The Visitor

He comes just on the edge of darkness, racing the brooding clouds that impend over the landscape. The visitor.

He has neither form, nor face; no voice or footstep. Although a constant traveler he carries neither rucksack nor staff. He hastens as nimbus and cirrus impress on his gilded vestiges.

No phone call, no email, no text alerts one to his sudden presence. Yet nothing is more pleasant than his immediate and ubiquitous stealth. Upon arrival he asks neither for bread nor wine, nor salt; we needn’t remove his sandals and annoint his feet, for he has none.

He is loved by all, a metaphor for the poets of life, of the eyes, of wisdom. Dutch masters tried to imprison him in their paintings over three hundred years ago; he escaped, though some claim that Vermeer still holds him in thrall through a window. One of his disciples was once turned into an Ass by Apuleius, but Isis redeemed him. Others will tell you tales of his birth, such as that God spoke him into being through fiat. The Greeks say it is good to be in him, as though he were an ocean in which we all bathe.

Over time he has kept good company. He imbibes ambrosia with Apollo, who sometimes drives the vehicle that conveys him on his regular peregrinations; he lives with dies, the Roman day, cousin of Dios, brother of the nominative Zeus; he is cognate with enlightenment, elucidate, photosynthesis, and lucid. And his temperament is among the most generous that you will ever encounter of any visitor that you will ever host. He will give your plants life. He will give you warmth and vision. He will not only clothe you, but your home, your land, and your friends in the most lovely apparel. And he will accessorize everything in a mellow glow to render even the lowliest of structures sublime.

The effects of his visit can be so potent that the clouds become flush with an afterglow of their grey modesty violated, brushed with the lingering tatters of his crimson garments . .

. . . and stunned into a silent, admiring wonder.

 

Menin aeide thea (Sing, goddess, sing raging madness): Homer, Potatoes, and Ethnic Cleansing.

Sing goddess, sing the raging madness of Achilles

Rage that sent many a fighter soul to Hades

And made them carrion flesh for dogs and all the birds . . .

I never thought it boded well for humanity that the first word in western literature was menis, the Greek word for raging madness, and that it portended even worse that it is embedded in a military context. Hesiod, Homer’s rough contemporary, augurs no better when he tells us in the Theogony that in the beginning there was Eris, Strife. Strife and rage – and it only went down hill from there after the 8th century BC. I bring this up because today finds me in the midst of a fierce conflict against the nation of voles. No, they did not kidnap my wife as Paris did Helen, bride of Menelaus, King of Sparta (the event that precipitated the Trojan War). Worse. They ate my potatoes, the tuber that launched a thousand ships.

So we were forced to bring in our potatoes about three weeks earlier than we wanted, because a survey showed about a 15% loss rate and we figured to stem the loss it was better to bring in the potatoes now while young rather than wait. It turned out to be a good call because we had a great mix of new potatoes whose virtue is their creaminess, with some larger tubers, and harvested somewhere between 75-90lbs of tubers off of about 150 square feet of row.

It put me in such a tizzy that all I could think about was genocide against the voles. I would need to do to them what Caesar had done to the Tencteri and Usipetes, or at the very least, repeat Trajan’s ethnic cleansing of Dacia a la AD 106. Mures delendi aunt! (“The mice must be destroyed!” [sorry Cato!]). So, without further ado, I give you the vole wars of AD 2012 . . .

Commentarii Stefani De Bello Murium in Campo (Steve’s Field Mouse War Commentaries).

All my farm is divided into three parts, vegetation we want, animals we want, and pests. Of these the burrowing mammals are by far the most pernicious and themselves are divided into several tribes – voles (various types of field mice), ground squirrels, rabbits, moles, and gophers. Now the kingdom of voles had long since encroached on the imperium of the garden, and Steve! in his clemency, had long tolerated their presence. He had, for a long space, tolerated their raids on his lettuce. Their incursions against his spinach had grieved him and his forbearance was much tested. But their latest knavery had proved too much and Steve! decided that their misdeeds must be punished.

The first action taken was to get as many of his potatoes within the city walls as possible. To that end, Steve and Lori evacuated the first row to safety, with losses of approximately 15%. In the end we managed to get approximately 100lbs to safety, and the injured were also evacuated, many willingly sacrificing themselves as fodder for our chickens and dog.

The wounded and dead await evacuation from the field of battle. Please use discretion with children in showing these horrifying images.

The next action was to muster our forces for counter-attack. “Sing to me now oh you Muses who dwell in Olympus’ halls, for you are everywhere and know all things . . .” There was MoleGo of the Great Castor Oil Stench, stalwart, of brazen heart and odor foul; Puck, Chewer of Voles, deep digger, dog stout of heart and stupid of head, stood ready to go paw to talon with the foe; Propane Dragon Burner, burner of holes, dealer of flame and death stood ready for the fray; Lori, Wrangler of Birds, goddess of taters, stood in full panoply, her eyes burning fire and rage at the desecration of her starchy shrine; Darius and Xerxes, brave felines with screech mighty and claws which sat in array like a serried row of hoplites in gleaming armor stood at the ready, two cats that had sent many a vole soul to underworld gloom and the shades below.

Lori wages war on the field of battle, while in the front safely evacuated refugee potatoes await transfer to a relocation center.

Before heading into battle, Steve! addressed the army in the following terms (with apologies to Thucydides and Tacitus):

“I shall begin with our potatoes, for it is both just and proper that they should have the honor of first mention on such an occasion. They grew in a soil that was amended from heavy clay to loam, growing from small tubers to big. But what was the process by which they went from small seed tubers, to multiple roots ranging from small to big? I begin my panegyric with taters, for I think it a subject upon which on the present occasions a speaker might properly dwell.

“Our garden does not copy the constitution of other neighboring farms; we are a pattern to others rather than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors many crops rather than a few; this is what is called diversity. If we look to our cultivation, it affords equal growth to all crops maintaining their private differences. If a plant is able to grow, it is not hindered by the obscuring of its leaves. The freedom our plants enjoy in growth extends to the delight it gives in its eating. Far from exercising jealous competition with each other, we do not feel called upon to favor one vegetable over another for growing as it likes, each in its own way.

“Further, we provide plenty of refreshment for our crops. We give organic fertilizer and diligently water the season round, while the magnitude of our garden draws pollinators from all the fields around, so that this garden is as familiar with the bees and humming birds of other farms as with those if its own.

“Nor are these the only points in which our garden is worthy of admiration. We cultivate vegetables without extravagance and flowers without effeminacy; fruit we grow more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of failed crop not in owning to the fact but in failing to struggle against it. The enemy appreciates none of this: to chew, to nibble, to gnaw, they call by the false name livelihood, and where we make a garden they eat our peas.

Perhaps the most iconic image from the war; Lori conducts mopping up operations on the desolate battlefield at war’s end.

“In short, I say that we are the school of organic gardening, and I doubt if the world can produce a garden graced by so happy a versatility as our own. And this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but a simple matter of fact. Where the rewards for amending and watering regularly are greatest, there is found the best produce.

These words having been spoken, the siege engines were brought up, and the voles were given a chance to surrender “before the ram touched the wall”. When no parley was proffered, Steve! ordered his troops to mount the engines and deployed the left wing of his cavalry, scattering MoleGo on the right wing of the enemy flank near where the enemy had mined against his row. He then outflanked the enemy by deploying his MoleGo cavalry in reserve on his right with a full frontal assault.

The war’s hidden wounds: Puck will likely need years of therapy for the PTSD suffered from severe indigestion after devouring a live mouse.

Next, fire was brought in to destroy the enemy villages and dwellings scattered throughout the land, with Propane, burner of holes, deployed broadly. Lori, Wrangler of Birds, saw to the safety of the remaining potatoes, while Puck, Chewer of Voles, happily approached his commander with a mouse tale hanging out of his mouth, tail wagging. For his act of valor Steve bestowed upon Puck the corona muris servandis pomis terrae (the crown of the mouse for saving his potatoes).

The province was, for the moment secured . . .

 

 

Il Tramonto (‘The Sunset’ in Italiano)

The fall brings with it many things to which, for years, I have become accustomed. Syllabi for classes. Chalk. The hurried rush of printing up lecture notes. The mayhem of students in my office for last minute or over-anxious advising. The sudden appearance of proofs for publication at the least convenient moment. The barbaric sounds of the marching band practicing near our department for football halftimes. School. Since 1969 (except for brief interludes in 1981-2 and 1984-5), fall has meant the approach of the academic year; even on sabbatical or during my graduate student time abroad the rhythm was always present. But for the first time this year it has ceased to have the same, indeed, any meaning.

For the first time I can recall, I am living not on the artificially imposed clock of the academic calendar, but on the real clock. The clock that belongs to creation, to the gods, to the stars and the winds, to the rains, the heat, the cold, the mist, the fall colors; to the rhythms of mating, of birth, of increase, of maturity, and of death. Our day now starts with Suleyman’s crowing and the early bleating of our goat kids crying for oats and alfalfa. It feels so grounding and so real – much more so than the artificial deadlines for publications or professional conferences, of committee meetings, of grade submissions, midterms, and finals. That is the calendar of our making, and in so making often conceive, subconsciously, that we are above the Earth rather than of it. We impose upon it, master it, control our time, our calendar, our lives.

But we are not above it: we are the Earth’s subjects; its slaves who are subject to mistress Gaia; we are in bondage like Attis to the Great Mother. There is a dreadful urgency that engulfs us this time of year that Her plants ripen their fruit, that the birds grow fat for winter slaughter, that the hay be brought in – for life to come to fruit and perpetuate. Wind destroying the corn you’ve tended and labored over for three months and that is about to ear up makes one realize the triviality over anything else. In our years at the coast the eternal din of breaking ocean was a reminder of nature’s presence, but today the constant roar of engines in the vineyards and hay fields aptly mirrors the pressing hum of bees gathering pollen as each species, bee, pumpkin, human, go about the difficult existential business of being or trying to be for another day.

The heat no longer lasts long during the day. From mid-July to mid-August you can bet that it won’t break until 6 PM. Three days ago we reached 102, but by 4 PM the heat had broken and quickly plummeted to 80. By the time we were putting the animals to bed we were cold. The sunset and cold made me think of fall, and all that it had meant in the past, and now no longer means. There is no academic calendar for me now: no early warning grades, no midterms, no semi-weekly faculty meetings. Like Ecclesiastes, there are only times to sow, times to reap, times to feed, times to breed, times to birth, times to water, times for tending, times for death. We wait for our corn ears to plump up, our pumpkins to turn orange, our tomatoes to ripen up and grow ruddy, our hens to start laying. It is a calendar both sacred and astronomical, determined by Ceres and the rising and setting of constellations.

The turkeys are giving Suleyman the rooster some apoplexy, as their size challenges his auctoritas among his harem of hens – his crowing is now constant.

A makeshift shelter of hay and straw bales along with some plywood is enough to make these gobblers safe and happy.

Fall brings to mind thoughts now of death. Not simply because one is so used to the leaves falling from trees, not just the barrenness of the landscape (though winter often appears fruitful and lush in the Northwest compared to the monotonous grey of the Northeast), but because one starts to think of the “harvest” of the creatures one has tended for holiday dinners. The term “harvest” is used, not just for apples, beets, and squash, but for ducks, turkeys, and other animals in general, a euphemism for slaughter (along with the term “processing”). The time for the harvest of our ducks and turkeys approaches. This past week we put our five turkeys on pasture. They will have a short hopefully happy life out on grass as they fatten for the holidays. Some we will smoke, some we will brine and roast; they are a heritage breed and should “dress” at 35-50 pounds. That is, of course, if the coyotes don’t breach our electric fence, and they don’t fly off – they’ve already escaped once this week, but Lori, Wrangler of Birds (her current Homeric epithet), was able to get them all back behind the electric poultry netting. They are five birds in 1600 square feet as opposed to standard processors who put 1600 birds in 5 square feet (admittedly an exaggeration, but not by much).

A death of sorts will also be visited upon me this fall. This year I am no longer “Professor Rutledge” the ancient historian and Latinist; I am no longer solely identified with my interest in Greco-Roman society. Now I am a farmer. For the moment, until or if I ever resume teaching, my identity as a Classicist has receded. The specialist in ancient rhetoric, in visual culture, in ancient Roman politics and law, the teacher of Latin, the Tacitean scholar, is gone. A new identity has been assumed as a steward of the land; no metamorphosis could be more drastic, or more apt, I think. If life is, as Proust observed, a series of deaths to oneself, this is perhaps its most stark expression.

All of this was on my mind during sunset the other night, as the chickens scratched, the goats bleated for their oats, the turkeys clucked. The wind picked up, the sun bathed the countryside in warm light, and a chill emerged: the chill of fall, of death’s hand, of the catipillar emerging from a warm cocoon into a new form.

Lori, Wrangler of Birds, and disciple of Ceres displays the last gasp of cherries in our summer garden.

Unexpected Surprises: The Crying Game, Strawberry Fields Forever, Socrates, and Suleyman the Magnificent.

There have been two rather unexpected surprises on the farm this week, to wit:

Ahem. Well, Saturday morning I heard a strange noise from the chicken coop but couldn’t be sure what I heard but was 85% certain it was something I shouldn’t be hearing. In May we received our peeps – 25 brown egg laying hens with two extra thrown in for good measure, including one of exotic breed that I’m not sure but pretty sure might be a Japanese Silky. We’ll see. Now sexing chicks is by no means a perfect art and the hatcheries are bound to makes some errors, and I’ve been straining these past two mornings to hear what I thought I heard on Saturday. On Tuesday morning we were not disappointed. Our Silver Laced Wyandotte emerged from the coop with a healthy and hearty “Rrrh- Rh-Rh-Rrh-Rrrrrh!” which proceeded to go on for three minutes (translation – “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!”), so, Henny Penny turns out to be Henry Penny, and with 26 gals to service (which is about the right ratio for rooster to hen), he’s going to be busy. But I was nonplussed and felt like a character out of The Crying Game!

Suleyman makes the rounds in an early morning strut around his miniature Ottoman Empire.

We don’t mind having the rooster, a wonderful bird with an illustrious history. In Classical antiquity it is often found on Greek vases as a gift presented by an older man to his youthful boy-lover. At the ancient oracle at Delphi a statue of Apollo had a rooster at its feet, symbolic of the dawn and of Apollo’s association with the sun (according to Plutarch). It was also a bird given as an offering to the god Aesculapius when one was cured of an illness. Indeed, Socrates’ last words in the Phaedo (Plato’s dialogue about the afterlife that includes Socrates’ death) were, “Oh by the way Crito, we owe a rooster (alektruon in ancient Greek) to Aesculapius; see that you not neglect to release this vow” (in Socrates’ case the significance of the remark is that the life and the body is a disease of the soul of which he was being cured).

The name for our rooster was, in the end, a no brainer. After smacking down Lori’s suggesting for Bill Clinton and Lori smacking down mine for Commodus, we’ve named him Suleyman the Magnificent, the great Turkish sultan who ruled from 1520-1566, longest ruling of the sultans and the first to marry a wife from his harem. We figured since he will preside over a harem of hens that the name of a sultan or caliph would be appropriate, and he is magnificent by virtue of being, well, our rooster, so Sulyeman the Magnificent. We suspected for a while that she was a he, and the cross dressing with the comb and red wattles should have been the give-away. The good news here is that we shouldn’t need to buy any replacement chickens again unless we want to get into more exotic breeds.

Suleyman pauses for a reflective moment before he resumes pecking at a corn husk.

Another surprise: the 45 or so strawberry plants we put in include a number that are apparently late bearing and are giving us plenty of fruit right now. This on top of cherries and blueberries (which thankfully are almost finished), and a load of apple, plum, grape, and pear trees that are pending in about a month to six weeks.

Strawberries await sugar and cream on our windowsill for breakfast.

Apart from that, we are in our classic drought period here in the west and we know we could still be looking at October even November before any rainfall, so water continues to be an issue. On the very up side, in addition to living off of our fruit we now have enough potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beets, and other assorted greens to live out of our garden for the foreseeable future. Another discovery this week – chickens are quite fond of zucchini, Suleyman included!

 

Il Calore (The Heat).

Mr. Puckles is laid low by the Dog Star Sirius who saw fit to elevate our temperature from its normal Paradise range of 70-80 to a whopping 102 (a record) today.

I remember my first time in Italy as a graduate student. It was the summer of 1994 and the Italians were having a tremendous heat wave. It was still a time in Italy when there was almost no air conditioning except in McDonalds and the banks. I was in a program at the American Academy in Rome – their summer program for graduate students in ancient art and archaeology – and I spent most of June going to archaeological sites in the region around Rome and the Bay of Naples, then spent the last week of June and all of July digging at a place called Fragellae near the modern town of Ceprano, about two thirds of the way between Rome and Naples just off the Autostrada. We were digging ancient Roman houses of a site that had been first colonized by the Romans, but that later rebelled against Rome under mysterious circumstances in 125 BC (perhaps as a precursor to the massive rebellion that took place against Rome by her Italian and Latin allies between 91 and 89 BC), and was brutally destroyed.

I’ll never forget the experience of excavating there because it was one of the few times I ever dug at an ancient site and it cured me of my desire ever to pursue archaeology professionally (I appreciate archaeology’s importance, but I just don’t find the actual practice very interesting, and am happy to leave it to others). I’ll also never forget it though, because I had the time of my life with all of the Italians and Spaniards who took part in the dig, although I found my fellow American graduate students to be less than gracious guests, and in fact they tended to be rude and down right spoiled. But it was in the nature of boot camp, and not for everyone. We were housed men and women together, in a school cafeteria where we set up a bunch of rather flimsy matresses. There was no air conditioning and no fan, and this is where we slept. There were two bathrooms for about 30-40 of us. Showers were cold because they took place at a local public soccer stadium that was less than modern.

The pace of the whole affair was rather rigorous, in part because of the heat. We would get up at 5:30 AM, grab a quick shot of espresso and a hunk of bread with butter and jam, and then car pool on over to the site and be there by 6 AM. Because it was rescue archaeology (directed by none other than Filippo Coarelli, perhaps the biggest name in ancient Roman archaeology), we were not working with tooth brushes and gentle methods, but with pick axes, wheelbarrows, and jack hammers. We would take a short break at around 10 AM and grab some fresh fruit and cold pizza or bread. Then it was back to work until 1:00 PM, at which point we hopped back into the cars, went to the soccer stadium for our showers, and then headed back to the school for lunch – usually a cold salad (like bread and tomato or bean and tuna), lots of bread, big jugs of cold white wine, and more fruit. After 1:00 it was simply too hot to work, so lunch and siesta time lasted until around 4:00 PM, at which point we would catalog our finds; around 5-6:00 PM we’d head to town on foot to get beer and maybe watch some bad Italian TV in the local bar or soccer, then at 8 PM it was time for dinner, usually pasta and bread and wine. After that it was time for bed, though sometimes all these young people, including myself, would head to the bar and not hit the hay until 11 or 12. All of this in the grueling Italian heat.

And the work was physically backbreaking – consisting of digging and hauling enormous amounts of earth. Accommodations were rough on site as well, where there was no bathroom, something my fellow grad students did not take well to at all, though I just looked at it as camping and always came prepared! (There was a large sheep pasture nearby, and I recall one morning one of my fellow grad students coming to me whining, “Hey, you know what, I just asked Angelo where there was a bathroom and he just laughed and said i prati – what’s i prati mean?” And I said “Nick, it means the fields”, to which he replied, “You’re kidding right?”. “No, we’ve been using the field for weeks” I replied. “Well, what’d you use for toilet paper” he asked. “Nick”, I said, “I’ve been carrying tissues in my pocket for weeks, I come prepared”.)

Okay, TMI (or, as my niece says, I’m “over-sharing”). At any rate, by the end of my eight weeks in Italy, I must say I was in the best physical condition I have been in before or since (except for possibly now). I had been only wearing khaki shorts and hiking boots when I dug and was tanned, muscular, and bleached blond. When my wife Lori arrived in Rome (we spent August traveling in Italy together), she barely recognized me and was most pleased with the results! Most of all though, even though we did not work in the heat of the day, it was still always hot, and something happened to my internal temperature monitor that really helped me to cope with the heat for years after. Add to this that in September I started at the American School for Classical Studies in Athens, and proceeded to spend a very hot fall walking through substantial portions of mainland Greece. My internal thermometer was reset. For years after I would think nothing of going for an afternoon power walk in the DC heat, or running around ancient sites in at the height of summer in the heat of the day often in jeans (part of my reason for so doing was that in the Mediterranean there is always an historic church or mosque to see, and I always believe the sanctity of holy sites should be respected out of deference to the beliefs of others).

Fast forward now to 2007. That was the first year we started to spend summers in Oregon, and on the coast no less. Mark Twain once said that the longest winter he ever experienced was his summer in San Francisco – the same could be said for any number of communities on the Oregon Coast. My internal thermometer has now been reset once again. In Maryland when it was hot there was always AC. On the Oregon Coast there is no need. But today we find ourselves in the valley, where it is over 100. We have no AC because it’s hard to justify expenditure on it when 100 degree days, even 90 or 80 degree days, occur only about 6 weeks out of the year. Heat comes just after July 4th and is generally gone by August 15.

So no more working in the heat of summer as I did when I was a youthful 31. Today we obey the weather, and imitate the rhythm of the Mediterranean. We stop work outside at 11; we only go out at select intervals to check our animals and crops; and we do nothing between 2 and 5 PM, but take a cue from Puck, and rest under the shade of the trees, and make the day as restful as last week was hectic.