November 6, 2010

Gardens, Aging, and Classical Literature

The portrayal of gardens as real sanctuary, as metaphor and as imagery to provide exotic backgrounds has been a part of the heritage of literature throughout history (see Miller, 1982). For example, as Shorto (2008) has pointed out in his fascinating book, Descartes’ Bones, there is the “engraved image of a bearded man, dressed in tunic and tights, digging in a garden – the seeker after philosophical truth in the guise of a humble laborer?” (p. 14) on the first edition front cover of Descartes’s (1637) famous treatise, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Searching for Truth in the Sciences. Here we have the garden as a metaphor for cultivating the kind of food for that would provide sustenance to in the philosophical domain. However, for the purposes of this article I will present only a few exemplars to highlight the nexus.

In order to set the stage in this section, Marx (1985) has suggested an intriguing proposition that the bucolic setting, the pastoral world, and the role of gardener to be found in classical literature and poetry has been very much highly symbolic and associated with the later stages of life. That is, to garden is typically gerontological because the pastoral world was deemed to be separate from the “life of action” (vita activa) that was associated with young adulthood and middle stages of life which focused on the maintenance of life out in the world. In contrast, Marx (1985) claims that in old age there is a (necessary) retreat to the pastoral and a resulting renaissance in the mind and body by returning to the “natural world.” What is provocative about Marx’s analysis is how there appears to be the subtle hint of the traditional “disengagement theory” at work here, but what is emphasized more strongly is that the role of the “old shepherd” is to serve as a reservoir of wisdom separate and away from away from the corruptions and tribulations of the court and the city. Marx (2005) believes that the portrayal of old age in the pastoral domain was the needed to balance against the excesses of pleasure and play of “youthful Epicurism” (e.g., folly) so that the sense of responsibility and care was instilled in the chain of generations as a desired virtue in order to deal with the hardships and challenges of life, which inevitably would appear across the life course.

And so, we could perhaps begin with The Metamorphoses of Ovid or Hesiod’s Words and Days or Cicero’s On Old Age (Cato Maior de Senectute) to examine the nexus, but the I will propose that the proper starting point should be with Virgil’s Georgics.

Virgil (70BCE -19 BCE) wrote the poem Georgics (the word Georgics refers to primarily to “farming”) during the 30s BCE and most likely finished it in 29, just as the civil war between Octavian and Antony had finally come to an end. This would put Virgil at just over 40 years of age, and relatively speaking, at the peak of his senior status in the understanding of the life course at that time but perhaps not senectus yet (see Parkin, 2003). From one perspective, Georgics can be thought of as the middle grand publication of Virgil sandwiched in between Bucolics (or Eclogues) and what some consider his magnum opus, the Aeneid.

As Lembke (2005) has noted, “The poem {Georgics} is indeed a love song to almost everything that grows or gazes on the land.” Ferry (2005) proposed that Georgics “is one of the great songs, maybe the greatest we have of human accomplishment in the difficult circumstances of the way things are” (p. xiv). Georgics is Virgil’s call for a return to the land – to begin again – to reconnect to what made, from Virgil’s perspective, the Roman culture steadfast, prosperous, and virtuous. The poem is also didactic and very much a template and design for interacting with the land and being attentive to what Ferry (2005) noted as Virgil’s ability to engage the “ecstatic and tender celebrations of the very life in things,” and more importantly how these “celebrations” interact with human existence (see also Haarhoff, 1958). In the Georgics, one can appreciate Virgil’s attentiveness to the cycles of seasons, and to the changes in weather, and to the rhythms of the seasons and the cycle of birth and death, and the inevitable unfolding of sickness and aging. But of paramount importance, is that Virgil believes that humans are summoned to labor, and to engage with the land, so that a resulting broader cultural odyssey may flourish based on the core elements of farming. Through care of the land, we begin to care for each other, and from there follow the arts and cultural blossoming and the resulting the harvesting of another kind: poetry, art, music, sculptures, law, and ethics. The care of the land is essential and Lembke (2005) noted,

A message inhabits the instructions: only at our gravest peril do we fail to husband the resources on which out lived depend. That council is as valid for today and tomorrow as it was for long-gone yesterdays (p. xiii).

Of direct relevance to the theme in this paper, is the sub-story within the fourth Georgic which captures the exquisite writing of Virgil and message of reward that comes from care and cultivation based on an ethic of both labor and love. Here we meet an old man from Corycian who is at work on his small patch of land that was at one time not fertile enough to be plowed by oxen, but with his dedicated attention it has been transformed,

But this old man
Carefully planted white lilies, vervain, and poppies,
And different sorts of vegetables for his table,
And thus he made for himself a happiness
That was equal to the happiness of kings,
And when he came home at night his feast was free. 

The lines in this vignette, which appears in the middle of the Georgic primarily profiling beekeeping, is less didactic and more poetic in the sheer strength of the action and sensuality by use of vivid descriptions of the labor that is needed for all the seasons (see de Bruyn, 2004). It is believed that the old man was one of the re-settled pirates who was conquered by Pompey the Great in decades past, and Quint, (2006) has proposed in his review of the new translations of Georgics by Ferry (2005) and Lembke (2005) that,

“…the old gardener thus carries some of the poem’s political hopes as well as its ethical message. From a life of turmoil, he has settled into quiet usefulness and contentment, tamed by work and hardship, and even makes a thing of beauty in his flower garden, an analogue to the poem itself .” (p. 35).

An overarching theme throughout the Georgics is the didactic lesson of “as you sow, so shall you reap.” 5 It is a very much a parallel to the notion of karmic behavior that understands progress towards happiness and well-being is highly dependent on the service that you have rendered onto the land and to kith and kin, to neighbors and to community. And it all begins in your backyard. And this will examined in greater detail in the second node of this paper as I review Voltaire’s philosophy via Candide such that with all of the civil wars and political strife that swirled about and over the years, there can be a return to where it all begins: with the soil, the plants, and the animals. This serves as the cornerstone of civilization – that is, to care. To garden is to cultivate is to care and though it takes effort, labor, and sweat – the rewards and dividends are accrued by all. And so gardening is both vita activa and vita contempliva. Work and reflection. To reap and to sow. To attend to and to care – constantly. Harrison (2008) succinctly weaves these themes together,

“A human created garden comes into being in and through time. It is planned by the gardener in advance, then it is seeded or cultivated accordingly, and in due time it yields its fruits or intended gratifications. Meanwhile the gardener is beset by new cares day in and day out. For like a story, a garden has its own developing plot, as it were, whose intrigues keep the caretaker under more or less constant pressure. The true gardener is always ‘the constant gardener’” (p. 7)


1 comment:

  1. Interesting view on gardening! I began gardening at the age of eight so I don't relate so much to people taking up gardening in old age. I am a big proponent of gardening with children so that if interested they can develop this lifetime hobby.

    I totally agree with the emotional benefits, but based on my mother, she was not interested in gardening as a young adult and not interested in gardening in her independent living facility (they had a large greenhouse room where the residents could use their skills).

    This is pretty heavy reading, I think I would have to reread it several times to make the connections he tends to imply. Thanks Carolyn,



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