Drift 25, Rm. 204 25 Jul 2019 Contributed Papers
Thematic Approaches to the Study of Science 16:00 - 18:00

"The Easy Transmutableness of Water": The Alchemy of Seed Steeps and "Fructifying Waters" in Seventeenth-Century English Agriculture
16:00 - 16:30
Johan Baptista van Helmont’s famous willow tree experiment purported to demonstrate that “164 pounds of wood, bark, and roots had come up from water alone,” suggesting the preeminence of water as the foundation for botanical growth. This experiment has a long afterlife among agricultural reformers in seventeenth-century England, but rather than accept water as the sole driver of the development of plants, many of these reformers adopted various alchemical techniques designed to determine what discrete substances within water conveyed fertility. In the process, they explored the nutritive properties of substances such as alum, quicklime, natron, distilled water, blue vitriol, potash, vitriolic acid, verdigris, copperas, and all manner of salts, and created mixtures of numerous, sometimes secretive substances often called “fructifying waters,” among many other things, as liquid solutions in which to steep seeds or use as pest control for crops. In this presentation, I argue that these reformers incorporated these chymical substances normally associated with alchemical laboratories and apothecaries into agriculture and aqua-culture. Their goals were manifold: they sought to improve agricultural yields, increase the quantity of viable seeds and alleviate the risks of poor harvests, and develop marketable and sometimes patentable recipes for profit. In the process, they added to the growing body of knowledge about the function of seed growth, the lifecycle of plants, and the relationships between plants and soil, water, air, and fertilizers. They also sought to answer two of the knottiest questions in botany—what caused seed germination and could this be controlled?
Cochineal Husbandry in Eighteenth-Century Mexico and India
16:30 - 17:00
During the eighteenth-century, the Spanish Empire held a virtual monopoly on the production of cochineal, a lucrative red dye commodity sourced from insects grown on cacti largely in the south of modern day Mexico. The cochineal insect had been domesticated and grown by the indigenous peoples of central America for centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. It was widely known as ‘nocheztli’ or ‘blood of the nopal cactus’. Cochineal was situated in a cultural matrix which influenced the insects’ complex husbandry and development as a domesticated species in southern Mexico. In the late eighteenth-century the British East India Company attempted to turn southern India and Bengal into production zones for cochineal (Fray, 2012). In making India a major producer of cochineal the Company hoped to turn a substantial profit and break the Spanish monopoly. British promoters of this scheme assumed similarities between India and Mexico in areas of landscape, peoples, cultures, plants and insects. Critically British colonial promoters believed the landscapes and indigenous peoples of southern Mexico would be interchangeable with the landscapes and peoples of southern India and Bengal. These assumptions led to the failure of the project. Even in Guatemala, geographically next to Mexico, the cochineal industry had been impossible to transport until native Oaxacan cochineal growers had accompanied their insects and taught methods of husbandry. The movement of the cochineal industry to Guatemala in a similar time period offers a contrast to the failed British project in India.
Materiality in the Wild: A Posthumanist Approach to Indigenous Knowledge of West African Wild Silk
17:00 - 17:30
This paper studies conceptions of Indigenous knowledge-based material practice in the trade, production and use of wild silk within a posthumanist theoretical framework (Barad 2007). By focusing on actual conceptions of its material and symbolic agency, affinities and affordances, it inquires about the silk’s materiality that helps to inform about an Indigenous science of materials that entangles knowledge, technical and belief systems. Wild silk that is produced by silkworms of genus Epanaphe or Anaphe has been for centuries locally harvested in the forests and the Sahelo-Sudanian areas of Nigeria and throughout West Africa. In the Hausa region of Northern Nigeria, indigenous silk that is considered as a material of prestige, has been mainly used in hand embroidery, produced on traditional male robes known as babban riga (Kriger 2010). On these garments, silk patterns that remind of Islamic calligraphy enact as a form of talismanic magic that protect against the evil eye and confer charisma to the wearer. By using travelers’ accounts, colonial reports, museum collections and oral tradition recorded through systematic ethnographic interviews, this paper looks at aspects of Indigenous conceptions about the material, cultural and historical significance of wild silk, starting from the 19th century Sokoto Caliphate located in Northern Nigeria until the contemporary period. Framed within a historical and anthropological approach to materials, the paper’s posthuman focus lies in the examination of silk’s material qualities and properties that include intertwined medicinal and magical values for which this elusive insect material has been praised across West Africa.
The Species Transmutation Debate and Agricultural Science in the Antebellum United States, 1820-1859
17:30 - 18:00
The paper traces a debate about species transmutation that unfolded in agricultural periodicals published in the Northeastern United States between 1820 and 1859. During the nineteenth century, numerous members of New England farming communities believed that particular environmental conditions could prompt wheat seeds to produce a variety of weed called cheat or chess. The widespread belief in the “transmutation” of wheat into chess was mobilized by testimonies shared by farmers in letters to agricultural periodicals where the topic was widely debated. The group of agricultural reformers that curated the content of these publications at the time promoted agricultural improvement by disseminating knowledge about relevant science and technology topics. The widespread discussion about the transmutation of wheat offered these editors an opportunity for sharing scientific knowledge about plant heredity and botanical classification systems, encouraging experimentation among audiences prejudiced against “book farming.” In their assessment of the theoretical contributions of botanists and practical experiments conducted by farmers, the reformers negotiated the authority of scientific expertise in the study of nature and delineated standards of scientific inquiry into agricultural matters. Their engagement with the transmutation debate contributed to the democratization and professionalization of agrarian improvement, laying the groundwork for the activities of agricultural research institutions that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Speakers
University of Chicago
Harvard University
Research Associate, Humboldt University, Berlin
Independent researcher & consultant
Moderators
Concordia University, Montreal

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