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The Nature of the Future: Agriculture, Science, and Capitalism in the Antebellum North (Book Talk)

The nostalgic mist surrounding farms can make it hard to write their history, encrusting them with stereotypical rural virtues and unrealistically separating them from markets, capitalism, and urban influences. The Nature of the Future aims to remake this staid vision. Emily Pawley examines a place and period of enormous agricultural vitality—antebellum New York State—and follows thousands of “improving agriculturists,” part of the largest, most diverse, and most active scientific community in nineteenth-century America. Pawley shows that these improvers practiced a kind of science hard for contemporary readers to recognize, in which profit was not only a goal but also the underlying purpose of the natural world. Far from producing a more rational vision of nature, northern farmers practiced a form of science where conflicting visions of the future landscape appeared and evaporated in quick succession. Drawing from environmental history, US history and the history of science, and extensively mining a wealth of antebellum agricultural publications, The Nature of the Future uncovers the rich loam hiding beneath ostensibly infertile scholarly terrain, revealing a surprising area of agricultural experimentation that transformed American landscapes and American ideas of expertise, success, and exploitation.

Emily Pawley is Associate Professor of History at Dickinson College where she teaches agricultural history, food studies, environmental history, and the history of science. Her research focuses on cultivated landscapes as sources of knowledge and has been supported by grants from the NSF, the NEH, the ACLS, the Smithsonian, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Her book The Nature of the Future: Agriculture, Capitalism, and Science in the Antebellum North is newly out with Chicago in 2020. She has published on analytic tables, cattle portraiture, counterfeit apples, and aphrodisiacs for sheep, and she’s currently juggling projects on climate change pedagogy, carbon sequestration, and the history of ideas of nurture.

This chat originally aired at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, December 10, 2020.

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Talking in the Library is hosted by Will Fenton, the Director of Scholarly Innovation, and produced by Ann McShane, the Project Digital Asset Librarian at Emory University.

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