10.6.20 Wild Olive
If you’ve read any of Virgil’s poetry you’ll know that he’s nothing if not a brilliant student of the natural world. Reading and teaching the Aeneid this term, I was particularly struck by how, in the poem’s closing book, imagery that he has used earlier in the poem, and in his previous work, returns in increasingly concentrated form: it’s as if Virgil’s poetic life is flashing before his eyes as he brings his epic to its jarring and extraordinary conclusion. The Trojan army advancing against their Italian enemies are a ferocious rainstorm coming in off the sea, the same kind of storm the farmers of the Georgics were warned against in more peaceful times. During the fall of Troy Aeneas was an unwitting shepherd, gazing down helplessly at the destruction of his city; now he is a shepherd once again, but this time he is smoking out a hive of bees, the same bees whose ordered and productive world was described so lovingly in the Georgics.
The Aeneid is a poem which seems to suggest that human communities are hard-wired towards hospitality, towards the taking in of outcasts and exiles, wanderers and refugees, as happens again and again in its books. But it equally seems to suggest that peaceful co-existence is never guaranteed, and that conflict often follows. The Trojans begin the poem as refugees themselves, but by book 12 they have become colonisers intent on dispossessing the indigenous communities they find standing in their way. Aeneas, once a humane and sympathetic leader, has been hardened and de-humanized by warfare and loss, at one point declaring that if he doesn’t get an immediate surrender from the Italians, he will raze their town to the ground. The poem thus speaks to countless real-life historical situations, and this realism is, for me, one of the things that keeps it relevant.
In their desecration of the Italian landscape, the Trojans bulldoze over a wild olive tree, an oleaster,which, we are told, held special religious and cultural significance for the Italian community. When Aeneas’ spear gets stuck in its shattered trunk, the wild olive refuses to give it up, as if protesting the Trojans’ outrageous transgression. Thus trees in general, and this wild olive in particular, come to symbolize both the richness and frailty of indigenous customs, and, in their felling, the relentless and myopic violence of the colonizer. And it’s not difficult, I think, to re-imagine all this in an Irish context. In their book Trees of Ireland, Nelson and Walsh speak of the ‘special place in Irish folklore’ held by the native ash, venerated for reasons that are now mysterious to us; how, in an eighth-century tract of Brehon Law, the ash tree ‘was classified as a “noble of the wood”, airig fedo, with the severest penalties being exacted for damaging a tree.’ Aeneas, meanwhile, puts me in mind of Lord Mountjoy, who arrived in Ireland in the year 1600 determined to subdue the rebel Irish. He made the decision to campaign through the winter, rather than only in summertime, a tactic which, the historian says, ‘broke their hearts.’
… for the air being sharp, and they naked, and they being driven from their lodgings, into the woods bare of leaves, they had no shelter for themselves. Besides that, their cattle (giving them no milk in the winter) were also wasted by driving to and fro. Add that they being thus troubled in the seed time, could not sow their ground. And as in harvest time, both the deputies forces, and the garrisons, cut down their corn, before it was ripe, so now in winter time they carried away, or burnt, all the stores of victuals in secret places, whether the Rebels has conveyed them. […] He had a special care to cut down and clear the difficult passages, so that our forces might with more safety meet together, and upon all occasions second one another.
The point is not to vilify one side and idealize the other in some triumphant or simplistic way, but to realize that they represent two sides of human experience that are utterly contemporary. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the whole world has become that little piece of ancient Italy, or Ireland in the 1600s, relentlessly pillaged by a capitalist system and its actors. The Amazon rainforest, our green lung, is a current focal point, attacked and defended in increasingly desperate measure, but it’s one of many. There are still Trojans, still wild olive trees, and still Italians: the names change, but the story stays the same.
Note: This post quotes from E. Charles Nelson and Wendy F. Walsh, Trees of Ireland: Native and Naturalized (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993) and from Book 1, part 2, chapter 1 of An Itinerary by Fynes Moryson (1566–1630), published in London in 1617.