Ellie and the Georgics
Thus inspired by Savage, who regularly puts Horace and Catullus into the framework of pop music and film, Ellie relates the themes in the Georgics to her other classes, such as biology and English. “Anything is relevant to this course,” she insists. It’s all up for grabs: “Wings of Desire, the ’80s-era Wim Wenders film, or a Rolling Stones song, or any single one of the texts we’ve read in English this year.” With that in mind, for her culminating paper Ellie is translating four passages, one from each of the four books of the Georgics, into the style of four twentieth-century authors—Gertrude Stein, Robert Hillyer, Virginia Woolf, and Tom Robbins. This depends on an intimate understanding not just of Virgil but also of his modern descendants. “This is not the straight, slightly-tweaked transliteration I’m used to doing, but instead really an extraction of Virgil’s core meaning that will be interpreted into the language, context, and tone of those four authors,” she explains. She’ll take it a step further by pairing each translation with a painting, sculpture, or other work of art that evokes the themes, and tie the four passages together “with a meditation on the balance of amor and labor, arguably the two competing themes of the Georgics, in the context of my own Deerfield experience.”
Ellie's independent study has been a reflection on the ancients and an introspection on her own day-to-day life.
It is no coincidence that Ellie’s Deerfield experience plays such a central role. For her, the Georgics has physical relevance. “Deerfield is very rural,” Ellie says. It is January, and it has just snowed copiously; the ground is crystalline; when one looks out the window it’s hard to pin down what century it is. “It’s just beautiful, right? So I can relate completely to that element of the Georgics, too.” This sentiment rings true to the Deerfield administration. “We have this unbelievable resource, just being here in this town, and we don’t always use it to its fullest,” admits Warsaw.
Warsaw’s farming neighbor Ben Clark sees the value of reconnecting to place. “I’m always happy to be involved in the Deerfield community,” Clark says. “As an alumnus, it feels like a very natural thing to do. For students there to connect to the community—it’s a valuable part of the education, a tie-in with the area around you and a sense of your place within it.” Warsaw concurs. “Those of us with a romantic bent feel the importance of being connected to the place where you are, at any given moment, and then radiate in concentric circles from that point. You start with knowing yourself, then knowing your community, then hopefully beginning to understand the larger world.”
A thoughtful, quiet student, Ellie gives the impression that she is approaching her work from within those concentric circles—starting from the self outward. “I’m a vegetarian; I devote some thought to what I eat. In an ideal world I’d eat what I grow myself—although I do eat what’s served to me here at school,” she smiles. But her point is made: Every decision we make, down to each bite we put in our mouths, has resonance. “Agriculture is clearly political, and obviously it’s always been political. That’s what I’m getting into when I talk to the local farming community.”
With that in mind, Ellie has been drafting questions to pose to local farmers, and some are doozies: What impact has the government had on your farm? Are you in cooperation or competition with your neighbors? She’s both inspired and frustrated by the contradictions within the text. “Is it a straight handbook, or a political allegory? A message to the literati to return to humble origins?” If it’s the latter, that’s a sentiment that the Deerfield community at large is taking seriously, returning not only to its physical roots but its academic ones, too. “Until five years ago, every Deerfield junior was expected to write a fifteen-page paper in U.S. history,” Warsaw points out. The senior capstone project would up the ante. Now, instead of a focus on some aspect of history, the project would ask each student to look within him or herself, find the spark that connects the dots between all the elements of the previous several years’ work, and pull it together in a way that is unique to his or her Deerfield experience.
Ellie’s version of this project contains a thematic irony: Both beautiful and confounding, to read the Georgics is truly a labor of love. In fact, one could say Virgil’s competing dicta, that love and work conquer all, are both vital linchpins to any capstone project. After all, such an undertaking asks a lot—of students and faculty alike. But Ellie faces her task fearlessly: She has taken to heart some thousands-years-old wisdom. “The labor/amor conflict is so central to everyone’s Deerfield career,” she points out. Athletics, academics, the arts: “How much of this feels like work, and how much like passion? How often do we substitute one for the other, or let the work/leisure balance get out of whack here?” For Ellie, the opportunity to examine this question closely has been cathartic, perhaps even therapeutic—at once a reflection on the ancients and an introspection on her own day-to-day life. “It’s helping me develop both my perspective on Deerfield and my understanding of labor/amor in the text to begin with,” she says. “I can use the amor/labor meditation to record some of the connections and conversations and philosophy at which we’ve arrived over the year. The ability to make connections is paramount.” ••
Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in a number of publications, including Wondertime, Whole Living, and FamilyFun. She lives in Northampton, MA, with her husband and two daughters.