HOS599A (Spring 2021)

City Streets of Quartzite Memories: Archaeology and Preservation at Piney Branch in Washington, D.C.

Music by Vincent Femia

Additional sounds from Vincent Femia and BBC Sound Effects




Piney Branch Park is a small wooded area roughly three miles north of the White House. It is sandwiched between the Washington, D.C. neighborhoods of Crestwood and Mt. Pleasant and it juts out east of Rock Creek Park, intersecting with 16th Street just north of the Smithsonian National Zoo grounds. If you were to make the walk north from the White House, you would pass the busy areas between Dupont and Logan Circles, the commercial strip of U Street, Malcolm X Park, and the various embassies along 16th before passing Mt. Pleasant and approaching that quieter area around Piney Branch. The park itself looks somewhat like an odd outgrowth of Rock Creek—not particularly impressive, and not particularly scenic. Houses and apartments surround the area and the 16th Street Bridge cuts through its edge. Piney Branch appears almost as an afterthought, a lazy or last-minute addition to the much grander Rock Creek Park that covers miles and miles of the city.

But Piney Branch Park and its history tell an important story. That unassuming piece of green space is an historical knot of preservation, science, urban development, and historical memory. As an old Native American quarry, the site became the battlefield of the scientific dispute known as the “Great Paleolithic War” in the late nineteenth century. The archaeologist, anthropologist, and artist William Henry Holmes sits at the center of this scientific dispute, and while he will be the central character here, this story is less about the history of archaeology than the meanings of preservation. To get a richer sense of the archaeological history, I recommend looking at David J. Meltzer’s book The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America’s Ice Age Past.[1] But the eventual preservation of the site in the 1920s carried different meanings, for both the city and certain individuals. So, the space of Piney Branch Park represents something much richer than what would be assumed by the average visitor. At the heart of this story, then, is the meaning of preservation at different levels, from Piney Branch’s Native American past, to its scientific importance, to its environmental factors, and ultimately to its place in history over time.


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Born in Harrison County, Ohio in 1846, William Henry Holmes quickly developed a passion for art. After graduating from the McNeely Normal School in Ohio in 1870, he taught painting, drawing, natural history, and geology at the school, but came to Washington, D.C. in 1871 to continue his study of art. Holmes met Mary Henry, the daughter of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, at Theodore Kauffman’s art school. In April of that year, he decided to visit the Smithsonian down on the National Mall. While sketching a bird on his visit, he caught the attention of a visiting naturalist, which led to a job sketching fossils and mollusk shells for scientists Fielding B. Meek and William H. Dall. This turn of events marked the beginning of Holmes’s winding journey of disciplines and institutional affiliations. He soon found himself working as a painter for the U.S. Geological Survey, and afterwards studying geology, archaeology, and ethnology as he moved from the Bureau of American Ethnology, to Chicago’s Field Museum, to the National Museum, and finally to the National Gallery of Art. Born the same year of the Smithsonian’s founding, Holmes came to believe that he was predestined to be a part of the Smithsonian family.[2]

At the heart of all of Holmes’s work was a deep interest in aesthetics, both the origins and development of artistic creativity. His study of Native American art and pottery became central to the Bureau of American Ethnology’s mission, but it was Holmes’s work on presumed “paleoliths” at the Piney Branch site that would give him wide recognition and fame among nineteenth-century scientific circles. Holmes was thoroughly a man of Washington science, and he imbibed on the theoretical positions of his scientific community. The head of the Bureau of American Ethnology, John Wesley Powell, structured the institution around Lewis Henry Morgan’s theory of cultural evolution. The theory posited several stages of civilizational development that moved from savagery, to barbarism, and to civilization. For the Bureau anthropologists, studying Native American cultures and peoples was akin to looking directly into the past. By ascribing the status of “savagery” or “barbarism” to different Native American groups, the Bureau ethnologists believed they were studying past stages of cultural evolution that Europeans and European Americans had surpassed or transcended. Cultural evolution suffused Holmes’s ideas on art and technology. The degree of aesthetic and artistic development in artifacts, he believed, could reveal the cultural stage of a community and people.[3]

Still, moving beyond Powell’s strict theoretical rubric, Holmes, along with several other younger Bureau ethnologists, including Frank Hamilton Cushing, believed reconstruction to be at the heart of museum and anthropological work. Replicating the construction of, say, an arrowhead or piece of art meant recreating the culture itself. Understanding technology or structure meant comprehending the creativity and invention that lay behind it. These younger Bureau anthropologists studied Native Americans not as individuals and creators, but as mindless representatives of cultural evolutionary stages. While Holmes would come to call the Piney Branch site sacred, and ask that a monument be erected to remember those who inhabited the land before the capital city existed, it should be remembered how Holmes imagined the relationship between history and culture, and the racism and othering embedded in how he thought of Native American peoples and cultures as lower occupants of the cultural evolutionary hierarchy.[4]


*          *          *



Today, Piney Branch Park is not much more than a series of trails among a small wooded area. The sound of cars rushing by on Piney Branch Parkway accompany the soft voices of birds that echo from the treetops. Looking down, the trails are dotted with quartz stones. Small gullies, sometimes filled with miller light cans, chip bags, and other trash, reveal layers of earth that are littered with quartzite cobbles. If you take the time to look, finding stones that appear to have been “worked” or deliberately manufactured isn’t so hard.

Oddly, no significant archaeological investigation has been carried out at the site since Holmes’s study in the late nineteenth century. Still, a good chunk of the site remains preserved. The actual age or ages of the quarrying remains somewhat of a mystery, but based on other work in the area and what is known of the prehistory of the region, it is suspected that the Piney Branch quarrying falls within the Archaic Period, perhaps dating back to 4,000 years ago.[5]

The park is a quiet place. The hum of traffic is ever present, but it feels removed. Not many people go to the park. It is easy to find yourself alone at Piney Branch for extended periods of time. You can sift through the layers of quartzite cobbles to connect yourself with the multiple layers of history. The park has been preserved for the enjoyment of local residents, but history itself has been preserved in its landscapes, in the trenches dug out by Holmes and his team, and the turtleback artifacts that dot the trails and the gullies.


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In the 1870s, the American archaeologist Charles Abbott claimed to have discovered evidence of an American Paleolithic man after finding stone artifacts that resemble the paleolithic artifacts of Europe. He had found the stone tools in the bed of the Delaware River near his home in Trenton, New Jersey. Although Abbott’s claims spawned a whirlwind of theories, by the late 1880s the idea of an American Paleolithic man was an accepted fact. The assumption that undergirded Abbott’s claims was that form corresponded to age. A stone artifact that resembled the European examples of undeniable antiquity must have come from the same period.[6]

Holmes and the Bureau of American Ethnology in D.C. had other ideas. Walking just a few miles from his front door, Holmes took to the recently discovered Native American quarry at Piney Branch to challenge Abbott’s assumption. After excavating the quarry, examining nearly 2,000 artifacts much like those found New Jersey, and working through the production of the artifacts himself, Holmes argued that the crude stone tools, similar to the ones in the Delaware River, were the rejectage of the quarry, rather than artifacts from a Paleolithic age. Holmes employed the reconstruction strategies of the young Washington anthropologists to show how the so-called paleoliths were actually unfinished products. Thus, they were much more recent in origin, and the work of the Nacotchtank tribe that had lived in the area before Europeans arrived in the early seventeenth century.[7]

In journals such as Science and the American Anthropologist, Holmes deftly made his case while simultaneously dismantling the arguments of his opponents. In the first paper he published on Piney Branch that appeared in 1890, Holmes presented his arguments with certainty, and tied his conclusions to the city and to history. Holmes said, “it is literally true that this city, the capital of a civilized nation, is paved with the art remains of a race who occupied its site in the shadowy past, and whose identity until now has been wholly a matter of conjecture”[8]  Holmes’s use of the phrase “civilized nation” should be understood as more than just a hierarchical judgement. It was an invocation of history, a reading of a Native American past against an urban, modern present. Holmes superimposed the teleology of cultural evolution onto the history of both the land and the city. The tale of cultural evolution, and the steady march of progress, could be revealed through Piney Branch and its surroundings.


*          *          *



By the 1920s and 30s, D.C. had changed dramatically. World War I had brought thousands of Americans to the capital city for government jobs. The population of DC had increased by fifty percent during the war, and by 1930, the population of the city sat at around 500,000. Urban development exploded to accommodate the population boom, and often in haphazard ways. Building and dumping intensified north of Florida Avenue, or what used to be called Boundary Street, and the areas around Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights became dotted with new apartment buildings and other forms of housing.[9]

The newspapers and historical societies of D.C. now looked back on the land’s Native American past with interest. In 1928, the government had seized the land that is now Piney Branch Park. City and government officials questioned how the area should be preserved, and local residents and scholars began exploring its history.[10] In 1930, the Columbia Historical Society heard an address on the Piney Branch Site. Reporting on the talk and city development plans in the area, the Evening Star ran an article titled, “Historic Valley Plans Prepared: Piney Branch’s Glamourous History Recalled in Development Project.”[11] The Piney Branch site had now made its way into local natural lore, where residents told stories of its history alongside descriptions of dinosaurs and elephants of the distant past.[12] In 1935, the Evening Star ran a series that sought to tell the history of “the growth and future development of Washington from its humble beginning as a network of Indian villages, through the Colonial period, to its present proud promise as the finest and most modern world capital.”[13] The paper labeled Piney Branch a “hive of industry” before the “white man’s government came to town.” Many of the discarded stones of the quarry, the papers noted, had incidentally paved the streets of Washington.[14]

Telling the story and history of Piney Branch became a way to juxtapose this past against the urban development of the present. Reflecting on the history and the site, the Evening Star articles simultaneously looked forward and back. The preservation of Piney Branch showcased the teleology of the nation. D.C., as the capital city, could represent the nation as a whole. And Piney Branch, preserved for the nation, served as both a local and national symbol of manifest destiny, as an urban modernity filled the District’s limits.


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When John Wesley Powell died in 1902, Holmes became head of the Bureau of American Ethnology. And after 1902, Holmes spent much of the rest of his career defending his archaeological work. The Bureau also struggled to define itself after Powell’s death. Several notable Washington scientists, including ethnologist W.J. McGee of the Bureau and even Alexander Graham Bell, wanted to see it become a source of applied science for race issues in the country. But others, such as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Samuel P. Langley, frowned upon such a use of government science.[15]

But under Holmes’s directorship, the Bureau became a strong supporter of government preservation of antiquities, especially as it turned its attention to the Caribbean and the Pacific. As D.C. grew rapidly in the early twentieth century, Holmes also looked to preserve Piney Branch. Expanding the city along 14th and 16th Streets, builders and developers started to pollute the Rock Creek tributary not long after Holmes’s archaeological work. In his twenty-volume scrapbook of his life called Random Records of a Lifetime in Art and Science, Holmes dedicated many pages to the history of the preservation of Piney Branch. He included newspaper articles with interviews he had done with the press and letters he sent in 1925 to Colonel Clarence Sherrill, who was director of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital at the time.[16] By 1926, the Evening Star reported that a serious movement had gained traction to preserve Piney Branch and the quarry as a park, backed by Smithsonian scientists. The Evening Star feared that the site was at risk of “complete obliteration by modern building operations.”[17]

Holmes led this charge. He told Sherrill that “to me this old quarry in the center of the capital city of the nation is a sacred spot.”[18] In his interview with the Evening Star reporter, Holmes argued that Piney Branch ought to be preserved for both its romantic beauty and its historical and scientific importance. He wished it to be intact for future generations of Americans, a desire, the Evening Star noted, that remained very close to his heart. The Evening Star reprinted Holmes’s call to action that he had sent to Sherrill in a letter the year before:


A most serious question thus presents itself to our people. Shall we go on selling and buying and selling again the hills and valleys of their birthright, amassing fortunes upon fortunes, without a thought of their former existence or their sacrifice? In the world’s history races have succeeded races in the possession of the garden spots of the world, and are we to follow the example of the barbarians of the past? Or shall we preserve this Piney Branch site, erecting thereon a monument, a memorial, to show the world that we are not utter ingrates?[19]


As noble as it sounds, the passage obscures many of Holmes’s true intentions. As historian David J. Meltzer has pointed out about Holmes’s autobiographical collection, “Random Records hides more than it reveals.”[20] In creating his scrapbook on his life, Holmes discarded many letters but kept ones that were complimentary. His twenty-volume collection was itself an act of self-preservation, and the preservation of Piney Branch was part of this same project. It was a tribute to his science, and a tribute to his life. Less a tribute to the Nacotchtank people and culture that he viewed had been stuck in the cultural evolutionary stratum of the past. In his letter to Sherill in 1925, Holmes made sure to convey that, “my discoveries there have done more to clear up the story of man in America than any single piece of research within the United States.” The “ruthless invaders,” as Holmes called urban developers, were those who contributed to the erosion of his own legacy.[21]


*          *          *


[First person reflection on trip to Piney Branch Park]


Neither the city nor the federal government ever erected a monument on the site, and it is likely that not many Washingtonians would know what you were talking about if you asked them about the Piney Branch quarry. A couple of recent articles from The Washington Post have mentioned the Piney Branch quarry, but the site remains a small footnote within the larger historical textbook that is D.C.[22]

But the complicated history of Piney Branch reveals something about preservation, especially of an urban site that is folded into the day-to-day lives of thousands of people. Preservation means something different to different people, and its meanings change over time. Today, many see Piney Branch simply as a green space, and possibly some know of its quarry. Even fewer would know of Holmes and the work he put into preserving the park for his own legacy. For Washingtonians of the early and mid-twentieth century, Piney Branch and the Native American past it represented framed the contemporary urban development and growth in larger historical narratives of progress and modernity. Preserving the Piney Branch site in 1928 was, in part, an act of preserving a belief in a certain historical inevitability. This vision of Piney Branch is now decades behind us, and it has become part of its historical, geological strata. Maybe now, if you decide to take a stroll at Piney Branch one day, you will uncover all the memories embedded in the layers of its earth.


Works Cited

Asch, Chris Myers and Musgrove, George Derek. Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.


Baker, Lee D. From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.


“Describes Prehistoric Record Left in Rocks of Washington.” Evening Star. April 5, 1924.


Hedgpeth, Dana. “A Native American tribe once called D.C. home. It’s had no living members for centuries.” The Washington Post. November 22, 2018.


Hinsley, Curtis. Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology, 1846-1910. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.


“Historic Valley Plans Prepared: Piney Branch’s Glamourous History Recalled in Development Project.” Evening Star. June 9, 1930.


Holmes, W. H. “A Quarry Workshop of the Flaked-Stones Implement Makers in the District of Columbia.” American Anthropologist 3 (1890): 1-26.


––––––. “ Modern quarry refuse and the Palaeolithic theory,” Science 20 (1892): 295-297;


––––––. “Gravel man and Palaeolithic culture; a preliminary word.” Science 21 (1893): 29-30.


––––––. “Are there traces of man in the Trenton Gravels.” Journal of Geology 1 (1893): 15-37.


––––––. Random Records of a Lifetime in Art and Science. National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.


“Indians Had Implements Shops Here, Smithsonian Scientist Discovers.” Evening Star. March 21, 1926.


Kelly, John. “D.C.’s Quarry Road once led to a quarry. It once was home to the zoo’s bears, too.” The Washington Post. December 12, 2019.


Love, Philip H. “Indians in ‘Quonset’ Huts.” Evening Star. October 24, 1948.


Meltzer, David J. The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America’s Ice Age Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.


“Old Flint Quarry Should Be Marked Col. Grant Avers.” Evening Star. October 22, 1929.


Runnels, Curtis. “The Piney Branch site (District of Columbia, U.S.A.) and the significance of the quarry-refuse model for the interpretation of lithics sites.” Journal of Lithic Studies 7 (2020): 1-17.


“Science Uncovers Capital’s Indian Background.” Evening Star. October 13, 1935.


“‘Widow’s Mite’ Legend Treasured Chapter in D.C. Indian Lore.” Evening Star. March 18, 1928.

[1] David J. Meltzer, The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America’s Ice Age Past (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). See also Curtis Runnels, “The Piney Branch site (District of Columbia, U.S.A.) and the significance of the quarry-refuse model for the interpretation of lithics sites,” Journal of Lithic Studies 7 (2020): 1-17.

[2] Curtis Hinsley, Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology, 1846-1910 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), 100-101.

[3] Ibid., 100-105 and Lee D. Baker, From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 26-53.

[4] Hinsley, Savages and Scientists, 104-105.

[5] Meltzer, The Great Paleolithic War, 472-473.

[6] Meltzer, The Great Paleolithic War, 3-4

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] W.H. Holmes, “A Quarry Workshop of the Flaked-Stones Implement Makers in the District of Columbia,” American Anthropologist 3 (1890): 2. See also Holmes’s additional papers: W.H. Holmes, “ Modern quarry refuse and the Palaeolithic theory,” Science 20 (1892): 295-297; W.H. Holmes, “Gravel man and Palaeolithic culture; a preliminary word,” Science 21 (1893): 29-30; W.H. Holmes, “Are there traces of man in the Trenton Gravels,” Journal of Geology 1 (1893): 15-37.

[9] Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 227.

[10] “‘Widow’s Mite’ Legend Treasured Chapter in D.C. Indian Lore,” Evening Star, March 18, 1928 and “Old Flint Quarry Should Be Marked Col. Grant Avers.,” Evening Star, October 22, 1929.

[11] “Historic Valley Plans Prepared: Piney Branch’s Glamourous History Recalled in Development Project,” Evening Star, June 9, 1930.

[12] “Describes Prehistoric Record Left in Rocks of Washington,” Evening Star, April 5, 1924.

[13] “Science Uncovers Capital’s Indian Background,” Evening Star, October 13, 1935.

[14] See also Philip H. Love, “Indians in ‘Quonset’ Huts,” Evening Star, October 24, 1948.

[15] Hinsley, Savages and Scientists, 275-280.

[16] William Henry Holmes, Random Records of a Lifetime in Art and Science, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

[17] “Indians Had Implements Shops Here, Smithsonian Scientist Discovers,” Evening Star, March 21, 1926.

[18] William Henry Holmes, Random Records of a Lifetime in Art and Science, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

[19] Ibid., and “Indians Had Implements Shops Here, Smithsonian Scientist Discovers,” Evening Star, March 21, 1926.

[20] Meltzer, The Great Paleolithic War, 577.

[21] William Henry Holmes, Random Records of a Lifetime in Art and Science, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

[22] John Kelly, “D.C.’s Quarry Road once led to a quarry. It once was home to the zoo’s bears, too,” The Washington Post, December 12, 2019 and Dana Hedgpeth, “A Native American tribe once called D.C. home. It’s had no living members for centuries.,” The Washington Post, November 22, 2018.

Who’s Been Picking My Food?

A woman wearing a hat and sunglasses stands on a ladder and reaches into a tree to pick a cherry.

Picking cherries. Yakima, Washington. United States Yakima Washington Yakima. Yakima County, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017760771/.

Across the country, U-pick farms allow customers to come out to the field or orchard, pick their own produce, and enjoy a fun day with family or friends. For many families, this is a cherished annual tradition. Where did U-pick farms come from? And if you’re not the one doing the picking…who is?




Sources and Additional Readings





Audio Clip: There’s a new spot in Fort Wayne to pick your summer blackberries and enjoy the simpler things in life.

Audio Clip: That’s what everybody wants. Big berries.

Audio Clip: Raspberry. And this  is a U-pick raspberry farm

Audio Clip: With strawberry season in the rearview mirror blueberry season is in full swing.

Audio Clip: Today, I’m at the U-pick blueberry place. It is so much fun.

Kate Carpenter: Ah, you-pick fruit picking; one of my favorite seasonal outings. If you live anywhere near farms, you might have heard news stories like these. Maybe you’ve gone berry picking in the spring or apple picking in the fall. If you haven’t, let me explain. You-pick, also known as pick-your-own, farms allow customers to come out to the fields and orchards themselves and then purchase what they picked. U-pick farms operate across the country. Customers can harvest everything from strawberries in the spring to cherries in the summer, to apples in the fall. Even pumpkin patches and cut your own Christmas tree farms are a form of you-pick. I’m Kate Carpenter. I’m an environmental historian and a graduate student in the history of science at Princeton University. My own family is made up of enthusiastic you-pickers. From the time that I was young in California, my whole family–aunts and uncles, cousins and grandma–would head to nearby orchards to pick flats and bushels of fruit. My grandmother is an avid canner, making delicious jellies and pie fillings from our harvest. When my family moved to Washington state, we continued the tradition, spending happy weekend days picking far more fruit than we meant to, which we then came home to can and freeze in a delicious, sticky mess. It’s a hobby I’ve even kept up as an adult, seeking out you-pick farms as I’ve moved from Idaho to Nebraska to Missouri. I have favorite places to harvest strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, and apples. And every year I put away batches of jam and frozen fruit.

Carpenter: In recent years, though, I’ve noticed kind of a surprising trend. It used to be a pretty safe bet that you-pick fruit was an excellent deal, much less expensive than they would be at the grocery store. After all, you’re doing the work of picking them. The other customers were a lot like my family, arms heavy with massive amounts of fruit. Recently, though, I’ve noticed changes. Often the fruit doesn’t seem like such a great deal. Really, sometimes a good sale at the grocery store would cost me less than you-pick produce. And far more of the harvesters seem less interested in picking fruit beyond maybe a small bag, and much more focused on taking family pictures, enjoying the entertainment at the farm site like tractors and hay bale mazes, and enjoying maybe a fresh slice of pie or an apple cider donut. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good apple cider donut. But these changes made me curious about the history of you-pick farms. How had they started? Have things changed, or was I imagining it?

Carpenter: It turns out that you-pick farms have a much longer history than I realized. It’s really impossible to pin down exactly when you-pick began, because it has evolved across various similar activities for the past two centuries. The first events that resemble the you-pick farming that we see today emerged in parallel with urbanization. As more people moved to cities, fewer people grew their own crops, farmers needed more help at harvest time. The work, as you might expect, could be kind of boring, but a lot of fruit picking is less strenuous than other kinds of farm labor. In the 1800s harvest parties began to emerge in Europe, where farmers encouraged groups of city dwellers to come for a sort of working vacation in the fields. For example, in England, farmers who grew hops, which is an essential ingredient in beer, turned harvest time into a social event that drew city dwellers out to the country to join in a festive atmosphere and help to pick the hops. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hop growers in Oregon followed their lead, creating hop harvest celebrations. City dwellers in the American Northwest headed to the Oregon countryside on special train routes to enjoy a kind of romanticized version of agriculture, take in the fresh air and meet new people. It wasn’t all for fun. The outings appealed mostly to lower and middle class city dwellers, who saw it as a relaxing way to work at their own pace and make a little extra cash. Growers tried to create an atmosphere that would appeal to the whole family, adding recreational facilities and live music. For young men and women from the city, hop picking time was a great way to pair a little bit of socializing with a seasonal income.[1] Newspaper articles show evidence of similar outings across the country in the 19th and early 20th century.[2] Just like urbanization helped to create those 1800 harvest parties, the arrival of the automobile in the 1910s in the United States seems to have driven an increased interest in individual you-pick opportunities.

Carpenter: The United States’s participation in World War One also increased the popularity of women heading out to farms to pick their own fruit. With the shortage of labor as men served in the war, and women being urged to can their fruit to support the war effort, housewives were looking for ways to save money on fruit, and farmers were desperate for anyone to harvest their crop. An article in a 1918 newspaper urged women to try it out for themselves. Here’s what the author wrote: “Really, fruit picking in some suburban localities has become quite a fad, and young matrons who, a few seasons ago, would have been seen on fine summer mornings on golf courses or tennis courts are now going forth on fruit-picking bent.”[3] Classified advertisements for you-pick prices at farms continued to appear in newspapers for the next four decades, increasing every year. People across the country could save some money picking strawberries, cherries, loganberries, blackberries, apricots, peaches, cucumbers, plums, and canning tomatoes. These were all highly casual arrangements. The ads told people to bring their own containers and just call ahead.[4] And city dwellers were already romanticizing the harvest experience. Take, for example, this truly terrible poem printed in a Virginia newspaper in 1929. It’s called “Apple Picking Time,” and it has stanzas like this one: “Come on, let’s go apple picking, You don’t watch out you’ll get a lickin. Oh! What fun it is in town, when apple picking time comes ‘round. O! Come on, let’s get in the trees, And throw down apples with the leaves. Oh! What fun it is in town, When apple picking time comes ‘round.” [5] I’ll spare you the rest of the stanzas. But I will make a side note that you should not throw apples down from the trees. No one likes a bruised apple.

Norman Greig: My family has been in the pick your own business since 1949. It started as a gleaning process after we’d harvested for wholesale on a small acreage of strawberries.[6]

Carpenter: This is a clip from a video interview with Norman Greig from Greig Farm in Red Hook New York, produced by the University of Vermont Extension, talking about his own farm’s experience with you-pick customers.

Greig: In the 60s, we had a write up in the New York Times. And we were picked out every day. And so we decided that should never happen again. We added another 15 acres of strawberries that next year. And now we need a write up in the New York Times every year to pick the crop. But it’s interesting how the market’s changed over the years. In the ’50s everyone came in a station wagon with four or five children and mother and father and they would wait all year for the three weeks that strawberries were ready and pick 100 pounds of strawberries per car and take them home and spend the day freezing and jamming. And that doesn’t happen anymore. In the market today the public comes single head of household maybe with one child or a young couple out for a day in the country and they’ll take eight or 10 pounds of berries and not know what they’re gonna do with them all.

Carpenter: As you heard here, you-pick farms came into their own in the second half of the 20th century. There is no clear single reason for their increased popularity. But it seems to have stemmed from a combination of things: baby boomer families looking for fun weekend activities, rising oil prices and labor costs that meant farmers were more interested in direct sales to consumers, and the financial depressions of the 1970s and 1980s meant shoppers were looking for produce deals, too. The rise in interest in you-pick farms also grew alongside the environmental movement in the 1970s, and many consumers who came to pick their own were drawn by the fresh, healthy air and the sense that fruit that came straight from the tree was healthier as well as cheaper.[7]

Carpenter: Newspaper articles reflected these trends, profiling farmers who were turning more and more of their fields over to you-pick consumers and encouraging visitors. These articles all emphasized the cost benefits for both farmers and customers. State agricultural departments and extensions eagerly supported the trend. They published guides to help shoppers find you-pick farms and taught farmers about best practices, how to market their farms, and how to provide good customer service.[8] With the growth of organic and local food movements in the 1990s and early 2000s, pick-your-own farms continued to grow, part of a larger trend of agritourism, which is a name that describes a range activities that connect agricultural businesses with visitors as an additional way for small farms to make money. The same phrases appear over and over again in ads, news segments and blog posts — visitors to farms like the chance to “see where their food comes from.”

Carpenter: But over the decades that you-pick has been on the rise, something else has been happening in those fields as well, with an entirely different group of pickers, and a different meaning of where food comes from.

Carpenter: Farmers in the United States have long relied on additional labor to harvest crops, whether enslaved labor prior to the Civil War, families from neighboring farms who shared the extra work at harvest time, or hired help. The need for farm labor has been acutely felt in the American West since the end of the 19th century, when a smaller population spread across a greater geographic space meant there were never enough neighbors around to help. Historian Mark Wyman wrote about one form of this work in his book Hoboes, Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West. He describes how groups of nomadic laborers traveled in the American West fulfilling harvest labor needs in the late 19th and early 20th century, setting up rough camps and performing hard physical labor for low pay. Often, they faced unhealthy and dangerous working conditions. Farmers relied on this labor, especially as farms became increasingly large. Newspaper advertisements recruited workers, who came by railroad looking for work, but were quickly rushed out of town once the harvest season was over. Although these migrant workers were initially mostly white Americans and European immigrants, over time they included indigenous laborers, free African Americans, and successive Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Filipino laborers. Many were single men, but entire families also worked as seasonal laborers, taking on painful, poorly paid vulnerable work when they had few other options.[9]

Carpenter: The changing makeup of these migrant laborers was related to political and social contexts, as well. Chinese immigrant farm workers faced racial violence and threats from white residents, ultimately resulting in restrictions and exclusions of Chinese immigration that reduced their availability as farm workers.[10] In their place came Japanese immigrants. Japanese men and families provided essential work for farms in places like California’s central valley, as historian Cecilia Tsu shows in her book Garden of the World, Asian Immigrants and the Making of Agriculture in California’s Santa Clara Valley. Not only did they perform painful labor, working hunched over for long days and very little pay, but they also taught farmers how to grow new crops and improved harvest yield. Although some Japanese laborers earned enough to begin to rent and purchase their own farm land, their accomplishments were destroyed first by racial discrimination and then by World War II, when Japanese immigrants in the American West were forced into incarceration in internment camps and, in most cases, lost any property they had gained.[11]

Carpenter: By the mid-twentieth century, then, the majority of migrant farm laborers in the United States were Mexican Americans, Mexicans, and Filipinos. Some arrived as part of the Bracero Program, which began during World War II as a way to bring temporary labor to the United States from Mexico during the wartime labor shortage. Although it was initially intended as a temporary measure, the Bracero program continued until 1964. In theory, farmers employing bracero workers promised to provide adequate housing, food, and wage that matched the “prevailing rate” in the region. In reality, though, farmers mostly ignored that agreement. Others were Mexican Americans citizens of the United States, who contended with racialized violence and discrimination. Others were undocumented workers, the most vulnerable members of this labor group due to their status outside of the legal labor system. Though all three groups faced exploitation in agriculture, they also remained separated. Mexican American workers were threatened by the importation of bracero workers as well as by the arrival of undocumented migrants, who might be willing to work for lower pay. They feared that these groups harmed their own ability to be seen as legal citizens with full civil rights. Regardless of these internal divisions, farm laborers faced terrible conditions. Whites used racist assumptions to argue that they were physically suited for long, grueling hours in a stooped position. As historian Lori Flores describes in her book, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement, working in this hunched position for ten to fourteen hours could leave workers permanently disabled. They often lived in poorly built and unhealthy housing, worked long hours in the heat and dust, under ever increasing pressure to harvest faster. They were forced into the hardest jobs in the field, while white workers were allowed to work in the packing sheds, where the work was much less grueling. They faced racist stereotypes, discrimination, and violence in the communities around the farms, as well.[12]  Here’s activist Dolores Huerta, who would become a major leader of the farmworker movement, talking about the conditions that these farmworkers faced and the racist assumptions of the growers who employed them:

Dolores Huerta: It was just a very miserable time, there was no such thing as unemployment insurance, people could not even get surplus commodities, so people were just very hungry. And then they didn’t have enough money to buy furniture. People had orange crates and apple crates for their furniture. Children were barefoot, it was just a very terrible time, they had to move to follow the crops after one season ended, they just had to follow the crops to the next season so that they could continue to eat. And that meant that the children didn’t go to school. There were no such things that as toilets in the field, cold drinking water, and entire crews had to drink out of one beer can or soda can, that would get the top, you know, taken off and, and like 40 people had to drink out of one can. There were no such things as rest periods. People worked from sunup to sundown, it was just… I remember going into homes where people didn’t have linoleum or wood on their floors, just dirt floors. It was just a terrible situation for workers. And the other thing that we need to throw into this mix is that the employers were really very racist. You know, this is back in the 50s, mid 50s and the early 60s. And they really did– I remember a grower saying that they like to hire Mexicans and Filipinos because they were close to the ground. And they were better pickers because they were close to the ground. And the same thing they would say about hiring children, that the children, for picking prunes, it was good to have the children out there because they you know, they could pick up the prunes a lot better because, again, they were closer to the ground. So it’s totally a sort of a racist mentality. You know, seeing the workers as, as tools not as human beings, not as people, when you can think of why would they not provide toilets? Why would they not provide drinking water, these are workers, these are people, and yet not even giving them those basic rights. I served on a commission in the early 70s, where there was a woman who was a peach grower. And we brought up the whole issue about having the toilets in the field. And her answer was, well, you know, they really don’t know how to use the toilets, the workers, they don’t know how to use them. And although this sounds so outrageous, hearing that back in the 70s and yet later on in negotiations, I would actually have employers tell me the same thing. Why should we bring out the portable toilets, the workers don’t know how to use them.[13]

Carpenter: Beginning in the 1950s, community organizers, especially Mexican American women, like Huerta, worked to bring together labor communities and create alliances. They worked to defend the rights of Mexican Americans and migrant residents.[14]

Huerta: In the Community Service Organization, we were able to change some laws, like getting disability insurance for farmworkers, something that they never had, like getting the right to a vote in the Spanish language and Spanish ballots. Being able to do voter registration door to door, you know, getting public assistance for people who are legal residents. So these are laws that we passed under CSO which we did all through having all of our different chapters put pressure on their legislators. So this this is just as you know, again, going back to the basic organizing methods of getting the people to put the pressure on their elected officials.

Carpenter: Some laborers tried to organize farm work unions in the 1950s, but the bracero program was used to quickly break strikes. In 1963, though, a massive vehicle accident killed 31 braceros who were riding back to their camp in a flatbed truck, chained into the converted vehicle. The tragedy, which was far from the first, helped to bring about the formal end of the Bracero Program in 1964. But even still, imported Mexican and Filipino laborers continued to meet growers’ labor demands. Here’s how Lori Flores describes farm labor at the beginning of the 1960s: “they suffered from a lack of a living wage and ineligibility for health insurance, welfare, voting rights, and other resources that required an extended period of residency in one place. Even if they did find employment, they endured long days of backbreaking fieldwork with unrealistic piece rates, inadequate rest periods, and exposure to pesticides. Their average life expectancy was only 49 years.”[15] The combination of a growing national awareness of farm worker exploitation and the continued organization of Mexican American leaders, helped to mobilize Mexican American activists, and farmworkers joined the larger Chicano Civil Rights movement. In the mid-1960s, activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, working for the National Farm Workers Association, starting to organize farmworkers. They joined with Filipino activist Larry Itliong, the leader of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Together, they joined and created the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, or the UFWOC. Through the extraordinary activism of union leaders, farmworkers came together to advocate for civil rights. They began to conduct strikes and consumer boycotts, including a massive grape workers’ strike in Delano, California in 1965, a lettuce workers strike in 1970, and lawsuits against employers to allow workers to unionize. The farmerworkers movement of the 1960s and 1970s represented a massive effort to improve the lives of Mexican American, Mexican, and Filipino farmworkers. About 10,000 Activists marched to the California capital in Sacramento in 1966. A similar march took place in Texas. And the UFWOC led a five-year national consumer grape boycott, raising consumer awareness of the conditions of the people harvesting their groceries and pressuring growers into conceding to some of the union demands. These efforts achieved significant advances. They won legislative victories that protected farmworker unions, stopped illegal importation of bracero workers, improved education for the children of farmworkers, and even outlawed a farm tool, the short-handled hoe, that was considered one of the worst sources of physical injury for laborers. The grape boycott, which lasted five years, resulted in a union contract that increased wages and limited exposure to pesticide use.[16] These movements garnered some success for migrant laborers, but they have not eliminated the brutal, unhealthy, and vulnerable conditions that migrant laborers continue to face in the United States. As those hard-won union contracts expired, growers fought against renewal, requiring workers to continue needing to organize and strike to maintain the gains they had achieved. In the 1980s, largely due to internal politics and some of Chavez’s missteps, the farmworkers unions began to decline. As a result, farmworkers’ labor rights have suffered and workers continue to work in often unstable, unhealthy, and precarious conditions. Workers face the same hazards that originally spurred organization, including pesticide exposure, abysmal wages, and the threat of deportation. The increased militarization of the border between the U.S. and Mexico has only exacerbated these conditions.[17] The government has also reinstated the use of guest workers through the H-2A program, the modern relative of the bracero program.[18]

Carpenter: I had been oblivious to most of these labor issues for much of my you-picking life. Even after learning about the problems facing migrant laborers, I sort of assumed that this was just an issue in massive-scale, factory farms. I believed that the more I bought produce from local farmers, or went to U-pick farms to harvest my own fruit, I would be resisting this harmful system. But in the course of researching this podcast episode, I was startled to come across something that made me realize I had been wrong.  was searching for information about the history of the place where I grew up picking a variety of U-pick fruits, the Green Bluff Growers Association outside of Spokane, WA. Green Bluff is an agritourism delight – a collection of growers who host festivals for every fruit seasons. I have spent many happy hours there picking apples, cherries, peaches, and strawberries, and hunting for Halloween pumpkins. While I was searching I came across an article from the Washington Post during cherry season in summer 1998. For reference, that was the summer before sixth grade for me. Prime family you-pick time. The article featured one of the farms where my family regularly stopped to pick, and it described the charming features that I was familiar with: homemade pies, the annual Cherry Pickers’ Trot Fun Run, hay bale mazes. But woven through the article was part of the story I had never known. Behind the scenes, hard at work in the orchards while everyone else was prepping to open for the festival, was Manuel, a resident worker from Mexico. Manuel, his fingers wrapped to keep them from cuts, nods as the farmer complains that he is picking too many bad cherries. Manuel says the trees are bad this year, but that he wants to work and doesn’t want any trouble. Over the next few hours, the reporters tells us, Manuel picks 300 more pounds of cherries, at 20 cents a pound.[19] What struck me most was that that I had never noticed Manuel, or other farm laborers like him, while I was soaking up the harvest festival atmosphere and having fun with my family wandering among the trees and picking only the best cherries we could find. In her book Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, political scientist Margaret Gray argues that my assumption is shared by a lot of people who value local food. In emphasizing the health and environmental benefits of buying produce from local, organic farms, we have overlooked the persistent questions of labor. Small farmers might treat their farmworkers better than those on large, industrial farms, but workers are still forced into labor situations that make them vulnerable to the priorities and manipulations of employers and with limited protection for their wages, health, and other labor conditions.[20] In other words, we might have been so blinded by the romanticized ideal of a sun dappled orchard, a sunny Saturday of fruit picking, and a ride on a hay bale that we’ve been blinded to the labor going on behind the scenes, even at local, family farms. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, United Farmer Workers has posted videos on the union’s Twitter account to remind consumers about the farm workers who continue to harvest food, even as they have been among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus and, in most cases, lack health benefits and are likely to lose their jobs if they can’t work while sick. The videos are astounding. Many laborers are paid by their productivity, and the speed of their skilled labor is difficult to comprehend. In one video posted in February, a worker named Charlie harvests turnips, flying through rows and slicing the greens off the turnips using sharp scissors, never pausing as he tosses one into a bucket and grabs another, working to fill buckets. He gets paid 75 cents per bucket.[21]

Carpenter: I want to be clear that I don’t think there’s some vast conspiracy to use Instagram filtered images to distract us from the terrible conditions that face many agricultural laborers. Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with you-pick farms. Many small farm advocates suggest that you-pick and other agritourism activities provide helpful sources of income for small local farmers who themselves are struggling to stay afloat in the face of increasingly corporatized and massive farms.[22] But, it’s important to remember that U-Pick farms only give us a glimpse at a tiny, somewhat idealized image of farming, one that fits our preconceived notions of an American agrarian ideal that dates back to Thomas Jefferson. You-pick has its roots in the historical need for labor in agricultural environments. And yet today, it’s pretty far removed from labor itself. Those who think it’s important to know where their food comes from, to want fresh, pesticide free food, and who talk about how great it is for their families to enjoy the fresh air in a day at the farm should also be the voices advocating for the health and non-exploitative working conditions of farm laborers. If we really value knowing where our food comes from, then we need to care about who’s doing most of the harvesting.


1. Peter A. Kopp, Hoptopia, Ch. 4 “Hop-Picking Time.” University of California Press, 2016.

2. “Young Woman Arranges for Apple-Picking Bee, Then Uses Revolver,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 24, 1911, p. 1; “Story of an Apple Orchard in Vermont,” The Vermont Tribune (Ludlow, Vermont), November 3, 1922, p. 3.

3. “Pick Your Own,” Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio), July 25, 1918, p. 8.

4. As random examples, see “Farm Produce,” The Eugene Guard (Eugene, Ore.), September 9, 1949, p. 17; “Fruit and Vegetables,” The San Bernardino County Sun (California), June 12, 1931, p. 18; “Fruit and Produce,” The Pomona Progress Bulletin (California), June 17, 1936. P. 13; “Strawberries, pick your own,” Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisconsin), June 29, 1940, p. 11.

5. “The Week’s Best Poem,” The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), October 20, 1929, p. 58.

6. “Horticultural Marketing – Grieg Farm, Red Hook, NY,” University of Vermont Extension, https://archive.org/details/edu.uvm.market.6, accessed May 18, 2021.

7. “ ‘Pick-Your-Own’ Produce Program May Steer Consumer to the Farm,” The Hillsdale Daily News (Hillsdale, Mich.), Sept. 3, 1974. P. 20; “CHERRIES Starting July 11 Pick Your Own or Ready Picked For You,” The Gazette and Daily (York, Pa.), July 9, 1966, p. 25; “You Can Pick Your Own Berries,” Santa Cruz Sentinel (Santa Cruz, Calif.), June 28, 1973, p. 16; “A Farmer’s Guide to Pick-Your-Own-Operation,” University of Tennessee Center for Profitable Agriculture, 2014, p. 2.

8. “‘U-Pick’ Strawberry farms listed for our area,” Southtown Star (Tinley Park, Illinois), May 23, 1985, p. 26; “‘Pick-your-own’ produce operations profitable for farmers, consumers,” The Index-Journal (Greenwood, South Carolina), August 27, 1985, p. 3; “Some city folks just don’t know how to pick-you-own,” The Gaffney Ledger (Gaffney, South Carolina), May 2, 1984, p. 24; “Pick-your-own farms one way to cut cost,” The Daily Reporter (Dover, Ohio), July 11, 1977, p. 31; “Pick-your-own vegetables popular and cheap,” The Gettysburg Times (Gettysburg, Pa.), September 5, 1984, p. 22; George C. Klingbeil, “Pick-Your-Own Strawberries the ten P’s to profit,” University of Wisconsin Extension Cooperative Extension Programs, ca. 1973; Peter L. Henderson and Harold R. Linstrom, “Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing, Selected States, 1979-80” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Statistical Bulletin Number 681, Feb. 1982.

9. Mark Wyman, Hoboes: Bindlestiffs, Fruit Tramps, and the Harvesting of the West. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

10. Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go. (Cambridge: HUP, 2018).

11. Cecilia Tsu, Garden of the World: Asian Immigrants and the Making of Agriculture in California’s Santa Clara Valley. Oxford University Press, 2013. See also Connie Chiang, Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

12. Lori Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement. Yale, 2016.

13. Interview with Dolores Huerta: “Dolores Huerta Oral History,” n.d., Farmworker Movement Documentation Projection, UC San Diego Library. https://libraries.ucsd.edu/farmworkermovement/medias/oral-history/, accessed May 18, 2021.

14. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming.

15. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming.

16. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming.

17. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming; Margaret Gray, Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic, University of California Press, 2014.

18. “Guestworker Programs,” Farmworker Justice, https://www.farmworkerjustice.org/advocacy_program/guestworker-programs/, accessed May 18, 2021.

19. Peter Perl, “Green Bluff, Washington,” The Washington Post, August 23, 1998. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1998/08/23/green-bluff-washington/ac9a7fa4-edcb-4df0-ac76-5881092bc4ec/, accessed May 18, 2021.

20. Gray, Labor and the Locavore.

21. United Farm Workers (@UFWupdates), Twitter, February 5, 2021,  https://twitter.com/UFWupdates/status/1357872186103455748, accessed May 18, 2021.

22. See, for example, the work of the UC Davis Small Farms Agritourism program, http://sfp.ucdavis.edu/agritourism/.

Killing Sparrows to Grow

Killing Sparrows to Grow:

Developing State Policies Scientific in Form, Maoist in Content




Imagine, for a moment, that you are once again six years old, and back in grade school. One sunny morning, as birds chirp in the trees, you and your classmates are called out into the schoolyard. An adult, someone very important in the school’s administration, quiets you all down and starts to talk. The loudspeakers set up in the schoolyard carry his voice far beyond the school and into neighboring homes. “There are millions of starving people in this world,” he says, “people who do not have enough food and so are hungry. Some of them even live here in our country. Is it not our job to help them?” Like any well-meaning six-year-old, you think about this for a second, and then agree. Your classmates nod with you. The adult points to a group of tiny birds hopping up and down as they pick through a pile of sunflower seed bits that someone had spat onto the ground. “One reason people are so hungry,” he says, “is that sparrows eat millions of tons of grain each year, grain that could feed our hungry people. It is our duty to obliterate these food thieves from the country.” Three days later, you are part of a gleeful parade. The entire community is out in force. You and your classmates are at the front of this parade, at the very vanguard of the group; you lead them from tree to tree as you march on and on. Your neighbors – the butcher, some farmers, the milk seller and a gaggle of old aunties – all clap, yell, scream, bang pots and pans, and throw firecrackers into the air. Ahead of you is a great cloud of sparrows, terrified by the commotion. You are herding them with your sounds and shouts, and the odd slingshot pellet… This goes on for six hours until the tiny birds, obviously exhausted, some even frightened into cardiac arrest, begin to drop from the sky and fall to the ground where they are trampled and seized. You are surrounded by sparrows, dead and dying; explosions and clanging vibrate the air as your friends and neighbors merrily scoop the limp creatures into baskets.[1]

Of course, this is difficult to imagine. But this was a very real experience for millions of youths who grew up in mainland China in the late 1950s. The above scenario is a paraphrased episode from the memoirs of engineer and business professor Sheldon Lou, who grew up in revolutionary China, before emigrating to the US later in life. In one chapter, Lou recounts the moment when he first learned, in 1958, that Mao Tsetung, leader of the Chinese Community Party and founder of the People’s Republic of China, had declared a war on sparrows.[2]

Mao’s war on sparrows, colloquially known as the Smash Sparrow campaign, represented one of the first projects of true mass mobilization in the nascent PRC’s history. Mao himself had declared sparrows to be a national pest, and decreed on 18 May 1958 that “the whole people, including five-year old children, must be mobilized to eliminate [sparrows].”[3] The country rose to the occasion, and by 1959, uncountable millions of sparrows had been slaughtered. By the end of 1958, however, Chinese farmers were noticing an unintended consequence: a marked spike in locusts and other insect populations. By 1959, the oddity had escalated into crisis, as tsunamis of locusts devastated crop yields, triggering what has come to be known as the Great Famine. At least 45 million people perished as a result of the famine, which stretched from 1959 to 1962.[4] It would be disingenuous to say that the Smash Sparrow campaign was the only cause of the famine. But it was certainly a leading one.[5]

How had this happened? Was it so easily forgotten that sparrows ate insects? Had it really never before been known that sparrows were farmers’ allies in pest control? There is no one single person to blame (although Mao certainly does deserve a lion’s share). Rather, to understand how this disastrous decision and famine came to be, we need to understand the systems of scientific knowledge and power that Mao had set in place that in turn allowed such poor ecological choices to be made. The earliest years of Mao’s nascent revolutionary state were defined by his and his Party’s distrust of China’s intellectuals. In the mid-1950s, realizing once and for all that he needed ‘science’ on his side, Mao engineered a rapprochement with these intellectuals, many of whom were natural scientists. He enlisted them to draft a great Twelve-Year Plan for the country’s development – a map forward based in science. For Mao believed that: “For the purpose of attaining freedom in society, man must use social science to understand and change society and carry out social revolution. For the purpose of attaining freedom in the world of nature, man must use natural science to understand, conquer, and change nature and then attain freedom from nature.” Freedom – utopia – was only to be obtained once both society and nature had been fundamentally altered, even tamed, by the revolution.

At the heart of this Twelve-Year Plan was Mao’s idea that ‘Man Must Conquer Nature’ (Ren Ding Shen Tian). [6]Problems began to materialize when Mao began to implement this plan. For he understood development as a battle between human will and nature. Nature could be transformed, provided a large-enough and determined-enough labor force. Nature could be eliminated, provided a large-enough army. Mao had won the civil war by leveraging his Party’s phenomenal skills in mass mobilization to mobilize huge coalitions of the country’s disparate and varied communities in support of his utopian vision of the future.[7] It made sense, then, to Mao that mass mobilization could be the key to rapid economic development as well.

The scientists had done their part in providing a roadmap for success, couched in the language of scientific rationalism. But Mao left it to his Party cadres – generalists, not experts – to hone, coordinate, and execute the details of that Plan. One year after his Twelve-Year Plan was in place, Mao once again began to persecute China’s intellectuals. He then appropriated the Plan and made it his own, substituting mass mobilization for scientific expertise. China’s development, Mao decided, would be scientific in form, but revolutionary in content.

What does this mean? It means many of Mao’s decisions in the late 1950s and early 1960s were aesthetically scientific, but not scientifically sound. Having inherited the language and semiotics of scientific rationalism from his persecuted intellectuals, Mao used these scientific aesthetics to justify his political ideas, rather than using scientific ideas to justify his political aesthetics.[8] The result was that, in 1958, an economist, and not an ornithologist or biologist, recommended that China annihilate its sparrow population. No consideration was given to how removing sparrows from an entire country’s ecosystem might effect the intricate web of ecologies of which humans were part, and on which humans depended to survive. In believing that ‘Man Must Conquer Nature,’ Mao viewed humans as outside of, and not part of, the natural world. This belief, a unifying slogan of the largest mass-mobilization campaign in world history, ushered China into a new, horrifically vast age of self-devouring growth.[9]

This podcast follows the making of this crisis, unpacking the story in three acts. Act one gives more background to the Smash Sparrow Campaign, situating it more precisely in the context of Mao’s revolution. Act two explores the historical symbolism of birds in China, what killing sparrows meant on a poetic level, and why it was so difficult to make sparrows into villains. Act three follows the rise and fall of China’s intellectuals in the 1950s, establishing how Mao extracted the aesthetics of science from this group while simultaneously spurning their actual expertise and warnings. We end with some brief conclusions, and words on how best to contextualize this bizarre and tragic episode of world history.


Act I: Seeking Context

What exactly does it mean to say that Mao’s view of modernity – the notion that ‘Man Must Conquer Nature’ – had ushered China into a new, heightened period of self-devouring growth? ‘Self-devouring growth’ is historian and public health scholar Julie Livingston’s phrase for a set of human decisions that operate under the ideological imperative of ‘grow or die; grow or be eaten.’[10] It is a cancerous model of development that prioritizes the growth of economic and social output above all else, ignoring – even accepting – the cascade of unseen consequences.[11] The bulk of these ‘unintended consequences,’ of course, materialize in the form environmental fallout (sometimes quite literally) which then in turn has the ironic aftermath of greatly harming the very modes of productivity that were championed in the first place. And most of these consequences stem from humans’ inability to conceive of themselves as part of nature, not above or outside of it.

Livingston’s self-devouring growth was but one iteration in a long line of ideas on how humans interact with their environments, and on how human society at large views itself in relation to nature. In 1990, the self-styled radical environmentalist Christopher Manes coined the phrase ‘culture of extinction’ in a nod to industrialized humanity’s compulsion to assault key facets of the environment, blindly if not happily destroying the very environment that we rely on to survive.[12] The phrase has since gained lots of traction; philosopher Frederic Bender co-opted it for the title of a 2003 book equating the anthrogenic impact of industrial humanity with the destructive scale of the very meteorite that killed off the world’s dinosaurs. “We of the culture of extinction treat Earth as if it were an infinite sink for our pollutants and wastes,” he writes. “We divert its waters for our use, ignoring the impact elsewhere. … We prevent lighting fire from renewing forests. … Our trade and travel habits promote bioinvasion.” In short, “whenever we make large-scale changes in the ecosphere, [we inadvertently] set in motion events that can cause ecosystems to crumble without warning.”[13]That seemingly tiny human action and innovation can provoke unimaginably massive environmental consequences on the scale of a meteoric cataclysm is the result of one simple yet stubborn problem – the problem of anthropocentrism, or human chauvinism. The belief that humans are somehow outside, or otherwise superior to, nature.

This reading of cultures of extinction – that of human hubris and eco-chauvinism –has been picked up by a litany of writers and scholars since the 1990s, from literary and environmental theorist Ursula K. Heise, to Thom van Dooren who, in 2014, wrote on cultures of extinction specifically in relation to birds.[14] But for our purposes, I think Livingston’s self-devouring growth actually provides a much more evocative and appropriate framework for thinking about Mao’s China. For it sounds less like a death cult, and better describes the tragic (and ironic) consequences of lofty utopian ambitions.

It is important to remember, after all, that Mao had come to power preaching a vision of a utopian socialist future in which science and rationalism reigned, and cleanliness and hygiene were the norm.[15] This was the context in which the Smash Sparrow campaign came into existence – a plan for bettering Chinese society’s hygiene, health, and food. The Smash Sparrow campaign was part of a larger public health effort known as the Four Pests Campaign, a mass-mobilization project designed to rally the entire country in a collective undertaking to eliminate four common household pests: the mosquito, the housefly, the rat, and the sparrow. Smash Sparrow and the Four Pests Campaign in general were all initiatives of Mao’s Great Leap Forward – a collection of projects and programs designed to shock China’s society and economy into a state of rapid development. [16] The Great Leap Forward, initiated in May 1958, was Mao’s answer to the question of what could happen if every single citizen was conscripted into a socioeconomic revolution overnight.[17] Not even the Soviet Union’s famous Five-Year Plans were that ambitious. Aims of the different Leap programs ranged from exponentially increasing crop yields, to (rather infamously) creating a network of backyard iron smelters, to the (actually quite successful) barefoot doctor campaign, which promised medical attention for every rural village (and laid the groundwork for one of the most ambitious mass-vaccination drives in history).[18] Although they cut across a wide range of sectors, from public health to heavy industry, all Leap initiatives were united under Mao’s idea that, by working together, China’s population could collectively conquer nature, putting utopia that much more within reach.

Why did this appeal so much to people that they were willing to kill millions of birds? China had been frozen in a constant state of warfare from 1927 to 1949 (including the Japanese invasion of China, the ensuing Second World War, and the Chinese Civil War). An unending spate of violence for two straight decades had upended lives and livelihoods, decimating China’s society, economy, and environments. The Leap offered more than a return to stability – Mao promised that a revolutionary transformation was about to take place. Again, Mao preached a vision of a utopian socialist future in which science and rationalism reigned, and cleanliness and hygiene were the norm.[19] The first step of that transformation was to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of agriculture, industry, and productivity. It was a massive task, of course. But Mao believed it could be done – he had an army in the country’s unified labor force. So this was just another battle than needed winning.

And nowhere was this battle more visceral than in Mao’s war on sparrows. While most of Mao’s other plans for development hinged on overwhelming the powers of nature to change it, the Four Pests Campaign was entirely annihilationist in its aim. Rats, mosquitoes, and houseflies we might understand – they had long best connected to problems of hygiene and health.[20] But how did sparrows become a pest?

In 1958, state economists, fretting over China’s perpetual food shortage – still felt a full decade after the wars – declared common house sparrows to be pests. These economists had somehow calculated that a single sparrow consumed roughly 4.5 kilograms of grain per year – grain that would otherwise go to feeding humans. It was then calculated that for every million sparrows killed, China could wrest back from nature enough grain to feed an extra 60,000 people per annum.[21] Everyone – from the youngest children to the old and infirm – was drafted into the Smash Sparrow campaign. Adults would spread poison and destroy nests, the elderly would bang pots and pans to keep sparrows from landing, and kids and teenagers would kill them with slingshots and firecrackers.[22] The campaign was inaugurated in Beijing, and within three days over 800,000 sparrows had been killed in the city alone.[23] As the campaign swept across the country, village after village organized holidays in which all hands turned out to kill sparrows for a day or two. The campaign wore on for over a year; the killing of sparrows became both a daily occurrence and a common pastime of children – the activity is featured in countless works of memoir and fiction set in the late 1950s.[24]

No one knows exactly how many sparrows were killed in that year, or the next. Estimates are in the millions, if not more. What is clearer, though, is what happened next: the resulting explosion in locust numbers enflamed an existing food shortage into the most terrible famine of the twentieth century – perhaps in all of history. Only in 1960 was the connection formally made between grain shortages and the sparrows. One brave scientist eventually had the courage to point out to the Party that sparrows also (and perhaps primarily) ate insects. The National Academy of Sciences soon issued reports on how many insects sparrows ate compared to how many seeds. Embarrassed, Mao famously just said, “forget it,” ending the Smash Sparrow campaign in a single dismissive word.[25] By late 1960s, Party messaging had quietly replaced sparrows with bedbugs as the fourth pest of the Four Pests Campaign. But, unwilling to publicly acknowledge their mistake, the Party never officially never officially rehabilitated sparrows. As a consequence of this, millions of people continued to kill sparrows – out of habit or sport – for years after the campaign’s quiet end. Factor into this the (rather obvious) problem that many other birds and species were caught up in China’s sparrow-killing tactics. The result was a prolonged and enduring avian devastation in China – sparrow numbers recovered very gradually, and only seemed to reach their pre-1958 numbers by the early 1980s.[26] Other, more rare species caught up in the campaign never recovered.[27]

We do not know much more about the Sparrow Campaign. The Party never kept records of their blunder. In fact, not much was known about the Great Famine, either, as most government figures and reports were similarly not reliable.[28] It was only in the early 2000s that Frank Dikotter and Zhou Xun excavated new information on the famine, bringing entirely new dimensions to the famine’s scale.[29] Since the 1960s, scholars have blamed the famine, which killed 45 million people, on Mao’s aggressive collectivization campaigns. Only with Dikotter and Zhou’s work, along with political ecologist Judith Shapiro’s work, have historians been able to prove what fiction writers and artists have known for decades: Mao’s sparrow campaign turned utopian aspirations, tinged with vanity, into ecological collapse.[30] The famine had its roots not solely in the political realm – the mismanagement of collective farms or grain supplies – but in the ecological – the unintended consequences of self-devouring growth.



Act II: The Historical Role of Birds in Chinese Cultures[31]

Sparrows were not always pests in China. They had long evolved to live alongside humans in settlements and cities, and represented one of the most visible connections to nature.[32] Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of this story was the abruptness of sparrows’ villanization in Chinese society, and the distinct lack of cultural follow-through, at least from an outside observer’s perspective. For one cannot help but notice that the countless propaganda images drawn to accompany and amplify the state’s villainization of sparrows, never made them out to seem all that villainous. In fact, the sparrows, whether depicted flying overhead or ‘criminally’ eating grain, trapped under baskets or skewered by a dagger, were always drawn to be cute, or at the very least in a neutral style. They were never drawn as rotund creatures, fattened up on people’s stolen staples; never drawn as thieving animals with malicious beaks or sharp talons. Indeed, among their fellow criminals – scruffy-looking rats, bloodsucking mosquitoes, and offputtingly hairy houseflies – the sparrows often looked downright cute in comparison.

For, far from pests, sparrows had, for centuries, been considered to be auspicious creatures, if not semi-deities. Given the backdrop of Western scholarship’s historical legacy of orientalism, one hesitates to draw too much inference from ancient of medieval customs when seeking to understand modern phenomena. It hardly needs to be said that revolutionary China of the 1950s was a fundamentally different space and society from any of the polities that came before it. However, we can still note that, throughout most of China’s dominant cultures, birds have historically occupied an honored and special role in Chinese mythology and society, symbolizing communication between gods and humans, and representing a physical connection between heaven and earth.

Ruling from 1600 to 1046 BCE, the Shang dynasty is regarded as among the first ruling dynasties to be verified by historical record. According to archeologists such as Herrlee Creel and anthropologists such as Florance Waterbury, the Shang dynasty was an amalgamation of two earlier Neolithic communities: the northern Tungus Tribe, and the so-called Black Pottery People.[33] Some of the earliest-dated Neolithic animal-images ever to be found in China were drawn on pottery attributed to the Black Pottery People. What makes these animal-images so interesting is that, time and again, they only featured one living creature – a crestless bird with bulging eyes and downward curved beak “whose head typically appears on vessel covers as a knob or handle.[34] Later Shang dynasty pottery, on the other hand, typically depicted two animals – the familiar bird, and an additional tiger (or sometimes leopard). Creel and Waterbury have both connected these two animals to the legend of the Hsi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, a connection that more recent scholars such as historian Susan Cahill have since corroborated. The earliest references to Hsi Wang Mu that scholars have found date back to oracle bones inscribed with her legend in the fifteenth century BCE, predating even Taoism. But eventually the goddess was incorporated into the medieval Taoist pantheon of the immortals, which helped to standardize and spread her myth. She eventually became worshipped as the greatest goddess of the T’ang dynasty (618-907).[35]Always associated with mountains and the west (ie modern Yunnan and Sichuan) Hsi Wang Mu was often depicted as a human woman with a leopard’s tail, tiger’s teeth, and tangled hair decorated with a tall jade comb. Although she lived in a cave, she was still a queen, and so was attended by servants – three great birds. In some descriptions or depictions, these birds were green, other times, blue, or even white. Sometimes there were three birds, other times only one, or one large bird with three legs.[36] But what is important here is the proximity of these birds to Hsi Wang Mu. They inhabited the sun, living not quite in heaven but not quite on earth. And yet they brought Hsi Wang Mu her food, and did her bidding, often appearing to humans as the goddess’ messengers and agents.  Indeed, many T’ang-era poems associate birds with Hsi Wang Mu’s messengers, and so play on the theme of communication and separation between the human and divine realms. Because birds link heaven and earth, their appearance is always lucky or auspicious. We see this in countless T’ang works by poets like Wei Ying-wu and Li Shang-yin, but especially Li Po (701-62). Birds are everywhere in Li Po’s collections, but their role is made most clear in a poem celebrating his ascent of a sacred mountain (Mount T’ai) in 742. He describes his hike as a pilgrimage to Hsi Wang Mu’s plane of existence. He knows that he is on the right path when he encounters two birds dancing – a feng and luan, loosely translated perhaps as a phoenix and simurgh.[37] For Li Po, these two birds signify the point when he transitions from earth to heaven. According to Cahill, Li Po’s work helped to solidify the role of birds – half earthly and half divine – as enduring natural symbols of communication between gods and humans throughout the centuries.[38] In fact, in T’ang-era Taoist tradition, a person who had risen to transcendence was termed a “feathered person” in recognition of their birdlike ability to fly – for at the end of mortal life, “the transcendent was believed to ‘ascend to heaven in broad daylight.’”[39]

Return, for a moment, to Mao’s favorite slogan: ‘Man Must Conquer Nature’ (Ren Ding Shen Tian). According to one of Shapiro’s informants, a Yunnanese botanist who lived through the Leap, Mao liked this phrase because it stood in revolutionary opposition to what he perceived as an outmoded traditionalist philosophy of moderation in extraction and adaptation to nature, embodied in the slogan ‘Harmony between the Heavens and Humankind’ (Tian Ren Heyi).[40] If we are afforded the liberty of equating the heavenly with nature, and the earthly with humankind (not a wild abstraction given many of the themes in Li Po’s works), then we can understand birds, in ancient and medieval Chinese traditions, as representatives of the bridge between man and nature (in lieu of heaven). How sad, then, but poetically fitting, that Mao’s endeavor to disturb this balance of the natural order, to conquer nature once and for all, involved the slaughter of the very symbol of man’s harmony with nature. Mao rejected his ties to the natural order, instead viewing himself outside of it.


Act III: Socialist Modernity and Battling Against Nature

This notion of humankind as outside or above nature was a central theme of Mao’s grasp of science, but also of almost all science at the time. The historian Laurence Schneider opens his study on Lysenkoism in China with the following assertion: “Understanding nature has seldom been entertained as an end in itself in modern China. Science has been thought of as an instrumentality, and controlling and transforming nature its assigned goal.”[41] Without a doubt, science in Maoist China was all about control — humankind’s ability to control, shape, and tame nature. However, it is critical to point out that this conception of science as instrumentality was not unique to Maoist China. In fact, it was precisely because other states and societies had made these connections and advancements that Mao’s China could ‘leapfrog’ and make such great, sweeping, experiments in controlling nature so quickly and with such great effect.

Although the ‘scientific’ aspects of Marxism are endlessly repeated, exalted, and probed, socialist modernity has, by no means, a monopoly on the link between technology and utopia. Long before the ‘specter of communism’ rose over Europe, technology was understood as a mode of liberation for its ability to save labor. It was identified as key to the ideation and realization of utopias by a wide range of thinkers: some socialist and some very far afield from Marxian projects.[42] On a similar note, the idea of planning has also never been exclusive to socialist modernity. Planned science — and, indeed, the science of planning — had been central to a vibrant transnational scientific debate for most of the 1930s, with first the Soviet Union and Great Britain, and later, Germany, the United States, and Japan becoming proponents of large-scale state-planning initiatives in areas of science and technology. Indeed, the Second World War tested, and then the Cold War proved, that centrally-planned science (later known as ‘Big Science’) need not be the exclusive domain of centrally-planned economies — it could and did feature prominently into Anglo-American modes of liberal capitalism.[43] (It was precisely because planning lay at the heart of both capitalist and socialist modernities that the Global South’s Cold War-era brinksmanship in aid was able to take shape as it did, essentially an East/West battle over the privilege to help plan, fund, and execute a slew of long-term development projects across the Global South.)[44]

This is all to say that by the time Mao established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, understanding science technology as key to establishing utopia, and viewing centrally planned science as a viable path to get there, was not a particularly new or revolutionary stance. But it was precisely because of this — because so many other states and modernity projects had experimented with technological development and central planning — that Mao’s PRC was able to hit the ground running.[45]

And hit the ground running, it did. When Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally won China’s civil war and took over the surviving state apparatuses, they inherited a robust national system for scientific research already fine-tuned for central planning. For the Nationalist Kuomintang government had already established, in 1927, a central office to oversee all science research and funding in China – the Academia Sinica. Tehnically speaking, after the civil war’s end in 1949, the headquarters of Academia Sinica was relocated with the Nationalist government to the island of Taiwan. But this was largely a symbolic move. The Nationalist evacuation was difficult enough just moving people and gold, and so the vast majority of Academia Sinica’s institutes, infrastructure, and equipment stayed on the mainland to be absorbed into Mao’s PRC. A large percentage of Academia Sinica’s scientist community, unwilling to part with their research, and already ideologically sympathetic to leftist ideas and eager for greater science planning, chose to stay with their institutes.[46] In other words, Mao’s new communist state had, right off the bat, inherited an entire community of scientific elites who oversaw an advanced network of research institutes and infrastructure. This inheritance was quickly fashioned into the new Chinese Academy of Sciences, which was officially established just one month after the birth of the PRC.[47]

To have such sophisticated research networks already in place upon founding a high modern state was a great luxury – something the Bolsheviks could only have dreamed of. It was a great irony, then, that Mao was loath to accommodate these scientists, the vast bulk of whom had been educated in the West, and so were figures of political distrust for Mao. According to historian Zuoyue Wang, one clear indication of this political distrust came in the form of Mao’s tasks for the Academy of Sciences. Despite having a sophisticated and accomplished research organization at his disposal, the problems he tasked the Academy with solving were utterly mundane and often came with ideological consequences. Mao was quick to test the intellectuals’ allegiances, and did so often.[48] According to Schneider, Mao ardently believed that “a self-contained authority of a cosmopolitan science community posed a threat to the authority of Mao’s Communism.”[49] In short, while the scientists all believed that simply by doing science they were contributing to national progress, Mao saw only that their commitment to science and technical issues excluded commitment to social revolution — as he defined it.”[50]

This class struggle — Mao’s circle versus the foreign-educated intellectuals — hampered the PRC’s technological development for the first five years of its existence. But in January 1955, Soviet soil scientist and technological advisor to Beijing V.A. Kovda suggested the implementation of various central planning initiatives.[51] Mao’s trust in his Soviet science advisors was strong, and because central planning needed planners, the Party reconciled with the scientists.[52] In January 1956, the CCP Central Committee declared its goal of catching up to global leaders in economic and scientific matters by issuing a call to ‘march on science.’ Scientists from a variety of fields and industries were mobilized to draft a twelve-year plan (from 1956 – 1967) that would rapidly advance China’s prowess in science and technology.[53] A heady optimism for scientific possibility and exploration was encouraged by Chairman Mao’s May 1956 speech in which he decried: “Let a hundred schools of thought contend and a hundred flowers bloom.” It sounded as though Mao was calling for unfettered scientific exploration and freedom of thought. Chinese society seemed poised on the precipice of a major scientific revolution as Mao toured the countryside promoting these freedoms – along with the people’s right to openly question and criticize the party – in a celebration of social unity that became known as the Hundred Flowers Campaign.[54]

Under the auspices of Mao’s Hundred Flowers, late 1956 saw a flurry of scientific and artistic publications carrying bold predictions for China’s path to future socialist modernity. These publications, often written in the language of scientific Marxism, represented the scientific community’s response to this rapprochement with the Party, and extolled the virtues of CCP-led science, distilling and highlighting key aspects of the 12-Year Science Plan. Xu Liangying and Fan Dainian’s Science and Socialist Construction in China is often used in Western scholarship as an example of such publications, not least because it was made accessible to English-speakers thanks to a US National Academy of Sciences project that funded its translation in 1982.

Unlike some of their foreign-educated colleagues, both Xu and Fan had graduated from Chinese universities before Mao had established the PRC in 1949. Both Xu and Fan were editors at revolutionary China’s leading scientific journal, Kexue tongbao (aka Scientia Sinica), (re)founded in Peking in 1952.[55] Both were tapped to help draft the CCP’s twelve-year plan for scientific advancement in 1956. They wrote Science and Socialist Construction in China together to expand on their ideas, couching them in a sober evaluation of pre-revolutionary China’s meager technological prowess, and celebrating the PRC’s willingness to invest heavily in planning.[56]

The point of the book, aside from Party flattery, was to ensure that Party and CAS messaging remained unified and loud. The central thesis of Science and Socialist Construction in China is to show control over the environment. Using science to conquer nature was the one theme on which scientists and Mao could come together — it was their shared language of modernity and belief in utopian principles, where their definitions of social revolution overlapped. [57]

The Twelve-Year Plan and publications like Xu and Fan’s book represented a syncretic relationship between the Party and China’s scientific community. The Party had welcomed intellectuals under its wing, and in return, scientists had given the Party a toolkit of scientific language and planning which it could use to ‘rationally’ justify its future policies. It was in this language that the Great Leap Forward was couched and planned.[58]

In early 1957, mere months after the Plan was finalized and Xu and Fan’s book was published, the Party enacted a new anti-Rightist campaign that targeted countless supporters of the Hundred Flowers for persecution. Chief among them were China’s scientific community. If Mao’s view of science was instrumentalist, so was his view of scientists themselves. Stripped once again of their political privileges, most natural science experts were not allowed to execute the plans they had helped create.[59] With plan in place, the battle over nature would be waged by loyal Party generalists, not specialists. This created a vast knowledge deficit – like in the case of the sparrows. The Smash Sparrow campaign was designed with the aesthetics of science in mind – economists ‘rationally’ figured that because sparrows and people both eat grain, fewer sparrows would mean more grain for people. Biologists existed at the time in China, who could have predicted the disastrous consequences of removing sparrows from the country’s ecological system. But they were not consulted. With more than 540 million citizens, Mao needed more food for his growing country. He understood that he could beat down nature to get his way. Grow or die; grow or be eaten.[60]



In the early years of the Soviet experiment, the young socialist state had to contend with the global rise of nationalism as a valid and popular ideology. The vertical stratification of society into national identities cut across class distinction, openly competing with the horizontal stratification of society that transnational class-based identity emphasized. In Western Europe, French factory workers were being told – through the reinforcing norms of nationalism like newspapers – that they had more in common with French merchants, than they did with German factory workers. In the USSR, Bolshevik leaders like Lenin and Stalin hoped to harness the power of nationalism instead of fighting it, by preemptively injecting nationalism into the socialist project on their own terms. In this way, the rollout of nationalism across the USSR was tempered and controlled by the state. The national cultures that emerged under state planning were engineered to such specifics that Iosef Stalin famously and repeatedly defined them as “national in form, socialist in content.” [61] The socialist project had successfully co-opted its ideological antithesis. And while Stalin was specifically describing Soviet nationalities policy, his formula of ‘X in form, socialist in content’ stands out as an incredibly useful tool of analysis for understanding other state co-options of structures seemingly outside of its control. One wonders, for instance, if it would be fair to call Mao’s sparrow economics an instance of research that was scientific in form, Maoist in content.[62]

At the very least, it seems to me that this question of aesthetics – this distinction between scientific in form and scientific in content – is among the most useful entries into a discussion about Mao’s war on sparrows. There is no question that the sparrow war and famine implicate Mao in a massive scandal of criminal negligence. But of the already scant literature that focuses specifically on the Smash Sparrow campaign, too much of it is caught up in Cold Warrior parables of Maoist atrocity and anticommunism.[63] As far as tales of self-devouring growth go, killing sparrows is a particularly poignant and bizarre example of human chauvinism its unintended consequences. But as Livingston would quickly tell us, self-devouring growth is not limited to Maoist China, or the socialist world. It is present wherever there are humans with the urge to extract at scale. For though our impacts may be outsized, we are not ‘outside’ of nature. Whether we call it environment, ecologies, ecosphere, or something else, we are part of a vast dynamic system that evolves along with us, responds to us, is driven by us, and yet drives us.[64]

Over centuries, the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) evolved to live alongside people in China, preferring urban or settled environments to rural.[65] The tiny birds, chestnut-crowned and white-cheeked, were visible reminders of humanity’s situation inside broader ecologies. After decades of war, the Great Leap Forward was supposed to represent the advancement of peace and progress. In fact, that is when a much deeper and broader war began. China’s war on sparrows constituted a war on China itself, one from which, ecologically-speaking, has yet to recover.


Unbelievably, this podcast is not sponsored by Casper mattresses. Special thanks go to Erika Milam of the Princeton University History Department, and Alex Hollinghead of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning at Princeton University.


Music and Sound Attribution:

Many thanks to the Young Philosopher’s Club for the free use of their song ghosts, used at:





Many thanks to Bill Vortex for the free use of their song Les Portes Du Futur, used at:




Many thanks to the BBC Sound Effects Archive for the free use of the following sounds:


House Sparrow (Passer Domesticus) – Wingbeats

Recordist: Nigel Tucker and David Tombs

Location: Asia

Habitat: Townscape

Source: Natural History Unit

Date recorded: 5th April 1985


Comedy 2 – Frantic banging and clanging – 1967 (7B, reprocessed)

Source: BBC Sound Effects

Tree Sparrow (Passer Montanus) – Flock flying off

Recordist: David Tombs

Location: Europe

Habitat: Islands

Source: Natural History Unit

Date recorded: 1 November 1976


Bang! – Fireworks, Chinese Fire Cracker

Source: BBC Sound Effects


China – Wuhan: Vegatable Market (rural area near Wuhan)

Location: Asia

Source: BBC Sound Effects


[1] Sheldon Lou, Sparrows, Bedbugs, and Body Shadows : A Memoir, Intersections (Honolulu, Hawaii) (Honolulu: University Of Hawai’i Press In Association With UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2005), 35–42, {“http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctvvn6jq”:[“www.jstor.org”]}.

[2] Lou, 35.

[3] Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, Studies in Environment and History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 87, {“https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511512063”:[“doi.org”]}.

[4] Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine : The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, 1st U.S. ed. (New York: Walker & Co., 2010), 9.

[5] Seonghoon Kim, Belton Fleisher, and Jessica Ya Sun, “The Long-Term Health Effects of Fetal Malnutrition: Evidence from the 1959–1961 China Great Leap Forward Famine,” Health Economics 26, no. 10 (October 1, 2017): 1264–77, https://doi.org/10.1002/hec.3397.

[6] Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, 9.

[7] Kenneth Lieberthal, “The Great Leap Forward and the Split in the Yan’an Leadership 1958-1965,” in The Politics of China : Sixty Years of the People’s Republic of China, ed. Roderick MacFarquhar, Third edition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 88, {“https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511842405”:[“doi.org”]}.

[8] Arunabh Ghosh, Making It Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China, Histories of Economic LIfe 10 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 5–8, https://doi.org/10.1515/9780691199214.

[9] Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, 195.

[10] Julie Livingston, Self-Devouring Growth : A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa, Critical Global Health. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 5, {“https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctv1131dbm”:[“www.jstor.org”]}.

[11] Livingston, 5.

[12] Christopher Manes, Green Rage : Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1990).

[13] Frederic L. Bender, The Culture of Extinction : Toward a Philosophy of Deep Ecology (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2003), 16–17.

[14] Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction : The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016); Thom Van Dooren, Flight Ways : Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, Critical Perspectives on Animals. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), {“http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/van-16618”:[“www.jstor.org”]}.

[15] Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, 86.

[16] Ralph Thaxton, Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China : Mao’s Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village, Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1.

[17] Lieberthal, “The Great Leap Forward and the Split in the Yan’an Leadership 1958-1965,” 142.

[18] Comrades in Health : U.S. Health Internationalists, Abroad and at Home, Critical Issues in Health and Medicine. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2013); Xiao Yang, The Making of a Peasant Doctor (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976); Mr. Science and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution : Science and Technology in Modern China (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013), {“http://covers.rowmanlittlefield.com/L/07/391/0739149741.jpg”:[“Cover image”]}.

[19] Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, 86.

[20] Shapiro, 86.

[21] J. Denis Summers-Smith, In Search of Sparrows (London: T. & A. D. Poyser, 1992), 123.

[22] Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, 87.

[23] Summers-Smith, In Search of Sparrows, 124.

[24] Yan Mo, Big Breasts and Wide Hips (New York: Arcade Pub, 2004); Lianke Yan, The Four Books (New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc, 2015), {“http://princeton.lib.overdrive.com/ContentDetails.htm?ID=EC80A6E8-838B-401B-8F14-8F89AF5644EA”:[“princeton.lib.overdrive.com”]}; Loud Sparrows : Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts, Weatherhead Books on Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[25] Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, 88.

[26] Summers-Smith, In Search of Sparrows, 124.

[27] Anders Pape Møller et al., “Comparative Urbanization of Birds in China and Europe Based on Birds Associated with Trees,” Current Zoology 65, no. 6 (December 2019): 617, https://doi.org/10.1093/cz/zoz007.

[28] Xizhe Peng, “Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China’s Provinces,” Population and Development Review 13, no. 4 (1987): 639–70, https://doi.org/10.2307/1973026; Shige Song, “Mortality Consequences of the 1959–1961 Great Leap Forward Famine in China: Debilitation, Selection, and Mortality Crossovers,” Social Science & Medicine 71, no. 3 (August 1, 2010): 551–58, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.04.034.

[29] Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine : The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962; Xun Zhou, The People’s Health : Health Intervention and Delivery in Mao’s China, 1949-1983, States, People, and the History of Social Change ; 2. (Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020), {“http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=2493164”:[“search.ebscohost.com”,”Access restricted to 3 concurrent users”]}.

[30] Loud Sparrows : Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts; Mo, Big Breasts and Wide Hips; Yan, The Four Books; Arthur Chung, Of Rats, Sparrows & Flies– : A Lifetime in China (Stockton, Calif: Heritage West Books, 1995).

[31] For more on how Han culture relates to other indigenous communities of China, see: Kevin Carrico, The Great Han : Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017), {“http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1rzx5xp”:[“www.jstor.org”]}.

[32] Møller et al., “Comparative Urbanization of Birds in China and Europe Based on Birds Associated with Trees,” 617.

[33] Florance Waterbury, Bird-Deities in China, Artibus Asiae. Supplementum ; 10 (Ascona: Artibus Asiae, 1952), 74; Herrlee Glessner Creel, The Birth of China, a Study of the Formative Period of Chinese Civilization (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1937); Florance Waterbury, Early Chinese Symbols and Literature: Vestiges and Speculations, with Particular Reference to the Ritual Bronzes of the Shang Dynasty (New York City: E. Weyhe, 1942).

[34] Waterbury, Bird-Deities in China, 76.

[35] Suzanne Elizabeth Cahill, Transcendence & Divine Passion : The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University, 1993), 1.

[36] Waterbury, Bird-Deities in China, 77; Cahill, Transcendence & Divine Passion : The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China, 92.

[37] Cahill, Transcendence & Divine Passion : The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China, 2.

[38] Cahill, 91.

[39] Cahill, 92.

[40] Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, 9.

[41] Laurence A. Schneider, Biology and Revolution in Twentieth-Century China (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 3.

[42] See discussion of anima and artifice in: Utopia/Dystopia : Conditions of Historical Possibility, Core Textbook (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), {“https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400834952”:[“doi.org”]}; Howard P. Segal, Utopias : A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities, Wiley-Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), {“http://catalogimages.wiley.com/images/db/jimages/9781405183284.jpg”:[“Cover image”]}; Howard P. Segal, Technology and Utopia (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 2006), {“http://www.loc.gov/catdir/toc/ecip0620/2006028872.html”:[“Table of contents only”]}; Mikhail Geller, Utopia in Power : The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present, ed. A. M. (Aleksandr Moiseevich) Nekrich (New York: Summit Books, 1986); Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (S.l.: George Routledge & Sons Ltd, 1940).

[43] For more on Big Science, see: Science and Technology in the Global Cold War, Transformations (M.I.T. Press) (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014), {“http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctt9qf6k8”:[“www.jstor.org”]}; John W. Dower, War without Mercy : Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986).

[44] David C. Engerman, The Price of Aid : The Economic Cold War in India (Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 2018); Nick Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State,” The Journal of American History 89, no. 2 (2002): 512–512, https://doi.org/10.2307/3092171.

[45] Zuoyue Wang, “The Chinese Developmental State during the Cold War: The Making of the 1956 Twelve-Year Science and Technology Plan,” History and Technology 31, no. 3 (July 3, 2015): 180–205, https://doi.org/10.1080/07341512.2015.1126024; Zuoyue Wang, “Science and the State in Modern China,” Isis 98, no. 3 (2007): 558–70, https://doi.org/10.1086/521158.

[46] Wang, “The Chinese Developmental State during the Cold War: The Making of the 1956 Twelve-Year Science and Technology Plan,” 182.

[47] Wang, 182.

[48] Wang, 184.

[49] Schneider, Biology and Revolution in Twentieth-Century China, 281.

[50] Schneider, 281.

[51] Wang, “The Chinese Developmental State during the Cold War: The Making of the 1956 Twelve-Year Science and Technology Plan,” 184.

[52] Liangying Xu, Science and Socialist Construction in China (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1982). Xii.

[53] Xu. Xi.

[54] Dayton Lekner, “A Chill in Spring: Literary Exchange and Political Struggle in the Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist Campaigns of 1956–1958,” Modern China 45, no. 1 (June 26, 2018): 39, https://doi.org/10.1177/0097700418783280.

[55] Zhongguo ke xue yuan, “Acta Scientia Sinica,” Zhongguo Ke Xue 1, no. 1 (October 1952), //catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000494862.

[56] Xu, Science and Socialist Construction in China, 31.

[57] Xu, Science and Socialist Construction in China, 4.

[58] Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature : Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China, 195.

[59] The only exception was nuclear scientists, to whom Mao gave a wide berth and freedom.

[60] Livingston, Self-Devouring Growth : A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa, 5.

[61] Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire : Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, The Wilder House Series in Politics, History, and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 12.

[62] Certainly the same could be said for Lysenkoism: Svetlana A Borinskaya, Andrei I Ermolaev, and Eduard I Kolchinsky, “Lysenkoism Against Genetics: The Meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences of August 1948, Its Background, Causes, and Aftermath,” Genetics212, no. 1 (May 2019): 1–12, https://doi.org/10.1534/genetics.118.301413; Michael D. Gordin, “Lysenko Unemployed: Soviet Genetics after the Aftermath,” Isis 109, no. 1 (March 2018): 56–78, https://doi-org.ezproxy.princeton.edu/10.1086/696937; Kirill O. Rossianov, “Editing Nature: Joseph Stalin and the ‘New’ Soviet Biology,” Isis 84, no. 4 (1993): 728–45.

[63] Lieberthal, “The Great Leap Forward and the Split in the Yan’an Leadership 1958-1965,” 88.

[64] See, for example: Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World : On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), {“http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctvc77bcc”:[“www.jstor.org”]}; Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction : An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), {“http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctt7s1xk”:[“www.jstor.org”]}.

[65] Møller et al., “Comparative Urbanization of Birds in China and Europe Based on Birds Associated with Trees.”

Imagining Cold Warriors during the Cold War




Welcome and hello! In this episode, we discuss our bodies and their ability to adjust to new environments.

Have you ever been to a place and wondered to yourself, “How can anyone bear to live here?” Or maybe you felt the opposite and thought, “Wow, I can live here forever.”

Well, according to my husband, Denver, Colorado is apparently the best place to live in America. This is if the only criterion for judging is the weather. My husband was born and raised in Denver and absolutely cannot stand the heat. Whenever he visited me in Atlanta, Georgia during the summer, he would always comment on just how hot it is. And I don’t disagree with him there. Atlanta is much warmer than Denver.

But I never really thought about the effects of altitude on our bodies until I visited him in Denver. When I visited Denver for the first time, I had a horrible headache during the first few days, and I felt unusually tired for almost an entire week. I learned from locals there that I may have been suffering from what’s called altitude sickness. Denver is nicknamed the Mile High City because it stands exactly one mile above sea level. Some people speculate that the city’s altitude is the reason why the Denver Broncos does so well against other football teams if games are held on home turf. Athletes who live and train in Colorado have bodies that are just better adjusted to the effects of the altitude.

Our bodies are amazing and great at adapting to things they aren’t used to. Athletes are perfect examples of showing how our bodies can be trained to do so many physically demanding and impressive things. But what about people who seem to be just born naturals at withstanding extreme environments?

If you know anything about mountain climbing in the Himalayas, you are probably familiar with the Sherpa population. The Sherpas are a Nepali ethnic group who have lived in the Himalayas for generations. They are world-famous for their seemingly superhuman abilities to live and work at high altitudes. Since the 19th century, European explorers hired Sherpas to carry their gear up Mount Everest. And today, Sherpa mountaineers are the first ones to climb Mount Everest each season. They are the first ones to go up the mountain so that they can place ladders and ropes for later climbers. Quite the dangerous job, actually.

In recent years, scientists have been interested in seeing if the key to the Sherpas’ superhuman strength could be found in their bodies. One team of scientists from the University of Cambridge collected blood and muscle samples from the Sherpas and concluded that the Sherpas have a genetic advantage that allows them to be more efficient at using oxygen and producing energy.

Such efforts to understand the human body’s ability to live in very hot, very cold, or very high places is not new. In this episode, we will explore acclimatization studies on human bodies during the years after the end of World War II. Acclimatization is a fancy word to describe the process by which bodies adjust to short-term environmental changes—like changes in altitude, temperature, and humidity.

After the end of World War II, there was much anxiety about nuclear apocalypse and another global war. These anxieties prompted great military and scientific interest in extreme environments—meaning, the hottest, coldest, and highest points on the earth’s surface. For the U.S., the government became very interested in the question of what the perfect Cold War soldier’s body would be like. So in other words, what kind of body could fight in the Cold War against the Russians? To answer these questions, the U.S. looked to the Northern Pole and its indigenous people. Perhaps indigenous peoples’ bodies and their cultures were the key to unlocking the secrets of surviving in extreme environments. So obviously, there are lots of racial assumptions built into acclimatization studies. Our goal here is to unpack some of these racial undercurrents and explore the history of America’s experiments with extreme environments during the Cold War.


[Acclimatization and Race in the 18th and 19th Centuries]

But first, let’s briefly consider how people thought about climates, places, and race before the 20th century.

Most ancient and early modern theories about disease included an assumption that the environment matters to human health and well-being. Such theories include the Greek humors and the notion of miasmas. Thus, not only were some places considered specifically healthy or unhealthy, but medical theories also claimed that the environment had a direct effect on the individual. The environment was thought to shape the body and mind and make the person susceptible to certain sicknesses and personality traits.

These ideas never really went away. The belief that the environment mattered in how someone experienced illness was also incredibly important during the age of empires. By the early 18th century, the global traffic of human bodies and material objects became crucially important for political and economic reasons to European empires. This was the heyday of colonialism. Europe is generally characterized by a temperate climate. Temperate climates experience four seasons, and the summers and winters are not considered “extreme.” If you live in the U.S., most of the U.S. is also considered to be temperate. So this might help you visualize what Europe’s climate is like.

Because Europeans looked to the Americas, Africa, India, and other tropical areas to fulfill the promises of colonialism, it was important to address two questions: one, can European bodies survive in non-temperate climates, and two, can useful plants and animals from these non-temperate regions be successfully grown in Europe and her colonies? Acclimatization was therefore a prime example of a colonial science.

Europeans were initially optimistic. The scientific consensus in Europe toward the end of the 18th century was largely that European bodies could successfully thrive in non-temperate environments. Likewise, it was believed that it would be possible to acclimatize tropical plants and animals to climates similar to Europe.

However, travelers who left Europe encountered a peculiar medical issue: why did they become sick when they arrived, and if they recovered, why did they never become so sick again? The widely accepted answer at the time was that newcomers had to become “seasoned to the climate.” The idea of being seasoned to a place meant that newcomers had to adjust to a new place. A seasoning sickness was therefore seen as a rite of passage. You only had to experience it once to get your body adjusted to the new environment. This is because 18th century travelers, doctors, soldiers, and sailors noticed that seasoning did not affect native populations or those who had already spent a lot of time in a particular place. It was only when these individuals left for another place that they were considered newcomers and fell ill. If we follow this logic, the altitude sickness I experienced during my very first trip to Denver was a sort of seasoning sickness because I was not used to that environment.

Despite the notion of seasoning sickness, Europeans were generally optimistic about acclimatization until the end of the 18th century. However, this optimism faded during the course of the 19th century. This was partially due to economic and military setbacks and disease outbreaks. The other major reason is due to scientific racism.

In the 19th century, new ideas about racial fixedness and inferiority rose in response to the growing abolitionist movement. Those who were pro-slavery used race to justify differences. They argued that African bodies were naturally more pain tolerant than European bodies. They also argued that Africans’ darker skin was proof that they were biologically better-suited to work in warm climates. This scientific racism portrayed Africans as having an innate capacity for labor that made it impossible for Europeans to take their place.

Thus, notions of racial difference are more than skin deep and have long been tied to ideas about the relationship between bodies and environments.


[Arctic Laboratories and the Cold War]

Now back to the Cold War…

So for the remainder of this episode, we will talk about the enormous military and scientific investment made into Alaska at the end of World War II.

As mentioned before, the U.S. saw the Arctic as a potential theater for war with the Soviet Union. The U.S. military feared that its forces would be at a significant disadvantage because of the weather conditions of the North. Alaska basically became a natural laboratory of sorts for the armed forces. It was a giant laboratory to study how humans can survive—and succeed—in the extreme cold.

At the end of World War II, Alaska was still a territory and not a state quite yet. Alaska would become the 49th state of America on January 3, 1959, but even this decision was highly debated. The greatest concern was the issue of national security. Initially, President Dwight Eisenhower was reluctant to grant statehood to Alaska because the amount of public land in the territory. 99 percent of the territory was owned by the federal government, and if Alaska were to become a state, the federal government would have to transfer a lot of these lands to the state government. Ultimately, a compromise was made, and Alaska was granted statehood. This ensured that there would be a permanent military defense in the Far North.

So right after the end of World War II, the U.S. government established a bunch of new military bases and research labs in Alaska.

A lasting legacy of World War II and the Manhattan Project is how science research in America came to be funded immensely by the government and the military. The Manhattan Project was thought by the US government to be so effective because of immense military funding. This funding allowed scientists to work collaboratively on a scale larger than ever before.

The research conducted in Alaska was a product of this new funding structure. There, scientists funded by organizations like the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, or the National Academy of Sciences worked on projects across a variety of disciplines. However they all had the shared goal of inventing technologies that would help soldiers survive the cold.

In 1947, the Navy’s Office of Naval Research established the Arctic Research Laboratory in Point Barrow, which was at the northernmost tip of Alaska. This remote facility was focused mostly on studying non-human organisms to understand adaptation to cold. Researchers here studied mammals, birds, insects, aquatic invertebrates, and even mosses and lichens to study adaptation to the cold.

During this time period, a set of rules in ecology called Bergmann’s Rule and Allen’s Rule played a large role in discussions about adaptation, variation, and geography. Bergmann’s Rule states that warm-blooded animals in colder climates have larger bodies. It was thought that larger bodies would minimize heat loss because they would have a smaller surface area to volume ratio compared to smaller animals. Bergmann’s rule was thought to explain why polar bears are so much bigger than other bear species. Allen’s rule states that warm-blooded animals in colder climates have shorter limbs because shorter limbs meant less surface area and thus the animal would conserve heat better. Allen’s rule was thought to be reason why rabbits in the arctic have smaller ears and shorter limbs than ones who live in deserts. Desert hares tended to have really long ears and long legs. These generalizations worked for a lot of animal species, and some scientists thought that these rules could be applied to humans. Such reasoning was often used as scientific proof for racial differences.

However, some researchers at this lab, namely two physiologists named Laurence Irving and Pete Scholander, were highly critical of Bergmann’s Rule and Allen’s Rule. Irving and Scholander also believed that these rules did not necessarily apply to humans. For example, Scholander argued that there was no evidence that Alaskan indigenous people had shorter limbs relative to their body size compared to other populations. Both Scholander and Irving were interested in the question of thermoregulation in humans. However, they believed that the success of indigenous arctic people in adapting to cold climates was mostly due to cultural reasons than biological ones. They thought that indigenous people conquered the arctic due to their ingenuity in creating warm clothing and shelter. Irving and Scholander saw all warm-blooded animals as active and adaptable agents that relied on both physiology and behavior to regulate their internal body temperatures.

Nonetheless, the extent to which adaptations reflected racial characteristics or were the product of physiological acclimatization remained an open question.

The Arctic Research Laboratory in Point Barrow targeted non-human animals in their studies, but it had an eye on the broader question of how humans could survive in the difficult and extreme conditions of the North. Many of the studies conducted at other labs in Alaska operated under the assumption that there was a biological basis for human races.

In 1947, which was the same year that the Navy opened the Arctic Research Laboratory at Point Barrow, the US Air Force opened the Arctic Aeromedical [sic] Laboratory (I said “library” instead of “laboratory”) just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. The group at this Air Force lab consisted of about 60 military and civilian researchers. They were charged with the task of finding the best way to wage warfare in the extreme cold.

Projects from this lab included making clothing suited for cold weather. One invention was called the “walk-around sleeping bag.” Yes, that’s what it was really called. And as its name states, this was basically a giant sleeping bag you can wear and walk around in—kind of like a cross between a Snuggie and a giant parka.

Other studies looked at the body structure and function of bears, ground squirrels, and other hibernating animals. So there were some overlaps with the studies conducted by the Navy’s lab in Point Barrow.

However, the most controversial studies involved studying indigenous populations in Alaska.
By studying indigenous bodies and their cultures, could the military find ways for white soldiers to adapt to the cold better? And also, if indigenous people have successfully adapted to the harsh Alaskan climate, could white American soldiers learn to do the same?

Scientists often looked to the lifestyles and technologies of Arctic peoples for tips on surviving in the cold. Researchers borrowed techniques in building shelters to withstand wind, wet, or cold, as well as designing sleds, and making clothing. Western scientists had a tendency to erase indigenous ingenuity by presenting these ideas as basic concepts that have been “improved” by Western scientific principles. Historian Vanessa Heggie calls these instances as examples of bioprospecting. She uses this term to describe how local knowledge became adopted and appropriated into Western scientific theory and practice.

In addition to appropriation of indigenous knowledge, the U.S. government also conducted experiments directly on indigenous bodies. In 1950, the U.S. military hired Kaare Rodahl, a prominent Norwegian doctor who specialized in physiology and nutrition. Rodahl was tasked to head a research team at the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory to study indigenous Alaskans. Rodahl hypothesized that indigenous people in Alaska were acclimatized to the Arctic environment because they had been living there for generations and generations. Thus, many of the studies Rodahl and his team carried out focused on comparing non-white bodies to white bodies. And these studies assumed that the white body was the racial norm to differentiate indigenous bodies from.

By 1952, Rodahl’s team concluded that there were no racial differences between indigenous bodies and white bodies in terms of body heat production. But this result did not convince Rodahl or his colleagues to abandon racial categories or the research methods that they shaped. Alaska’s military scientists thus persisted in categorizing Alaskan natives as fundamentally Other.

Perhaps the most controversial experiment that came out of the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory was when researchers fed Alaskan Natives with radioactive drugs. Rodahl and his team gave pills containing a radioactive isotope of iodine called iodine-131 to Alaskan Natives, The researchers measured the drugs’ effect on their thyroid glands. The thyroid was chosen because other research, including some conducted at the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory, suggested that there was a correlation between severe cold and increased thyroid activity in animals. This research also suggested that the thyroid was somehow involved in human acclimatization to the cold. Thus, researchers believed that the thyroid gland might some clue as to how indigenous people in Alaska could survive so well during intensely cold arctic winters.

After giving these radioactive drugs to the subjects, researchers analyzed the levels of iodine-131 in their blood, saliva, thyroid, and urine. The result was disappointing. Rodahl concluded from the results that the thyroid does not play a significant role in human acclimatization to the arctic. This conclusion did not support the findings of earlier studies however and was subsequently refuted by other researchers.

In addition to the racial assumptions embedded in these studies, the iodine experiments were deeply problematic from the point-of-view of medical ethics.

The iodine-131 experiments were performed without adequate consent from the Alaska Native test subjects. Some subjects believed that the drugs they received were medical treatments. Others believed that they were participating in a nutrition study. Rodahl himself later admitted that when he sought test subjects, he did not use the word “radioactive” in describing the experiments to his prospective subjects. It was clear that indigenous subjects were not aware that they were ingesting radioactive tracers when they gave the go-ahead to the Air Force researchers.

Countless features of the US military’s scientific focus on Alaska saw parallels elsewhere in Cold War America. Most significantly, these included military involvement in scientific research, the militarization of civilians and their environment, and the justifications of unethical human experimental practices.


[Concluding Remarks]

Alaska was not the only place during the Cold War where government-funded scientists studied indigenous populations to understand the human body’s ability to adapt to challenging environments. The Space Race between America the Soviet Union was a major part of the Cold War. Just as how Alaska was seen as a place of strategic importance in the battle against the Soviets, space was also in many ways seen as a potential battleground.

At around the same time as the iodine-131 experiments, the U.S. Air Force’s School of Aviation Medicine forged a partnership with physiologists at the Institute for Andean Biology in Lima, Peru. The Air Force was interested in sending humans to outer space.

So in exchange for grant money and expensive equipment, Peruvian scientists allowed Air Force scientists to perform risky experiments on indigenous miners. These miners worked in high-altitudes and were thought to have bodies specially adapted to labor in low-pressure environments. Air Force scientists believed that the bodies of Peruvian miners held clues to conditioning future astronauts to ultra-thin atmospheres.

A former Nazi doctor and mountaineer named Bruno Balke led many of the experiments on indigenous miners. Balke’s own background as a mountaineer led him to see the cold as a foe that could be resisted through rigorous physical training. For Balke, America’s Cold Warriors needed to be toughened up to endure the literal cold.

Starting in 1954, Balke compared the performance of Peruvian miners in pressure chambers to his own efforts to acclimatize to the altitude in the Andes. These research efforts incorporated practices and assumptions that were similar to Kaare Rodahl’s in Alaska. Balke made racialized comparisons between white bodies and the bodies of indigenous peoples. In these cases, white bodies were seen as the control variable or the norm to be compared to.

Even Balke’s Peruvian hosts at the Institute for Andean Biology promoted the indigenous miners as examples of a pre-colonial “Andean Man.” Thus, the miners were seen as a sort of exceptional human unique to the region. For Balke, he hoped to appropriate the unique physiology of the Peruvian miners to create a new kind of military “superman.”

It is evident from the cases in Alaska and in Peru I that acclimatization studies have deep colonial roots and are [sic] embedded in troubling assumptions about race. The very first story I talked about regarding the Sherpas in the Himalayas also have many overlaps with these earlier cases.

Even though the term acclimatization is used to refer to short-term changes to the environment, theories of acclimatization get conflated with more long-term evolutionary explanations for racial differences. Thus, there are many lingering questions about ethics in these types of studies. How do we get ethical approval for such experiments? Who are the sort of people doing this kind of work? And how can we talk about diverse groups of people without essentializing them or racializing them?

These are difficult questions without easy answers, but the hope is that sharing these stories about the cold—about cold bodies, and about cold places—will allow us to imagine and realize more ethical presents and futures.


Cited Works and Further Reading:

1. Bhandari, Sushil, and Gianpiero Cavalleri. “Population History and Altitude-Related Adaptation in the Sherpa.” Frontiers in Physiology 10 (2019): https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2019.01116/full.

2. Bimm, Jordan. “Anticipating the Astronaut: Subject Formation in Early American Space Medicine, 1949-1959.” PhD dissertation. York University, 2018.

3. Clements, Philip W. Science in an Extreme Environment: The 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018.

4. Elliott, Kamilla. Theorizing Adaptation. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

5. Farish, Matthew. “The Lab and the Land: Overcoming the Arctic in Cold War Alaska.” Isis 104, no. 1 (2013): 1-29.

6. Gunga, Hanns-Christian. Human Physiology in Extreme Environments. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2014.

7. Hagen, Joel B. “Bergmann’s Rule, Adaptation, and Thermoregulation in Arctic Animals: Conflicting Perspectives from Physiology, Evolutionary Biology, and Physical Anthropology after World War II.” Journal of the History of Biology 52, no. 2 (2017): 235-265.

8. Hagen, Joel B. Life Out of Balance: Homeostasis and Adaptation in a Darwinian World. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2021.

9. Heggie, Vanessa. Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology and Exploration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

10. Monge, Carlos. Acclimatization in the Andes. Historical Confirmations of “Climatic Aggression” in the Development of Andean Man.” Translated by Donald F. Brown. Introduction by Isaiah Bowman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948.

11. Seth, Suman. Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

12. Tracy, Sarah W. “The Physiology of Extremes: Ancel Keys and the International High Altitude Expedition of 1935.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 86, no. 4 (2012): 627–660.

13. Whitehead, John. “Alaska and Hawai’i: The Cold War States.” In The Cold War American West, 1945–1989. Edited by Kevin J. Fernlund. Albuquerque: Univ. New Mexico Press, 1998.

Exploring the Environmental Dimensions of Black Political Thought and Activism in the Antebellum U.S.




Taneil: Hi! I’m Taneil and I’m currently a first year PhD student in the history program at Princeton University. Welcome to my podcast episode. This semester, I participated in a course on environmental history. Some of my favorite readings from the semester were the books and articles that we read that discussed how humans had formed connections with nonhuman aspects of the environment and how they learned lessons from it for purposes other than colonial projects or capitalist exploitation of natural resources. Books like Connie Chiang’s Nature Behind Barbed Wire and Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World underscored the possibilities and necessity of telling environmental histories that center on people who turned to the nonhuman environment not to further exploit it but to find temporary solace in it or even to resist the forms of precarity and violence that they were experiencing because of imperialism and capitalism.

I suppose I was most interested in these types of readings because they resonate with a research project that I have been working on this semester, and these books helped me think through some of the sources I have spent the past few months mulling over. So, for this podcast, I figured I would present a portion of this research. Specifically, I will talk about an African American woman named Sarah Mapps Douglass and how she also incorporated the natural world into her political thought and activism.

Douglass lived in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. She was born in 1806 and died in 1882. Though she is not really a household name today, Douglass was well-known among African American communities in the Mid-Atlantic during her lifetime. She was born into a prominent family, the daughter and granddaughter of some of the most influential Black Philadelphians during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sarah’s father was Robert Douglass, Sr., an immigrant from the West Indies.[1] In Philadelphia, he worked as a barber and amassed an estimated worth of $8,000 by the 1830s. This amount of money made his family part of the upper class of Black people in the city at the time.[2] Robert Douglass was also engaged in Black political discussions and activism in Philadelphia. Most notably, he supported the anti-colonization movement, an organized effort that many politically active African Americans living in Philadelphia took to spurn the American Colonization Society’s efforts to forcibly remove free Black people from the United States and relocate them to Africa. Robert Purvis, a fellow Black abolitionist based in Philadelphia, remembered Robert Douglass as a “sterling and inflexible friend to human rights.”[3]

Sarah was also descended from activists on her mother’s side of the family. Her maternal grandfather Cyrus Bustill was born enslaved in Burlington, New Jersey. After achieving freedom, Cyrus moved to Philadelphia in either the 1780s or 1790s. In the city, he established a lucrative baking business. Later in his life, Cyrus founded and taught at a school for Black children. In addition to his professional pursuits, he was also remembered by his descendants as having “always championed the cause of freedom and gave of his means to promote it.”[4] This commitment to helping formerly enslaved people and their descendants live out a meaningful freedom is evidenced in part by his participation in the Free African Society, one of the first formal mutual aid organizations meant to assist people of African descent.[5] Cyrus Bustill’s professional and public life was a template that several of his descendants would go on to follow in their own lives.

Grace Bustill Douglass, was Sarah Mapps Douglass’ mother and one of Cyrus Bustill’s children whose own public life adhered quite closely to his own. Grace was also an artisan; She operated a millinery in a building next door to the building where her father operated his bakery. In addition to this business, Grace also was involved in the creation of a school for African American children.[6] In a letter to the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, Sarah recalled years later that her mother and James Forten created a school around 1819 “in order that their children might be better taught than they could be in any of the schools then open to our people.”[7] Sarah was most likely referring to the seminary established by The Augustine Education Society of Pennsylvania. The organization’s constitution does note that Forten was the society’s first vice president and that Grace’s husband Robert Douglass was the group’s treasurer. No women were mentioned in the constitution, but, as Sarah remembered, it is likely that her mother was very involved in the creation of the school even though she did not have an official leadership position.[8] Grace’s name did appear on another group’s constitution though. She was one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, a small, interracial group of black and white women abolitionists founded in 1833. According to their constitution, the organization’s purpose was to advocate for the immediate emancipation of enslaved people as well as the elimination of the “race prejudice” that free Black people faced.[9]

With this esteemed family history bolstering her, Sarah Mapps Douglass also charted her own path, and in doing so managed to earn the admiration of members of the free Black community in her own right. For instance, in an 1859 column in a New York City-based, Black-run newspaper called the Weekly Anglo-African, one contributor sang Douglass’ praises. The columnist, who signed the article simply with their initials “J. J.,” wrote:

Mr. Editor, Permit me say a few words through your columns in regard to an estimable lady of this city. I allude to Mrs. Sarah M. Douglass. She has been known for many years among the anti-slavery people of Philadelphia as a warm-hearted, self-sacrificing, intelligent advocate of the rights of her own race. I venture to say that but few among the ranks of reform would be more generally known throughout the State at this time were it not that a strong dislike of notoriety, amounting almost to reserve, is an essential element of her character. As it is, she enjoys the friendship and respect of many, very many, prominent friends of the cause in this city.[10]

The reserved character that this article described might explain Douglass’ relative obscurity from popular historical accounts of the nineteenth-century abolition movement that she was apparently very involved in. Indeed, her private nature would also explain why she requested that her personal papers be destroyed after her death, and it would appear that her loved ones honored those wishes. Still, and perhaps contrary to her wildest imagination or desires, Sarah and the details of her remarkable life leap out in various letters and newspapers scattered across repositories in the Mid-Atlantic and New England. What you find in these archives is that during her lifetime, Douglass was treasured and beloved by free African American communities in the Mid-Atlantic region as well as by her white abolitionist allies.

However, when I first encountered Douglass in the archive, I did not know any of these things about her. I was just captivated by some drawings of plants and insects that she had done in a friendship album that belonged to Amy Matilda Cassey, another African American woman who was a part of the Black upper class in Philadelphia. Now, you’re probably asking what a friendship album even is. Friendship albums operated a bit like an early nineteenth century version of social media or a high school yearbook. The albums were usually fancy, leather-bound books with intricately designed covers. The owners of the albums would ask their friends to write notes inside of the book’s blank pages. For instance, on the opening page of Amy Cassey’s friendship album she encouraged her friends to include a tribute of any kind that would “Enrich this mental pic-nic feast.”[11]

Black women’s friendship albums were important. Friends and loved ones wrote notes and poems expressing their love and admiration for the album’s owner inside of them. Several of the albums’ pages featured illustrations of natural scenes and objects. For instance, as they turned through the pages of Cassey’s album, her friends would have seen a drawing of a butterfly with black, green, and red wings perched on top of flowering branches. Some album entries also featured illustrations of vibrantly colored flowers. All of these colorful and often highly-detailed contributions must have been especially striking to anyone who had the opportunity to peruse the albums’ pages.

Ultimately, the beautiful and loving space that Amy Matilda Cassey created with her friendship album provided a stark contrast from the Philadelphia just outside of her home. In fact, for Black people living in Philadelphia during the three decades preceding the Civil War, there was much about the city that was ugly. By the time that Sarah Mapps Douglass was born in 1806, Philadelphia was home to one of the largest communities of free Black people in the United States. The free and self-emancipated Black people who made Philadelphia their home were subjected to myriad forms of violence and indignities by white people in the city. Many of the city’s black residents were confronted with the reality that the freedom that was currently available to them in the United States was incredibly tenuous and still insufficient for living the kind of lives they hoped for. For instance, Black people who dared to occupy space in Philadelphia were called the n-word or sometimes physically attacked by white residents. Many of the city’s most infamous “race riots” that occurred during the antebellum era targeted buildings, homes, and even bodies belonging to Philadelphia’s black elite.[12] In response to these harsh realities of life in Philadelphia, some black residents chose to stay in their homes or at least to stay very near to them. For instance, one woman from an elite Black family living in Philadelphia wrote that she and her family members “never travel far from home and seldom go to public places unless quite sure that admission is free to all—therefore, we meet with none of these mortifications which might otherwise ensue.”[13]

Despite the overwhelming extent of anti-black racism in the city, Black Philadelphians created a variety of spaces and institutions that they hoped would benefit and sustain African Americans in the city.[14] African American women’s friendship albums were one of those spaces.

Black women’s friendship albums are also rare sources. Currently, there are only four friendship albums known to have belonged to Black women who lived in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. Three of those albums were acquired by the Library Company of Philadelphia in the 1990s and the other album is stored at Howard University’s Moorland-Springarn Research Center in Washington D.C.[15]

For these reasons, the friendship albums and especially Sarah Mapps Douglass’ drawings inside of them were not really like anything else I had come across before in doing research about Black people in the nineteenth century. And so I wondered, why did she draw these images? After doing more research and reading more about Douglass, I came to understand these drawings as windows into her political thought and activism. I argue that Douglass believed that scientific knowledge about plants and natural phenomena would be beneficial for African Americans’ struggles for freedom and equality in the nineteenth century.

While many scholars who have worked with the friendship albums argue that the floral imagery in them evidence African American women’s embrace of Victorian gender norms, I take a different view.[16] I subscribe to literary scholar Britt Rusert’s contention that Douglass’ illustrations and written contributions to the friendship albums might also serve as evidence of her familiarity with natural science discourses.[17] Douglass’ style of drawing flowers in the albums’ pages supports the claim that she was familiar with the natural sciences. Whereas other contributors drew flowers as fully-bloomed bouquets in vases, most of Douglass’ images featured just one or two flowers floating on the page. Douglass’ drawings also depicted the plants in various stages of development: while a fully-bloomed flower was the central object in an image she drew, Douglass would often frame these blooms with still-budding flowers. This approach to illustrating plants is very similar to botanical drawings done by naturalists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[18]  For Douglass then, the flowers she invoked on the pages of Black women’s and girl’s friendship albums might not have served exclusively or even primarily as symbols for certain sentiments as stipulated by the Victorian woman’s language of flowers. The plants she drew and wrote about in the friendship albums might have simply represented the actual plants themselves or even nature more broadly.

While Douglass’ illustrations of insects and flowers are what initially piqued my interests and drew me to the friendship albums, the political resonance of the poems she often included with her illustrations made me even more intrigued. I am particularly invested in an entry in which Douglass illustrated some flowers, and beneath the illustration, she neatly transcribed a poem that she likely copied from a newspaper or poetry collection. The poem read:

No marvel woman should love flowers, they bear

So much of fanciful similitude

To her own history; like herself repaying

With such sweet interest all the cherishing

That calls their beauty or their sweetness forth;

And like her too—dying beneath neglect.[19]

To me, this entry was great evidence of the way Douglass incorporated nonhuman aspects of the natural world in her political thought. I read this poem as a rare example of a written political commentary from Douglass. In it, she was critical of the treatment of plants as well as women. As I came to learn through my own research, Douglass’ life experiences beyond the pages of the friendship album suggest that her comparison of women and flowers was more than superficial or incidental and even went beyond just being a metaphor. Douglass once disclosed the nature of her relationship with flowers in a letter to a friend. She wrote “Flowers have ever been to me earnest, solemn holy teachers.”[20] Douglass believed that flowers had more to offer people than just their aesthetic beauty. And that the same was true about women.

Douglass lived during a time when, Black men and women frequently and intensely debated the propriety of having African American women be public figures and political commentators. [21] We can even see these tensions within the friendship albums. For instance, while Douglass’ poetry selection problematized women’s duty to provide others with just their “beauty and sweetness,” elsewhere in the friendship album, other Black women and men added poems that described and praised women’s duties as wives and mothers.[22] In perhaps the most extreme example that can be found on the pages of Amy Cassey’s friendship album, another Black woman named Mary Forten encouraged the women who read the album to be “good wives” who “Speak but when they are spoken to;/But not like echoes most absurd/Have forever the last word.”[23]

Forten’s poem demonstrates how some African American women “understood and reinforced their own social subjugation,” as historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar has put it.[24] Contrary to the views of womanhood that Forten put forward in her poem, the poem that Douglass chose to include in the album indicted the treatment of women as primarily or purely decorative and aesthetic figures. Instead, through the poem’s language, Douglass made the bold and contentious argument that women could offer more than beauty and sweetness as wives and mothers and thrive while doing it.

The poem that Douglass included in the album serves as just one example of her dissatisfaction with some of the gender norms and expectations of her time. In her more personal affairs, Douglass did not seem to prioritize fulfilling one of the most important aspects of respectable womanhood, which was becoming a wife. Douglass once received a letter from her friend and fellow abolitionist Sarah Grimké in which Grimké implored Sarah Douglass not to be “displeased” with her husband-to-be Reverend William Douglass. Grimké encouraged Sarah Douglass to “wear…the bridal robes of cheerfulness, yea of pleasant mirthfulness, & you will find it diffuses a charm over your own life & over all around you.”[25] Sarah Mapps Douglass must have taken her friends advice, since she did eventually marry William on July 23, 1855 when she was 49 years old. The marriage lasted just six years, ending with William Douglass’ death in 1861. Other letters between Sarah Douglass and Sarah Grimké show that Douglass seemed to have grown to enjoy William as a person, but she never seemed to come around to enjoy her role as a wife. She once referred to her marriage as “that School of bitter discipline.”[26]

Douglass was also frustrated by the way that her particular experience of sexism and racism as a Black woman thwarted her educational ambitions. Douglass was likely the author of a letter that Sarah Grimké’s sister Angelina cited in a pamphlet she wrote describing racism in the northern United States for white women who lived there in the hopes of getting them to support abolition and the elimination of racism. Angelina Grimké reported how the black woman who was probably Douglass expressed a desire for a formal education in science. But prejudice significantly hindered her ability to receive it. The letter’s author wrote:

For the last three years of my life, I can truly say, my soul has hungered and thirsted after knowledge, and I have looked to the right hand and to the left, but there was none to give me food. Prejudice has strictly guarded every avenue to science and cruelly repulsed all my efforts to gain admittance to her presence.[27]

Douglass was not continuously constrained by gender expectations that she did not want to live up to for all of her life though. Significantly, Douglass’ luck in obtaining scientific training changed in 1852 when she enrolled in the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania that had opened just two years earlier in 1850. At 46 years old, Douglass finally got a chance to obtain the type of education she had wanted for a long time. She was the first African American student at the school. The Female Medical College’s curriculum for the 1852-1853 school year included seven courses—Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children, Anatomy, Practice of Medicine, Chemistry and Toxicology, Physiology and Medical Jurisprudence, Surgery, and Materia Medica and General Therapeutics. By taking these courses, Douglass was finally able to expand her knowledge about women and natural sciences. The Materia Medica course might have been especially interesting to Douglass. According to the course catalogue, Douglass and her classmates were instructed in “the therapeutical properties of the various articles of the Materia Medica.” The course professor taught them “the natural and commercial history, together with the other properties of medicinal agents” through “an extensive collection of genuine and spurious drugs, drawings, dried specimens, &c.”[28] In effect, Douglass’ studies in medical school enabled her to attend to the properties of women and plants that went beyond their aesthetic beauty.

Douglass did not obtain a medical degree, but she still made use of the lessons she learned at the Female Medical College outside of the school’s lecture halls. After taking courses at the medical school, Douglass gave lectures on science, medicine, and health to African American women and, on occasion, men in Philadelphia and New York City. Douglass was praised and highly sought after for her lectures. For example, one commentator writing in 1859 in a newspaper called the Weekly Anglo-African, reported that Douglass’ lectures on “Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene” offered ample evidence against claims that women were unable to understand scientific knowledge or the workings of the human body. The commentator continued, writing that Douglass offered her audience “not mere details of scientific facts, but were enriched by numerous and beautiful illustrations, well calculated to elevate the mind, and so practical as to engage the attention of many on whom theories, however grand and inspiring, are lost.”[29] Perhaps Douglass reproduced illustrations of flowers during her public lectures that were similar to those drawings she contributed to the friendship albums.

These lectures were important to Douglass for several reasons. For one, giving public lectures helped supplement Douglass’ income. They also were part of her lifelong dedication to supporting African American people through education. As Douglass hoped, her lectures were of great practical utility to the Black women in attendance. For instance, in a letter from 1862, Douglass wrote to her friend Rebecca White about a lecture she had recently given. Douglass had evidently spoken about the anatomy of the eye, and she reported to her friend that at least two women in attendance had revealed to her that they benefitted from the presentation. One woman was able to identify that pains she had been having as actually stemming from the eye that Douglass must have discussed and subsequently told Douglass that she would take action to remedy it. Douglass wrote to Rebecca that:

Another woman told me that she had often felt what I described as coming from over exertion. She said after washing all and starching and hanging up till eleven o’clock she had often at that late hour taken her sewing and worked until her head ached and her eyes watered and yet she would persevere. Now she would rest herself and be better able to work next day.

After sharing this story with Rebecca White, Douglass concluded that she was “greatly encouraged to believe that a good work is begun.”[30]

In addition to the practical significance and benefits that education about natural sciences would have for African Americans, Douglass also believed that education was a valuable political tool. As historian Kabria Baumgartner argues in her 2019 book In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America, for Douglass, and other Black women and girls like her, education was connected to her activism because she believed that moral and intellectual development could bolster Black activists’ claims for freedom and equal status as citizens in the United States.[31] Douglass expressed the centrality of education to broader political activism best in her own words. “Our enemies know that education will elevate us to an equality with themselves. We also know, that it is of more importance to us than gold, yes, more to be desired than much fine gold.”[32]

Even before Douglass began giving public lectures in the 1850s, she was very involved in the education of African American women, men, and children. Douglass worked as a teacher in primary and secondary schools for over fifty years, mostly in Philadelphia and briefly in New York City. She also participated in the informal educational spaces of literary societies and lyceums that Black people established in Philadelphia.[33] As an educator, she taught her young students a variety of subjects, but it seems that she had a unique affinity for science education and the study of the natural world. For instance, an 1837 article of a Black-run newspaper called the Colored American featured some details about one of Douglass’ classrooms in Philadelphia. After reporting on the various intellectual activities available to Black people in the city, the author of the article singled out Douglass for “special notice.” He praised Douglass’ skill as a teacher and even noted the presence of “a well-selected and valuable cabinet of shells and minerals, well-arranged and labelled” in Douglass’ classroom. He concluded the article by stating that Douglass “has a mind richly furnished with a knowledge of these sciences, and she does not fail, through them, to lead up the minds of her pupils, through Nature, to Nature’s God.”[34]

Douglass continued to teach until she became too ill to do so in 1877. In a letter Douglass wrote to her friend Rebecca in March of 1876, shortly before her retirement, Douglass revealed how much she had enjoyed her career as a teacher. She wrote:

One of my old scholars here on a visit from South Carolina, said that she had heard a person remark (alluding to my suffering from rheumatism and my being obliged to go out every day rain or shine,) “Mrs. Douglass is dragging out a miserable existence” O said I eagerly, how she is mistaken! A miserable existence indeed! When I am doing the will of God concerning me! Doing the work I love; doing it with all my heart and soul and mind and strength!! Finding my rich record on high. I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching this autumn and winter. Going out morning by morning, leaning on the strong arm of my invisible friend and reaching my schoolroom with thanksgivings and praises in my heart and on my lips.[35]

Douglass clearly understood teaching African American people of all ages to be her divine purpose and part of her political struggle to better the condition of Black people in the United States. Ultimately, for Sarah Mapps Douglass the diligent study of the human and nonhuman aspects of the natural world was tied to her life-long mission of advocating for freedom and equality for Black children, women, and men.

Okay. For now, that is all I have to say about the fascinating career of Sarah Mapps Douglass and the environmental dimensions of her political activism. I hope you were able to enjoy learning about her in these past few minutes as much as I have these past few months. Thank you so much for listening!


[1] I have made the decision to use first names for sake of clarity and therefore only in those cases when discussing family members who share a surname

[2] Julie Winch, The Elite of Our People: Joseph Willson’s Sketches of Black Upper-Class Life in Antebellum Philadelphia, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 23.

[3] Robert Purvis, “Remarks on the Life and Character of James Forten, Delivered at Bethel Church, March 30, 1842,” 15, Black Abolitionist Papers, http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bap:&rft_dat=xri:bap:rec:bap:03076.

[4] Anna Bustill, “The Bustill Family,” The Journal of Negro History 10, no. 4, (October 1925): 638-639.

[5] Julie Winch, Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1484 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 5.

[6] Anna Bustill Smith, “The Bustill Family,” The Journal of Negro History 10, no. 4, (October 1925): 639.

[7] “Seventh Annual Report of the Philadelphia Female A. S. Society,” Pennsylvania Freeman, March 17, 1841, http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bap:&rft_dat=xri:bap:rec:bap:06946.

[8] The Augustine Education Society of Pennsylvania, “Constitution,” in An Address Delivered at Bethel Church…before the Augustine Society, September 30, 1818, Black Abolitionist Papers, http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bap:&rft_dat=xri:bap:rec:bap:07465.

[9] Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 85.

[10] J. J., “Mrs. Sarah M. Douglass,” Weekly Anglo-African, December 31, 1859, Black Abolitionist Papers, http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bap:&rft_dat=xri:bap:rec:bap:10025.

[11] Amy Matilda Cassey, “Original & Selected Poetry, &c,” Amy Matilda Cassey album, Print Department, Library Company of Philadelphia.

[12] John Runcie, “Hunting the Nigs’ in Philadelphia: The Race Riot of August 1834,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 39, no. 2 (April 1972): 215; Emma Jones Lapansky, “‘Since They Got Those Separate Churches’: Afro-Americans and Racism in Jacksonian Philadelphia,” American Quarterly 32, no. 1 (April 1980): 64.

[13] “Sarah Forten to Angelina Grimké, April 15, 1837” in We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Dorothy Sterling (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 125.

[14] Gary Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[15] The Library Company of Philadelphia, The Annual Report of the Library Company of Philadelphia for the Year of 1993 (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1993), 17-24 and The Library Company of Philadelphia, The Annual Report of the Library Company of Philadelphia for the Year of 1998 (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1998), 25-35.

[16] See Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) and Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[17] Britt Rusert, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 204.

[18] Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 104.

[19] Sarah Mapps Douglass, “No marvel woman should love flowers…,” Amy Matilda Cassey album, Print Department, Library Company of Philadelphia.

[20] Letter from Sarah Mapps Douglass to Rebecca White, 1855, May 30, Josiah White Papers, 1797-1949, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections.

[21] Martha Jones, All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[22] Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom, 127.

[23] Mary Forten, “Good Wives,” Amy Matilda Cassey album, Print Department, Library Company of Philadelphia.

[24] Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom, 130.

[25] “Sarah Grimke to Sarah Mapps Douglass [1854-55] in We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Dorothy Sterling (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), 131-132.

[26] Dorothy Sterling, in We Are Your Sisters, 132.

[27] Angelina Grimké, An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States: Issued by an Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, Held by Adjournments From the 9th to the 12th of May, 1837 (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 50.

[28] Third Annual Announcement and Catalogue of Students of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania Located in Philadelphia at No. 229 Arch Street: For the Session 1852-1853, Women’s Medical College/Medical College of Pennsylvania publications, Drexel University Archives, Philadelphia.

[29] J. J., “Mrs. Sarah M. Douglass,” Weekly Anglo-African, December 31, 1859, Black Abolitionist Papers, http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bap:&rft_dat=xri:bap:rec:bap:10025.

[30] Letter from Sarah Mapps Douglass to Rebecca White, 1862, February 9, Josiah White Papers, 1797-1949, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections.

[31] Kabria Baumgartner, In Pursuit of Knowledge, 6.

[32] Zillah, “Sympathy for Miss Crandall,” Emancipator, July 20, 1833, Black Abolitionist Papers. http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bap:&rft_dat=xri:bap:rec:bap:05498.

[33] See Marie Lindhorst, “Politics in a Box: Sarah Mapps Douglass and the Female Literary Association, 1831-1833,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 65, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 263-278 ans Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002).

[34] Samuel Cornish, “Editorial Correspondence,” Colored American, December 2, 1837, Black Abolitionist Papers, http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:bap:&rft_dat=xri:bap:rec:bap:11258.

[35] Letter from Sarah Mapps Douglass to Rebecca White, 1876, March, 27, Josiah White Papers, 1797-1949, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections.

Environmental Racism, Environmental Justice, and Preservation in Pine Grove

Environmental Racism, Environmental Justice, and Preservation in Pine Grove

by Niya Bates | 03 May 2021

Pine Grove School - 2021 April 9

Fig 1: Students of Genevieve Keller’s class observing landscape damage from trespassers at Pine Grove School | Cumberland, VA April 9, 2021



Muriel Miller Branch: Growing up in the Pine Grove Community, I now realize much later as an older adult, that we were environmentalists long before the word became popular. We rotated our crops, and even when we cut wood, mostly to heat our homes because most of us had wood stoves, we only cut enough wood to last us through the winter. Those farmers and residents who did cut wood out of the wooded areas on their property, cut those trees down to make room and to make light for the other trees to grow. So, it was like a thinning out process that they used.

There was a cohesiveness in Pine Grove that is kind of hard to explain because that cohesiveness was actually across racial lines. If a neighbor needed help harvesting a crop or killing hogs and processing the meat or if someone got sick, people just rallied around you. It was truly- I think Dorothy used the word village, someone used the word village on Friday. I began to feel a different sense for that word. It wasn’t just a collection of people, it was a spirit of some kind of connectivity because we all lived off the land. It was important to respect the land even if some people didn’t respect the people on the land. You understand what I’m saying?

Niya Bates: I’m Niya Bates, a graduate student in the History Department at Princeton University, and this is a podcast is   about the intersections of historic preservation, environmental racism, and environmental justice as experienced by one community in Virginia’s South Central Piedmont.

[historical background]


Cumberland County Map

Fig 2: Cumberland County, VA | Map courtesy of Google Maps

Niya:  Cumberland County, Virginia is deeply rural. Where I’m from, we would call it the boonies or the sticks. The total population of the county is under 10,000 residents. In fact,  the average commute to work for the people who venture to live there is approximately 40 minutes. For city-dwellers who are used to sitting in traffic, this probably seems low. But in reality it means driving 30 or 40 miles in any direction.[1] The community of Pine Grove, located in the northeast section of Cumberland County is roughly one hour southeast of Charlottesville and one hour southwest of Virginia’s capital city of Richmond. Even the closest grocery stores are a 30-minute drive for folks living in Pine Grove.


Sonja Branch-Wilson: Let me say that when I was younger, I hated to go to Cumberland. “Oh, we’re going to go to Cumberland,” said my grandparents or my parents, or, “We’re going to ride down to Cumberland.” Great. The only time of the year that I was excited about going to Cumberland was Labor Day weekend when we used to have our annual family reunion because it was seeing all of our cousins, young and old, my age and the elders and we would play, we would get on that rusty swing that had probably been there a thousand years, but we were on it. Then we would smell the food and we would wait to see which cars were going to come up the gravel. You could hear them before they would come. We would look and see what kind of car it was, because depending upon whose car it was, you’d know either you had the potato salad or desserts or something yummy coming.

Niya: Mrs. Muriel Miller Branch and her family have lived in Cumberland County for many generations. She reverse-migrated to Cumberland from Montclair, NJ when her father took ownership of his uncle’s 40-acre farm when she was just three years old. Mrs. Branch’s Great Uncle, Warner Mayo, built their farmhouse in the Cartersville area of Cumberland in the 1880s. She says she grew up surrounded by family in a close-knit community.

Like many counties in the eastern half of Virginia, in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions, Cumberland County built its wealth on the backs of enslaved people. The Mayo, Miller, Dungy, and Agee families in Pine Grove are descendants of those enslaved laborers and retain deep ties to the land that their ancestors cultivated. In 1860, there were twice as many enslaved Afro-Virginians living in Cumberland as free whites.[2] They made up 67% of the total population, which placed Cumberland in the top 3 slaveholding counties by total percentage of the population. There was also a very small population of free Black residents who primarily worked as laborers, on farms, in mills, at other industrial sites, or as boatmen.[3] In Cumberland, tobacco was king – specifically the bright leaf variety that was first identified in Caswell County, NC in the later 1830s.[4] They liked this variety because it could be grown in poor soil, which was common because other darker-leafed varieties had drained the soil in Cumberland of its nutrients and productivity. Poor roads and unimproved waterways made access to the deeply rural countryside treacherous and limited other industries and crops from being profitable in the county.[5] This exacerbated class divisions by creating a wealthy class of planters and plantation owners, an underclass of overseers and other poor whites, and a Black population – free and enslaved – that was consistently exploited.

These conditions did not change with the arrival of legal freedom at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Niya: The Agees, Mayos, Millers, Dungys and at least sixteen other Black families in the Pine Grove and Cartersville area of Cumberland County were employed doing similar work as they had done under the harsh regime of slavery. Many worked on their own farms and those who did not worked as farm laborers for other landowners.  Everyone was deeply committed to making sure that their families had access to education.

Between 1865 and 1910, Black residents in Cumberland constructed one-room schools for educating people – young and old. By 1910, they opened a high school in Cartersville named Hamilton High School. Hamilton was part of a larger turn in Virginia toward Booker T. Washington’s model of industrial education for African Americans all across the U.S. South, which included normal education to prepare women to become teachers. [6]


Fig 3. Interior of the Pine Grove Elementary School | Cumberland, Va 2019.


With $50 in support from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, designs created by Robert Robinson Taylor – a Black architect from Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute – , $500 raised by Black residents, and $1000 from the county school division, men from the Pine Grove community constructed and opened the Pine Grove Elementary School in 1917.[7] From 1917 until 1954, Pine Grove Elementary served to educate students from pre-kindergarten through 7th grade.

Mrs. Branch: My dad was three years old when Pine Grove School was built, so  it was there. Actually, he attended until fifth grade I think, that’s when he had to drop out.

Niya: Starting at the age of 5, Mrs. Branch also attended Pine Grove Elementary in the last few years before the school was closed as a result of school desegregation in Virginia. Unlike the neighboring county of Prince Edward, Cumberland County did not close schools to avoid integration. In fact, they broke away from Prince Edward’s policy of Massive Resistance by creating an independent school district, which has resulted in the sites in Cumberland being added to the  Civil Rights in Virginia Education Heritage Trail.[8]

Mrs. Branch has vivid memories of her time at Pine Grove, including the special privilege of attending school early – before the age most students were allowed to attend.

Mrs. Branch: We walked three and a half miles to Pine Grove School. Now, that was a ritual. Going to school and walking from school, there were these rituals. One was- because we lived further away than any of our cousins that we picked up along the way. We would stop at each lane because we had these long lanes. Everybody lived back off these dirt roads. And we would stop at each of the lanes, and when we get close, we had a little call and response that we would do and we’d say, “Woo-hoo hoo hoo!  Who-hoo hoo hoo-hoo.” If they were on their way, they’d say, “Woo-hoo! ” We did that at every lane so that they would know that we were getting close and we’d be moving on. We’d wait for a little while and then we’d go to the next lane and we’d do the same thing.

It didn’t look like three and a half miles because we kept gathering our family and friends as we walked along the way and kicking rocks, with sticks and chasing each other and playing tag. It’s a wonder we even made it to school. By the time we got to school, Mrs. Gilliam was standing at the door with the little bell. [mimics bell sounds] If you weren’t there, you had better move and move really quickly because she did not ring that bell but once.

Niya: And After you got there, what was your school day like?

Mrs. Branch: The school day consisted of a lot of listening. I remember a lot of listening because you have to understand that there were seven grade levels. The only way you knew what grade you were in was the row of seat that you said on. Mrs. Schelling would start with the younger children and then move back. While we were doing our work, that she would move from row to row, well, Little Miss Muffet (me) would hurry up and get my work done, and I would be listening to what was going on behind me with the older children.

There was a lot of incidental or vicarious learning, but it was a buzz . There was always paper shuffling and I can remember the sound of the pencils on the paper. B ut the real thing that I remember was that chalk, the sound of the chalk on the- we didn’t have chalkboard, they were called blackboards. Then you had the fire in the winter, the crackling of the wood, and the sparks coming out of the stove. Every month or so, the men would get together and put some kind of oil on the wood, on the floors. Sweep them really good, scrub them, and then they put this oil, and boy, you had to tip around pretty- [laughs] you really had to tip around for a few days until that oil soaked into the wood.

Basically, our books were hand-me-downs from the white schools. They were ragged and tattered. Ms. Gilliam taught us how to make book covers out of paper bags. Then she would let us design our own covers for the books and make them as pretty as we could, but she didn’t seem to rely totally on the books. Some days she would fill that blackboard with things that were not in the book, that she remembered or that she thought we needed to know. Everything that we learned didn’t come from those tattered books. Oftentimes there were pages missing.

She had to adapt the lessons for that. On Fridays, that was a really special day because that’s how I started school. She would allow me, not a lot of five-year-olds because she couldn’t go to school until you were six in Cumberland. She allowed me to come with my brother and sister on Fridays, and then later on, on Fridays, that was our spelling bee  where you’d line up in front of everybody and she would call up these words and you would spell them until you were eliminated. That was a big deal because sometimes she would do it by grade level. If you competed with some of the older people, you were a hotshot.

Niya: A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit with Mrs. Branch at Pine Grove with a Historic Preservation Planning class from the University of Virginia taught by long-time historic preservationist and planner, Genevieve Keller. On our tour, we were harassed by a white man who moved into the area just five years ago. He demanded to know what we were doing and when Mrs. Branch pushed him on why he was bothering us – very clearly a group of students with backpacks and notepads — he suggested “the community” has recently had trouble with “prowlers.”…Right… US…PROWLERS. After the disruption, Mrs. Branch reflected on when the social and racial demographics began to change in her  community.

Mrs. Branch: That started in the ’50s as families had to seek employment elsewhere. The schools, once they graduated from the normal school or the training school, Cumberland County training school, there was nothing to do but farm. By this time, farming was just not sustainable because the white farmers had the acreage for the most part and the one cash crop that we had, most black farmers had was tobacco. Cumberland County found a way to cut the allotments of the black farmers, while increasing the allotments of the few white farmers that were even in the community.

Educational opportunities, economic opportunities were the two things that caused the outward migration of blacks from my community. Then what happened was, as my age group began to migrate out of the community, the property started changing hands and then Continental Canning Company came in and they saw an opportunity to take advantage of the economic downturn, the economic stress on black farmers.

They started buying up, just buying up land, buying up land everywhere. That’s how some of that land that we used to own was subdivided and just- they don’t live anywhere near the community, but they had deep pockets. If you’re poor, and someone offers you $1,000 an acre or $500 an acre or $250 an acre back in that day, you took it, that was a lot. That was more money than you had ever known.

[Environmental Justice Battle]

Fig. 4 Green Ridge Amended Proposal Map | Courtesy of Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal

 Niya:  Since 2018, Black and white residents living in the Pine Grove neighborhood have been battling the construction of a mega-landfill by New York based company called Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal. The company received plan and permit approvals from the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors, who supported the project because it would bring jobs and tax revenue to the area. Mrs. Branch and other residents have mounted a fierce opposition to the project on the basis that the proposed landfill will disturb graves of her family’s enslaved ancestors, reroute historic roads and cut off access to the Pine Grove community to accommodate new traffic from dump trucks, and contaminate ground water among other things. If the plan goes through, the Pine Grove school that anchors the cultural landscape of the Black community will be surrounded on three sides by a mega-landfill that will accept between 3,500-5,000 tons of waste per day. According to Green Ridge, the waste would come from places within a 500-mile aerial radius, excluding New York and New Jersey.

What’s within a 500-mile aerial radius from Cumberland, you ask? Twenty other states from as far south as Georgia, as far north as parts of Vermont, almost all of the eastern seaboard, and Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and even a sliver of Alabama. Toronto, Canada is within the 500-mile radius of Cumberland County, too

And here’s the kicker: the dump will only provide around 30 jobs. In a county where nearly 20% of residents are living in poverty and the median income hovers just above $46,000, is this really good investment? Is this the kind of development that will truly support people living in Cumberland?

Map - 500mi Aerial Radius of Cumberland, VA

500 mile aerial radius surrounding Cumberland, VA. Courtesy of Google Maps.

Niya: For Sonja Branch Wilson- these developments are devastating.

Sonja: It infuriates me [chuckles] because when I see my great uncle standing in his tobacco fields, or if I see my grandfather building and I see the homes, this was their community.

Also, to see the headstones that my grandfather made out of— I think with limestone –  and his etching, his handwriting in those headstones, I’m like, “Oh, my grandfather did that.” His grandfather, his grandmother, it says, “At rest,” and while those souls are at rest, for a company who has no connection to the community, no connection to the land is willing to come and disrupt that rest and could care less about the ancestral souls who are there. It’s more than disheartening. It just makes me really angry, like, how dare you? How dare you? Who are you to do something like this, to try to bully a community?

Niya: Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal, offered Mrs. Branch and the AMMD Pine Grove Project group who now owns the school property $100,000 to stop their protest. In an op-ed for the Farmville Herald newspaper, Mrs. Branch wrote:

“We make no apology for not accepting $100,000 dollars, as we are smart enough to know that those few dollars would be “hush” money; a way of silencing us.

We make no apology for raising the alarm about the adverse environmental and health impacts a landfill in our midst would have on life-long residents of the community.

We make no apology for questioning the so-called buffer for a 692 feet high landfill, or the smell and dust the landfill and truck traffic would cause. We make no apology for not wanting to disturb the 22 formerly enslaved souls behind Pine Grove School or further decimate their memory by having garbage piled on them.

We make no apology for advocating for what is right and just and for calling attention to America’s long history of environmental racism in communities of color who have no high-paid lobbyists to speak for us. ”[9]

Niya: I spoke with historic preservationist and urban planner, Genevieve Keller about her pro-bono work to help Mrs. Branch and the Pine Grove community. We started our conversation by talking about the intersections of historic preservation and environmental racism and environmental justice.

Genevieve Keller: I’m Genevieve Keller. I usually describe myself as an architectural historian preservation planner I’m a founding principle of a small preservation and landscape architecture firm in Charlottesville, Virginia – Land and Community Associates. And  for the last five or six years, I’ve been adjunct faculty in historic preservation at the University of Virginia.

Because we were starting our practice in 1975, we were very close to the environmental movement of the 50s, 60s, and 70s and all of the environmental acts that came about through the Johnson and Nixon administrations, you know? So, I always say that the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was at the vanguard of those environmental acts – maybe being the most conservative about them but there was a federal mandate to review and protect historic resources before clean air and clean water.[10]

Well, you know, our profession Historic Preservation was actually born in issues of racial and environmental injustice then it kind of overzealous over patriotism that glorified whiteness and masculinity and elitism –  And it intentionally obscured and suppress the contributions of people who were not white and male, and elite. Even the way we name properties, you know, even, even the homes of the elite, It may have come to a man, through his wife’s dour or through his mother’s inheritance, but it’s still going to have his name, you know? So at the very essence of the survey process, it’s male and it’s white. And so, the first people that were surveying Virginia were male, and were white. And I think that that that just, you know, trickled down and it came out of our museum heritage, you know?

And then you overlay NEPA and Historic Preservation Act on that. People weren’t looking for slave dwellings and smoke houses and joineries, and all of those other things and in fact, they saw them as ugly. And they removed them from the landscape. And in doing so, they suppressed that and there were intentional places, as well, where people were concerned about the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s and the riots places in the Shenandoah Valley felt they were very close to Washington DC. And that if they still had records that prove that they had enslaved people on their farms, they would deliberately destroy those.

Niya: Right. there’s something different about being the birthplace of America, and dealing with these issues.

Genevieve: Right, right. I mean, we came in and displaced and killed the indigenous people. And within, you know, less than a decade really, then we started a race based enslavement process. And then we were a major battleground of the Civil War. And now we have more Confederate monuments than any other place and in the United States. And we had massive resistance and a very vigorous Jim Crow – and genetics and we influenced Germany at you know we are the place.[11]

I was saying to someone yesterday, really the whole of the Commonwealth of Virginia is a sight of conscience – should be a site of conscience – you know, because we are so culpable in so many ways. We’re so rich in other ways. I don’t want to damn all of it, because I think there’s some good that comes out of the preservation movement, but I think we can use preservation to look more deeply at that history and take responsibility for what we did and take responsibility for how we’re going to repair it.

[Where do we go from here?] 

Niya: So where do we go from here? Over the past few years, Virginia has seen a number of reactionary preservation projects brought forward by communities of color fighting major development and infrastructure projects – not to prevent productive development, but rather to protect the desecration of sacred grounds and irreplaceable history. In Buckingham County, the Black community in Union Hill successfully fought against a proposed Dominion Virginia Power compressor station on the basis that it would disproportionately negatively impact their community. In the process, they created Virginia’s first Freedman’s historic district, the only rural historic district in the state focused solely on Black historic resources. At Rassawek, the Monacan Indian Nation – a federally recognized sovereign tribe –  is embroiled in a tense battle to prevent the James River Water Authority from building a pump station and pipeline that would disturb over 20 ancestral burial sites. Rassawek has been their capital for over 5000 years and 200 generations. In Charles City County, residents are in a similar situation as the community in Pine Grove, facing the construction of another mega-landfill. And in Richmond, descendants of enslaved and free Black Richmond residents created a historic district as part of their battle to save the Shockoe Hill African Burial Ground from being further desecrated by the construction of a high speed rail connecting DC to Richmond, VA.

In the U.S., less than 2% of historic sites on the National Register of Historic Places are associated with African American history.[12] While structural inequities with the process remain a primary source of this imbalance – for example, criteria that is hyper-focused on the built landscape at the expense of cultural landscapes, oral history, and intangible heritage – centuries of dispossession and displacement have left us with communities and histories that are difficult to identify and locate through traditional data sources like the census and windshield surveys. Practitioners have ignored and overlooked places of significance to communities of color, new property owners have torn down or otherwise destroyed buildings and landscapes that “weren’t pretty” despite knowledge of their historical significance (like the underground railroad site in Petersburg, VA for example). Urban renewal and other forced erasures for the sake of development have made those landscapes difficult to identify even on maps.

Genevieve Keller, Andrea Roberts, Lakshmi Fjord and others working in this space have testified to the tremendous power of local knowledge as one strategy for locating and preserving communities that exist at the margins or have not yet been mapped.

Genevieve: Local knowledge of environments is an essential part of environmental justice. It is something that hasn’t been built into most preservation projects in an integral way beyond using the traditional and often white and well off owners of historic legacies. And it often requires public comment for environmental reviews and historic designations. But, the sad thing about public comment is that it does not necessarily inform the process, nor need to be heeded, and it usually comes at the end of her project rather than at the beginning. It’s just a mandated part of the process. And in many instances communities of color may be outnumbered and out funded and their voices may not be heard. I certainly know that in my own work I’ve made mistakes especially when local knowledge was not funded and built into the process.

Students  of my Preservation Planning class at UVA are learning more and more from local leader, the Reverend Muriel Branch, about burial traditions, historic pathways, and lack of internal boundaries in her beloved pine Grove community. And, as you well remember, you and I first met because your African American descendant community had not been included as informants, decision makers, and supporters of the Southwest Mountains Rural Historic District, while the descendants of plantation-owning enslavers played a major role in developing and informing that project. So I think we’ve come to a point where many of us are realizing that environmental justice demands that we do better and that we value local knowledge so that we can repair past damage and that we can repair the narrative and repair the designations to ensure protections that are equitable and inclusive in the future.

Niya: Members of the Pine Grove Community also share similar ideas about local memory and local knowledge. However, they also frame the challenge around shifting ideas about cultivating the next generation, focusing on the good types of development, and educating the public on the history. Mrs. Branch, her cousin Dorothy Rice, and daughter Sonja Branch-Wilson are committed to this fight.

 I think the Pine Grove Project is an opportunity to share with the immediate community because I’m not sure the people that are there really are that invested in this legacy, they’ve probably taken it for granted like many people do when you have something, and it’s only when you’re on the verge of losing it do you want to try to save it.

Mrs. Branch Agriculture is different now so I think maybe we need to look at agriculture differently. You’ve got the hydroponics, you’ve got all kinds of agricultural-type industries that are popping up. I think it’s incumbent upon us as an organization to, as I wrote in that op-ed, that we need to show people what we’re for and come up with some plans that we can offer. If we can get a park, a nice park at Pine Grove, and get the school restored, that will be a green space for people to be able to claim. To come in us and claim, and gather, all of those things that rebuild community.

Tourism, we can get Cumberland, we can get the cemeteries, the schools in that area, even into Buckingham as a part of a historic tour, bringing tourism into the community, somehow linking that huge green space called Bear Creek Lake to these rural sites as a part of the recreational industry. There are many things that we can do to attract younger people.

We need to get together with the school system and help them envision what could be and prepare their young people for what could be. There’s too much apathy and complacency because of poverty. The people feel defeated and the white people only have one thing to hang on to and that’s their color.

Sonja: I think my mother said something very powerful and you witnessed it on Friday and I’ve stated it several times. I don’t want to call- refer to them as this, but it’s kind of I don’t know, I really don’t know, another word to say that would describe them outside of newcomers. They are new to the community. They do not know the history of the community. They haven’t cared to know the history of the community. They just see it as a quiet quaint place where the neighboring community, Powhatan , has developed so much.

Again, you would ride and you would go up Route 60 and keep going. At one point, it was like civilization cut off because it was just trees and a house here and there, but Powhatan has really blossomed now. There’s still no supermarket there. They’re just– You have the gas station that sells good food, by the way, they have great food at the stop and go. You have the Dollar General.

Mrs. Branch: No medical facility.

 Sonja: No medical facilities, right. You have a library, a post office. I’m trying to think. I’m going up Route 60 and you hear my pauses because I’m thinking, as we’re traveling up and down 60, what’s there? But,  there’s nothing there. One of my cousins, she calls it Mayberry. It’s still Mayberry. It still Mayberry. So what’s going to happen is that cycle from my mother’s generation is going to continue where the opportunities are not there for the children to stay.

What are the 2021 graduates going to do? Why would they stay in Cumberland? That means there’s more Black land that if you have elders in the family, that land would be passed down. Now, these children in 2021, they’re going to go, they’re going to thrive, speaking it into an existence for them. Then why are they going to come back? Unless they have that history connection tied in and linked.

Muriel: We are the place makers. That was a Black community, the ratio was like 60 to 10 within a 6, 7 mile radius. We created, built, sustained that community until about the ’60s, mid-’60s at that. That’s when the mass exodus of Black kids, young Black people, went out of that area.


Although the Black communities in Pine Grove stand to lose the most from the construction of the Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal mega-landfill, environmental racism and inequality hurt everyone in Cumberland. The county’s leaders have prioritized corporate gains and tax revenue over the welfare of their own residents. That’s a self-devouring type of growth that doesn’t make possible a future where Cumberland County’s residents can escape poverty, stay on the land, and build strong connections with the people around them.[13] The 30 or so jobs created by allowing the landfill are only guaranteed for the life of the landfill, which is estimated at around 30 to 35 years.[14] And then what? The damage to the waterways, the rerouting of historic roads and pathways, and the desecration of the burial grounds of enslaved people will already be done. The county will be left with 1200 acres of unproductive land – potential park space for people who will have already moved away to find better opportunities elsewhere.

Cumberland leadership could choose instead to invest in the types of future-oriented development that are informed by how Pine Grove’s residents lived in the past: in sync with the land and in community with each other.

That’s all the time I have for this episode. I would like to thank Mrs. Muriel Miller Branch, Mrs. Dorothy Rice, my sister – Sonja Branch-Wilson, and Genevieve Keller for participating in this podcast. Thanks for listening!

Music Credit: Crate Concerto by Dusty Decks (Epidemic Sound).

[1] “Cumberland County, VA | Data USA,” accessed April 23, 2021, https://datausa.io/profile/geo/cumberland-county-va#demographics.

[2] “Population – 1860: Geography of Virginia,” accessed April 29, 2021, http://www.virginiaplaces.org/population/pop1860numbers.html.

[3] William Maphis Whitworth Jr, “Cumberland County, Virginia, in the Late Antebellum Period, 1840-1860,” Masters Theses, Paper 1127, 1991.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Luther P. Jackson and Cumberland Training School,” AfroVirginia, accessed April 29, 2021, http://places.afrovirginia.org/items/show/257?tour=5&index=29; “024-0105 Hamilton High School,” accessed April 29, 2021, https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/historic-registers/024-0105/.

[7] “024-5082 Pine Grove Elementary School,” accessed April 29, 2021, https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/historic-registers/024-5082/.


[9] Muriel Miller Branch and April 1, “COLUMN — We Are What Environmental Justice Looks Like,” The Farmville Herald, April 1, 2021, https://www.farmvilleherald.com/2021/04/we-are-what-environmental-justice-looks-like/.

[10] The National Historic Preservation Act (NEPA) was signed into law on October 15, 1966. The National Environmental Protection Act was signed into law on January 1, 1970.

[11] Here, Genevieve Keller is speaking about the role that scientific racism and eugenics played in influencing Nazi policies toward Jewish people during the Holocaust.

[12] Casey Cep, “The Fight to Preserve African-American History,” The New Yorker, accessed May 3, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/03/the-fight-to-preserve-african-american-history.

[13] The term “self-devouring growth” is derived from Julie Livingston, Self-Devouring Growth : A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa, Critical Global Health. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), {“https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctv1131dbm”:[“www.jstor.org”]}.

[14] “Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility,” accessed May 1, 2021, https://greenridgeva.com/project-description.html.

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