Getting down in the dirt, this book uncovers the centrality in the early modern period of soil, tilled and ploughed, composted and planted. Digging the Past brings technical writings about agriculture from the margins to the center of English culture in the seventeenth century. Ranging back and forth between England and the Jamestown colony, with a wide range of reference in literary and historical texts, Dolan demonstrates that ideas about agriculture represent an often overlooked but omnipresent substrate in early modern English culture, one whose influence can be seen in places that range from Shakespeare's plays to the substantial literature about agriculture, cooking, and householding, to twenty-first-century discourses around organic farming and wine production. Her book represents a major contribution to early modern ecostudies and also a model of how deep engagement with historical practices can inform our own lives and ways of thinking in the twenty-first century.
Dolan's study takes shape in dialogue with recent developments in early modern environmental scholarship, with particular attention to food studies and analyses of plant and animal husbandry. She engages with the foundational work of Gail Kern Pastor, Mary Floyd-Wilson, and Rebecca Bushnell, and builds on the ecocritical writings of Jean Feerick, David Goldstein, Urvashi Chakrabarty, Vin Nardizzi, Hillary Eklund, and Joan Thirsk, among many others. Building upon the dynamic ideas of the ecological scientist Daniel Botkin, who insists that “nature is neither stable nor orderly” (11), Dolan describes the physical and conceptual labor required to wring one's daily bread from the recalcitrant soils of England and colonial Virginia. Dolan's perceptive and insightful exposure of cultural habits and patterns that persist from the seventeenth into the twenty-first century reveals how influential and unpredictable the cultural work of agriculture has been and remains.
This book's chapters provide an overview of its contents. After a short introduction that defends “hold[ing] different time frames in tension” (2), her first chapter explores the practices of composting and soil amendment. The second chapter makes a series of brilliant connections between turnips, cannibalism, motherhood, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and the Starving Time in Jamestown. The third chapter investigates the complex matter of early modern winemaking in England, France, and Virginia, with detours into modern vintners in California and elsewhere. The fourth chapter teases out ambiguities in the symbolic valences of hedges and hedgerows in the context of the history of enclosure, many versions of the story of Sleeping Beauty, and changing ideas of private and communal access. The conclusion returns to Jamestown to read closely how English ideas about agriculture came into contact with foreign soils and crops.
That orderly summary, however, does not do justice to Dolan's wide range of reference, her acute analytical prose, or her often witty transitions between early modern and twenty-first century ideas about humans and soil. Building on the “hummus-human connection” (14), she draws together agricultural and cultural practices. Composting, in her persuasive reading, becomes a pungent metaphor for the process that it physically describes, a literal decomposition that also entails “systematically collecting, ripening, and using” (39) decayed matter. Books as well as crops emerge from the practice of textual and physical “recycling” (38). As a model of “the dirty work of transformation” (43), composting becomes for Dolan a way to rethink cultural and agricultural production. Consuming food, in her analysis, draws out uncomfortable connections between eating, local environments, the darker side of Mother Earth, and early modern stories of child cannibalism in and beyond Shakespeare. Surprising insights about English wine, the double-faced nature of hedges and hedgerows, and Jamestown as agricultural frontier also populate this lively study.
As ecocriticism matures and expands in early modern studies, it will be especially valuable to rely upon a book that gracefully spans both sides of the historicism-presentism debate, that reads early modern agricultural manuals and twenty-first-century organic winemakers’ brochures as clearly as Shakespeare's plays, and that demonstrates by example how to bring early modern texts into contemporary debates.