Research Problems: Loneliness

When I started this blog, I imagined it would be a place where I could post short articles about topics I was investigating. I wanted it to be a means of communicating ideas to others who have similar research interests, as well as offering some insight to friends and family regarding how I work, what interests me, and why.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

Over the past month, I have been struggling with a lot of stresses–from a hectic end of the academic semester (typical) to witnessing a murder in my neighborhood (not typical). There are many reasons I feel drained of mental, physical and emotional energy. But with respect to my writing, I ultimately realized that I need to address another issue, because I was sure I couldn’t be the only writer/researcher who routinely struggles not to abandon her work because it subjects her to long periods of loneliness and isolation.

I’m not, actually. A quick Google search showed me that this topic isn’t new to bloggers: see here and here and here and here for just a handful of examples within the past few years. These are generic articles aimed at any writer, though, and I think there are a few additional dilemmas faced by researchers in very specialized areas. So I am going to elaborate on a few of those now.

My post count tells me that, at present, I have 24 half-finished drafts of posts on various topics. I tinker with one (or more) of them every day. I spend even more time on drafts of the actual manuscript, but am equally unproductive there. I have (I think) five–yes, five–actual followers on WordPress (the count looks higher due to the page being linked with Twitter, though I don’t think more than a handful of people actually read what gets posted there, either). Admittedly, I don’t have high goals for my readership, because the topics I explore are quite obscure and specialized. But what becomes problematic is when I get stuck in my work and I realize that I don’t have very many people I can turn to, who have enough knowledge of the subject themselves to offer me sound advice.

I am an introvert who enjoys solitude to a point, and writing is, by its very nature, frequently a solitary endeavour. But research doesn’t have to be. I work at a small college, and most of the faculty can go to coffee or lunch with others in their department (or even the equivalent department at other nearby colleges) and talk about their projects and get insight from someone who has more than a passing interest in what they are doing. With regard to my collections-based work, and some of my Parkinson research, my supervisor, Doug Shedd, is my go-to person. No one else at my institution has the in-depth personal interest in my projects. But there are limits to what Doug can help with when it comes to my research. So I turn to other academics in other places, many of whom I have never met in person, and each of whom has a special research interest which intersects with my own.

And that is where problems begin.

First off, most of these scholars and academics (and even the research librarians at archives) don’t reply to queries. I choose to assume that maybe my emails just get filtered into the spam folder, because surely they wouldn’t deliberately ignore an email in which I have volunteered information about a rare document I turned up in an archives and thought might be useful to them? Or one in which I thanked them for an article or book that was helpful to me? Or one asking whether I could order a digitization of a letter and if so, what might it cost? Last month, I was horrified to realize that I almost missed two queries from other researchers, for the very reason their messages got sent to my spam folder, and now I find myself checking it obsessively. (Side question: is it appropriate to follow up with a phone call to see if they received my email? I don’t want to be too pushy… and maybe my message just wasn’t of interest to them after all.)

Once in a while, someone does reply. And that’s like Christmas, because someone actually gave my message some thought and took the time (yes, it takes time!) to respond. But then I struggle with another dilemma: how to carry on a productive conversation about complicated subject matter, without inundating the poor person with a volume of reading material that wasn’t on their agenda? Much of this type of brainstorming could occupy 30 minutes or an hour if I could meet with that individual over coffee, but because I can’t, the process of intellectual discussion becomes massively overwhelming to both of us. I never know whether a phone call is–or isn’t–appropriate; I don’t want to be forward and somehow phone calls seem intrusive to me. They mean bothering someone at work or at home and both those places seem off-limits unless the person I am contacting indicates otherwise. A fellow academic in another field suggested using Skype, but when you have correspondents spread across every time zone on the planet (many of whom focus on the 18th century in part because of an innate aversion to modern technology) it gets harder to find a solution. I spend a lot of time apologizing to people for the volume of text I send them, but I haven’t found–and no one has suggested–a feasible alternative approach.

So here I am, with a thousand ideas and questions and queries bouncing through my head from dawn to dusk, and as fast as I write them down and identify who might have the answers or the insight, I find myself at a point where I hesitate to even send a message. If I am contacting someone new, the likelihood of hearing a response is very, very small. If it is going to one of the five people I know who are most likely to reply, I hesitate because I am always imposing on these same people for feedback or input and I am wary of being a drain on their time and energy. These are kind, very knowledgeable people, but they have busy lives that don’t include me, even if my own work would be so much less without them.

So now I sit, alone in the corner of a coffee shop, listening to the conversations at other tables as other professionals discuss their work projects. It’s difficult not to envy them. I am thinking about the time someone I love very much was frustrated with my intense focus on Parkinson’s work and blurted out in exasperation (in front of three other people), “No one cares about Sydney Parkinson!” I couldn’t write anything for many years after that incident. Although every writer chooses a topic that sparks their creative interest and engages their passions, it’s rare that any writer is entirely indifferent to whether or not those interests are shared by others. Sitting here, alone with my thoughts, I wonder for the millionth time whether I am wasting my time. And wondering whether anyone is out there who can convince me otherwise. At the moment, I am writing to keep myself distracted, to keep from going insane with anxiety and frustration and depression. I don’t know how long that will be enough. Or whether I will screw up with the few connections I have managed to make in the process.

I would love to say I have pithy advice for writers, researchers and students who are struggling with these issues, but I don’t. The only thing I can offer is a bit of honesty. If in the future I find another solution, I’ll be sure to share it.

As ever, if you have ideas or comments, you can email me at


Why we still need to tell the story of the Endeavour

Scrolling through my Twitter feed last weekend, a comment caught my eye. The post was written in response to the commemorative exhibition at the British Library on Cook’s Voyages. Here it is:

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Although I didn’t get the impression from the online exhibit that “tone deaf” was really an accurate assessment (there are some very poignant interpretations from a non-European perspective), Messih raises a good question, and one that I have turned over in my mind many times in the course of my research: why, in 2018, do we still need to tell the story of the Endeavour voyage? Why do we still need to exhibit collections which are fraught with the legacy of an imperialist agenda?

As Rebecca Solnit so eloquently noted about American society in her recent essay, “Who gets to be the subject of the story is an immensely political question…we’re still struggling over whose story it is, who matters, and who our compassion and interest should be directed at…. The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence… and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially white Protestant men… one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters and who decides.”

So it’s time for me to confront the apparent paradox: why does a modern, college-educated woman who is passionate about human cultural diversity care obsessively about a dead white man whose life was defined by his role on a voyage so often linked to cultural devastation?

It may seem strange, but as an American based in Virginia, Messih’s argument hits home for me on many fronts. In 1997, when I was a freshman at Mary Washington College studying historic preservation, I recall my Guatemalan roommate’s horror over the continued presence of a slave auction block on a busy corner of downtown Fredericksburg. I later transferred colleges, and one of my Randolph-Macon Woman’s College classmates is now an archaeologist with Jamestown Rediscovery, excavating the original British settlement of 1607 and documenting examples of cross-cultural exchange and conflict (as well as the origins of American slavery) within the remains of the fort. I live an hour from Charlottesville, where last year riots broke out over the proposed removal of Confederate monuments from a city park. And my husband grew up in the shadow of Bear Mountain, the sacred home of the Monacan Nation. He saw firsthand the terrible impact of three centuries of persecution and forced assimilation on the native peoples of our state. The role of material culture in perpetuating (and aggravating) social memory has been a consistent motif in my own experience.

So here is why I think the Endeavour (and similar “voyages of discovery”) still deserves our attention. Understanding moments of contact–the initial encounter between two cultures, at a point where their shared histories were as yet undecided–is crucial now, as we strive to move forward in a world that is the highly globalized product of the cultural conflicts wrought by the imperial paradigm. If we are to find empathy for the “other” in our own lives (whoever the “other” might be), we need to understand the perceptions, preconceptions and misconceptions of every human perspective at moments in our history where one culture first encountered another, the moment in which the unexpected presence of one first impacted the fate of the other. As I have discussed in other posts, my work focuses on Sydney Parkinson’s perspective because I can easily relate to it; without making assumptions regarding other experiences of Endeavour, I can engage with the work and input of other researchers who have better insight into these very divergent perspectives in order to create a wholistic and nuanced narrative.

It is easy to fall into the trap of implicating every person aboard the Endeavour for the subsequent abuse of generations of Pacific peoples. We desperately need to hear the voices of the descendants of the oppressed or dispossessed. At the same time, a wholesale discounting of the perspective of those people who were “privileged” or “dominant” as irrelevant is an easy way to make ourselves feel morally vindicated, but it neglects to consider the incredible complexity of such historical narratives. Acknowledging this complexity is vitally important if we are to make sense of the biases in both primary source documents and oral histories. Many assume that, because we have heard Cook’s perspective or Banks’s perspective, that we have heard all the British had to say, and that our interpretations of what they said or done have been infallible. (For just one example of interpretation that has been consistently flawed, with significant impact on overall meaning, see here.) Yet the men of the Endeavour came from backgrounds as diverse as England itself (and even more so, once the Tahitians Tupaia and Taiata joined the crew). Some, like Banks, were indeed wealthy, privileged, and motivated by imperialist opportunities. But others were poor, and service at sea was a way to escape the fetid slums of London while guaranteed regular meals, fresh air, exercise and employment. Some (like Parkinson) were of the middle ground: privileged to have the patronage of the wealthy on account of their skills and insight, but regarded as socially inferior and denied a degree of autonomy as a result. Some had high ambitions within the British Navy, and sought preference for advancement; others (Tom Richmond and George Dorlton) were black “servants”–possibly slaves–who had little or no choice in their participation on the voyage.  Many of these men were young and optimistic, and were motivated by the hope of attaining new knowledge or experiences. They were attracted by the prospect of adventure; like many energetic young men, they wanted to travel to exotic places, meet new people, discover “wilderness”, and thrill at the occasional adrenaline rush. Sydney Parkinson captured his own idealistic ambitions early in the voyage: “A curiosity, perhaps, equal to Solomon’s, though accompanied with less wisdom than was possessed by the Royal Philosopher, induced some of us to quit our native land, to investigate the heavenly bodies minutely in distant regions, as well as to trace the signatures of the Supreme Power and Intelligence throughout several species of animals, and different genera of plants in the vegetable system” (21 January 1769). The assiduousness with which he absorbed native languages, the general absence of Europeans in his illustrations, and the fact that he shared paints and paper with Tupaia suggests that Parkinson wanted very much to understand this “new world” from the perspective of those who had inhabited it for many centuries. Parkinson, like many of us, longed to make a positive impact, to live a life that wasn’t merely adequate but truly meaningful.

It is easy to forget this fact, to assume that these men were merely inhuman colonizers bent on appropriation and destruction, because to acknowledge their normality is to acknowledge that we ourselves could fail in our efforts to make the world better. Even with the best of intentions, we might one day find ourselves caught in the inertia of events which are spiraling out of our own control, with lasting effects we neither envisioned nor intended (as Sydney Parkinson frequently did).  We would have to acknowledge that all the positive achievements we make–the richness of our own legacies–might one day be dismissed out of hand by later generations who, rather than confronting their own human fallibility, prefer to fix blame on us for the many ways in which we fell short of their ideals.

And that is why, in 2018, we still need to hear the British narratives together with those of Tupaia, Te Horeta, or their cultural descendants: to retain the perspective that humanity is complex, that no human encounter is ideal, and no history is ever complete. We need to be reminded of this daily in our own lives. We need to strive to hear ever more voices, not merely different ones. And we need to strive, always, to see both our achievements and our failures in a clearer light.


ADDED: For a thought-provoking approach to concepts of exploration and the continued relevance of exploration history (in this case considering Lewis & Clark and Alexander von Humboldt), read Michael F. Robinson’s essay, “Why we need a new history of exploration.”

As ever, I would love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to email me at . 



Convergence: Nantucket & Newport, 2004

I became acquainted with Sydney Parkinson in the summer of 2004, when I was still a student in college and enrolled in the University of Florida’s Preservation Institute: Nantucket. In my mind, the program was the ideal opportunity for me: my fiance and I were in the finishing stages of restoring an 1813 brick dwelling in Virginia, and I wanted further experience in documenting historic structures (not just my own). I was a good draftsman, having worked in the design shop of an architectural millwright. I was excited about my future in the field of historic preservation.

But after a few weeks in Nantucket, I suddenly had a sense that I was out of place. The coursework seemed like a review of things I had already learned, and as I had opportunities to observe the practice of preservation on Nantucket, I found myself increasingly put off by the politics: historic preservation was too often used as an excuse for gentrification. My own home in Virginia was in a low-income neighborhood, mostly African American, and we had no intention of buying up properties around us to sell to other “white folk” who were “like us”. We became friends with our neighbors. But on Nantucket, it was clear that low and middle income families were not desirable, no matter how well established. The wealthy wanted to be surrounded by the wealthy, and it didn’t matter who was forced to leave.

Granted, Nantucket was an extreme case study, but I had seen a shadow of the same politics in my own city, where abandoned warehouses and factories were gradually being bought and renovated into upscale apartments, displacing the homeless population which had formerly tenanted them. “Downtown is beautiful,” one woman remarked to me, “but where did all these tramps come from? They weren’t here before.” It never ceases to amaze me, how people fail to connect cause with consequence.

By the middle of my summer, I was foundering. The course I had been passionate pursuing about was becoming increasingly distasteful to me, and I found myself spending my free time wandering the island, observing and sketching. I studied the local ecology; I pondered the human effect on the natural cycles of life on the island. On Sundays I attended Quaker Meeting, thrilling in the quiet and the sunlight that flooded the neatly-kept, whitewashed meetinghouse. On my lunch hour I wandered through antique shops, learning about maritime antiques and marvelling at collections of artifacts from cultures in the Pacific rim. I befriended an elderly Quaker woman who ran a quirky little shop in a garden shed called (humorously) the Bon Ton, and we conversed about the history of the island, of her own travels and of the treasures that filled her tiny habitat. A visit there was like stepping into her memories. In the evenings, back at our lodgings, I played my violin or read a book I had brought with me: The Bounty by Caroline Alexander. I became intrigued by Joseph Banks and his team of artists and scientists on the voyage of Endeavour. I wondered what it would be like to see so many lands still new to the European consciousness. I imagined the burden of the artists, who were charged with becoming the eyes of the entire Western world.

Halfway through the program, we took a weekend trip to Newport, Rhode Island, to make a comparative study of approaches to architectural conservation. Our visit began strangely for me: a few of us found ourselves wandering the yard of Trinity Church, when I looked across at an old building I knew. Personally. I found a pay telephone and called my mentor in Virginia, who had once lived in Newport. “The house you restored in Newport, was it near the corner of the Trinity churchyard?” “Yes, it was,” John replied. “How did you know?”

“I was just standing in front of it, and it felt familiar,” I replied. “It looked like the embroidered picture in your hallway.”

This sort of coincidence frequently happens when I am at a crossroads in my consciousness: my neurons seem to fire in every direction, looking for links between past memories to make sense of present experiences. Sometimes I only become aware of the connections in retrospect.

Such a coincidence occurred later in that trip, when several other students and I decided to take advantage of a cool clear evening by traversing the Cliff Walk. High on the bluff over the rocky shoreline, we passed through an incredible stand of milkweed–Asclepius syriaca–in full bloom. I felt compelled to sketch it, despite the narrowness of the trail and the annoyed glances of other hikers as I shifted to let them pass. Knowing I had little time, and eager to catch up to my companions who had gone ahead of me, but reluctant to leave without recording the delicate star-shaped inflorescences exploding in a perfect globe-shaped umbel. I felt a fragment of the pressure that was familiar to Sydney Parkinson, struggling to record as many new species as possible before the specimens withered on his drawing board. I reveled in it. In that moment, I felt my purpose shifting, away from architecture and toward something new. Whether it was art, or ecology, I could not say.

It was only two years later, as I stood in the Zoology reading room of the Natural History Museum in London with Parkinson’s self-portrait on the table before me, that the librarian handed me a recent press release about the discovery of the wreck of the Endeavour in Newport harbor.  After her epic circumnavigation ended in 1771, the ship had been refitted and repurposed as a transport vessel, carrying British troops to North America during the American War of Independence. Ultimately, she was scuttled in Newport harbor. The remains of the cabin where Parkinson died lay beneath the water, just a sight distance from where I had stood sketching the milkweed in my first real awareness of the scope and importance of his life’s work.

If the summer of 2004 felt like a strange one, it is perhaps because it marked a convergence in my consciousness, between my past, present, and future selves. I became disillusioned with the politics of architectural preservation, but discovered another course for my intersecting interests in art, history, anthropology, and the natural world. I am now the keeper of a small natural history collection at a local college; I am involved with a local art collaborative; I occasionally teach courses on natural history illustration; and I work with college students on research projects ranging from field biology and archaeology, to archival research, to physical and cultural anthropology. (My own degree was in Heritage Studies). Eleven years later, the course I embarked upon when I followed in the wake of Sydney Parkinson is a course which inspires me still.

Sketch of milkweed flower (Asclepias syriaca) by Emily Patton Smith, 2004.
Sketch of milkweed flower (Asclepias syriaca) by Emily Patton Smith, 2004.

Why Sydney Parkinson?

Sydney Parkinson (1745?-1771), a Scottish artist from a Quaker family, is best known as the scientific illustrator of James Cook’s first circumnavigation in HM Bark Endeavour. Over the course of the voyage, however, Parkinson also made topographical drawings and landscape views, portraits of indigenous peoples, and ethnographic studies; he kept an extensive journal of his observations, and made outstanding field notes regarding the languages, cultures, geography, and biodiversity of the Pacific.

After his death of malaria on the return voyage, Parkinson’s drawings, written works and natural history collections became the subject of a property rights dispute between his employer, the botanist Joseph Banks, and his surviving brother, Stanfield Parkinson. Many of Parkinson’s original papers–including his manuscript journal–were subsequently lost, and his collections were dispersed, many without trace. Some have been, and undoubtedly will continue to be, rediscovered in public and private collections throughout the world.

Why is Parkinson’s work of interest? On a personal level, his story incorporates  my many interests: natural history, cultural anthropology, linguistics, maritime history, scientific illustration, and museum studies, to name just a few. But taking a broader view, Parkinson’s work is relevant because it offers insight about the nature of discovery on an individual level. Nearly everything he saw and drew and wrote about over the course of the Endeavour voyage was entirely new to his experience; in many cases, he recorded things which were previously absent from the European consciousness. Like all explorers, he harbored preconceptions which colored his own understanding of what he witnessed. But in many cases, his preconceptions were shattered by what he saw, and his reaction to these devastating revelations altered history.

At our own point in history, we have an increasingly globalized outlook. An awareness of the factors which shape our understanding of environmental and cultural concerns is of utmost urgency, if we are to affect real and permanent change for the better. Parkinson’s history may be specific to one remarkable individual, but his legacy of inquiry and discovery has relevance for us all.

Emily Smith