In my former life as an expert on the ancient Roman historian Tacitus, one of my favorite episodes from Tacitus’ works (specifically, the Annals) was the fall of the empress Messalina, wife of the emperor Claudius (AD 41-54). According to our sources, Messalina plotted against her aged husband, the emperor Claudius, with her adulterous paramour the consul, Gaius Silius. The plot took place in October, something we can say with some certainty since the wine harvest was in progress. She married Silius while the emperor was away in Ostia, Rome’s harbor; her marriage to Silius was tantamount to a declaration of divorce from the emperor, and an attempt to overthrow her old, inept, and alcoholic husband.
But the plot was denounced to Claudius in Ostia; he hastened back to Rome, where Messalina had already married Silius, and where the wedding party was celebrating a drunken, debauched Bacchanal. The Praetorians, the emperor’s personal bodyguard, arrested those involved in the plot: Silius was arrested in the Forum and executed. Messalina, uncertain of her next move, tried to escape in a cart full of garden refuse (purgamenta hortorum). She wandered through the city alone, though at one point attempted to gain an audience with her husband. But Claudius’ freedmen – i.e., his personal staff of Greek secretaries – controlled access to the emperor, and did not allow her to see him. They knew he loved her, and that he would be lenient towards her; she, in turn, would exact her revenge on the freedmen who had been involved in the denunciation of her conspiracy. It was a life and death struggle. She was forced to take refuge at her mother’s house, since she had been abandoned by all of her friends. Meanwhile Claudius, drunk and in his cups, signed her death warrant. A centurion was sent to offer her a dagger, but she couldn’t find the nerve to use it and was transfixed by the centurion’s sword. In a scene of high pathos, the alcohol addled emperor the next evening asked to see his wife, not realizing that she had already paid Charon his due, and was adrift on the gloomy Stygian wave.
Garden rubbish (purgamenta horti) awaits disposal, with no empress hiding underneath!
There was no reason for me to have any of this on my mind Wednesday – we are in the midst of a very busy time, putting the garden to bed and harvesting (still!), as well as thinking about breeding our goats and getting involved in some local food and hunger projects. But it was all suddenly brought to my mind as I was cleaning out the garden, looking at a cart full of garden rubbish, and suddenly, for some odd reason, I flashed on Messalina’s attempted flight in a cart filled with similar rubbish, probably one full of leavings from a summer garden being put to bed during the fall by one of Rome’s many public slaves.
So, October, the wine harvest, carts full of trash, adultery at the imperial court, Farming can create odd connections sometimes, especially for those of us with past lives.
A goat’s eye view of garden detritus otherwise known to goats as lunch (no nightshades please)!
Cleaning out the garden and filling the cart is not the only task we accomplished this week. In preparation for cleaning out the summer garden we picked our last bit of veggies from it, though we still have half of our garden under cultivation devoted to winter production and cover crop – oats on one half, and carrots, potatoes, onions, cabbage, and assorted greens on the other half. It was butt-kicking, rump-stomping work, and was even worse Thursday since we needed to rototill the rows we cleaned and then sow them with cover crop for the winter to fix plenty of nitrogen for the spring. (Green manure – it’s a miracle!). That means wrestling with heavy machinery (I used a hand-held motorized rototiller), and raking in the seed once it’s sown, work that only could have been designed by Blisterius, the god of, well, blisters.
We hung the tomatoes up in our shed barn to ripen as well – we suspended entire plants from nails and also hung our basil to dry, which also makes the whole barn fragrant and keeps away pests. Our ducks, the Kakhi Campbells, are now out on pasture too, and we somehow managed to install 24” chicken wire fence on Wednesday to keep them in (we had fencing already, but the gaps in it were big enough for them to walk right through).
Khaki Campbells about to be released to pasture: eggs we hope by spring.
I am amazed at how frenetic October is – pressing cider, which we did on Monday, making tomato sauce, putting in corn and sunflower seed and all manner of other fruit such as melons for the birds: it’s incredible. There is a synergy reflected in the behavior of the insects – the yellow-jackets have become more active; fruit flies plague us constantly; and the lady-bugs have hatched out in swarms, a last gasp of fall’s abundance in the face of winter’s scarcity.
The apples take particular attention. Pressing cider (five gallons) took all day Monday, even with an automatic juicer, but so far so good – we threw it into a bucket and mixed in 2 pounds of brown sugar and two packs of wine yeast (Cote de Blanche) and in about seven or eight weeks should have carbonated hard cider or really good cider vinegar. We have enough apples for a second batch, possibly a third, and will still have plenty of apples left over for eating and for cooking; the eating apples have a resplendent ambrosial perfume. Picking the fruit is no slight task – we have four very old and productive trees (plus a young one that was amazingly abundant in our garden), and Lori harvested while I rototilled. Harvesting requires maneuvering something about as long as a Macedonian sarissa (a long javelin about 5 meters in length wielded by heavily armed infantry) with a metal basket and grip on the end, winding it though numerous branches to the topmost fruit, wrapping the contraption around it, pulling the fruit into the basket, and then gently brining the thing back to earth. At times it’s easier simply to climb the tree when possible, since we often bring down three pieces of fruit for every one we catch in the basket. It does a real number on your neck and shoulders to say the least!
Five gallons of juiced and pressed apples about to ferment into hard cider. Vita bona est! (Life is good!)
We were so inundated with melons (each one has been a fabulous treat with their soft, golden flesh, their intensely concentrated sugars, and their explosive flavors) that even the chickens and turkeys could no longer absorb our surplus, so last Thursday I headed to the food bank in McMinnville with a box of melons, about thirty pounds, from our garden. It proved fortuitous, since I met the director who gave me a tour of the facility, and she has put us in touch with a group concerned with local food issues, including hunger. Next year we’ll hopefully have a couple of hogs to absorb the extra produce, but we are also committed to serving those around us who suffer from food insecurity. We believe in being low input (i.e., producing as much feed for the animals and ourselves as possible, and turning any waste into compost that goes back into our land), but also in tithing – so far, it’s a dance.
In the midst of this I am impressed by how little waste we have actually generated; the actual plants that we tore out of our garden made a single small heap. The compost from kitchen waste so far has made only a single barrel, though I will need to start a second this week. Even the chicken and duck waste has generated only two modest piles. It will be a different story next month when we muck out five months worth of goat manure and urine soaked straw from our barn (we use a deep bedding method and hope in the future to have a hog help us to do the mucking).
Not October but Ah!ctober: a glorious fall vista is the reward for the end of a hard day of toil.
The past few days have also been rainy and today we awoke to temps in the 30s with fog (we’ve had our first wood fires the past two days), but Wednesday and Thursday were beautiful. The vines were arrayed in a gorgeous golden glow, the rain cleaned off the dull film of summer’s dust, and Lori and I sat down at last at five on Wednesday, covered in a fine film of dirt, sweat, hay, and manure, with Mason Ball jars full of local red wine and enjoyed the glorious vista of the sun over the vineyards. Sweat, toil, wine, and a view: and of course, we remembered to pour a libation to the empress’ shadow.