Mississippi is rural, with a large proportion of its human population occupied in primary production. Thus, it is no surprise that the state’s history, culture, and economy are intrinsically tied to the natural environment. The state’s diverse soils, forested lands, and bodies of water have always provided the basis for human subsistence. Human impact on Mississippi’s natural environment has varied greatly over time, ranging from the effects of Native American subsistence systems through the heyday of cotton production and “cut out and get out” lumbering to contemporary industrial and residential development.
In the past, scholars were often reluctant to see nature as anything other than a haphazard “unimproved” setting where human activity took place. Today, however, many observers strongly reject this view. The natural environment is an active and often decisive factor in human history, influencing the economic options available and shaping the developmental paths taken. Environmental conditions set the ultimate boundaries for human societies and their activities but do not prescribe which direction people take in given situations.
Mississippi covers an area of close to forty-eight thousand square miles, with ample resources for both humans and wildlife. Mississippi’s climate is noted for its long growing seasons, hot summers, and high humidity. Late summer to early fall is usually the driest part of the year. Moderate droughts occur every few years, with severe ones every two or three decades. The climate is further characterized by a long frost-free period, while prolonged periods of below-freezing temperatures are atypical. During the warmest months, violent thunderstorms frequently occur. Ice storms, tornadoes, and also hurricanes in coastal areas are occasional but characteristic and can dramatically affect local conditions.
Virtually all of Mississippi was covered by the sea during the Cretaceous period, and the resulting topography is relatively flat, with the state’s highest elevation of just 806 feet found at Woodall Mountain in Tishomingo County. All of the state’s major river systems—the Tombigbee, Pascagoula, Pearl, Big Black, and Yazoo—empty into the Gulf of Mexico, either directly or through the Mississippi River. The state’s soils consist of sedimentary deposits that slope gently toward the Gulf. The land can be arranged into three major soil regions: the alluvial river floodplain, the loess belt of windblown alluvium, and the coastal plain. However, great variation in soil productivity occurs between and within these major regions. Human settlement patterns have closely mirrored these differences. The most productive soils for agriculture are found in the Black Belt region of northeastern Mississippi and in the Yazoo-Mississippi basin (the Delta) in the northwestern part of the state. The soils of the southern coastline and the so-called flatwoods belt in the northwest are the poorest for agricultural purposes. Many of Mississippi’s soils are prone to erosion. The Loess Hills on the eastern edge of the Delta, also known as the brown loam region, exemplify an area where strict conservation practices are required to ensure continued productivity of the land.
The major types of natural forest vegetation found have been arranged into various subdivisions that largely correspond to the prevalent soil types. Floodplains of major rivers, including the whole of the Delta, originally supported dense hardwood forests characterized by bald cypresses, gums, and various oaks. The Black Belt and Loess Hill regions originally supported an oak-hickory forest, while the rest of northern Mississippi’s uplands consisted of a mixed forest of pines and oaks. Pine forests have historically dominated central and southern Mississippi, with loblolly and shortleaf pine giving way to the longleaf and slash pine in the more southern parts of this area, known as the Piney Woods.
Considerable human impact on Mississippi’s landscapes goes back much further than the twentieth century. By the antebellum era, Euro-American settlement had caused locally significant ecological changes. Further, the area settled by people of European and African origin beginning in the eighteenth century was hardly a true wilderness, as it had been inhabited and influenced by aboriginal people for millennia. Native Americans’ way of life has often been romanticized and the environmental impacts of their land-use practices downplayed, even though those early inhabitants were clearly capable of manipulating animal and plant assemblages and creating habitats that suited human settlements.
Immediately prior to contact with Europeans, Native Americans in what was to become Mississippi typically combined their regular horticultural cycle with annual cycles of hunting and gathering: deer, waterfowl, and fish supplemented a diet dominated by corn. Most of the fishing likely occurred during the summer months, while an intensive period of deer and bird hunting probably took place during the late fall and winter.
European expansion to the region began during the sixteenth century with incursions by Spanish conquistadors. Unlike Hernando de Soto and his troops, subsequent European colonists recognized the region’s natural resources as the basis for their material advancement. Vast trade in deerskins, initiated by Europeans, played a decisive role in the decline of white-tailed deer populations in the South. It seems probable that the Native Americans’ widespread belief in the reincarnation of killed game animals made “conservationist” attitudes toward deer foreign at a time when Native Americans craved European trade goods. By the 1790s commercial hunting had severely depleted deer populations over most of the present-day state of Mississippi.
European settlers in Mississippi immediately based their economic lives on agriculture, obtaining new cropland by clearing forested areas. By the mid-1830s, Native Americans had ceded their lands in Mississippi to the United States, and the US government moved quickly to open the cessions for sale to incoming settlers. Before it could be sold, however, the former Indian land had to be surveyed according to the laws of the new nation. Throughout much of the South, the old survey systems, such as “metes and bounds” that applied in the original thirteen colonies, were replaced by a new approach to land division based on a rectangular grid. It presented a radical departure from the preceding irregular patterns of land apportionment, with no acknowledgment of “natural” boundaries.
Large-scale agriculture began in Mississippi in the early nineteenth century and came to be based on the plantation system and cultivation of staple crops, especially cotton, for the international marketplace. The scarcity of labor—resolved first by using slaves and then by using tenant workers—demanded great efficiency. Primitive agricultural techniques, cash crops, and insatiable markets ensured that Mississippians would produce major changes in the landscape. In addition to forest clearing for agriculture, trees were harvested for housing, fencing, lumber, and fuel. The intense exploitation of Mississippi’s forests accelerated during the nineteenth century and has continued to this day. Much of the recent increase in forested area has come from the abandonment of marginal farmland and its conversion into evenly aged pine plantations. The effects of habitat alteration are evident in the decline of many of the state’s wildlife populations.
Over the past two hundred years the area occupied by original landscapes has been tremendously reduced in Mississippi, and the remaining pristine areas are greatly influenced by human activities. In addition to physical habitat transformation, overhunting and overfishing have taken their toll on the state’s wildlife populations. Abundant wildlife originally provided a convenient supply of food and made hunting and fishing an important part of the local culture and economy, often with little attention to the concept of sustainable yield. For example, many species of cranes, ducks, and shorebirds experienced severe population declines before the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916, which established federally regulated hunting seasons for migratory game birds. Market hunting continued locally until at least the mid-1930s for species such as bobwhite quail, rabbits, and waterfowl. In addition to the pursuit of edible fish and game, conspicuous and “harmful” species such as hawks, eagles, and mammalian predators were customarily shot for sport and practice. Mississippi’s hunters pursued white-tailed deer, black bears, and panthers to near extinction by the early twentieth century, and some animals, including the panther, never recovered.
The rapid decline of many wildlife populations aroused little attention among biologists until well into the twentieth century. Conservation ideas were still unusual, and the few laws passed for protection of threatened species prior to that time often proved impossible to enforce. Incomplete knowledge about the primeval numbers of Mississippi’s wildlife species, combined with insufficient statistics on land use and fragmented data on hunting and fishing or the effects of introduced disease and predators, means that in many cases it is not possible to determine which factors contributed most to the decline of the different populations.
Hunting as an activity survived the decline of large game. Some small creatures—among them quail, rabbits, and foxes—adapted well to agricultural areas and prospered in spite of their proximity to humans. Intense hunting of these animals occurred for most of the twentieth century, with quail hunting in particular developing a large following not only in Mississippi but across the South.
As a consequence of Mississippians’ love for recreational hunting and fishing, the state created the Game and Fish Commission in the 1930s. The commission established and enforced regulations based on scientific ideas of wildlife management. The commission also attempted restocking programs for deer, turkeys, and other large game. Aided by changing human ways of life, some of these efforts met with great success. Mississippi now has one of the largest deer populations in the nation for its land area, and deer hunting today generates something of the frenzy that once accompanied quail hunting.
Because Mississippi is a conservative state, enthusiasm for hunting and fishing can serve as the starting place for ecological concern. While the percentage of people who hunt and fish is in decline, many still view the activities as important traditions. The basic interaction with nature that hunting and fishing provides and the impulse to conserve game and fish often lead to the beginning of environmental consciousness.
One natural force, flooding, has always posed a physical threat to human subsistence in certain parts of Mississippi. From their arrival in the state’s alluvial lowlands, Euro-American settlers realized that economic development would occur in flood-prone regions in direct proportion to the amount of control gained over the Mississippi and its tributaries. Relief from flooding—a natural phenomenon of the floodplain—made the development of agriculture, infrastructure, and industry possible in the lowlands.
The massive task of walling the river off from the floodplain, however, demanded investments on a scale unavailable to any individual landowner, county, or even state. Governmental involvement in flood control and water resource development evolved during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with far-reaching effects on the floodplain’s natural hydrological regime. Since the disastrous 1927 Great Mississippi Flood federal funding has enabled massive human-induced change in the hydrology of the Mississippi and its tributaries. The present system of flood control in Mississippi is a compromise resulting from a long and complicated interplay among interest groups, striving to balance widely conflicting views on economy, politics, engineering, and the environment but satisfying few and facing an uncertain future.
After centuries of hard work and massive investments by individual interests and local, state, and federal governments, it has customarily been assumed that almost any amount of high water can be safely transported through the Lower Mississippi Valley. Still, as the high waters of 1973, 1993, 2008, and 2011 have demonstrated, the potential for serious flooding still exists in the region despite the remaking of hydrological systems at an enormous economic and environmental cost. Authorized by legislation passed in 1928, the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project is approaching completion, but the collapse of New Orleans levees in 2005 after a storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina has cast doubt on the reliability of the South’s entire flood-control system.
Mississippi’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century levee builders, planters, and lumber entrepreneurs can hardly be blamed for failing to understand the full environmental consequences of their actions since the science of conservation biology did not emerge until a few decades ago. Ignorance, however, no longer constitutes a valid excuse. Consequently, many measures, including important federal and state legislation, have sought to reverse some of the most negative environmental trends. Critical wildlife habitat has also been set aside, mainly by federal and state authorities, and reintroduction programs for endangered species are in progress. While some Mississippi plants and animals have been permanently lost, the ongoing attempts to enforce and expand existing conservation legislation and create preserves for imperiled species provide hope for the future of Mississippi’s natural environment.
Still, unprecedented pollution of land, water, and air has taken place in Mississippi as a byproduct of industrialization and mechanized agriculture over the past century. This pollution adversely affects the natural environment and the people and wildlife occupying it. Ecologists assert that the proper test for assessing the harmfulness of environmental change is whether ecological systems retain their resilience. Do human-induced changes in our natural environment remain within bounds that enable the recovery of the systems after disturbance? William Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin reflected in 1942 that Mississippi’s natural environment ultimately “belonged to no man. It belonged to all; they had only to use it well, humbly and with pride.” This idea is even more important today than when it was written.
- Donald E. Davis, Southern United States: An Environmental History (2006)
- James E. Fickle, Mississippi Forests and Forestry (2001)
- Mikko Saikku, This Delta, This Land: An Environmental History of the Yazoo-Mississippi Floodplain (2005)