Off the Shelf: Ben Cohen

March 24, 2009 — Ben Cohen, assistant professor of science, technology and society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, "Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil and Society in the American Countryside." Yale University Press

"Notes from the Ground" is about how and why dirt became an object of scientific interest. It is a study of the cultural origins of agricultural science in America, a combination of environmental history and the history of science. Cohen said he wrote it because he was curious to know how and when science became a credible way for people to know the nature under their feet.

The book is a case study that spans from Jefferson in the late 1700s to the 1850s. It looks to the early 19th century to explain how the basic concepts necessary for the later industrialization of agriculture came about. Put another way, the story is about the basis from which our modern agricultural system was built.
"A good part of the study takes place in Virginia, with many of the central characters in the second half of the book from Albemarle County and even associated with the University of Virginia: John Hartwell Cocke of Cocke Hall, Joseph Cabell of Cabell Hall and William Barton Rogers, who was a chemistry professor here and had a laboratory in the basement of the Rotunda before he left U.Va. to found the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

Cohen shows how farmers and planters were bringing a true experimental mindset to their lands — developing new theories of land management and crop growth, testing new materials, trading seeds, trying new fertilizers and so on — in a way that allowed them to shape the ways professional agricultural chemistry was either accepted or resisted on those farms.

"We usually talk about science dropping in from the sky like a bolt of lightning at some point (historians typically note this started to happen by the 1840s with agricultural chemistry), as if it was inevitable, as if it was singular and obvious and unproblematic," Cohen said, "but my story shows how science could only become part of the farming life because the farmers themselves were asking the same questions as those scientists. Thus, we need to look more closely at the lives of everyday practitioners who knew their land from experience, not from books, if we want to understand how agricultural science became something worthwhile for farmers, and then state and federal governments, to do.
"Agrarian sites present a particularly potent and timeless forum for questions about knowing nature," Cohen said. "Everyone has access to the ground. Everyone eats the products of the agricultural process. How do we know how to do that, to produce food?
By looking to farmers, planters, politicians, publishers, natural philosophers, chemists, other advocates and critics, the book examines the moral and material bases from which our agricultural (i.e., food-making) practices became directed through scientific principles."