ON PLANTS AND BOOKS.
EPISODES FROM AN EARLY TRANSATLANTIC ENCOUNTER
Luis Francisco Martinez Montes
Francisco Hernández´s “Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia”, Rome, 1651.
One of the finest pleasures in life consists in having a serendipitous encounter with a book whose perusal reignites an old intellectual flame.
My interest in the so-called Columbian Exchange dates back to my days as a postgraduate student in Washington D.C; it was there, in 1992, when the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History organized a large exhibition entitled Seeds of Change: 500 Years of Encounter and Exchange to commemorate the Quincentenary of Columbus’ fateful voyage. Far from indulging in the usual tropes of gold and blood associated with the arrival of the first Europeans to America, the exhibition was mainly focused on the environmental and cultural changes brought about by the ‘Encounter’ (‘Conquest’ or ‘Clash’, as the reader likes it) in the daily habits of Europeans and Americans; from the consumption of tomatoes and potatoes in European meals to the prevalence of the horse among Plain Indians or the cultivation of orange and apple trees in American fields where maize or cacao had previously ruled unhindered. The change in perspective that the Smithsonian initiative presented to the public regarding the contentious topic of the ‘Discovery of America’ was certainly refreshing. As I realised then, though, it posed additional questions and challenges.
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