On Virgil's Georgics
by Ross Gay
Gardening with Virgil
I was in Soma, the local coffee shop here in town, when I ran into my friend Margaret, who was huddled over her computer with some books mounded up. Among her pile was Virgil's Georgics, which my friend Dave had been imploring me to read since I had started gardening. Slow as I am to advice sometimes, and locked into my own obsessions, I was still not yet sold. Though I mentioned it to Margaret, pointing—"My pal tells me I should read that."
Margaret, blazing now with Of courses and Absolutelys, snatched up her copy, a hard-cover with a beautiful Cy Twombly painting on the jacket, translated by Kimberly Johnson in such a way as to make bang in your ear and jangle your teeth all the whacking and clanging of those sickles clipping wheat and plows breaking up the rocky earth, with a syntax to match the vines winding and writhing into the topmost branches of the trees. The Georgics is a kind of agricultural handbook that deals with interpreting natural signs, caring for trees and vines, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. All of which to me are fascinating subjects.
Margaret, knowing about my gardening and my work with the Bloomington Community Orchard, a volunteer-run, publicly-owned, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project, flipped open her copy and pointed to these lines from the end of book one, the book that deals with the necessity of a farmer's being able to read signs cosmological and earthly:
Surely time will come when in those fields
the farmer drudging soil with his curved plough
will turn up scabrous spears corroded by rust
or with his heavy hoe strike empty helmets,
and gape at massive bones in upturned graves.
I was shocked. I had only recently learned that what is called conventional farming (but what is actually chemical farming) began following World War II, when the chemicals remaining from a surplus of munitions were converted into chemical fertilizer, supplying the much coveted Nitrogen (which, along with many other nutrients, in Virgil's time would have been returned to the earth just fine with manure). In other words, the chemicals that had been used to make bombs were now being used to grow "food".
And we can go a little further if we consider that these "innovations"—putting the stuff of war in the soil—undoubtedly led to former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz's famous dictum, "Get big or get out," which was itself a kind of warfare on small farmers that has made ghost towns of many communities across our country. My grandfather's farm in Minnesota, which was probably a few hundred acres, the food and money from which fed his family and many others besides, would now be considered a hobby farm. Not to mention that "planting fencerow to fencerow," again, made possible only by this war in the soil (and subsidies for a handful of crops), also led to stupidly innovative uses of corn: cattle feed, high fructose corn syrup, ethanol, etc.
Maybe I'm making of Virgil's lines a kind of anachronistic metaphor. Maybe I'm pulling my own concerns with the violences we do to the earth, the war we wage upon the earth and its inhabitants, in the name of agriculture, back a couple thousand years and pinning it on dear Virgil, who wasn't thinking this way. But Virgil's Georgics does, without doubt, reveal the fine line between the very powerful choices of farming and war. He was acutely aware of how easily feeding each other—this fundamental human behavior—could slip into its opposite: killing one another. And he was aware, as well, how the tools for farming and warfare were, more or less, the same. He concludes book one like this:
No rightful honour to the plough; the croppers commandeered,
soil weeds to rot; and hooked sickles are forged to rigid swords.
Here Euphrates roils up war, there Germany.
Their mutual treaties shattered, neighbored
cities take up arms. The impious war god savages the earth,
as when from the starting chariots surge
gaining speed lap by lap, and hauling vainly on the leathers
the teamster's hurtled onward by his horses, and the rig heeds not the reins.
"The war god" is savaging the earth indeed: Lake Erie a life-smothering algal field, the mouth of the Mississippi the same, thanks to nitrogen fertilizer run-off; endless acres of unsustainable crops sown, fertilized, pesticided, herbicided and harvested from the cabs of gigantic trucks; a permanent shift in the ecosphere, some geologists believe, from all the chemicals we've manufactured and pumped into our earth; it's getting hotter fast. Oh boy.
But it's Sunday morning, it's spring, and I don't feel like moaning. I'm going to plant the comfrey that I dug up from the community orchard around the fruit trees behind my little house—comfrey that will pull all kinds of nutrients from deep in the soil up to the surface, where the trees' feeder roots mostly are. I'm going to plant this little hillside running into the alley with strawberries to hold the soil and make some treats for me and the passersby. And I'm going to plant the applemint out near the blackberries and beneath the pear and peach to cover the ground and draw as many beneficial insects into my yard as I can. Plus I like tea, and some of my neighbors do too. Onions and potatoes go in today. And last night, into the dark, I prepped a bed that had become thick with dandelions and burdock and that beautiful wild mint I can never remember the name of but whose flowers make the bees' foreheads red. I just chopped the greens down, nibbling a leaf here and there of the dandelion, covered it all with some newspaper headed for recycling, and threw some composted horseshit and leaves on top. The greens will decompose and feed the soil; the paper, which I soaked, will suppress weed seeds and break down in no time; and the worms from the top and bottom will churn the whole thing into a heaven for the roots of my plants. Our beautiful little tillers.
But I'm still talking about Virgil! Hard to stay focused when the plum blossoms shake at me like that. When the asparagus pushes its long neck out of the soil. Just so you know, the last scene in the Georgics involves honey, and rebirth, and magic. Let's finish like that.