Thursday, February 06, 2014

`I Was Teaching Myself Something Else'

To read is to miss things. Thanks to Mike Gilleland, I’ve diagnosed my latest symptom of intermittent textual blindness. He transcribes a passage from Guy Davenport’s “Journal I” published in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (1996) and republished in The Guy Davenport Reader (2013): 

“To sit in the sun and read Columella on how to plant a thorn hedge is a pleasure I had to teach myself. No, I was teaching myself something else, and the thorn hedge came, wisely, to take its place. They’re longer lasting than stone walls and have an ecology all their own. Birds nest in them and snails use them for a world. Hedgehogs, rabbits, snakes, spiders. Brier rose, dog thorn. There are some in England still standing from Roman times.” 

Two things strike me about these sentences that I’ve read many times: 1). Davenport’s abrupt shift of attention between the first and second sentences, an instant revision or clarification of thought. 2.) “Columella”: I can’t remember having seen the name, yet I remember the hedge. Shamed by Mike’s learning yet again, I pursued Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (A.D. 4-ca. A.D. 70) to the library and found the three volumes of De Re Rustica and De Arboribus in the Loeb Classical Library edition: Vol. I (Books 14) by H. B. Ash, first published in 1941; Vols. II and III (Books 512 and De Arboribus) by E. S. Forster and E. Heffner, first published in 1954-55. In Vol. III (Book XI, 3, 3-7), I found the passage cited by Davenport. It amounts to about a page of text, and here is a sample: “The most ancient authors preferred a quick-set hedge to a constructed wall, on the grounds that it not only called for less expense but also lasted for a much longer time,” followed by detailed instructions for planting the hedge. In translation, at least, the prose is distinguished by clarity and a wish to systematically explain a fairly complicated procedure involving the seeds of brambles and Christ’s thorn, well-ground bitter-vetch and ship cables. 

Columella goes on to suggest watering methods for hedges and recommends proper fertilizer: “The best dung for the purpose is that of asses, because it grows the fewest weeds; next is that of either cattle or sheep, if it has soaked for a year. Human ordure, although it is reckoned to be most excellent, should not necessarily be employed except for bare gravel or very loose sand which has no strength, that is, when more powerful nourishment is required.” 

I wondered if the well-known nineteenth-century American classicist and bean farmer Henry David Thoreau had ever read Columella, and I wasn’t disappointed. He even begins with manure in this April 3, 1856, passage from his journal about his neighbor Joseph Hosmer Jr.: 

“Hosmer is overhauling a vast heap of manure in the read of his barn, turning the ice within it up to the light; yet he asks despairingly what life is for, and says he does not expect to stay here long. But I have just come from reading Columella, who describes the same kind of spring work, in that to him new spring of the world, with hope, and I suggest to be brave and hopeful with nature. Human life may be transitory and full of trouble, but the perennial mind, whose survey extends from that spring to this, from Columella to Hosmer, is superior to change. I will identify myself with that which did not die with Columella and will not die with Hosmer.” 

Thanks again to Mike Gilleland for spurring me to learn that columella also refers to the fleshy external end of the nasal septum and, in a pleasing convergence, the structural shaft around which a snail shell is arranged (see Davenport’s “snails use them for a world”). Several genera and species of gastropods are also named columella. On the day I read Mike’s post I also read this in “A Book by Its Cover” by Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, in the February issue of The New Criterion: 

“Dr. Leach was evidently a man after my own heart, for like him I delight in the contents of old books that I come across unexpectedly or quite by chance. This, I need hardly say, is not the scholar’s way of investigating the world, but that of the general reader of it; of the man who will never discover anything to the great benefit of mankind or develop any overarching metaphysical system, but who finds everything of interest, and who instinctively feels that `The truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.’” 

Daniels quotes the closing lines from Dickinson’s Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --.” He goes on to write: “To think that ignorance decreases with the advance of knowledge is to mistake the nature of infinity: for infinity minus one is still infinity.”

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