This is one in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s colloquium topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.
The work of a Roman has again, like The Georgics, presented me with strikingly familiar ideas, written about today in all the papers and blogs and research reports, and yet well known to a writer in the 1st century A.D.
The twelve volumes of De Re Rustica, by Lucius J. M. Columella, offer what may be the most comprehensive account of Roman agriculture in existence. Through this work, Columella does not lyrically entertain nor pleasurably instruct his audience, but rather educates his readers, politically and practically. He believes, as Jefferson did nearly two thousand years later, that the practice of agriculture is perhaps the one “method of increasing one’s substance that befits a man who is a gentleman and free-born.” He recognizes the practice of agriculture as “the art of highest importance to our physical welfare and the needs of life.”
The work is rather like a grassroots organization’s guidebook, back when twelve volumes was perhaps the appropriate length for such a thing, and begins with a relatively brief raison d’etre, just as we would today:
– Columella laments the fact that “we think it beneath us to till our lands with our own hands, and we consider it of no importance to appoint as an overseer a man of very great experience.” He explains, “The common notion is now generally entertained and established that farming is a mean employment and a business which as no need of direction or of precept.”
– He worries about the migration of the population from country to city. “We have quit the sickle and the plough and have crept within the city-walls; and we ply our hands in the circuses and theatres rather than in the grainfields and vineyards.” He cites the initiation of importation, a clear result of the slothful activities of young men in the city. “We let contracts at auction for the importation of grain from our provinces beyond the sea, that we may not suffer hunger; and we lay up our stores of wine from the Cyclades Islands and from the districts of Baetica and Gaul.”
– He questions the lack of a single institution devoted to the education of farmers. He attests, in defense of the material to be learned, “For my part, when I review the magnitude of the entire subject, like the immensity of some great body, or the minuteness of its several parts, as so many separate members, I am afraid that my last day may overtake me before I can comprehend the entire subject of rural discipline.”
Finally, the author embarks upon his own, detailed education of those who wish to pursue agriculture. “One who devotes himself to agriculture should understand that he must call to his assistance these most fundamental resources: knowledge of the subject, means for defraying the expenses, and the will to do the work.” When choosing land, “two considerations are of chief importance – the wholesomeness of the climate, and the fruitfulness of the region; and if either of these were wanting and one had none the less the desire to live there, he had lost his senses and should be turned over to his legal guardians.”
And the instruction goes on. Forever. Most succinct and poetic of all is the following little passage, on fertility, and mortality, in man, and in nature:
“It is a sin to suppose that Nature, endowed with perennial fertility by the creator of the universe, is affected with barrenness as though with some disease; and it is unbecoming to a man of good judgment to believe that Earth, to whose lot was assigned a divine and everlasting youth, and who is called the common mother of all things…has grown old in mortal fashion. And furthermore, I do not believe that misfortunes come upon us as a result of the fury of the elements, but rather, because of our own fault.”