- Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile-California Connection by Edward Dallam Melillo
Edward Dallam Melillo
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015
xiv + 325 pp., $40.00 (cloth)
For decades, historians of the US West have called for studies that situate the region in the broader formation of a Pacific world. Starting in at least the eighteenth century, the Pacific world, much like the Atlantic world, emerged as a vast transnational community bound together by ties of trade, migration, and ecological exchange. Historians of the western US have focused primarily on the migration side of this story. They have charted the movement of people—sailors, missionaries, workers, and families—across the watery boundaries of empires and nation-states, and they have analyzed the racialization of US immigration laws that emerged in tandem with this trans-Pacific migration. Only in the recent past, with works such as David Igler's The Great Ocean (2013), have scholars begun to pay sustained attention to the environmental consequences of human movement across the Pacific and the far-flung ecological transfers that knitted together this Pacific world.
Edward Dallam Melillo's Strangers on Familiar Soil builds on this newer environmental scholarship on the Pacific world while also breaking important new ground in the field. With stunning archival research across two continents and an analysis that spans more than two centuries, Melillo demonstrates that the histories of two important places on the Pacific Rim—Chile and California—cannot be understood in isolation from each other or from the histories of other Pacific regions. Endowed with temperate climates that resembled the Mediterranean, both Chile and California became transplantation zones for similar crops and animals from Europe. More importantly, the two regions' geographic proximity and climatological similarity to each other prompted centuries of migration and ecological transfers between them.
Melillo tells the story of the Chile-California connection in two parts. The first half of the book focuses on California through the end of the nineteenth century, and the second takes up Chile from the late nineteenth century to the twenty-first century. He organizes his analysis around three concepts that illuminate points of convergence between California and Chile. The first concept is displacement, the process by which people, practices, and nonhuman organisms are transferred quickly from one region to another with very few consequences for the sending region. For instance, the transplantation of nitrogen-fixing Chilean alfalfa and skilled Chilean miners to Gold Rush California and the later transplantation of Monterey pine to Chile created monumental (sometimes devastating) changes for the new host region without radically changing the region of origin. Second, exchange, characterized by long-term movements of humans, nonhuman organisms, and commodities, transforms both sending and receiving regions in profound ways. The trade in sodium nitrate fertilizers, which enriched California's soil and turned it into an agricultural powerhouse, is a strong example of such an exchange because it also hastened the development of industrial mining in Chile and reinvigorated [End Page 130] older patterns of debt peonage there. Finally, influence involves deliberate human effort to shape environments or societies. This trend includes Cold War–era academic exchange programs between the United States and Chile funded by the US federal government and coordinated by California universities. These programs, aimed at maximizing Chile's agricultural production and fighting communism, spurred the consolidation of Chilean agribusiness and set the stage for US participation in Augusto Pinochet's military coup against Salvador Allende. The extreme state violence and neoliberal policies of the Pinochet regime had deep roots in California's relationship with Chile.
Through broad and ambitious analysis, Melillo uncovers the often invisible connections between continents that can be seen only once scholars stop assuming that the US Pacific coast's most important relationship was with the nation's Atlantic coast. He traces important networks of exchange that only reveal themselves when historians break out of the political borders of nation-states and begin to look at longue durée processes from geologic upheavals to nitrogen revolutions in agriculture. Melillo is skilled at finding hemispheric confluences in the most surprising places—from abandoned...