writer and historian


“In the course of the period marked by the birth of modern scientific discourse, the map has slowly disengaged itself from the itineraries that were the condition of its possibility.” —Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
“Listen sometimes to the moans of an educated man of the nineteenth century suffering from toothache...not simply because he has a toothache, not just as any coarse peasant, but as a man affected by progress and European civilization, a man who is ‘divorced from the soil and the national elements,’ as they express it now-a-days.” —Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

Notes from the Ground is about how and why dirt became an object of scientific interest. It is, to that end, a story about defining the modern landscape with scientific means. The book examines the historical and cultural basis from which agriculture and science first came together in America, a combination that begins in the early Republic of the later eighteenth century and becomes fully manifest by the mid-nineteenth. Integrating the history of science, environmental history, and science studies, the book explains how and why agrarian Americans—yeoman farmers, gentleman planters, politicians, and policy makers alike—accepted, resisted, and shaped scientific ways of knowing the land. I argue that agricultural science became politically significant and ecologically relevant by mid-century, first, because it fit into the complex improvement ethic of that period and, second, because it drew from contributions by local citizens. By detailing the changing perceptions of soil treatment, I show that the credibility of new soil practices grew not from the arrival of professional chemists, but out of an existing ideology of work, knowledge, and citizenship.
    The study takes soil identity, soil fertility, and the cultural reasons to seek more systematic knowledge of both as the basis of its narrative. These issues of soil identity and fertility interest me not only in the perhaps Nixonian way of wondering what rural citizens knew and when they knew it, but also at the level of questions about credibility and authority: when advocates claimed to know something new about the soil, why did anyone else believe them? Taking the knowledge and credibility questions together, in its larger ambition Notes from the Ground is a study of how science became a culturally credible means for humans to interact with the environment.


Notes from the Ground encompasses the entire subject of science and the environment during the nineteenth century. Cohen writes with grace, clarity, and insight about the 'georgic science' of American farmers—a philosophy that resonates in the present, meant to ‘reveal rather than conceal our connections to the land.’”—Steven Stoll, author of Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America

“Cohen takes readers back to the Early Republic to explore how people thought about land and production, ingeniously demonstrating how day-to-day labor in fields and barns led farmers to adopt and create their own scientific approaches. This is a crisp and clever book.”—Deborah Fitzgerald, author of Every Farm a Factory: The Industrial Ideal in American Agriculture

Notes from the Ground, by explaining how new technologies were evaluated and accepted in practice, transforms our understanding of antebellum Southern agriculture.”—David Nye, author of America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings

“Cohen contributes to the study of Virginia’s agricultural development by documenting the increasingly specific knowledge that the gentleman farmers of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison’s times tried to foster. Using diaries, published writings, and private correspondences, Cohen recreates a geographical view of their efforts to come to grips with the changing panorama of the eastern United States.”—Margaret Rossiter, American Historical Review

Notes from the Ground is a healthy reminder that the roots of modern agriculture go deep. It provides a useful tonic to the popular mythology of a sudden transformation during the mid-twentieth century. [Notes] is the product of deep thought and careful research. It is written with concise and clever prose and contains lovely pictures and refreshing insights. It will surely be welcomed by scholars.”—Carrie Meyer, Journal of American History

“Cohen has uncovered a remarkable and little-known record of scientific activity. By drawing our gaze down to crumbling earth and by tracing the growing network of Americans who gleaned knowledge from their fields as well as from books, Cohen shows agriculture to be a central motivating force in American science, a little-examined realm of scientific practice, and a vital direction for the history of chemistry.”—Emily Pawley, Chemical Heritage Magazine

Notes from the Ground [is] a tightly argued, engaging, and important analysis that will be valuable for any scholar interested in changing attitudes about the land.”—Mark Finlay, Technology & Culture

“[Cohen] provides essential background for the eventual emergence of the land-grant complex and industrial agriculture. Notes from the Ground is an impressive monograph that deserves a wide readership.”—Mark Hersey, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

“As a thick description of the emergence of a new way of scientific knowing, one that eschews the teleology of scientific modernization and insists that science came wrapped in culture, Notes from the Ground is a stimulating new interpretation of a well-chronicled moment in American agricultural history.”—Paul Sutter, Agricultural History

Notes from the Ground is a welcome addition to the debate on work and environments that has been nuanced by Richard White and others. [It] reflects Cohen’s valuable roots as a historian of science [and] treads ground familiar to environmental historians, making intriguing connections between nature as agent and the effects of georgic science in the nineteenth century.”—Hayley Goodchild, Environmental History


reviews of Notes from the Ground

April 2013: Roundtable review at H-Environment, by S. Stoll, M. Finlay, D. Goldstein, R. D. Hurt, and J. Hamblin

December 2011: Organization & Environment, by M. Roth, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 486-489

August 2011: Journal of Southern History, by A. Marcus, Vol. 77, No. 3, pp. 698-699

January 2011: Environmental History, by H. Goodchild, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 348-349

Winter 2011: Agricultural History, by P. Sutter, Vol. 85, No. 1, pp. 146-147

January 2011: Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, by M. Hersey, Vol. 119, No. 1, pp. 81-82 [pdf here]

January 2011: Technology & Culture, by M. Finlay, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 188-190 [pdf here]

December 2010: Isis, by P. Lucier, Vol. 101, No. 4., pp. 892-893

September 2010: Journal of American History, by C. Meyer, Vol. 97, No. 2, e-version [pdf here]

Summer 2010: Chemical Heritage Magazine, by E. Pawley, Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 44

April 2010: Choice, by L.S. Cline, Vol. 47 [available on-line]

April 2010: The American Historical Review, by M. Rossiter, Vol. 115, No. 2, pp. 541-542


reviews of Technoscience and Environmental Justice

Fall 2012: Social Science Journal, by L. Alm, Vol. 49, pp. 556-557

June 2012: Organization & Environment, by K. Elliot, Vol. 25,  No.1, pp. 204-206

Spring 2012: Chemical Heritage Magazine, by J. Roberts, Vol. 30, No. 1