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1.12.21 Gardeners' World

Lavender meadow
Lavender meadow (Luke Barnard, via Unsplash)

In times of climate change, one of the things Latin poetry can do is give you a window onto pre-modern times, when clean rivers and successful harvests were more easily recognized as the miracles they are; when more societies lived in a sustainable balance with the world around them. One of Rome’s early poets was a man called Quintus Ennius, a speaker of three languages (Greek, Oscan, and Latin) from what is now Lecce in the heel of Italy, whose long poem The Annals provided much inspiration for Virgil’s Aeneid. In a strange twist of fate, so successful was Virgil’s poem that it swallowed up its predecessor, and The Annals is known to us today only as a series of fragments, most of them preserved by monks and scholars annotating their editions of Virgil. Free-floating lines and passages, often without any context, these fragments have a succinct poetry of their own, as in this one-line description of the year’s turning

aestatem autumnus sequitur post acer hiems it
autumn follows on summer, after it comes keen winter

or this address to the god of the river Tiber, a distant relation of Anna Livia, the River Liffey.

teque, pater Tiberine, tuo cum flumine sancto
and you, Father Tiberinus, with your sacred stream

Then there are times when a fragment seems to speak to the present moment, as in these lines which describe the violent deforestation of a rich woodland. ‘What would we do, deprived / of these’, Derek Mahon asks in a recent poem, ‘what would the whole chain / of being be without their active sustenance?’

incedunt arbusta per alta securibus caedunt
percellunt magnas quercus exciditur ilex
fraxinus frangitur atque abies consternitur alta
pinus proceras peruortunt omne sonabat
arbustum fremitu siluai frondosae.
They stride through the lofty copses. They slash with their axes:
they send great oaks flying, the holm oak is cut down,
the ash is smashed and the towering fir laid low,
they overturn tall pines: the whole copse
resounds with the leafy wood’s rumbling.

Latin is a green-fingered language, and not just because of poets like Ennius and Virgil. It’s a language that gardeners across the world remain familiar with, one they use to identify precisely different types of trees and plants. The binomial system, as its known, was the creation of a Swedish botanist called Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), whose work in the middle decades of the eighteenth century put strict order on the naming systems used up to that time, and in so doing helped to create modern botany. Each plant, tree, or shrub has a first name to identify its genus, or family, and then a second to identify its species, its particular variety. Lavender’s first name in medieval Latin in lavandula, which according to one theory comes from the verb lavare, to wash, because of its use in perfuming and infusing baths and bedlinen throughout the centuries; one common variety is called lavandula angustifolia, a little less puzzling once you know that angusta is the Latin for ‘narrow’ and folia is the Latin for ‘leaf’. A name can stretch right back to ancient times, too, as in olea for the life-giving olive tree, important to so many cultures then and since. The olive’s family name is olea europea (no prizes for guessing that one), and it has many varieties and cultivars, including olea oleaster, the wild olive.

The Latin for garden is hortus, a word which by the time of the Roman empire was often used for the private gardens of famous aristocrats. But Pliny the Elder tells us that the word originally referred to the vegetable-gardens of ordinary Romans, little plots that were the ‘people’s markets’, where they could supplement their meagre diet with homegrown greens. The link survives in modern Italian, where a vegetable-garden is still an orto as opposed to a giardino. The gardeners I know each combine an eye for beauty and colour with a down-to-earth appreciation of the natural world; they’re everyday experts in light and soil and sustainability in ways that lots of us could learn from. Latin is their language too, in a small but meaningful way.

Further Reading

  • Ennius, Fragmentary Republican Latin, Volume 1, ed. and trans. S. Goldberg and G. Manuwald (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018). Translations above are from this edition.
  • Mahon, D. ‘The Rainforest’, in Against the Clock (Oldcastle, co. Meath: Gallery Press, 2018).
  • McHugh, Saoirse, ‘Rewilding is one of the best solutions we have …’, Irish Examiner, 16 August 2021, available here.
  • Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 19, ed. and trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950).