Ellie and the Georgics

By Naomi Shulman
Photographs by Brent M. Hale

Erstwhile Latin students, put on your thinking caps and name this reference: Omnia vincit amor. Got it? That’s Virgil, from the Eclogues: Love conquers all.

Let’s play again: Labor omnia vincit. Ring any bells?

It’s kind of a trick question. The quote is also Virgil, revising his original romantic statement into something decidedly more practical: Work conquers all. And actually, the whole quote is labor omnia vincit improbus—ruinous work overcomes all. It’s from the Georgics, a little-read, hard-to-decipher collection of four books that is widely considered to be the most obtuse work written in the language—and perhaps in Western literature overall. Deerfield Latin teacher Sam Savage refers to it as a conundrum, “a poem about farming that isn’t about farming.” But Ellie Parker ’11, whose arduous AP physics/rowing/proctoring schedule suggests she has already internalized the virtue of ruinous labor, is tackling the Georgics head on. Alone.

ellie2 If anyone was gong to do it, it would be Ellie. A National Merit Scholar who was accepted early into Harvard, she tapped out the Latin offerings at Deerfield last spring, as a junior. Already fluent in Italian, Ellie faced a choice: start another language, or embark on an independent study? Savage and his colleague, Latin teacher John Burke, encouraged the latter. “Ellie is clearly an unusually qualified student,” says Burke, who along with Savage is advising Ellie through her solo tutorial; Savage took the reins for the first two terms, and Burke is taking over in the spring. “We wanted to devise a project where she could really stretch.” 

Erstwhile Latin students, put on your thinking caps and name this reference: Omnia vincit amor. Got it? That’s Virgil, from the Eclogues: Love conquers all.

Turns out Ellie isn’t the only one stretching. “You have to understand . . . ” Savage shakes his head. “No one reads this in high school. Actually, it’s rarely read in college.” A quick survey of upper-level university course offerings backs Savage up on this. This course is for students whose Latin is already very advanced; one cautions. Admission is by permission only, warns another. It stands to reason that a didactic poem on ancient farming techniques would not rank high on most students’ (or teachers’) reading lists. “But here we are,” laughs Savage. “We’re reading the whole thing-—about 2300 lines, four books.” He shrugs his shoulders gamely. “This is the first time I’ve read the Georgics in such close detail, so you could call this more a collaboration than a tutorial. I’m more like a book club partner.” All last fall and winter, Savage and Parker met one-on-one in a quiet Kendall classroom, projecting pages of text onto the wall so they could parse out the dense poetry, word by circuitous word. But a lot of the study has taken place outside, where the action of the Georgics takes place. Put another way, Ellie has been taking field trips to actual fields. 

Which explains the call Ben Clark ’96 got from his alma mater late last year. Clark, who runs his family’s 95-year-old Clarkdale fruit orchard, starts working first thing in the morning and continues nonstop till sunset.  “Even in the dead of winter,” he explains, “there’s always plenty to do around here.” But this farmer—who recalls taking a little Latin at Deerfield, but was wholly unfamiliar with the Georgics—took time out of his busy day to chat with Savage and Ellie about the grafting techniques Clarkdale Farm uses, which are essentially unchanged from the way Virgil described them some two thousand years ago. Despite shifts in technology, the fundamentals of many of the farming techniques Virgil wrote about have stayed more or less the same, Clark explains: “There are more similarities than differences, considering how long ago Virgil wrote.”  That’s because the basics of anything—from farming to higher learning—have a funny way of remaining fairly constant. 

We’ll come back to that.

Yearlong, in-depth, interdisciplinary studies like this make regular appearances in college course catalogs; they’re less likely to pop up at the high school level. When students like Ellie come along, however, the Deerfield faculty steps up to help meet the challenge. “We feel an obligation to extend ourselves for any student who exhausts an area of study,” says Academic Dean Peter Warsaw. “Tutorials aren’t new—they’re the Oxford model.” But it was synergistic that Ellie’s project happened along when it did. As part of Imagine Deerfield, the strategic plan that the Academy has been drafting and implementing for the past several years, a recommendation had been put forward to implement senior capstone courses: self-designed, independent projects that would give students the chance to synthesize the separate elements of their Deerfield career. To that end, Ellie is blazing a trail. “It’s something that’s been in the air,” Warsaw says. “But it’s been tricky to get it on the ground without a tangible example. We’ve been waiting for the right moment, and that moment came with a really extraordinary student who was ready for something more.” 

GeorgicsVol1_37Just as Ellie was ready for a greater challenge, Warsaw points out that Deerfield is gearing up for the greater challenges that face all of its students. “The senior capstone project is a work in progress,” he explains. It’s still in the theoretical stage, but Warsaw and his colleagues see the potential—a student could write a piece of musical composition, or put together a series of paintings. Whatever form a project takes, Warsaw says the unifying element will be in the exposition—a student’s written analysis of the work he or she puts forth. It’s this analysis that gets to the heart of the matter. “What should we be teaching in the twenty-first century, after all?” Warsaw asks. Facts are vital, but given the technology available to most people today—in some cases literally at one’s fingertips, via smart phone—Warsaw thinks the Academy needs to go a step farther. “The premium is now on the ability to think flexibly, creatively, and metaphorically,” he emphasizes, “and to draw connections between disparate topics.” And this is what happens when a student takes pen to paper and writes a detailed, thoughtful, scrupulously researched analysis. “Writing a substantial paper is a great ally in learning to take a meta approach to a project. It forces students to explicate—to others, but also to themselves.”

So far, though, the capstone course is still just an idea—partly for pragmatic reasons. The work Savage and Burke are undertaking with Ellie cannot be replicated for every other student in the school: There are only so many hours in the week. “The labor involved in shepherding students through this kind of project . . . ” Warsaw sighs. “We don’t have the manpower. We will have to find creative ways to fund people to oversee these projects. I’m excited, though, because a student like Ellie forces the conversation.”

There’s something mildly ironic, Warsaw admits, about Ellie’s project being grounded in the classics, given that the capstone course model is geared toward twenty-first century learning. “All this, in the context of reading Virgil!” he laughs. But the fundamentals remain, well,  fundamental. Relevance hides within the oldest, more obscure texts, waiting to be revealed in the scope of students’ everyday lives. Ellie happened upon this truth by accident. “I chose it almost by random,” Ellie laughs in retrospect. She was attracted to the bucolic subject matter, she explains—line after line devoted to trees, planting, the cycle of the seasons. But, she now realizes, “The Georgics are complex and philosophical. They question the nature of work and the political climate. There’s a lot of resonance with current events, actually.” Savage agrees. “There are a lot of convergences,” he says. “The themes intersect with farming, agriculture, ethical practices, environmental stewardship—the Georgics overlaps with what could be called a Michael Pollan sensibility.” 

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.”

IMG_1272_hive_georgics_lrIt 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 WondertimeWhole Living, and FamilyFun. She lives in Northampton, MA, with her husband and two daughters.