Q&A with Christopher Parsons

Today Rachel Herrmann interviews Christopher Parsons about his book, A Not-So-New World, which Carla Cevasco reviewed yesterday. Parsons is an interdisciplinary historian of science and the environment in the French Atlantic World. He has a longstanding interest in highlighting the contribution of indigenous peoples to the evolution of European and Euro-American environmental sciences. He has published articles in the William & Mary Quarterly, Environmental History, Early American Studies, and several edited collections. He tweets as @cm_parsons. 

 JUNTO: A Not-So-New World includes a discussion about fraught vocabulary, including the word sauvage and your decision to leave it untranslated. Early Americanists have been thinking for a while now about the language we use when we write about the past, but many of us are just starting to think about the French sources that inform your book. Could you say a little bit more about other word choices you made, and some of the words in translation that non-French Atlanticists might want to use with more care?

Christopher Parsons: Word choice is so important when you are working between subdisciplines such as the history of science and environmental history and across national historiographies such as, here, early Canada and early America. These are such powerful markers of investments in particular fields or the influence of particular works. I was conscious for example, of the Canadian preference for indigenous over native and the familiarity of early Americanists with terms such as the pays d’en haut.

Yet there were real intellectual reasons for leaving key terms untranslated as well. Sauvage was the most important term for me to leave in French. When I was just beginning graduate school, my friend and colleague Thomas Peace wrote a fantastic article that compared discourse about indigenous peoples in the writings of John Smith and Samuel de Champlain. I was struck by how significant Champlain’s choice of term was, and I began to see sauvage—or wild as it is more often translated now—work as both an adjective and a noun throughout French colonial writing to denote a challenging familiarity in the human and non-human world. If I had relied on common English translations of the term that translated sauvage as a noun into Native or wildmen or, more problematically still, savage, I would have missed the connection to all of those places where it appeared as an adjective for plants and places. If sauvage people are called Native in English, and sauvage plants are named wild, readers would have lost the interdisciplinary connections that exist in the original French. That was particularly important as I worked to illustrate the centrality of thinking about the environment in colonial planning. In writing this book, I also wanted to maintain a sense of difference for readers more familiar with Anglo or Iberian histories. Using the original French therefore provided me (and my readers) with a much more direct access to a very different way of seeing the world that would be lost in translation. I also made a choice to leave place names in their original French and to leave as many words with close English cognates untranslated as well.

I actually think that historical English deserves the same care. In some senses, I had it easier because I had to translate these sources. I think that for Anglo historians of early America it can be difficult to remember that colonial sources that are rife with familiar-seeming terms such as nature, knowledge, or experience meant dramatically different things in the seventeenth century than they do today. Paying close attention to the historical and cultural specificity of language is something that we are apt to do when we approach sources outside of our own experience, but it shouldn’t stop there.


JUNTO: In many respects, this is a book about knowing things, and about how non-Natives in the past came to know things or ultimately failed to do so. Sometimes, however, scholars of Native American history need to be comfortable with not knowing. How did you try to balance these different degrees of knowingness—between your sources on the one hand, and your historians on the other—in your work?

CP: This was in many ways the intellectual and ethical challenge I faced in this research. I began and ended this project with a primary interest in how and where French colonists appropriated indigenous ecological knowledge. I therefore looked for those places in the writings of missionaries, administrators, merchants, and colonists where they explicitly engaged with indigenous knowledge as they sought to make sense of their new natural environments. Naturalists studied indigenous languages for keys to the identity of plants, missionaries looked for remedies, and colonists sought knowledge about potentially useful plants for their own lives. I frequently found these exchanges frustrated, however, by indigenous hesitancy (or outright resistance) to reveal what they knew. As I pieced these accounts together, I was conscious that standard historical questions here—what plants were actually being used medicinally, who grew what, where did they grew it, and when, and how was knowledge that we might anachronistically call scientific infused with spiritual dimensions?—asked me to adopt the same pose as the colonial naturalists who approached indigenous knowledge systems as they might an unruly specimen: as something to be poked, turned over, dissected, and described in cold detail. I felt like the approach of the historian asked me to complete a colonial appropriation rather than simply analyze it. I gradually came to accept that it was the indigenous peoples who intentionally kept powerful knowledge from colonial observers who I should listen to, and that this approach necessitated real caution.

That sort of recuperative work is important. I think you only need to look at the work of scholars such as Wendy Geniusz or Robin Wall Kimmerer to recognize how beautifully they celebrate indigenous ecological knowledge. Yet these are projects that demand the sort of “slow history” that Christine DeLucia has recently called for that is informed by deep and responsive relationships with indigenous communities. For a variety of personal reasons—from the breakdown of a marriage and my experience with mental illness, to the realities of repeated relocation in the early years of an academic career—these were demands that I knew that I couldn’t ethically meet in the years after I received my PhD. So, it’s not that this sort of knowledge must remain unknown (and it isn’t really unknown in the communities to which they belong), but I felt that this would have to wait for a subsequent project, where I could devote the time and energy that this subject needed.

This is part of a larger concern I’ve had about the rush to recover in early American and Atlantic history. If we take seriously what Édouard Glissant has referred to as a “right to opacity,” we need to seriously consider all of the reasons why silences exist in colonial archives and if we are in fact the right people (or if this is the right time) to shine a light on them. We should ask ourselves why it is from the most marginalized people and communities that we frequently demand the most radical transparency.


JUNTO: You argue that France became less knowable by the end of the seventeenth century. How early on in the researching, writing, and editing process did you know that this is what you were arguing? Say a little bit more about how the project developed over time.

CP: I see the period at the end of the seventeenth century as a key moment in a broader epistemological crisis that threatened what European colonists felt able to claim to know about places and peoples beyond Europe’s shores. In some ways, it upsets a more familiar narrative of an immediate shock and a gradual assimilation of American difference. I came to the history of botany and natural history in New France straight from reading the exciting scholarship on these subjects in the Iberian Atlantic. After reading work on Nicolás Monardes, Francisco Hernández, and José de Acosta, I approached French sources looking for the same experiences of novelty among explorers and settlers. Where would I find something akin to Acosta’s amazing encounter with an avocado or Hernández’s grappling with Nahuatl sources? Instead, I found French sources written by figures such as Samuel Champlain who confidently named the oaks and grapes that he found and who never seemed to suffer any cognitive disorientation when faced with plants that we now recognize as new species. It took me a long time—almost until the end of writing my dissertation—to realize that that familiarity was the story, rather than simply an archival challenge to get past.

It was actually recent work in the intellectual and legal history of race that attuned me to a pivotal moment around the beginning of the eighteenth century when it became possible to identify and name biological difference with new specificity throughout the Atlantic world. The transition from a charter generation to fixed legal and scientific categories of race is a familiar one to historians of early America, but I was amazed by how much that process mapped onto what I was finding in colonial botany and natural history of North America. The same moments that the code noir was being articulated, for example, also saw the first clear efforts to define a scientific taxonomy based on biological difference in plants at the Jardin du Roi. More and more, I wanted to interrogate a larger study of difference that encompassed the human and non-human world.

I became interested in this late seventeenth century as a period when a wide variety of European thinkers were struggling to make sense of the human and natural diversity that they had encountered. We can look at scientific taxonomies as the product of a self-confident Europe, but we can also read them as evidence as anxiety in the face of real information overload. Reading widely in these other histories of race and slavery helped me develop a new sense of periodization and to work through a narrative arc that saw a transition from a moment where colonial authors identified difference as impermanent and mutable to one that was more biologically fixed. That moment of transition remains the period that I am most interested in.


JUNTO: There’s a line in the book that I love: “If colonial space became easier to plot, it nonetheless became much harder to know” (p. 98). How have ideas about space and borders shaped your thinking about the history of science?

CP: As I wrote A Not-So-New World, I became a bit obsessed with the idea of region in early American and Atlantic history. Maybe this was a result of my own movements across the border between Canada and the United States, but I also began to think about the relationship between human-defined regions (empires, colonies, nations, etc.) and natural regions produced by forces such as climate, tectonic shifts, geology, and evolution that act over far larger scales. As a result, much of my work focused on how human-defined regions mapped onto or resisted these more material spaces. As an example that you’ve cited in Chapter 4, I found that following how Canada—as a legal and cultural space—waxed and waned in response to French encounters with and debates about American environments illustrated the tension between these two registers and, really, between these two chronologies.

The quote that you reference here is about this friction between increasingly precise representations of abstract space—of cartographic representations of lakes, rivers, settlements, and imperial boundaries—and the growing awareness among colonists that much of what they thought that they knew about North America was gradually proving false. In spite of bold predictions that cultivating landscapes would warm the winters, they actually got colder. In spite of confidence that pruning American grapes would allow them eventually to become French, they continued to produce terrible wine and assert their fundamental difference. As knowledge of indigenous languages grew and as new scientific tools allowed naturalists to name new species more clearly, the authors who I read reveal this emerging anxiety that New France was actually much more alien than they had initially thought. It wasn’t exotic—not really at least. But it was a subtle difference that, over time, became impossible to deny.

I’ve come away at the end of writing A Not-So-New World with a clear sense that these regional ecological differences between, for example, the Caribbean and northeastern North America (New England, New France, Acadia) matter a great deal to how otherwise human histories unfold. That might sound unsurprising for those of us who have moved between places such as Florida and Boston, but I would like to see more comparative work within these different spaces. When might a comparison of New France and New England be more fruitful than histories of Anglo or French Atlantic empires? I think environmental history has been particularly effective at offering alternatives to these familiar spaces and new methods through which to study this entanglement of the material and the mental.


JUNTO: You say that early on, the French minimized indigenous knowledge and that later, men like Lafitau were more likely to highlight that knowledge. Historians are accustomed to thinking about non-Natives’ erasure of Native knowledge over time, but you instead offer a narrative that argues for a reveal-over-time narrative rather than an erasure-over-time narrative. Can you elaborate on change over time narratives in French history, the history of New France, and the history of French interactions with Native Americans, and explain how you see your chronology of epistemology fitting in?

 CP: As I have mentioned above, I came to the study of New France with a very clear chronology in mind that I had borrowed from histories of colonialism and science that had focused on the Caribbean and Latin America. This chronology emphasized an initial shock and a progressive familiarization with New World environments, coupled with an increasingly managerial and  instrumentalized relationship with American nature that focused on resource extraction for Atlantic markets. But I was also inspired by J. H. Elliott’s suggestion that the impact of the New World on the Old was “blunted,” and a lot of my early work was making sense of this tension.

By the end of writing the book, I came to recognize how much of this story was tied to local ecological specificity. What I found was that early colonial sources from New France were quite confident in their claims to know American places and implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) derided indigenous ecological knowledge. I argue that this was because the French who came to New France saw plants that they recognized and that flourished in northeastern North America; these are plants such as maple, oak, cherry, and plums, among others. It was only over time that I saw more colonial reliance on indigenous names and knowledge, as French explorers, missionaries, and colonists pushed further into the heart of the continent. So my conclusion here was not that the histories of shock and disorientation in the Caribbean weren’t true, but that those tropes might not be as relevant for other regions that more closely resembled European environments.

All the same, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a story of French colonists suddenly valorizing indigenous knowledge and, resultingly, indigenous claims to American places. Instead, I found that recognition of indigenous ecological knowledge was tied to an increased sense of New France’s foreignness and anxiety about its interaction with more recognizably European plants and peoples. So, for example, at the same time that missionaries were recording indigenous names for plants, colonial administrators were debating the effects of inter-racial marriage and colonial promoters called for the aggressive replanting of colonial landscapes with European plants such as wheat and grapes. It’s a simultaneous recognition and distancing.

The overall takeaway for me was how wider Atlantic and global trends—the expansion of European empires and the dispossession of indigenous peoples, intercultural interaction and the emergence of racial thought, and broader shifts in climate—all take place in and are shaped by the ecological contexts of these trends. While comparative and interimperial histories have pushed us to move beyond single national or imperial perspectives, I have also learned that regions formed by geography, geology, and climate produce their own regions that have powerfully influenced how these histories unfold.


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