What Are The Georgics, Really?
“What are the Georgics?,” is a really good question. Let me qualify myself before I attempt to answer this.
I grew up on a 40-acre farm with 1,000 chickens, 30 head of cattle, 10 pigs and an assortment of ducks, geese, cats, and dogs etc.
So I understand farm life and nature’s birth, growth and death cycle, puny man’s dependence on Providence for hay crops, 3:00am calving emergencies, the untimely death of a beloved animal, the threat of coyotes–you see where I am going with this.
I am also a self-styled entrepreneur. I have not worked anywhere for the last 20 years that I did not take a hand in creating the company or institution of my employ. So when I was introduced to the concept of Georgics, it made sense to me right away. But as our culture has moved away from the concept of the Georgics, fewer and fewer people understand what this is and why it is important.
When the term Georgics is mentioned in conversation, I have observed that people usually rely on one of three responses or definitions:
2) farming–specifically growing and storing one’s own food, being at some level self-sufficient, working with nature to self-sustain
3) they have no clue
Entrepreneurship is the American trait of “Yankee Ingenuity“, the ability to dream, to ask questions, the innate curiosity of how something works or how it can be done better or the determination to never stop when faced with a difficulty, to just keep going until the problem is solved, or even just the willingness to work hard, save and build a better tomorrow.
In a climate of freedom, this self-motivation and self-reliance on one’s own abilities is the life blood of a country. It drives an economy and the standard of living. It can lead to strong families and communities if used in conjunction with a belief in the Divine, but it does not naturally lead to a reliance on Providence.
Farming is likely one of the most misunderstood concepts of past 60 years. Since the advent of corporate-industrialized mono-crop farming and the demise of small-diverse-family-farms, the benefits and image of family farming has altogether been lost on the horizon of the American consciousness.
The original American family farming concept was that the purpose of the farm was to meet the family’s needs as much as possible and trade the farm surplus for the remainder of the family needs.
During the 1600’s and 1700’s, the American family produced between 70 and 100 percent of their own food. By the 1850’s, it was still as much as 50%. Entering the 20th century, the average non-farming American family still had chickens, a large family garden and canned or somehow preserved a large portion of what they produced for winter and spring consumption.
As a kid in the 70’s and 80’s living in the Pacific Northwest, I remember growing and harvesting from our 1/2 acre garden. All winter long, mom would send us (usually me as the oldest) down into the bowels of the creepiest basement in the state without a doubt, to fetch a few quarts of home canned tomatoes or beets from the shelves or maybe recover some carrots or potatoes or onions from the bins of sand and sawdust.
Not until the mid 1980’s did the idea of producing your own loose its American status and become a thing that only preppers or rednecks did.
The transition of the dairy where I spent my summers during my last adolescent years was astounding. In less than a decade the culture changed from purchasing whole milk in reusable 1/2 gal. glass bottles right from the farm to only purchasing cartoned milk (likely the same milk) from the shelves of a super Walmart.
From a financial perspective, it was a great move for my farmer boss, he made much more money during the late 80’s selling manure and landscaping supplies than he ever did selling milk and cows. But at what cost?
So what are the Georgics?
I have been in heated arguments about the definition of the term Georgics. Modern, never-farmed-city-dwellers are very keen on the Entrepreneurship definition, stating that entrepreneurship and farming are really the same thing at their core and that we are now simply in a more enlightened era.
Only someone who has never grown, harvested, and relied on themselves to produce their own food and hence, missed the significance of the process, would ever give such an general response. On the other hand, farmers alone don’t have all of the answers, especially modern monoculture corporate farmers.
If we want to understand the Georgics, perhaps we should go to the author of the phrase–the Roman Poet Virgil.
The Georgics is a poem written by the Roman poet Virgil, likely published in 29 BC. As its name suggests (Georgica, from the Greek word georgein, ‘to farm’) the subject of the poem is agriculture and the human relationship to it.
As Virgil describes the cycles of crops, the seasons, the weather — the birth, death and rebirth that mark the natural world, he provides us with a complex, realistic, and painful reminder of the reality of the human condition.
Georgics speak directly of the foundationalism of the earth and specifically the act of farming. This literary work communicates from more than two millennia earlier, the basic concept that man’s liberty, indeed, his life is dependent upon himself, working the earth and depending on Providence.
The Georgics had a profound impact on the American founding and the 300 years that followed. Until recently, it greatly defined the phenomenon of being “American.”
I believe that the essence and modern application of the Georgics is a combination of entrepreneurship and farming. Clearly the early American farmers and ranchers had what it took in the entrepreneurship department. But today it seems every action is defined not by liberty and self-reliance but by the dollar value of that action. Standard of living has been hijacked and redefined as quality of life (they are not the same). Both entrepreneurship and farming have succumbed to the allure of the dollar.
This is neither consistent with happy living or economically sustainable. Corporate or mass farming or production of food takes us away from a vital and almost spiritual process of personal wellbeing. Nurturing, and caring for plants and animals that then fulfill our physical and nutritional needs, somehow completes the circle of life.
For more on how to family farm, read The New Organic Grower, by Elliot Coleman.
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