- A Not-So-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America by Christopher M. Parsons
When scholars of Early America write about plants, they tend to focus on settlers’ introduction of staple crop monocultures or colonists’ search for exotic species and secret knowledge. Narratives about plants and people at each end of the spectrum draw readers in with the dynamism of ecological imperialism or the drama of biopiracy. The plants themselves become central protagonists in these stories, and many twenty-first-century students of what is now called Vast Early America [End Page 140] graduate with a vivid knowledge of tobacco, cacao, rice, wheat, maize, beans, pumpkins, and even the prickly pear cacti upon which cochineal insects lived.
What is lost in scholarly accounts of plants as commodities or rarities, Christopher Parsons argues, is the banal botany of settler colonialism, at least in French North America. French colonial writers emphasized the basic sameness of the flora of northern North America, pointing to generic categories such as grapes, plums, cherries, maples, oaks, and birches. With a little cultivation, New France would realize its potential as just another France, not so new after all.
In a sophisticated interdisciplinary study, Parsons uses biogeography to meditate on the deep-time botanical commonalities within the northern hemisphere and draws upon ethnobotany to discuss French writers’ words for plants. There is something iconoclastic in Parsons’ insistence that French colonial writers gravitated towards genus over species and to common European vernacular names over Latin or Indigenous nomenclature.
The book addresses the fields of environmental history and history of science and yet, ultimately, may be canonized as a work of ecocriticism and the comparative study of empire because of its central focus on ideologies of colonialism and writerly genres of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. French colonial authors switched between the conventions of travel narratives, promotional texts, missionary relations, and natural histories, using the familiarity and plasticity of selected Canadian plants to portray for audiences back home the colonial project as moderate and realistic. Over time, writers contracted their spatial vision, seeking to preserve the paradigm of empire as cultivation.
Indigenous communities in places such as Kahnawake or Sillery knew far more about plants than the colonial archive tells us, and Parsons analyzes the gendered dimensions of New France’s patriarchal colonialism and of Native communities’ women-centred domains of horticulture and healing. Parsons addresses Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Innu histories on their own terms, acknowledges violent northern realities, and accounts for the transnational complexity of Vast Early America. No reader would come away thinking that French colonialism was benign or that the colonial period is over.
Nonetheless, assigning A Not-So-New World, together with scholarship or primary sources on Indigenous diplomacy, war, enslavement, and survival, could create productive tension in the classroom and give students a sense of the diverse and contested political ecologies of northern North America. Records of Native diplomacy from this time period, for example, feature Indigenous leaders’ public speeches about planting practices. Similarly, scholarship about diplomacy could explain the cross-cultural gifting of plants and the ways in which First Nations enforced borders, defined territories, and governed access to green spaces.
In an environmental studies seminar, Parsons’ book could be paired with one of the many monographs focused on a single American plant, or it could be taught as a useful counterpoint to the organizing concept of the Columbian Exchange. Readers looking for French responses to, say, sunflowers, cranberries, or sugar maples will find compelling, but carefully circumscribed, passages (35, 81, 106–7). Otherwise, Parsons strategically withholds the frisson of contact with new plants that too easily aligns readers with colonizers. [End Page 141]
The final chapter on ginseng frames a coveted plant within the context of global empire in clever ways that support the book’s arguments while broadening their scope. Jesuit missionary Joseph-François Lafitau wanted to discover in situ a plant that was already well known in Asia and that had been studied...