Review: Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South

Mockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South. By Jack Temple Kirby (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2006. Pp. xx, 361).

Mockingbird Song- Ecological Landscapes of the SouthMockingbird Song: Ecological Landscapes of the South attempts to weave together an environmental and social history of human interaction with nature, all under the general subject of “human relations.” Making use of post-modern literary tropes, Kirby’s sprawling narrative takes the reader from Hernando de Soto’s sixteenth-century expedition to an analysis of sharecropping relations, and into the thoughts of a Southern soldier. All accompanied by long and sometimes painfully descriptive sections that lead to his final rumination:  “When, one must ask, will we have had enough of tampering with nature, especially for our comfort, convenience, and monetary enrichment, as opposed to elemental necessities of life?”

While presenting a detailed account on the transformation of the natural environment in the South, the book is less successful at coming to grips with the nature of human interaction with nature. Kirby portrays modern social relations as the shadows of the abstract force of “Modernity,” a term that despite making a recurring appearance is not well-defined in his narrative. At time, modernity appears as an extension of “European imperialism,” at other times it is the force behind the post-Civil War transformation of the Southern landscape. The most compelling use of the term is in the description of the modern plantations driving production of raw goods to feed the development of global industry.

Appealing to his readers’ sense of morality, Kirby uses vivid imagery when describing the devastation of nature, but his prose does not make up for the absent analyses of human relations. Characterizing the transport of black slaves across the Atlantic as a feature of how “humans have always moved” throughout history, says little about the specificity of that move or the power relations behind this migration. Kirby’s detailed narrative of the “slaughter of trees” and his outrage against the debt-ridden sharecroppers who were unable to grow food borrows from a long duree approach to historical narrative, but in Mockingbird Song this sacrifices substance for compelling prose.

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