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Trading Nature: Tahitians, Europeans, and Ecological Exchange by Jennifer Newell (review)

From: The Contemporary Pacific
Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 201-203 | 10.1353/cp.2013.0019

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Trading Nature examines the ways in which nature underlies, motivates, and shapes exchanges between cultural parties in Pacific encounters. Drawing on an impressive range of source materials, Jennifer Newell carefully examines the easily overlooked (in part because often underfoot) place of nature in exchanges between Tahitians and Europeans, from the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries into Tahiti's present. Throughout, she draws attention to the material significance of culturally distinct perceptions, conceptions, and engagements with nature and in so doing offers a much-needed perspective on the place of nature in Pacific histories.

As Newell clearly identifies in her introduction, Western observers have demonstrated a consistent tendency to erect impermeable boundaries of the mind between nature and culture, ignoring the many ways in which the two are woven together in everyday human experience. Trading Nature seeks to illustrate and resolve the many inadequacies that this tendency has yielded in broadly circulating understandings of Tahitian historical encounters. Numerous facts about various sorts of exchange are used to showcase the ways in which nature and culture are historically intertwined, as well as the ways in which influences exerted on one another are catalyzed by the interactions of cultural groupings with divergent interests, resulting in consequential legacies into the present. As Newell both argues and reveals throughout the text, the culturally encoded "naturalness" of a place plays a direct role in how an environment is conceived, interpreted, and interacted with. Trading Nature also identifies the significance of fluidity—the ways in which the meanings ascribed to and the values associated with the components of a natural environment ceaselessly fluctuate over time. Indeed, in many places, Newell's text contributes to the broad conversation in Pacific history about the understated point of fluidity in meaning, and the ways in which notions of value pass through forms of exchange parallel to yet enmeshed within the more material circulations of goods, services, animals, and plants.

An intriguing duality present throughout the book requires readers to consider the conceptions, values, and motivations behind ecological exchanges on the part of both Tahitians and the European voyagers. Newell moves vividly and carefully through what she calls "landscapes of the mind" and is inclusive of a variety of cultural factors, taking into consideration concurrent European literary and scientific movements, as well as Tahitian lineages, beliefs, and practices (60). She takes care to dedicate separate sections of the text to the movement of exchanges into and out of Tahiti, with each section providing fascinating, thoroughly engaging examples— from the introduction of cats consequently leading to the complete disappearance of ground-dwelling Tahitian birds to an emergent Tahitian preference for oranges with implications for indigenous plant species. In the section "Out of Tahiti," Newell draws on the well-known Bligh voyages, as well as others, to highlight the transport of breadfruit and the ways in which this connected Tahiti to the Caribbean, yielding a global perspective on what might otherwise appear as highly localized. Examples cohesively work to illustrate Newell's main point—that there is an answer to the "So what?" in regard to the impact of ecological exchange.

As the book title implies, Newell focuses the vast majority of her energies and examples on Tahiti, yet she also successfully draws on other Pacific sites as points of comparison and further explanation. Most notable of these is her comparison of the introduction and subsequent flourishing or collapse of cattle populations in Tahiti and Hawai'i, which Newell attributes to differences in forms of chiefly power—an important example of the intermingling of cultural factors in the impact of ecological exchange. In the conclusion she points out that Europeans often blamed unsuccessful ecological imports on some fault of the Tahitians—for example, a failure to thoroughly look after an animal or garden—when in reality, the ecological introduction relied quite heavily on its suitability (or, rather, its unsuitability) for the island and its terrain, among many other cultural factors. Consequences that are both concrete and fluid arise from even the smallest ecological exchanges, and these have the power to reverberate over many years; as seen with citrus trees, a single aggressive plant has the ability to utterly outcompete native plants, to...



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