Histories of sustainability have typically situated the origins of our current environmental crises at the advent of industrialism, as if locating a moment in time when things were otherwise might help to remediate our current ecological crises derived from human-induced forms of destruction: air pollution, deforestation, and others. All of these histories, that is, and for obvious and very good reasons, take as their concern large-scale practices especially rooted in moments of rupture when human practices overreach.
I propose here that we might more usefully approach sustainability, however, by taking a step back, moving from the global to the local, as they say, to focus instead on smaller-scale practices, or “micro-practices” that inform what Rosi Braidotti describes as “sustainable becoming,” or “the ethical state of becoming [that] practices a humble kind of hope, rooted in the ordinary micro-practices of everyday life” (Transpositions. Maiden: Polity, 2006: 137).
Early modern receipt books express and enact the very principles of sustainability that our histories attempt to recuperate, the “micro-practices” of the everyday; their details recount an embeddedness of human and nonhuman things, the sort of mutual dependence that sustainability initiatives today aim to recuperate and reproduce. The creation and efficacy of the recipes we find in these books depend not on discrete human/nonhuman entities but instead on the intimate “micro-practices” that constitute human/nonhuman collaborations, as we see in a recipe from the Lady Frances Catchmay book, “A very good medicen for eyes that be trobled wth a pinne and web be or with any other dymnes” (12r):
Take the oyle of a new layd egge or two, beate and clappe it well till it come to afrothe, then let it stande for a little while, and let the oyle rune into a saucer, and put the juce of daysies, with the blossomes, leaves and rootes, beinge stamped and strained into the oyle of the egges, put alittle clarified honey to it and mixt all thes together well, and let the patient take every eveninge and morninge into his eye that is greaved adroppe put in with a fether, let this be used so longe as he hathe payne.
The person preparing the remedy uses a “new layd egge or two,” which means that the cure depends on the immediacy of time, participation (at least tacit) by the chickens who produce said egg/s, human movement across ground, into henhouse to gather it. And how “new” is a “new layd egg”? Is it still warm? Can it be several hours or even days old? To know what constitutes “new layd” to prepare the medicine requires the housewife (in all likelihood) to have such intimate knowledge of egg and chicken—touching the warmth of the egg newly delivered, observing the point at which eggs go bad and are no longer fresh enough for the cure; the egg “beate[n]” and “clappe[d]” incorporate egg matter, mixing bowl, and human energy to create the new substance the resulting “frothe.” And to “put the juce of daysies, with the blossomes, leaves and rootes, beinge stamped and strained into the oyle of the egges” not only synthesizes said egg-bowl-human mingling with plant matter, but it depends on the recent human harvest of daisies, which requires human form to cross household threshold into adjoining environs (immediate or further afield) to pick fresh daisies so that they might still have juice to be strained. And again, as human feet traverse the dirt- or gravel-covered pathways outside, sights and sounds of nonhuman activity penetrate human bodily boundaries—a wooden stamper encircled by human hands “stampe[s] and straine[s]” the various parts of the daisies, daisy juice (roots, leaves, and all) mingles with frothy oil of egg mixture.
This recipe illustrates how humans and nonhumans are bound to one another in yet other ways too. The clarified honey added to the plant-egg froth recalls multiple forms of the interdependency of bee and human labor: bees gather pollen, some wild-growing and some perhaps human-cultivated, which combines with the enzymes in their saliva to activate the substance we know as honey; the honey, probably extracted from a hive (or skep, perhaps itself made of plant material) built by humans, becomes the golden, sticky substance by way of its production and storage in combs; it is then harvested and “clarified,” which would have involved separating the liquid honey from the wax and residual pollen. And after mixing yet again, the resulting concoction is “put in” the patient’s “greaved” eyes (morning and evening) “with a feather,” such that human and nonhuman animals and plants intra-act to perform the cure.
Rather than focusing on geologic indicators of fissure between humans and nonhumans or destructive large-scale practices that seem to precipitate them, we might turn our attention to alternative narratives, alternative subjects. A focus on the “micro-practices” in receipt books illustrate intimate human-nonhuman relationships in the past that challenge dominant histories of sustainability; after all, household cookery and medicine was, even if driven by necessity more than a romantic sensibility, sustainable all along.