Sunday, June 4, 2023

Writing History to Better See the Present

This January I published an historical novel, I Have Seen Marvels, A Journey to Paraguay 1630. As the angst and excitement fade and I move on to other projects, I am reflecting on the experience. 

My travel experience was limited during most of my life. My parents took me to various states on vacation or to visit relatives and we crossed into Canada at least once. I toured Europe for a month after graduation from college. During graduate school I did thesis research in Costa Rica. I never studied geography or history in college, and my anthropology course touched cultures in a hit-or-miss fashion.

western Costa Rica 1973
 western Costa Rica, 1973

I went to Argentina to collaborate on the study of grasses in the genus Andropogon from North and South America without much idea of South America, let alone Argentina. My colleagues were in northern Argentina, city of Corrientes, which is on the border with Paraguay and Brazil. Rural and agricultural, not urban like Buenos Aires. The grasslands were more like the U.S. than any place I'd seen in Europe, but different too, as in, same genus, different species of plants. Huge rivers--the Paraguay, the Parana--meet there, like St. Louis, where the Mississippi and Missouri meet.Wow!

Parana River, Corrientes Argentina
Parana River, Corrientes Argentina 1994

The cultural history followed the same theme. Native peoples living there were conquered by Europeans after 1492, who restructured the culture to reflect Europe. Corrientes is much older than places I've lived; the foundation stone on the catedral in the central square reads "1600 A.D." Spaniards settled to rule the natives, in contrast, settlers in North America drove them out. 

So similar, so different. I started reading South American history.

This lead to my novel, in which I imagine a Spanish woman seeing the area for the first time and writing about it in a travel journal. It was more exciting to set it so long ago that the foods of the Americas had not yet conquered the world. My heroine could taste corn, avocados, and pineapples for the first time. I had a grand time working out which foods were new; it is amazing how many New World foods have slipped into our diets, some so familiar as to be nearly invisible, squashes, beans, and sweet potatoes, for example. 

pineapples, a tropical American fruit now worldwide

Of course lots of other cultural things changed with contact between Europe and North America. Turquoise surprised them; it is common in the New World but not Europe. Bright red dyes from cochineal could be produced in reasonable quantities in the Americas, the equivalent red dyes of Europe were and are very rare. American cotton quickly replaced Eurasian cottons (Egyptian cotton is American cotton produced in Egypt). 

I revisited my sense of wonder, and, by writing of 1630, enhanced it; not only were many subtropical South American things rare in temperate North America, but my heroine could also discover New World animals and plants previously unknown in Europe. Hummingbirds, macaws, and boa constrictors, for example. So I called it I Have Seen Marvels

hillside, Brazil
 Andropogon barretoi, southern Brazil endemic,
critically endangered by expansion of rice agriculture

In the 21st century we are still homogenizing the world, moving plants and animals everywhere. And that has produced a counter push to treasure our natives. It was enlightening to try to sort out animals and plant that are European, North American, and South (or Central) American, by imagining a time when the great mixing of plants and animals from those continents had only just begun. The mixing has been a mixed blessing: beautiful and useful plants and animals shared around the world, weeds and invasive species created which imperil natives. Our responsibility to the future is to find a way to manage the land so that, however much we love new species, the natives survive.

Comments and corrections welcome

Book: I Have Seen Marvels, A Journey to Paraguay 1630. by Kathleen Keeler. Available on Amazon link

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

1 comment: