The place with no edge: An intimate history of people, technology, and the Mississippi River Delta (Mandelman 2022)

Chris Sneddon

HD Mandelman, Adam. 2020. The place with no edge: An intimate history of people, technology, and the Mississippi River Delta. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: LSU Press. ISBN 9780807172834, 304 p. (hardcover US$55.00).


Chris Sneddon

Department of Geography & Department of Environmental Studies, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755 USA;

To cite this review: Sneddon, C (2022). The place with no edge: An intimate history of people, technology, and the Mississippi River Delta, LSU Press 2022, by A Mandelman, Water Alternatives

How one responds to a book is always fraught with contradictions. Is it really fair, in the end, to wish an author would have covered some things in more detail when doing so may have done a disservice to the main narrative arc? Can one admire a work of scholarship yet also retain some fundamental differences of opinion in terms of the work’s primary conclusions? These are some of the questions that dogged me as I read Adam Mandelman’s finely crafted and thought-provoking book The Place with No Edge: An Intimate History of People, Technology, and the Mississippi River Delta. I am hoping that this review will start conversations rather than close them off.

The book offers an historical meditation on the past three centuries of socio-ecological transformations in the Mississippi River Delta, starting from the arrival of the first French military colonists and concluding with much more recent coverage of efforts to restore this vast coastal region in ecologically mindful ways. It was not surprising to learn that Dr. Mandelman was a student of Bill Cronon’s at the University of Wisconsin. His prose throughout the book—at times evocative and informative and always sparsely condensed—invites the reader into the narrative, and is reminiscent of his mentor’s; I can think of no higher praise when it comes to wordcraft.

After a fine introduction that lays out the book’s overarching theme—continuous efforts on the part of humans and their technological appendages to undertake an “extensive reorganization of nature” (p. 5) throughout the Mississippi River Delta—Mandelman proceeds to document the series of human interventions in the Mississippi Delta region that have over the past three centuries contributed to a highly altered set of landscapes, ones with dire social and ecological consequences. Mandelman refers to these interventions as “six innovations—levees, irrigation flumes, logging pullboats, seismographs, dredgers, and petrochemistry” (page 9). Each of these innovations gets its own chapter, and the rest of the book delineates the region’s history as an interplay among an ideology of mastering nature, waterscape-altering and extractive technologies, and the humans (elites, engineers, and laborers) that enact the various periods of sweeping transformations that the region’s biophysical entities succumb to and resist in varying degrees.

One person’s innovation is another’s, in this case, devastation. One of the tensions that struck me early on is largely unresolved throughout the book. The story of the Delta’s transformation is told largely through the eyes of the European settler colonialists and later the engineers and laborers who came to the Delta in the name of an expansive US capitalism. In documenting the “astonishing breakthroughs people made as they struggled to inhabit the delta” (p. 10), the delta’s original inhabitants and the thousands of enslaved Black people who have dwelled in the delta for nearly two centuries are, if not exactly forgotten, configured as codas to the main refrain. The book itself is expertly written and highlights key themes of environmental history throughout, but the stories of the devastation of Indigenous communities and the racial hierarchies necessarily linked to the transformation of the delta’s ecological networks is no small oversight. For example, to provide no mention of the seminal work of Clyde Woods—whose two books on the Black communities in and around New Orleans chart the centuries of enslavement, oppression, violence, and political-economic marginalization of these communities and their steadfast resilience in the face of catastrophic inequalities—seems odd at best given its complementary arguments to Mandelman’s history.

The book is arranged in a roughly chronological order, starting with the late 19th century efforts to engineer the delta’s waterways for rice and then sugar cultivation. Subsequent chapters take on the dynamics of cypress harvesting, the discovery of oil and its immense impacts on the region’s socio-ecological relations, and the more recent rise of the petrochemical industry to become perhaps the defining technopolitical feature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Within each chapter, the focus is squarely on the interplay between economic aspirations, technological innovations to extract the landscape’s abundant “resources”, and the human labor (both mental and physical) required to make such extractions productive.

It is in the individual chapters that the book’s narrative, at times, soars, and is consistently thought-provoking and wonderfully descriptive. To be fair, some chapters are more uneven than others Chapter Four (covering the discovery of “wetland oil” in the later 19th century), for example, opens with a beautiful rendering of the Delta’s geologic dynamism and how this subsequently shaped efforts, in particular technologies, to extract and commodify this increasingly vital resource. Yet the rest of the chapter feels almost perfunctory at times, with evocative descriptions of extractive activities enabled through technological innovations that come across as almost celebratory. But maybe that is fine.

Chapter Six (“The Leaking Landscape”) focuses on the rise of the petrochemical industry throughout the twentieth century, and is perhaps most representative of the book’s many outstanding qualities. Starting with an explanation of why the Delta’s riverine environments were so important to the emergence of the petrochemical industry (as both supply and source of disposal), the chapter skillfully weaves together biophysical relations, political-economic forces driving the demand for petrochemicals nationally and globally, the technological demands of the industry, and the “racial geography of exposure” to harmful contaminants in a profound way. The description of the different components of a refinery facility (pp. 140-142) and how ecologically and socially catastrophic accidents might occur is fascinating and horrifying. Ultimately, this is one of the most informative, clearly written, and engaging explorations of hazardous waste and its multiple socio-ecological ills I have encountered. It is quite brilliant.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the book’s fine illustrations. Using photographs, sketches, maps, and diagrams of various technologies (the drawing and explanations of the cypress box rice flume in Chapter Two are especially illuminating), Mandelman situates the reader within the time period described in the narrative and is able weave together graphic and textual description in ways that clarifies expertly what can be some fairly technical discussions of, for example, the various configurations of the levee system in the Delta.

The conclusion provides an excellent summary of the book’s main arguments, but ultimately fails to offer novel insights into what centuries of radical transformation of the Mississippi Delta might teach us about the future of human-environment relations in the region. Here Mandelman draws parallels between intimacy within human relationships and the intimacy of humans’ relationships with environments. Yet throughout the treatise on hubris and humility, which the author argues are flip-sides of the same detrimental coin because “both arrogance and self-effacement violate the ethical demands of our relationship to nature because each lead to dysfunctional, unsustainable, and…self-destructive encounters with the nonhuman” (page 183), there is a problematic assumption that “we humans” are unitary. The final chapter is jampacked with “we” and “our”, and this rhetorical move haphazardly erases the vast differences among the human groups who have lived within and transformed the Delta’s land- and waterscapes. Indeed, it undercuts the finely crafted environmental histories of the book’s chapters, which go to great lengths to clarify which social groups (e.g. early colonists, industrialists, etc.) are driving the Delta’s transformations in ways that undermine its socio-ecological relations. Ultimately, however, there is so much to admire and learn from this fascinating monograph that, despite some of the shortcomings I have brought to light here, the highly engaging totality should satisfy both scholarly and popular audiences interested in the region and in deltas more generally.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Adam Mandelman
  • Year of publication: 2022
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
  • Reviewer: Chris Sneddon
  • Subject: Political ecology, Water management, Environmental History, Water quality, pollution, Environment, Flood, Water history
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English