Reckoning with the Past
To honor Indigenous Peoples Day, I am re-publishing a section from the very first newsletter about The Voyage of the Pleiades. One of the issues I wrangled with as an author, and one that my characters also address, is the role of colonialism in natural history exploration. The two cannot be uncoupled.
I’ve been chasing the uncomfortable edge of the legacy of colonialism for years. First in my graduate work, in my book series, and now in my freelance work as well. Julie Speer Jackson brought me on to assist with writing two episodes of her fantastic documentary series, Colorado Experience. One of the episodes is on Twin Lakes. Many visitors know Twin Lakes as a gorgeous destination in the mountains, but are less familiar with the history of the Ute people who occupied the area before being forcibly removed. I’m a 3rd generation Coloradan, my ancestors were absolutely part of the legacy of people moving into Indigenous lands. So how do we repair what has been damaged? How do we not just honor the people of these lands, but make reparations (or even better, rematriations)? I hope you will tune in on November 10, to see how it is addressed in the documentary. I’ll post more details on how to watch as the date gets closer. Colorado Experience is on Rocky Mountain PBS for those in Colorado.
For me, I consider the exploration of these questions a lifelong task. I don’t expect to ever reach a final answer. And I won’t shy away from the difficult inquiry.
The Voyage of the Pleiades: Across the World in Skirts
The history of natural discovery is dotted with the rare mention of female explorers, such as Maria Sibylla Merian who traveled to Suriname in the late 1600s and was the first woman to independently lead an expedition to South America. Not only was Merian a forerunner to many of the male naturalists that became famous for traveling to South America, she arrived more than 100 years before Alexander von Humboldt. Her illustrations from Suriname and South America were used by Linnaeus and others, to describe new species and insect life cycles, but her names doesn’t appear beside theirs in history books.
There were women such as Jeanne Baret, a botanist who disguised herself as a man to travel around the world with her lover, or Ida Laura Pfeiffer who waited until widowhood before undertaking major expeditions throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. Artists like Marianne North funded their travels by selling their art and creating images for male naturalists to include in their publications. These are just a few examples of the women naturalists that lived during these centuries, women that made major discoveries and journeys, but were not recognized as significant during their time. One thing most of them had in common is that they came from wealthy families. They had the advantages of class, color and status that allowed them to pursue what at that time was categorized as a hobby (if you were a woman). Regardless of gender, the naturalists in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were part of the systemic colonial greed that was sweeping the world. Botanists were expected to travel to faraway places and return with specimens that would fill newly established botanical gardens, and medical discoveries that would line the pockets of rich Europeans. However, it was also during this period that our understanding of nature took a massive leap. How does one reconcile the exploitation with the profound discoveries that became the building blocks of modern natural sciences? Personally, I struggle to reconcile the brutality of colonialism with scientific advancement. I cannot right the wrongs of naturalists in past centuries, but what I felt I could do was create a novel that allowed me to reimagine the experience of natural history exploration through the eyes of a woman, through the eyes of a non-white man, and through our 21st century lens of being aware of the impact Europeans had on the world.
Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World
by Londa Schiebinger
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe.
by Glynis Ridley
The Art of Medicine
by Londa Schiebinger
The Colorful Life of Marianne North
A Pioneering Woman of Science Re-Emerges after 300 years