The Story Behind Professor Dolan’s New Book
On the occasion of the publication of UC Davis English Professor Fran Dolan’s new book, Digging the Past: How and Why to Imagine Seventeenth-Century Agriculture, PhD alum Elizabeth Crachiolo and PhD candidate Ashley Sarpong interviewed the author about her interest in soil amendments, biodynamic wine, and early modern literature and culture, among other matters.
At the core, they discover, Dolan’s new book is a response to the question, What does the past have to say to the present? The message is never so simple, Dolan explains.
Crachiolo and Sarpong also unearth how being at UC Davis has shaped Dolan’s scholarly interests. As much as Digging the Past is about early modern life in England, the interview below reveals it as equally a product of our Northern California region.
Crachiolo and Sarpong: How did you come to be interested in agriculture, early modern and modern, as a topic for a new book?
Dolan: I think my project emerged from my relationship to two places, Davis and the Huntington Library. Living here, shopping at the farmers’ market, and being surrounded by colleagues working on agriculture, climate, food, and wine made me think about agriculture as having a history, shaping our future, and urgently important. Tours of biodynamic wineries at which my guides would vaguely mention the “premodern” history of some of their beliefs and methods made me wonder: what DOES the premodern have to say to the present? I knew from the start that what my area of expertise, 17th-c England, had to say to the present would not be straightforward! While references to the past usually invoke it as inspiration or disparage it as the moment when we took a wrong turn, the relationship between past and present is never that simple. In turn, I picked up my organization from the present, choosing to focus on projects in regenerative agriculture that are currently being promoted as both new and old--local food, soil amendment, “natural” wine, and hedgerows—and that were also promoted as both innovations and recuperations of the past in the seventeenth century. Finally, exploring the resources in Special Collections here at Davis (which includes wonderful texts about early agriculture and wine-making) and reading through the fabulous holdings in seventeenth-century agriculture at the Huntington Library in the course of a year, helped me learn, explore, and build a research foundation for this project.
Would I have written this book if I’d stayed in the midwest, where I grew up and lived and worked most of my life? Probably not.
Crachiolo and Sarpong: Was there anything surprising that you discovered once you started digging (so to speak)?
Dolan: I learned all kinds of surprising things. I thought I knew seventeenth-century England, but I ended up reading hundreds of texts I’d never read before and, often, had not even heard of. I ended up thinking that Colonial Virginia was crucial to the story I was telling, and writing an epilogue on Jamestown, VA, and I didn’t anticipate that. I guess what surprised and inspired me most is what I learned about soil and how vitally important social amendment and retention was, is, and should be. I was surprised to learn that soil is a dynamic work in progress and a frontier at which we can actually effect positive change in our environment, and address the climate crisis, just below our feet, right in our own yards.
Crachiolo and Sarpong: What role do you see of yourself and other scholars of early modern culture in connecting the past to the present, particularly as it relates to environmental practices?
Dolan: I have been thinking about how the past relates to the present for a long time, starting with my work on domestic violence and the history of marriage. So it’s something I habitually do, as a teacher and a writer. I have often encountered resistance to that move, with specialists in the period dismissing attempts to connect past to present as anachronistic or “presentist.” The word was once widely used to disparage allowing our own concerns to shape how we see the past, the questions we ask of it, or the categories we use to assess it. But more and more scholars of race, gender, sexuality—and the environment—are insisting that our inquiries into the past can and must be informed by our present concerns. “Presentist” is not the dirty word it once was. Like many of my peers in early modern studies, I'm interested in seeing both illuminating differences between then and now and surprising continuities. Isabel Wilkerson uses this subtitle for her fascinating book Caste—The Origins of Our Discontents. That’s a great model for how many of us are now evaluating the past—how does it bear down on and inform our present? How might understanding it more fully help us re-conceive our social institutions and revise limiting ideas? The urgency of the climate crisis is adding new purpose to work in the humanities, pressing us to think about how the knowledge we create might matter as we address our present and our future.
Crachiolo and Sarpong: What practices or ways of thinking from your undergraduate and graduate education do you believe most informed your approach to researching and writing this book?
Dolan: In some ways this book is a departure from the ways I was trained as a literary critic—a shockingly long time ago now. But this project, like all of my teaching, research, and writing, depends on the skills I learned in college and graduate school: a wide-ranging detective hunt for varied materials, an expansive sense of what might be relevant (everything! winery websites are texts!), cover to cover reading because you never know what you might find, close attention to details through re-readings, and a certain disregard for disciplinary and period boundaries (but I don’t think I was taught that, I think it’s just how my mind works). The surprise for me in this particular project is that I returned to Latin texts. I was a Latin major in college (as well as an English major) and I hadn’t used that skill in a long time. For this project, I was back considering word choices in ancient Roman writers (Pliny, Vergil, and Columella) because that’s who English farmers and gardeners were reading. Finally, I have come to cherish one consequence of my unplugged, old school education: I still love to lose myself in one physical book, with no distractions. That’s still where I am most creative, most centered, most content.
Crachiolo and Sarpong: We as a planet and American society are experiencing a time of major disruption and upheaval. What insights regarding early modern innovation do you think can help us better understand and navigate some of the challenges our society and planet are encountering?
Dolan: This takes me back to something I’ve mentioned before: regenerative agriculture and particularly soil amendment. Seventeenth-century people did not already know how to care for soil. They were learning about it, promoting composting, fallowing, and crop rotation, and describing attention to soil as both an innovation and a rediscovery of lost wisdom. That’s not unlike how many people in agroecology talk about soil now. Soil is a great example of something that is literally under our feet and that we take for granted, but that is dynamic, a work in progress rather than a given, a community rather than a thing. Learning to see and tend and appreciate it, both in our own gardens and on the farms that grow our food, is something we all can do and that can make an enormous difference.