Any area of heavy, sticky soil, blackland gets its dark color from high concentrations of organic material. The claylike consistency for which it’s better known is due to the mineral montmorillonite, which permeates the soil. While difficult to farm—montmorillonite tends to swell when wet, crack when dry—blackland often has high yields simply because the soil is so fertile. One example of blackland is the Black Belt of Mississippi and Alabama. Another, larger example is the Texas Blackland Prairie. Also called Cornucopia and the Black Waxy, the Texas Blackland Prairie extends in a narrow channel from San Antonio to above Dallas, covering forty-five counties. Though the Kadohadacho and Hasinai Caddo subsistence-farmed there for generations—growing beans, pumpkins, and corn—white settlers, more interested in surplus farming, were only able to take advantage of the richness of the soil once they’d learned to adapt the moldboard plow. (Originally designed to shed mud and thus keep the plow from gumming up, the moldboard was no match for blackland soils.) Another trick the white settlers picked up was applying soapstone to their wagon wheels and plowshares so the mud wouldn’t stick so much. A third, less effective but more entertaining method of staying out of the mud—at least for a few reckless steps—was walking on stilts.

Stephen Graham Jones