and agricultural survey...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Geological Survey, the Professor, and His Assistants: PRODUCING SCIENTIFIC VIEWS OF THE STATE OF VIRGINIA
      (pp. 166-196)

      In 1837, hezekiah daggs, a farmer from the fertile Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, sent a letter to the state’s foremost natural philosopher, William Barton Rogers. ‘‘I take the earliest opportunity of sending you five bottles of Sulphur Water and a specimen of lime stone,’’ he wrote. ‘‘A specimen of what I suppose to be shale,’’ he added, was included in the mailing. Daggs and Rogers did not know each other; their correspondence might not be expected. But the farmer was interested in increasing agricultural yield, locating coal, and profiting from the possible medicinal benefits of his mineral springs. He had...

    • CHAPTER 6 Agriculture, Ethics, and the Future of Georgic Science
      (pp. 197-204)

      Conversations about agriculture are also fundamentally about food, and conversations about food are simultaneously about culture. Today’s farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA), food co-ops, organic markets, and movement toward localism attest to the cultural awareness of food choices. With the associated matters of affordability, access, security, and health, terms like ‘‘sustainable agriculture,’’ ‘‘food miles,’’ and ‘‘environmental justice’’ have likewise become part of a lively debate. Food in the twenty-first century, that is, has come to the center of environmental conversation, bringing to mind Wendell Berry’s observation that ‘‘how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.’’...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 205-242)
    (pp. 243-264)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 265-272)