Leave no stone unturned - Novel "Letters"

Pliny and Calpurnia walk through their olive grove to a slight rise near a natural spring. It is that ambiguous time of year when Winter is thinking of leaving, and Spring is still teasing. 

As they walk, Pliny muses, "The seasons are changing. Winter's tasks will soon give way to Spring's toil."

Calpurnia smiles, "But, surely, not just toil. Persephone will soon walk the fields once more, and Demeter's warmth will lull you into relaxation, away from your duties at the capitol."

Pliny looks at the grove and smiles, "Each season has its appointed tasks. None can be neglected simply in favor of amusement. The rules of agriculture and law are more similar than one might imagine."

Calpurnia says, "As you suggested, Encolpius has been instructing me on the rules of agriculture, and I have been reading the volumes of Marcus Cato. Tell me, what lessons do you draw from agriculture to your practice of law?"

Pliny laughs, "I have been trying to explain that precise point - the lessons of agriculture - to Tacitus, but he has little enthusiasm for country life."

"Perhaps country life has become too gentrified for him."

Pliny tried to catch her drift, "Some argue that, since the good old days of the Republic, broadacre grain harvesting has given way to homesteads with diverse outputs. They say it is a sign of the wealth of the Empire and one of the pleasures of the new order."

"Was this place one a grain farm?"

"Perhaps, more so than today. Grain still grows wild in places. But not in the amount once gathered."

They climb the slight rise and refresh themselves in the stone basin catching the spring water. They find a vantage looking back to the villa and the rows of still bare vines.

Calpurnia laughs, "You deflected my question. Have you had time to design an answer?"

He takes a deep breath, "You can smell Spring coming. Let me answer with a question instead."

She settles next to him, gaining the advantage of sun fall on short green winter grass, "Of course, unless I drift off in this warm haze."

"What does your research tell you about the types of farms that have prospered since we started to import grain from Africa?"

Calpurnia smiles, "Cato says that the ideal farm should be about 50 acres of land, comprising all sorts of different soil with access to water and a gentle aspect. By preference, one should have a vineyard - something that produces bountiful wine of good quality. One should have a well-loamed soil patch, close to reliable flowing water, for growing all types of vegetables. If you have marshy, shady soil near a stream, this would be ideal for putting in osier beds full of willows for basket weaving and general farm use. A grove of olive trees is invaluable but requires investment in a stone press, and the grove itself can take years to establish. You might use drier meadows as pastures for rearing animals or grain growing in years where that is sensible. A balanced farm should have a wood lot with elm and oak. What have I not mentioned?  Ah, finally, fodder trees in the form of a mast grove cannot be neglected."

Pliny offers her a draught of wine and then takes a sip himself.

"Perhaps, in our age, more extravagance is wasted in rural estates than is warranted. But have things changed all that much? Farmsteads have always been self-reliant, selling off surplus when they occur. Perhaps grain importation has increased more because of the growth of the large cities and the needs of the land armies."

Calpurnia plants a quick kiss on his hand, "That cannot be your answer, or have I missed something?"

Pliny laughed and said, "Not so quick. There are all sorts of risks if we cut our olives and tore down the vines and put the land over to just growing grain."

Calpurnia screwed her nose up, "I hope you are not contemplating such a possibility. Don't make me sorry we walked up this track."

"We sometimes have bad years for olives, and sometimes for grapes, and sometimes it is useful to be able to rely on our vegetables or sell faggots or charcoal. Growing a single grain crop comes with great risk, as the price may be depressed for a run of years. Also, unlike a diverse holding, grain requires great effort at particular times of the year. With a diverse holding, there is a good steady effort in keeping the farm in good stead."

Calpurnia jumped in, "Cato said farmers should make trenches and furrows in early Spring. The ground should be turned for the olive and vine nurseries, and budding vines should be set out. Elms, figs, fruit trees, and olives should be planted in rich, humid ground. Figs, olives, apples, pears, and vines should be grafted in the dark of the moon when the south wind is not blowing."

Pliny gave her a hug, "The South wind bodes no one any good. Encolpius tells me you have become practiced in the different techniques of grafting olives."

Calpurnia blushed and looked at him directly, "You did not ask me to study Cato simply for my amusement. Cato calls for emulation and practice."

"Indeed, and that is the same with the law and my speeches to a court or the Senate."

"An answer, finally?"

"You have heard me tell of my rival, the monster Regulus."

Calpurnia nodded, looking into his eyes and wondering if she had opened an old wound.

"You might be surprised, but from time to time, we had to work together for the same client."

"That must have been difficult."

"It gave me insights into the nature of the man."

Pliny paused, collecting his thoughts.

"On one occasion, he complained that I wasted time following up every point in a dispute. He claimed to have an unerring ability to find the throat of the case and grasp it. The risk with that approach is that you might be worrying a knee or ankle in error. By examining each part of the case rigorously, I leave no stone unturned."

Calpurnia laughed, "And what was his response?"

"He was too busy throttling an elbow to listen to me."

"But how do you draw this lesson from agriculture?"

Pliny rose and shook off the dust of time, "Here, in culturing of the wild, I concern myself with every aspect of the land: vineyards, olive groves, willow stands, and wood lots, all. I don't just scatter the seeds of one grain, but I sow many different crops: spelt, wheat, barley, beans, and the other plants. So too, in my legal arguments, I scatter many seeds far and wide to reap the maximum benefit. For the tempers of decision-makers are not less obscure, uncertain, and deceptive than those of the seasons and the soils."


Christopher Whitton called the original letter to Tacitus a 'sermocinatio', an obsolete but wonderful word describing a speaker answering the speaker's own question or remark immediately (The Arts of Imitation in Latin Prose Pliny's Epistles/Quintilian in Brief By Christopher Whitton · 2019). He also described the agricultural reference as an elaboration on what is otherwise a fairly dense bit of writing. Whitton's observations are, as always, superbly made but i prefer to approach this letter from the agricultural reference rather than to look at it as an appendage.


Popular Posts