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Productive Areas And Physical Factors Affecting Production

( Originally Published 1918 )



Land. The basis of all life on earth is land. Plants, animals, and human beings alike live on the land and from it. Each of them requires a certain space upon which to live, for they all are subject to the law of gravitation, which draws them down to the earth whether they will or not. And all living beings require, in order that they shall continue to live, certain chemical elements which must be derived from the soil. Without plenty of land. area there cannot be an abundance of plant life, animal life, or human life. In particular, there can be no great and populous nation unless that nation possesses wide areas of land.

Land-wealth of the United States. The American nation has been favored in this respect. There has always been more than enough land for the use of its population. As the nation has grown from its small beginnings in colonial times, wide areas have been added to its holdings, and the population has always had plenty of space over which to spread and within which to develop its life. In fact, within recent times we have acquired areas in parts of the world quite distant from us, so that there is a good deal of our territory which does not belong to " The United States Proper." Such regions are Alaska, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Area of The United States Proper. In this book we are to give our attention almost wholly to the United States proper and its industrial activities ; that is, to that portion of our territory which lies, east and west, between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and between Canada, on the north, and Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico, on the south. This area includes about three million square miles — a figure which may mean more to us if we recall that each of these square miles includes six hundred and forty acres. This is an immense area ; the United States is nearly as large as the whole continent of Europe. The distances in this country are vast : that from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across the country, is about twenty-five hundred miles, or nearly as far as the direct steamship route across the Atlantic ; while the distance between our northern and southern boundaries is about twelve hundred miles. It is evident that we are not likely to suffer, for some time to come, from lack of land.

General location of our land. Mere quantity of land does not count for so much by itself ; the land must be so located as to be of advantage to the people occupying it. The United States possesses great advantages in being situated in the middle of the North American continent, neither too far north nor too far south. This means that its climate is favorable, as we shall see, for the development of a vigorous civilization based on a strong industrial life. In fact, it has been very fortunate for us that we were located north, rather than south, of the equator ; for human civilization has been developed in the north latitudes rather than in the south, so that our neighboring nations have been those of Europe and Asia rather than those of Africa and Australia. There is much more land in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern, and so we have been surrounded by populated land-areas rather than by waste regions of salt water. Also, as civilization has developed, it has been fortunate for us that we have bordered upon the narrower oceans of the Northern Hemisphere, for the water has become a means of connection and communication rather than a barrier between nations.

Quality of the land. Land may be large in amount and not so badly located, but if its quality is poor it is not of much use. The Desert of Sahara is large enough, and for many centuries it has been near lands of a high civilization, but the quality of its land is such that it has never supported more than a very scanty population. It is also fortunate for a country if its land is not all of the same sort. Our country is not noted for uniformity and monotony of physical features ; its land is of many types, yielding a corresponding variety of natural products, and thus supporting a great many different kinds of industry. The physical features of the United States have, from the very be-ginning, had a marked influence in determining the occupations and activities of the people. Different areas of our land have had contrasting qualities, due to differences in climate, weather, altitude, kinds of soil, and other factors, which determine what the quality of the land shall be. But the quality of the land deter-mines its productive capacities, and the productive capacities determine the industries. It is these industries which we are chiefly interested in studying, and so it is necessary for us to understand beforehand the nature of our productive areas, in their broad general outlines.

Quality of men. No matter how excellent the location and quality of the land, it is useless without the application of labor upon it. This country was of no use to the rest of the world, no matter how extended and fertile its area, until a population had occupied it which could make use of the country's resources. But the quality of any population is largely dependent upon certain physical features, such as climate, the influence of which upon the life of human beings determines, in large part, what they are and what they can do. In viewing the physical factors affecting production, to which we now come, it is necessary to consider their influence not only upon the land and its crops but upon the human beings who are to develop the land and raise products from it.

Before we can enter upon the description of our natural areas we must consider the general effects of certain physical factors which really determine the quality of land and men and the possibilities of production. The more special effects of these factors will be seen when we come to take up the several special industries. Some of these factors which affect production have already been named; we shall consider climate, latitude, altitude, nearness to the sea, winds, ocean currents, topography, rainfall, and soil.

Climate. The importance of climate as a controlling factor of a country's destiny can hardly be overestimated. It exercises a far-reaching influence upon plant and animal life and upon that of human beings. Climate is really a combination of the elements of heat and cold, moisture and dryness. The plant life of the tropics forms a striking contrast with that of the arctic regions ; and, even within the same latitude, the vegetation of arid regions is very unlike that of humid regions. Again, the animal life of the tropics or of arid regions may be contrasted with that of the polar areas or of the damp forests. Human life also, in these several regions, shows great differences, which correspond to the differences in plant and animal life.

Factors of climate. Probably no other physical factor has so great an influence in man's activities in getting a living, that is, in his industrial activity, as has climate. There are a number of factors which unite to determine the character of climate, such as latitude, altitude, nearness to the sea, winds, ocean currents, and general topography. All of these combine to affect temperature and rainfall ; that is, degree of heat and degree of moisture.

Latitude. The amount of heat received from the sun at any given place depends chiefly upon latitude. An excess of cold or of heat affects normal human effort. It is in the temperate zones that labor can be carried on most steadily and with the greatest success. Here physical toil can go on the whole day, either within doors or without, for practically the whole year. In the colder regions very strenuous effort results in little more than the mere maintenance of life; in the hot regions human energy is weakened and there is a strong desire to avoid work ; but in the temperate zones steady effort is not only possible but good for one, and when it has been put forth its reward is generous. It is, therefore, a very important condition of the industrial life of the United States that the whole country is within the temperate zone and that only a small portion of it is even subtropical. It will be seen that the most vigorous industrial life of the country is in those portions which lie north of even this subtropical belt.

Altitude. Elevation above sea level is a factor which has a marked influence upon temperature. As we ascend from the sea the cold gradually increases, so that even at the equator the mountain tops may be covered with snow ; the side of a high mountain may show belts of plant life all the way from equatorial vegetation at the base to arctic plants near the summit. Hence we see that in the matter of temperature a high altitude is equivalent to a high latitude.

Nearness to the sea. Land bordering on the sea takes its temperature to a large degree from that 'of the water. The water both receives and radiates heat more slowly than does the land ; and so nearness to the sea levels down the extremes of temperature and makes the climate of the shore more even than that of inland areas. The weather-changes in a single day in a region with a continental climate are often greater than those of an entire year in a region with a tropical, maritime climate.

Winds. However, since winds are very effective in carrying heat and cold, a continental climate may, by reason of prevailing winds, be found near the coasts of continents, and vice versa. The winds also carry moisture over the earth, and thus are, in another way, efficient in determining climate. For example, the trade winds and the monsoons are specialists in the conveying of moisture ; the very life of India depends upon the monsoons. Winds are, therefore, important factors in determining where man shall live and what he shall do.

Ocean currents. It may be said, first, that winds help deter-mine the course of ocean currents. These currents greatly modify the climate of certain lands through their effect upon the temperature of the air above them. For example, the Gulf Stream carries so large a body of relatively warm water into the North Atlantic that it is effective in raising the temperature of the winds which blow over it. Hence the climate of western Europe is milder and more humid than it would otherwise be. On the other hand, the cold Labrador current keeps the eastern coast of North America cooler — a contrast which becomes more forcible when the climate of England is compared with that of Labrador, both countries lying in about the same latitude.

Topography and aspect. Topography has an influence upon both temperature and rainfall. In the valleys of mountains, for example, important differences in temperature occur within short distances. The fact, also, that there are no mountains to break the wind allows the entrance of cold winds from the north upon the central plains of this country. Aspect means the slope of the land in respect to the sun—whether the slope is towards the sun or away from it. In general, in the Northern Hemisphere, regions having a southern aspect or exposure are much warmer than regions of the same altitude and latitude that slope toward the north. Wheat grows on the southern slopes of the Alps at twice the altitude reached by it on the northern slopes. In the United States a favorable location for gardens and orchards is on hills with a southern aspect ; the farmers say that crops in such places " get more sun." In the Southern Hemisphere the reverse is true.

Rainfall. The annual rainfall upon the earth varies greatly for different regions ; almost all places have some rain or snow at some time during the year, but the total annual fall of rain varies from less than one inch to more than four hundred inches. The amount of rainfall in a region affects the character and quantity of plant life ; this determines the character and quantity of animal life, including that of human beings ; and the character of the plant and animal life determines largely what man can be and do in the locality.

Rainfall and agriculture. A region with less than ten inches of rainfall annually would be unfavorable for human life ; and an average of twenty inches is desirable, if not absolutely necessary, for agriculture. But it should always be remembered that the time when the rain comes is more important than the yearly amount ; over twenty inches would not be enough if it fell at the wrong time of the year, say, in the winter, while less than twenty inches would suffice if it all came during the growing season for crops. A fine corn crop has been reported from Kansas when the rainfall was only eight inches for the year ; but in this case the rain came mainly in the spring and early summer. Large areas of the United States have a fair amount of rainfall, which, fortunately, comes usually during the growing season and meets the needs of our crops.

Irrigation. Men have learned to bring water to places where it is not to be found in the ordinary course of nature ; irrigation is now making it possible to cultivate with profit areas deficient in rainfall.

Soil. By soil we mean the outer covering of the earth, which rests upon the solid rock as a sort of mantle. Sometimes it is only a few inches thick, sometimes several hundred feet. It is formed from the rock by the action of physical and chemical forces. Since soil is, directly or indirectly, the ultimate source of food, shelter, and clothing, its power to yield these necessary articles must finally determine the quantity and quality of human life. Where soil is poor, there is a small population, and vice versa. The cultivation of the soil is the basis of civilization, and from it come the raw products of industry.

Plant foods. In order that plants may grow, there must be present in the soil certain chemical elements known as essential plant foods ; if these are lacking, plant life will not flourish, unless they are introduced in the form of fertilizers. There are nine essential plant foods : carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, lime, magnesia, potash, phosphorus, and sulphur. There are elements other than these in soils, but they are not absolutely necessary to support plant life. A productive soil must have water in it; this appears as a minute film surrounding the soil particles and holding in solution the various elements essential for the support of plant life. Soils also contain air, without which they are barren; this air supply can, of course, be increased by the loosening of the soil. " A soil," says Van Hise, " perfect in chemical and physical condition, containing neither water nor air, could not by any possibility sustain life."

Productivity of soil. In a country as large as the United States there are to be found many different kinds of soil; which vary greatly in their suitability for the different crops raised by man. As a general rule, a coarse gravelly soil is rather barren ; a lime-stone soil, a clayey soil (if not too fine), or a glacial soil is productive — in the United States some of the best food-producing areas have the advantage of a glacial soil.

Soil and climate. Soil and climate together form a basic combination in determining the variety and abundance of plant life, and so of the animal life which is dependent upon it. But man's responsibility in the use of these two factors is very diverse. Climate is a thing which man cannot change ; while it is within his power to make the soil poor by unscientific use of it, or, on the other hand, to make it better by careful use. He may there-fore rail at the weather or the climate all he pleases and defy anyone to lay the fault at his door ; but if he foolishly exhausts his land, plainly he has only himself to blame.

Roughly speaking, the one-hundredth meridian divides the United States into two nearly equal but sharply contrasting divisions. From the standpoint of elevation and rainfall the eastern half is low and humid and the western half high and dry. This is the broadest division which we can make. There is another, along Mason and Dixon's line, which divides the South and North ; but it has not been so important in the development of our industries. Within these two eastern and western divisions are other less extensive areas, or natural regions. The geographers divide and group these lesser regions in several ways, but for our purposes, because we are to study the industries of the country, the following general division of physical areas in the United States may be made : (I) the Atlantic Coastal Plain ; (2) the Appalachian Mountains ; (3) the Central Lowlands; (4) the Western High Plains; (5) the Rocky Mountains; (6) the Western Plateaus ; (7) the Pacific Slope.

Atlantic Coastal Plain. This plain is bordered by a fringe of sand reefs, used in the North for pleasure resorts, and on the Carolina coast for growing sea-island cotton. The soil of the plain is arranged roughly in belts ; there are stretches of rich agricultural land bordering on others which are somewhat sandy but covered with useful trees. The inner edge of the coastal plain furnishes valuable soil, and here are the choice agricultural lands of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Two rows of cities mark the boundaries of this plain : the outer row, including Nor-folk, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah, on the seacoast ; the inner row marking the so-called " fall line ". This is a line of waterfalls, furnishing excellent power, where the streams descend to the coastal plain. The region is well supplied with rain, which reaches its maximum in late summer.

Appalachian Mountains. These include the eastern highlands from the St. Lawrence to Georgia ; they are not an agricultural district, but to the north they form a center of manufacturing in New England, and, farther south, one of coal mining in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Except in the Cumberland, Shenandoah, and Tennessee valleys, mining and lumbering, rather than agriculture, are the industries of the Appalachian region. Within this section lie centers of the iron and steel industry, such as Pittsburgh and Birmingham. The maximum rainfall occurs in winter and spring.

Central Lowlands. This region is flat, and even the Great Lakes are portions of a gently sloping plain. The soil includes the glacial deposits of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota, and the alluvial plain of the Mississippi. Here is found a variety of fertile lands matched in but few parts of the world. This central section of the country, between the Appalachians and the one-hundredth meridian, is a great agricultural section, and is devoted to the raising of wheat, corn, and cotton. The annual rainfall is from thirty to fifty inches, and it comes at times when the moisture is most favorable for the needs of crops ; it is very regular on the Gulf coast and shows a spring and fall maximum along the Lakes.

Western High Plains. These form a rather continuous plateau from Canada to Mexico, cut here and there into sections by streams from the Rocky Mountains. Owing to the deficient rainfall, agriculture has been only partially successful in this region, but within it are included the choicest grazing lands of the United States.

Rocky Mountains. These mountains extend entirely across the country and form the watershed between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Some of the valleys of this region are good for agriculture, especially fruit-growing ; but since level stretches of agricultural land are rare and the rainfall scanty, the chief industry is mining.

Western Plateaus. These lie between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. This region is arid. The population is sparse ; it is concentrated on oases and in narrow valleys where, with the aid of irrigation, some agriculture is possible. The rainfall varies from five to twenty-four inches, but is generally about ten to fifteen inches. Naturally the chief industry of the region is mining.

Pacific Slope. The Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada border the plateau region and show a well-watered westward side with a good growth of timber. There are in this region two valleys, one extending south from Seattle and Vancouver and the other occupying central California. The northern valley has fifty to sixty inches of rain, which may be expected any time from October to May ; the southern valley has less than half as much rain. The lowlands in the southern part of California are practically rainless; The population is engaged in two occupations : mining and the cultivation of these two valleys. The agricultural products are wheat, fruit, and wine.

Summary. These are the main physical regions of our country. Their character determines the nature of their population and of the industries which this population develops. Their natural resources, in general, are a great national asset, and certain of them, such as coal and iron, are essential in industry. One of the leading reasons why the United States has developed into such an important industrial nation is because of the wealth and extent of its natural resources — of which we shall now make a survey.

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