March 01, 2016
Ginseng's stimulating effect
7 min read
In today’s post, WMQ (January 2016) author Christopher Parsons reflects on how the editorial process he went through with the article pushed him to reframe his understanding of the key players in the story—including the leafy one.
by Christopher Parsons
I know more about ginseng than I ever thought that I would, and I suspect that many of my friends and family could say the same. I’ve been thinking about ginseng for over half a decade, and talking about it with friends and colleagues almost as long. Revisiting my article “The Natural History of Colonial Science” that appeared in the January 2016 William & Mary Quarterly has made me intensely aware of how much more I’ve learned about the plant as I worked through the editorial process of the journal. Where I started with a very human history of scientific debate, I can now read an article that focuses at least as much on the nature of ginseng itself. I did not expect to be able to write about the reproductive lives of P. quinquefolius, nor to know about its ideal soils and the regulation of current “sang” collection throughout Canada and the United States. I’m gratified, however, when I can now see that the plant itself was the missing piece of the story that I wanted to write all along.
Joseph-François Lafitau discovered ginseng outside of Montreal four hundred years ago this spring, but the history of how he found the plant and the trade that followed in his wake is a complicated one. I struggled considerably to write a story that respected this complexity without succumbing to it; one that started in Kahnawake and ended in China with stops in France and Mauritius along the way, and that was told largely through Lafitau’s own efforts to lay claim to his discovery. I came to the topic inspired by historians of science who have looked to scientific debates to open up the processes through which knowledge is made (think Leviathan and the Air-Pump) and by indigenous historians who have looked to missionary sources to explore the intellectual and cultural worlds of Native North America. I was interested in how Lafitau introduced indigenous knowledge into scientific circles as a legitimate (if imperfect) avenue for understanding the extra-European world, but I was also wary of telling another story about helpful native guides who recede into the background of the story once they’ve imparted their information to grateful European explorers.
The story of ginseng in New France, from discovery through exploitation and on to an eventual bust, seemed like an opportunity to write about what I have called in the paper the footprint of colonial science. As the first round of reviews of the paper made clear, the effect of the trade was more easily asserted than proven. While I had a surfeit of documentation about the debate over the plant’s identity, and of historical conversations about (rather than with) indigenous peoples, the balance between these two stories proved difficult to maintain.
After the first round of reviews, I knew that I needed to reach out to other methodologies to tell a story that is at least partially invisible within the historical documents that I was working with. It was in the writing of a revised version of the essay that I looked to environmental science and environmental history for a means of discussing the material impacts of Lafitau’s intellectual endeavors; of writing a natural history of colonial science. I can remember quite distinctly sitting on a floor by an outlet at LAX in the fall of 2014 when I began seriously to comb sources such as the West Virginia Department of Commerce News, and publications from agricultural cooperative extension programs that detailed the contemporary collection of wild ginseng. I next turned to major scientific journals such as Science and regionally focused studies in journals such as the American Midland Naturalist to calculate the size and impact of the eighteenth-century ginseng harvest. This was new work to me, but I had been inspired by teaching and reading environmental histories of the Atlantic World such as Jennifer Anderson’s beautiful Mahogany. I saw these sources as the means with which to write a cultural history that was more material, and a material history that was more intellectual; I used the methods of environmental history to make my initial ambitions to write a history of science that was conscious of the effects of colonial science on colonized places and peoples.
The response was positive, and I’m thrilled with the paper that I read this last week. Lafitau was where I started, but it was only through the editorial process that I realized that ginseng was the star of this story.