Are decay and ruin beautiful?
Ask any of the 30,000 visitors who make their way to Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery each year and I’m sure they’ll have a few things to say about that question.
Ask someone who takes one of Detroit’s many “ruin tours.”
Death and devastation are simultaneously horrible – and captivating.
And here on Georgia’s largely undeveloped coast, what we now call “disaster tourism” just might have helped to fuel the modern conservation movement.
“The Civil War triggered dramatic shifts in how Low Country environments were represented,” says historian Drew Swanson. “And these representations really influence use of the landscapes going forward. They carry over well into the 20th Century.”
Swanson presents an engaging presentation on this topic from the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium organized by the Ossabaw Island Foundation.
A remarkable assembly of minds in 2016, the symposium revealed new and exciting research about the intersection of human and natural forces on Georgia’s coast.
Swanson, a history professor at Ohio’s Wright State University, argues that changing representations of the Deep South before and after the Civil War affected the coastal Georgia landscape.
“The Civil War and emancipation would mark a sea change in Low Country society and agriculture,” he says. “Talk of ruin – and the actual word was used quite often, at least from white observers – overpowered an earlier emphasis on order, with lasting repercussions.”
Before the war, many of the words and images from Georgia’s Sea Islands focused on the orderliness of the plantations, especially their ditches, barns, machines and slaves.
After the war, many writers and photographers focused on the devastation left by the end of plantation slavery: burned bridges, turned up railroads and abandoned cotton fields.
“This rhetoric of ruin that was so popular in print and in the press had some real durable power and influence,” Swanson says, naming writers like Frederick Ober and Whitelaw Reed. “It’s the New Deal that helps cement this way of thinking, this interpretation.”
The 1930’s Federal Writers Project led to scores of articles and publications about the Georgia coast, all with the aim of promoting tourism during the Great Depression.
And the publicity that came out of this period tended to accentuate the “wildness” and “isolation” that resulted from the “hard hand of war,” especially on the sea islands.
Hunters and sportsmen reveled in these depictions.
“This emphasis on a built landscape that’s still there but visible as ruins and crumbling, combined with this idea about recreational spaces… really become the model for modern conservation efforts,” he says.
Of course, these representations came from an exclusively white perspective. This was the beginning, for instance, of the idea that long lost African folkways were “preserved in amber” by the war’s ruin. The truth was more complicated than travel brochures led on.
“Landscapes that had been characterized as ruined by many whites were instead environments of opportunity and hope,” he says. “The collapse of an ordered plantation landscape that was an expression of slavery was hardly something to be lamented.”
Later, generations of environmentalists would fuse these ideas about “wildness,” “recreation” and “history” to preserve the coast from development, he argues.
And in this podcast, you’ll hear his take on this fascinating subject. And you’ll be transported to a packed Coastal Georgia Center, where this lecture was recorded.
I’ll be producing more talks from the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium as the year rolls on. Come back for more about once a month.
And you can listen to the previous lectures here.