When my secesh batteries need recharging, as they do every once in a while, I go hang out with someone like my Alabama friends Ward and Peggy. When I visited them last April, we went on a pilgrimage to the First White House of the Confederacy. As we floated down the Interstate in their splendid old Lincoln (which they call a “Davis,” of course). Ward told me about a recent Right to Life march. Several thousand Alabamians gathered in Montgomery, arrayed themselves around the statehouse where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office, and sang—the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Oh, well.

On the evening of Earth Day a group of us gathered at Ward and Peggy’s to recycle some pig. My wife and I had spent the day driving around eastern Alabama and parts of west Georgia, and I’d seen no indication in Columbus or Opelika that anyone was especially lathered about the fate of the planet. Certainly there was nothing to compare to the Yankee and California celebrations depicted at tedious length on cable television. Eufaula and Tuskegee. West Point and Auburn—all had seemed about equally unconcerned on that sunny spring day, and the lack of enthusiasm extended to our supper table. When I mentioned Earth Day, there were some groans, a joke or two, and then a change of subject. I began to wonder: why this Southern disdain for the modern American version of environmentalism?

Yeah, sure, there are New Age, pantheistic, love-your-Mother environmentalists in the South. They tend, though, to be found in Yankeefied enclaves, or as isolated village cranks. A rock band called the B-52s, for instance, collect money for Greenpeace and for animalrights groups at their shows. But they come from the college town of Athens, Georgia; anyway, they recently moved to upstate New York (where I’m sure their vegetarianism will be easier to sustain than in a great barbecue town like Athens).

It’s not that traditional Southerners don’t care about the natural environment. Take a look sometime at the almost lyrical portrait of man as predator presented by a magazine called Southern Outdoors. Ward introduced me to that marvelous repository of traditional woodcraft and nature lore, noting that the magazine’s ads tend to be for expensive, high-tech, productivity-increasing gadgets like electronic fishfinders, an ironic juxtaposition he especially savored.

Anyway, a number of public opinion polls show that there really is right much pro-conservation sentiment in the South, and so does the recent success of a country song called “Pass It On Down,” by the group Alabama. But what’s out there is just that, sentiment—a sort of anticipatory nostalgia not anchored to much inclination to do anything. When it comes to practice, we Southerners lag behind. At best we seem to echo, feebly and suspiciously, slogans that originated somewhere else.

That’s sad, because if you’re looking for antecedents for today’s environmentalism, for its suspicion of technology, its anti-rationalism, anti-speciesism, and all the rest, you could do worse than to look at some Southerners. As Ed Yoder suggested twenty years ago in an essay called “The Greening of the South,” the old-fashioned Twelve who wrote I’ll Take My Stand had some strangely modern things to say on the subject.

I should say that no less an authority than Andrew Lytic, the last surviving contributor to that volume, disowns the connection. In a 1983 interview Lytle accused today’s ecological activists of sentimentalism and statism, and denied that he and his friends were guilty of either. But I think his memory was playing tricks on him.

Certainly some of the Agrarians were less anti-statist than others. Frank Owsley’s essay “Pillars of Agrarianism,” in particular, advocated legislation that one critic called “Kremlinesque.” And while no one has ever called Lytle a sensitive New Age guy (a “snag,” as we call them around here), I think the young man may have been more sentimental than the old one lets on. Lytle denies, for example, that the Agrarians would have given a damn for the snail darter. But they weren’t polled in 1930, and some of them had at least the premises for getting excited about obliterating part of God’s Creation.

Consider a passage from the book’s introduction. Under industrialism, John Crowe Ransom wrote, “We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent.” Or how about this, from Ransom’s own essay: “Industrialism is a program under which men, using the latest scientific paraphernalia, sacrifice comfort, leisure, and the enjoyment of life to win Pyrrhic victories from nature at points of no strategic significance.” And listen to Lyde himself, calling for “a proper respect and a proper regard for the soil”—not a mere metaphor. Lyde even sounded like some of today’s more apocalyptic environmentalists when he predicted “a moral and spiritual suicide, foretelling an actual physical destruction.”

It would be wrong to extract these views from their religious underpinnings, from the more general piety, more or less orthodox, in which they were embedded—or, more accurately, with which they were entangled. (If anything, true religion seems to depend on proper environmental views.) Here’s Ransom again: “There is possible no . . . sublimity of religion, which is not informed by the humble sense of man’s precarious position in the universe.” Or again: “Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it.” Take that seriously, and the implications put you in some strange company today.

Fifty years later, Lytle said that he and his colleagues believed that nature “was mysterious and to be respected, and we took time to examine it in the world and in ourselves. . . . We knew that land is built up only slowly, and it can waste away in no time at all if not properly tended.” Lyde also observed in 1983 that “Our attitude toward nature was part and parcel of the kind of life we wanted to preserve. You would naturally not destroy the things by which you made your living.”

Now, this may have been true enough for the Agrarians themselves. But they sometimes implied that they were articulating the Southern tradition, and any implication that Southern farmers have been something like instinctive ecologists—well, it reminds me of what a friend calls the “Cronon Indians,” a mythical tribe of happy precapitalists who inhabit the pages of William Cronon’s book Changes in the Land. Gall what the Agrarians wrote a trope, if you want to save it, but as an empirical description of Southern agriculture it is, alas, nonsense. Southern agriculture in 1930 wasn’t just slash and burn, it was rape and pillage.

Of course, you can explain this by economic necessity. The South’s system of cotton tenancy reinforced the biblical injunction to take no thought for the morrow; at least in that respect the applied agrarians of the South were good Christians. But there’s more to it than that. Ransom’s characterization of industrialism as “the latest form of pioneering and the worst” brings to mind another Southerner who wrote about the pioneering mentality, but who saw it as especially characteristic of rural Southerners.

In The Mind of the South, WJ. Cash described white Southerners’ frontier-style individualism, nurtured by the frontier itself, then by the plantation and Reconstruction. Cash drew compelling pictures of the planter “wholly content with his autonomy and jealously guardful that nothing should encroach upon it,” of the poorer whites “as fiercely careful of their prerogatives of ownership, as jealous of their sway over their puny domains, as the grandest lord,” and of the whole crowd displaying “intense distrust of, and, indeed, downright aversion to, any actual exercise of authority beyond the barest minimum essential to the existence of the social organism.”

In the South, the great impediment to effective environmentalism or even conservation has not been indifference to open spaces, the wonders of nature, and the works of God, but this ethic, which says that what a man does with what is his is no concern of yours, and certainly not the government’s. Southerners suspect that Lord Melbourne was right when he observed that people who say something must be done generally contemplate doing something damned silly—and these days it’s usually something that expands the power of the state at the expense of individuals and their families.

Two generations after Cash, another Southern journalist described the same attitude, as it has persisted to the present day. “For all the American encroachments,” Roy Reed wrote in the New York Times, the South is

inhabited and given [its] dominant tone by men—and women who acquiesce in this matter—who carry in their hearts or genes or livers or lights an ancient, God-credited belief that a man has a right to do as he pleases. A right to be let alone in whatever plain of triumph he has staked out and won for his own. A right to go to hell or climb to the stars or sit still and do nothing, just as he damn well pleases, without restraint from anybody else and most assuredly without interference from any government anywhere.

As Hank Williams Jr. puts it, “A country boy can survive.” Charlie Daniels adds: “If you don’t like the way I’m living, just leave this long-haired country boy alone.”

Now, ordinarily I admire this attitude, even share it to a degree. As Roy Blount said once, I wouldn’t want to live in a place where there aren’t bullet holes in the road signs. But Roy Reed spelled out the distressing implications:

It is no accident that the most determined hold-outs against land-use legislation in the United States are country people from the South. They will take care of their own land, and let the next man take care of his. If the next man puts in a rendering plant or a junkyard, that is his business.

Does it come down to a choice between a society where free spirits blight the landscape and poison each other, or one where the state tells sullen but healthy serfs what they must do? I hope not, and it’s good to see libertarians and other anti-statists turning their attention to this problem at last. Lord knows I have no answer, but if there is one, I suspect that private organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited will play an important part. Let me close with a story that illustrates the kind of cultural jujitsu that can sometimes get you somewhere.

A friend of mine used to live about forty miles north of here. Each deer season his 70 acres became a free-fire zone. Scores of hunters roamed his land (as they’d always done before he owned it), firing high-powered rifles at just about anything that moved. Fearing for the lives of his dogs and family, he posted “No Hunting/No Trespassing” signs time and again, only to see the hunters riddle them.

Then inspiration struck. He posted signs that said “Osmond Hunt Club. Members Only.” An eerie calm settled on his place, broken only by the sound of his doorbell as a steady stream of very polite hunters stopped by and asked to join. He says he put them all on the waiting list.