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Wetlands as Wastelands: Soggy Lands, Wasted Bodies

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Abstract:

In 1793, after a three-decade absence, yellow fever returned to the North American mainland. For the next two decades, the disease repeatedly struck cities along the eastern seaboard as well as New Orleans. Drawing on discoveries by British and French pneumatic chemists, medical meteorologists, and physicians, Americans chiefly blamed the outbreaks on the dilatory pace of land drainage. According to Enlightenment medical theories, marshes and swamps discharged miasmas and other unwholesome airs into the atmosphere that, once inhaled, triggered fevers and often even death. Until Americans adopted European methods of land management, including drainage, deforestation, and intensive monoculture, diseases would afflict communities and local climates would remain unhealthy.

The identification of wetlands as pathogenic wastelands, particularly after 1793, had profound political and social consequences. Antebellum newspapers, medical treaties, and the rural press celebrated drainage as the most effective way to build wealth and healthy rural communities. Attempting to accelerate the transformation of swamps into farms, Congress passed Swamp Land Acts in 1849, 1850, and 1860, and states authorized the creation of autonomous local drainage districts. Later, in the late 1880s, the USGS, in anticipation of administering a national drainage program, mailed questionnaires to Americans throughout the eastern seaboard, requesting data on how drainage improved public health. Part of a larger project, this paper will describe how Americans conceptualized landscapes characterized by an abundance of surface water as wastelands because they wasted human and animal bodies. As a result, drainage became a paramount public policy objective until the 1920s, when collective concern for waterfowl, new etiological theories, and a budding understanding of wetlands’ ecological benefits began to shift these wet wastelands into good lands.
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Name: ASEH Annual Conference
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http://aseh.net


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1170796_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Carlson, Anthony. "Wetlands as Wastelands: Soggy Lands, Wasted Bodies" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ASEH Annual Conference, Drake Hotel, Chicago, IL, <Not Available>. 2018-01-10 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1170796_index.html>

APA Citation:

Carlson, A. "Wetlands as Wastelands: Soggy Lands, Wasted Bodies" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ASEH Annual Conference, Drake Hotel, Chicago, IL <Not Available>. 2018-01-10 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1170796_index.html

Publication Type: Panel Paper
Abstract: In 1793, after a three-decade absence, yellow fever returned to the North American mainland. For the next two decades, the disease repeatedly struck cities along the eastern seaboard as well as New Orleans. Drawing on discoveries by British and French pneumatic chemists, medical meteorologists, and physicians, Americans chiefly blamed the outbreaks on the dilatory pace of land drainage. According to Enlightenment medical theories, marshes and swamps discharged miasmas and other unwholesome airs into the atmosphere that, once inhaled, triggered fevers and often even death. Until Americans adopted European methods of land management, including drainage, deforestation, and intensive monoculture, diseases would afflict communities and local climates would remain unhealthy.

The identification of wetlands as pathogenic wastelands, particularly after 1793, had profound political and social consequences. Antebellum newspapers, medical treaties, and the rural press celebrated drainage as the most effective way to build wealth and healthy rural communities. Attempting to accelerate the transformation of swamps into farms, Congress passed Swamp Land Acts in 1849, 1850, and 1860, and states authorized the creation of autonomous local drainage districts. Later, in the late 1880s, the USGS, in anticipation of administering a national drainage program, mailed questionnaires to Americans throughout the eastern seaboard, requesting data on how drainage improved public health. Part of a larger project, this paper will describe how Americans conceptualized landscapes characterized by an abundance of surface water as wastelands because they wasted human and animal bodies. As a result, drainage became a paramount public policy objective until the 1920s, when collective concern for waterfowl, new etiological theories, and a budding understanding of wetlands’ ecological benefits began to shift these wet wastelands into good lands.


 
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