This is the first 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.
Nine years of Latin courses – long years of conjugations, translations, and interpretations – did not once shine light upon The Georgics. The poems we read were about love, and war, politics, and the gods, and deceit. The epics were about love, and war, politics, and the gods, and deceit. The common portrayals of Roman meals emphasized the bare breasts of the women and the lounging comfort of the men, dangling grapes over their mouths, pouring another glass of wine. There was a story here and there of a young man leaving his plow for the sword, or the war hero returning to his fields after victory. But these were stories of strength and manhood; of the beauty of bloodshed, and the power of military strength.
We did learn of the prominent gods charged with agriculture, grain, and growth: Ceres (Demeter), and her daughter Proserpina (Persephone). Theirs was the story of the seasons. Their tale told of how Proserpina had been kidnapped by Pluto (Hades) and taken to the Underworld, where she had eaten of his food – the pomegranate seed – and so was forced to return to him for a certain period each year. During this annual time her mother caused plants to die, and would not allow the earth to fruit. Proserpina’s return to her mother each year signaled the return of fertility, the bursting of buds, and the sprouting of seedlings: the beginning of Spring.
This is all a Latin student of today might learn of farming in Ancient Rome. And I’m sure a student of modern agriculture would learn little more of ancient practices. Yet Roman agriculture was perhaps as primitive as Roman architecture. Farming was in ancient times, as it is now, the basis of human existence.
Virgil wrote The Georgics in 29 B.C.E. Reading this poem more or less makes up for nine years of silence on the soil and the seeds, and the gods with their celestial signals for agricultural action. Virgil instructs his readers – in verse, no less – on the correct time and manner for sowing each type of seed, the type of hills over which to guide one’s sheep, and the care with which to keep and honor bees. He offers not only detailed direction but too the myth behind the need to slay a two-year-old calf when one’s bees die off.
As city dwellers of the 21st century plant their urban farms and build their green roofs, as new small farmers crop up throughout the United States, as peoples throughout the world attempt to achieve food sovereignty and end their dependence upon profoundly destructive inputs – as agriculture attempts to embrace the ecological systems by which it functions – the knowledge we need is hardly different than that which Virgil offers. We would do well to learn from books like this one.
The following passage details instructions very much the same as those taught today in New York:
Next I come to the manna, the heavenly gift of honey.
Look kindly on this part too, my friend. I’ll tell of a tiny
Republic that makes a show well worth your admiration –
Great-hearted leaders, a whole nation whose work is planned,
Their morals, groups, defences – I’ll tell you in due order.
For a start you must find your bees a suitable home, a position
Sheltered from wind (for wind will stop them carrying home
Their forage), a close where sheep nor goats come butting in
To jump on the flowers, nor blundering heifer stray to flick
The dew from the meadow and stamp its springing grasses down.
But mind there’s a bubbling spring nearby, a pool moss-bordered,
And a rill ghosting through the grass:
See, too, that a palm or tall oleaster shadow the entrance,
For thus, when the new queens lead out the earliest swarms –
The spring all theirs – and the young bees play, from hive unprisoned,
The bank may be handy to welcome them in out of the heat
(Book Four, Lines 1-27)