Review: Christopher M. Parsons, A Not-So-New World

Christopher M. Parsons, A Not-So-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). 

parsons

Today, Carla Cevasco reviews A Not-So-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America by Christopher M. Parsons, Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University. Tomorrow, the author will discuss the book in a Q&A with Rachel Herrmann.

When the French first invaded northeastern North America in the seventeenth century, they aspired to make wine from the indigenous grapes of the region. By the eighteenth century, however, they faced the disappointing reality that wine produced with French techniques from these grapes was acrid and viscous, and, moreover, that wine grapes native to France did not necessarily thrive in such a cold climate. The dream of Canadian wine proved a failure to early French colonists.[1]

What might seem very obvious to today’s readers—that eastern Canada and France do not share a climate or ecology—would have been a surprise to seventeenth-century French colonizers, who saw North America as, in Christopher M. Parsons’ title, A Not-So-New World. The journey from optimistic invocations of sameness to disappointed acknowledgements of difference, as part of the rhetoric of a violent colonizing mission, forms the backbone of Parsons’ monograph. Throughout A Not-So-New World, Parsons maps botanical concepts of “cultivation” and the “sauvage” (loosely translatable as “wild”) as they informed exchanges of knowledge between indigenous people, colonists, and French scientists and bureaucrats in the metropole.

Parsons explicates one of the central ideas of French colonial political economy, that European cultivation was “natural” and indigenous land use was “unnatural.” Like early colonists’ fantasies of Canadian wine, this distinction may surprise readers in our own era that valorizes the “natural” as uncultivated (even as nonnative people continue to misunderstand indigenous peoples’ agriculture, foraging, hunting, fishing, and other ways of using land).[2] Parsons reads the settler colonial agenda of the botanical rhetoric of the early modern period: “Although the violence of pruning, clearing, and cultivating might seem trivial alongside documented attempts at genocide…, we should nonetheless see these as related manifestations of a broader impulse aimed at subduing indigenous agencies for their effective replacement” (186-187).

For me, two chapters of A Not-So-New World particularly stood out in Parsons’ cultural and intellectual history of colonial botany. In Chapter 1, “Discovering a Not-So-New World,” Parsons describes early colonizers’ efforts to integrate North American flora into their existing French taxonomies. The initial colonists expressed confidence that the flora and landscapes they encountered shared names and characteristics with French counterparts. As Parsons writes, “We would now recognize them as different species of related botanical genera and families, but early colonists mapped these differences onto a distinction between the sauvage (wild) and cultivated” (16). Colonists believed that the only real differences between French and Canadian plants was that the French had cultivated theirs, while indigenous peoples, in the eyes of the French, let their landscape run wild. In New France, the French hoped, colonists would cultivate sauvage Canadian plants in a French manner, eventually yielding “cultivated” French produce. This assumption negated indigenous interventions into and knowledge about the landscape, a dynamic that Parsons tracks throughout the book.

Given my own research on power and the exchanges of various forms of medical and environmental knowledge between indigenous people and colonists, I read Chapter 3, “Cultivating Soils and Souls,” with great interest. Parsons turns his attention to missionaries’ use of “horticultural thought as a metaphor through which to explain the process of conversion” (69). Rather than simply a metaphor, however, this concept had material ramifications. Missionaries tried to force nomadic converts to take up agriculture and abandon traditional gender roles in which women were responsible for cultivation, foraging, and the maintenance of plant knowledge. Moreover, Parsons delves deep into the ways indigenous people obscured botanical knowledge from missionaries. Since women maintained indigenous plant traditions, male missionaries had neither the cultural standing nor the gender identity to gain access to such knowledge (and, raised in a patriarchal society, many missionaries did not even realize that women were the keepers of plant knowledge). Parsons also examines how indigenous spiritualities informed understandings of plants: indigenous peoples credited particular “properties of plants to the intervention of…other-than-human beings” (87). The spiritually charged nature of this knowledge further contributed to indigenous efforts to keep it secret from nosy colonial missionaries.

Where studies of settler colonialism can sometimes make it seem inevitable, Parsons rightly draws attention to “the precarity of the project to cultivate a New France in North America,” a precarity that arose from not just climactic incompatibilities but indigenous resistance (110). Despite that precarity, subsequent generations of settlers in North America have discounted indigenous knowledge as they have oppressed indigenous peoples. Parsons concludes A Not-So-New World by invoking the “Native and non-Native scholars who have actively sought to decolonize traditional ecological knowledge and mobilize it to confront the pressing cultural and ecological threats” of our own time (188). Facing climate change will require taking indigenous epistemologies seriously, not just undoing the centuries of colonial theft and destruction of indigenous intellectual traditions. The Algonquian and Haudenosaunee peoples of northeastern North America have many generations of tradition and expertise about how to survive in a harsh climate. In calling for more attention to indigenous knowledges about the environment, Parsons joins recent works of early American history from Cameron Strang, Thomas Wickman, and Anya Zilberstein; as well as the work of scholars of indigenous environmental studies such as Kim TallBear, Deborah McGregor, Kyle Whyte, Leanne Simpson, and Robin Kimmerer.[3]

A Not-So-New World easily moves from rich botanical detail to sweeping themes of colonialism, exchange, and power, and I have only minor quibbles. To scholars of Atlantic science, the analysis of relations between colonial and metropolitan scientists in Chapter 5 will not break as much ground as other chapters’ fascinating readings of interactions between colonial and indigenous knowledges. Religious studies scholars, meanwhile, might call for more discussion of Christian asceticism as well as Edenic plenty in Parsons’ framing of the religious mission of cultivation. But even these quibbles show the the breadth and interdisciplinarity of Parsons’ work.

With A Not-So-New World, Parsons makes important interventions into Native American and borderlands history, intellectual history, history of medicine and science, and environmental history. As this and other works urgently argue, in the Anthropocene, the world needs to listen to Native peoples’ deep wells of environmental knowledge.

 

[1] Nowadays, however, Canada does have a wine industry. Amber Gibson, “Why Canada Should Be Your Next Wine Vacation,” Forbes, September 12, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/ambergibson/2017/09/12/why-canada-should-be-your-next-wine-vacation/#2ce00791222f.

[2] See, for example, debates between indigenous peoples and nonnative activists over Inuit seal hunting. Selena Randhawa, “Animal rights activists and Inuit clash over Canada’s Indigenous food traditions,” The Guardian, November 1, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/nov/01/animal-rights-activists-inuit-clash-canada-indigenous-food-traditions.

[3] Cameron B. Strang, Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850 (Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Thomas M. Wickman, Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018; Anya Zilberstein, A Temperate Empire: Making Climate Change in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Kim TallBear, “Beyond the Life/Not Life Binary: A Feminist-Indigenous Reading of Cryopreservation, Interspecies Thinking and the New Materialisms,” in Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World, ed. Joanna Radin and Emma Kowal (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017), 179-202; Deborah McGregor, “Traditional Knowledge: Considerations for Protecting Water in Ontario,” The International Indigenous Policy Journal 3, No. 3 (2012); Kyle Whyte, “Critical Investigations of Resilience: A Brief Introduction to Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences,” Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 147, No. 2 (2018): 136-147; Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3, No. 3 (2014), 1-25; Robin Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Q&A with Christopher Parsons « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of May 26, 2019 | Unwritten Histories

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