Monday, August 27, 2007

Book Review: "Everyday Nature"

In Everyday Nature: Knowledge of the Natural World in Colonial New York
(Rutgers University Press, 2007), Long Island University history professor Sara Gronim examines how scientific innovations of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries were received in New York and became - gradually, fitfully, as she argues - part of the general consciousness.

Gronim argues that New York's peculiarities as a religiously, socially and racially diverse colony lend it as a suitable example, as does the absence of any dominant scientific figure or institution. She maintains that "Innovations in understandings and practices that could be incorporated into familiar social relations and familiar material practices stood a good chance of being accepted. Those innovations, however, that bolstered some people's [sic] social power, religious claims, or political goals at the expense of others were as often as not vehemently rejected" (pg.7) ... at least for a time.

The book's chapters examine various aspects of natural knowledge, including views of health and medicine, anomalous portents and their interpretations, interest in formal scientific practices, agricultural advances and innovations in other areas. Gronim also profiles a few of the more interesting scientific personalities in colonial New York, including Cadwallader Colden (better known for his uncanny political ability to tick off just about everyone) and his botanist daughter Jane.

There are some fascinating details here, including a good discussion of how political rivalries stymied attempts to establish scientific societies in in pre-Revolutionary New York, and the surprising news that almanacs offering a Ptolemaic view of the solar system (that is, earth-centered) were published in New York through the 1730s.

The book has a patched-together feel in some places (the last chapter, on the slow rise of geography and cartography, seems particularly out of sync), but aside from the slight interruptions in narrative flow, I found Everyday Nature quite worthwhile. I'm afraid it's unlikely that the conclusions drawn will be easily extensible to other areas (the general thrust may hold, but I think it would take a close examination of the details in each instance to make the case); for New York, however, Gronim has laid a good foundation.