Monday, June 27, 2005

Ascraeumque cano...

...Romana per oppida carmen. (Georgics, II, 176)

A dear friend urges me, now that I’ve read Cato and Varro, to turn again to Virgil and the Georgics. I know I have the Slavitt translation around here somewhere... where? Where do the damn books go, the favorite ones, the ones you’d never lend or sell? Hesiod’s Works and Days, and Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues, both in the Slavett translation... nothing easier to find on the shelf .. I see how big they are, their white spines with the “handwritten” lettering: where the hell are they?

What does turn up, at least, is the C. Day Lewis translation, in the bilingual edition (Doubleday Anchor Original paperback): and when I open it, at random, that’s the line that jumps out at me:

Ascraeumque cano Romana per oppida carmen...

And I see it again on the blackboard where my enthusiastic TA in Latin wrote it out, with the strokes and horseshoes marking long and short syllables, and I remember his excitement at the line, long, long short short longshort /

- - uu - u / u - u u - uu - u
I’ll sing of farm things throughout Rome and her towns and her cities

C. Day, writing twenty years after the end of World War II, says:

The fascination of the Georgics for many generations of Englishmen is not difficult to explain. A century of urban civilization has not yet materially modified the instinct of a people once devoted to agriculture and stockbreeding, to the chase, to landscape gardening, to a practical love of Nature... It may, indeed, happen that this war, together with the spread of electrical power, will result in a decentralization of industry and the establishment of a new rural-urban civilization working through smaller social units. The factory in the fields need not remain a dream of poets and planners: it has more to commend it than the allotment in the slums.

How idealistic; how quaint. How very English, recalling Prince Charles’s speech to the assembled farmers and stockbreeders last October at the Slow Food-produced conference of smallholders from around the globe, when he addressed this very topic — though in a tone not quite so optimistic, closer in fact to despair.

Since Lewis wrote those lines industry, agriculture, indeed virtually all of modern civilization has become not rural-urban but urban-global. And if China can think of buying Unocal today, there’s no reason to believe she won’t soon be offering to buy General Foods, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland.

Is it just the Berkeleyan in me that thinks the only path of resistance is increased opting-out? I was encouraged a week ago to find, in Wisconsin, vital and apparently healthy producers of sustainably raised, chemical-free (or nearly so), seasonable products of local terroir eagerly sought by thousands of purchasers at Madison’s Sunday morning farm market. But of course this is a very special clientele: educated, discriminating, relatively prosperous. Privileged, in a word.

What must be done next is to extend these “values” beyond that circle: to the young, to the blue-collar, to people of color. I think such action must begin locally, starting in the rich suburban farms near college towns, demonstrating their economic viability, their healthfulness, and the joys of their flavors and fascinations to their own neighbors.

This is happening here in Healdsburg on Saturdays and Tuesdays; in Windsor on Sundays; in Sebastopol also on Sundays. There are farm markets in Santa Rosa and San Rafael and, famously, in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Such optimism can be contagious, I think. But then I’m perhaps as innocent as C. Day Lewis.

And I can’t find those Slavitt translations anywhere. Or my desk glasses either.

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