Earth Day Q&A with Paul Sutter and Paul Pressly, editors of Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture

Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture jacketIn honor of Earth Day the University of Georgia Press interviewed Paul S. Sutter and Paul M. Pressly, editors of the forthcoming Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast, due out this July. Paul S. Sutter is a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South, which just came out in paperback. Paul M. Pressly is the director emeritus of the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance and author of On the Rim of the Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World. This new collection brings together experts from diverse fields to paint a better picture of how nature and culture have coexisted and interacted across five millennia of human history along the Georgia coast.

How did the idea for Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture first come about?

Paul Pressly: As director of the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance, I focused on developing partnerships and collaborations on the coast of Georgia. My first big effort was a symposium on African American life on the Georgia coast, a presentation by nine historians on various phases of traditional African American communities from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. That effort provided the model. A professor of environmental history at Armstrong-Georgia Southern, Mark Finlay, urged me and the Ossabaw Island Foundation to hold a similar event for cultural history. The interest in the symposium reflected the lack of opportunities for people from a wide array of backgrounds to come together to consider these topics in other formats.

This book discusses five millennia of Georgia’s coastal history. What is one of the major lessons you took away from this project?

PP: I found my optimism about the future of our coast renewed by the tremendous outpouring of support for our effort from so many different quarters of the coastal community. I came to appreciate how, over hundreds of years, migrating groups of people brought multiple visions for organizing life that were ultimately shaped and reshaped by the distinctive geography of the Georgia coast. There are lessons in that story as we go forward.

Paul Sutter: I think the most important lesson of the book is how much history lurks just below the surface of a region that seems largely preserved in its natural state. To protect the coast, we will need to protect both nature and history, and that will be a complicated process that will require us to recognize multiple histories and perspectives.

Can you tell us a little more about why Georgia frames your environmental history?

PP: Three organizations on the Georgia coast wrestled with the question of how to relate their work in environmental preservation to the cultural history of the area. The Ossabaw Island Foundation strives to tell the story of how Ossabaw Island, the third-largest barrier island off the Georgia coast, evolved over time. The Wormsloe Foundation is committed to telling the story of the many transformations that the Wormsloe Historic Site underwent across the ages. And Armstrong-Georgia Southern University has a wide range of projects that include studying such things as loggerhead turtles and traditional African American communities.

How would you envision a more conscientious form of coastal restoration?

PS: Coastal preservation and restoration must wrestle with the history of the place, with culture as well as nature. Much of the coast’s wildness is restored, a nature that overwrites previous land-use regimes and diverse cultural experiences. Any conservation regime must take that into account.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the “coastal culture” part of the book?

PS: The book concerns itself with culture on a number of levels. First, we are interested in the ways in which the natural environment shaped the various human cultures that have made the coast their home over several millennia. More than that, though, we are also interested in how human cultures have defined and worked with the natural environment, how they have reshaped it, and how different cultural approaches to nature along the coast have influenced how people have valued and advocated for the natural environment. In that sense, the idea of nature is constructed from cultural viewpoints and experiences with the coastal.

What challenges did you face in bringing historians, activists, and environmental writers together?

PP: The challenge was in preparing for our symposium.[i] More than four hundred people attended it. They represented historians, environmentalists, engineers, scientists, state employees, educators, students, activists, and people from the corporate world. They were hungry for serious presentations on the history of the coast, offered in a way that connected time periods, groups of people, and sets of problems. Again and again the attendees expressed their appreciation for being able to connect some of the many strands of coastal history.

PS: None really. We were able to assemble a remarkable group of contributors who were all historically minded.

How did the contributors learn from one another about the history of the Georgia coast?

PP: The presenters showed a keen interest in understanding how their specialties fit into the larger picture of coastal history. I was surprised and pleased to see them staying for the presentations made by other speakers. From this emerged a certain camaraderie and cohesiveness that benefited the book. My coeditor, Paul Sutter, was masterful in reminding the authors to connect their work to the opening essay and to the themes they heard at the symposium.

What histories did not make it into the book and why?

PP: Good question! Many topics did not make it. Our book offers an in-depth look into a few key questions and issues about the evolution of our coast over time, not a comprehensive or encyclopedic overview. We had wanted a presentation on rice plantations on tidal rivers and creeks, but the historian invited to cover this topic ultimately went in a different direction. We did not have a paper on any aspect of the ocean. This is a major shortcoming. Partly this reflects the fact that we could not find a major scholar working in this field.

PS: This book is not a comprehensive history of the Georgia coast, but it brings together a lot of different approaches—archaeological history, cartographic history, African American history, environmental history, legal history, literary history, etc. For me, the most satisfying parts of the book are the connections we were able to pull out between the chapters.

What makes Georgia’s coastal history distinctive?

PP: The coastal history of Georgia is distinctive for the way that a succession of people came onto the coast with a set of values for transforming the land but found those values altered by the interaction with nature and the culture that flowed out of those values. The coast offers an opportunity to explore how successive communities of Native Americans, British imperialists, planters and enslaved people, lumbermen, wage-earning freedmen, vacationing industrialists, truck farmers, and river engineers developed distinctive relationships with the environment and produced distinctive coastal landscapes.

PS: Its geography is the first important thing to point out—the barrier islands and marshes really define the region. The history of the region is also distinctive, but here the Georgia coast must be nested within the larger history of the southern low country. Still, what made Georgia different in its early years was the idealism of its founders and the absence of slavery—though, of course, that would change. And, finally, the coast is distinctive for its remarkable conservation.

What do you envision for the future of coastal restoration?

PP: Our hope is that Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture will provide a meaningful framework for discussion about the future of the coast as well as a fresh perspective on its history. The symposium and book offer a model for creating the kind of partnerships and collaborative efforts that can bring a diverse set of people to the table. Already another environmental group on the coast, 100 Miles in Brunswick, Georgia, has established an annual colloquium that was inspired by our effort.


[1] Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast in Savannah, Georgia, February 18–20, 2016. Ten nationally recognized scholars came together to share original research on the unique events, trends, and decisions that occurred from the time of Native American communities through the mid-twentieth century, which led to Georgia’s coastline being the most unspoiled stretch of land on the Atlantic coast of the United States. The keynote address was given by Mart Stewart, author of What Nature Suffers to Groe: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast from 1680 to 1920 (UGA Press, 1995), the first serious work on the environmental history of this region. Several other coastal or Georgia organizations collaborated with the Ossabaw Island Foundation: the Wormsloe Institute of Environmental History, Armstrong State University, and the Georgia Historical Society. Partners to date include Georgia Humanities and 100 Miles.


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