June 21, 2011 12:06:00 PM
George Washington Carver has been pigeonholed by history. He plays two roles. He is first, the man who advocated peanut farming and invented all sorts of uses for the crop; we even go so far as to give him credit for inventing peanut butter, which he never did nor claimed to have done. Second, he is the exemplar of the African-American scientist. These categorizations may have their true aspects, but are oversimplifications. Carver wanted his recommendations in agriculture to make for social reform, and he grounded the recommendations in respect for nature and in conservation of resources.
In this, he was a pioneer, reflecting much of what we have had to relearn over the past decades. "My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver"(University of Georgia Press) by Mark D. Hersey stresses Carver's life as an early ecological thinker and practical philosopher.
It is not at all a full biography, but in limiting the book to Carver's environmental concerns, Hersey has reminded us that Carver thought deeply about far more than peanuts, and it restores him within the environmental history of the south and within ecological history in general. Hersey, in clear prose and insightful understanding, has done a great service in raising Carver from the two-dimensional role he usually plays.
Because there was so little documentation, it is not even certain when Carver was born; it was probably sometime in 1864, and he was born in Missouri either into slavery or born of a slave about to be made free. In an event that has been romanticized, he and his mother were kidnapped, and their owner, Moses Carver, hired a scout to recover them, but only little George was returned. He thus never knew his mother, but Moses and his wife stood in as parents. Moses was an eccentric beyond being a foster parent to George and his brother. He had a rapport with animals and rejected organized religion. He worked hard and ran his farm efficiently, though, and there is evidence he was involved in preserving his soil rather than looking to the pioneer solution of simply pushing further west.
These were lessons Carver was to remember in his teachings.
The Carvers also taught him to read, and because he had an obvious natural intelligence and was fascinated by nature, they hired a tutor for him and then sent him to a small town 8 miles away that had a school for African Americans. Carver joined a family heading toward Kansas as their cook, and in 1879 while he was in Fort Scott he saw a lynching, the horror of which stayed with him all his life. He fled, and had the good fortune to bunk in with protective families as he moved around into a series of schools. He got a diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kan., and worked as a laundryman and clerk. The college that accepted him in 1885 turned him away when it saw his race.
He was only able to start college five years later, studying art and piano, but he transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames, Iowa, in 1891. He performed research under Louis Pammel, who was to be a friend and scientific inspiration. Pammel was to publish the first book in English with "ecology" in the title, and favored the study of botany as giving practical solutions to problems in agriculture. One of Carver's first talks at the school was on the seemingly unpromising topic of "Grafting the Cacti," but even here he reflected that "nature does not expend its forces upon waste material, but that each created thing is an indispensible factor in the great whole, and one in which no other factor will fit exactly as well." Not only was he showing the disdain for waste which would be part of all his future work, but even with cacti, he was looking for some utilitarian bent. He became a faculty member in Ames, but his reputation began to grow. When the founder of what was to become Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington, invited him in 1896 to head the Agriculture Department, Tuskegee became his academic home for 47 years, and the agriculture of the Black Belt region in Alabama became his central concern.
Carver's time at Tuskegee was to bring him international fame, but it was often difficult. Besides his teaching duties and research, he was expected to run the farm which supported the school and to maintain the school grounds; he even had extra duties like investigating reckless driving on campus. His work was micromanaged, and there were times he threatened to resign. Many of the problems involved clashes between Carver and Booker T. Washington himself, although Washington had enormous respect for Carver's academic work. When Washington died in 1915, Carver's academic life was much easier and he began his life's work of promoting sustainable agriculture for the small farmer.
He emphasized the dignity of farming, and resisted the idea of farmers as uncouth hicks, insisting that a good farmer was required to apply his intellect to "all the wonderful and powerful and puzzling forces of nature." He argued that the southern farmer needed more brains than those in other regions. Carver was a deeply religious man who thought that his own scientific insights were his way of understanding God. He insisted that farmers who sinned against the earth would fail. He would get to church meetings, although he did not have a conventional Christian belief; he thought doctrine was unimportant but service to one's fellows was essential religion. He would visit churches and add a gospel of his scientific instruction to whatever sermon was presented. He certainly saw no conflict between religion and science, and Darwin's "Origin of Species" was one of the texts he most often recommended for teachers at rural black schools.
The farms around Tuskegee were up against King Cotton whose exhaustive production was destroying southern forests and ruining the land. His work with peanuts was only part of his effort to get the land healthy again; he championed cowpeas as well, which, like peanuts, return nitrogen to depleted, sandy soils, and his work promoting sweet potatoes made them the first crop with which he was identified. (There was a well organized peanut industry, but not one for cowpeas or sweet potatoes, and this is one reason why Carver is identified as The Peanut Man.) Carver distrusted artificial fertilizers at a time when they were held to be an aim of scientific farming. He wanted farmers to look at the richness of the world around them and build the soil by using compost, pond scum, or manures. He came also to distrust the use of modern farm implements since the black farmers whose lot he was dedicated to improve could not afford them. He appreciated natural allies; a student carrying Carver's message to others wrote that he was teaching farmers to protect toads, saying, "I never saw anything in him but an ugly creature until you spoke of him in class." He did not just address the farmer, but the farmer's wife, including recipes in his famous bulletins because, he maintained, it "...is just as important for the housewife to know how to use farm products wholesomely and economically as it is to produce them." He abhorred waste, advising making dye from tomato vines, soap from grease, rugs from corn shucks, and pickles from watermelon rinds. He pointed out that the acorns littering forest floors were good food for cattle, and as such he lamented that this great resource was being neglected by farmers, as was another good reason to preserve the forests from timber companies.
Carver's ideas were sound and many of them were prescient, and Hersey's book nicely lays out the credit he should get for his wisdom about maintaining and renewing the soil and running a small farm in a ecologically sensible manner. It is not really Carver's fault that these ideas failed to make the sociological differences he sought in improving the lives of black farmers. He could not overcome the problems of illiteracy, corrupt landl
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.