Insights from Virgil and the Non-Human World

Kathryn Kennedy, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

The Way Should Not Be Easy

As director of the Duke Campus Farm, thinking about seeds and planting is part of Saskia Cornes’ everyday life. But the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many more people to regularly interact with the natural world – whether in search of respite or distraction, or by gardening as preparation for some feared, apocalyptic future.

That trend led Cornes to return to the works of the ancient Roman poet Virgil, and particularly his Georgics, as a manual for how engagement with the non-human world through farming and gardening provides tools for living in dark times.

“I think there’s something about farming and gardening that is inherently optimistic,” the Assistant Professor of the Practice at the Franklin Humanities Institute told a small group of undergraduate students and faculty via Zoom on Feb. 15. “(But) the non-human world has a life of its own and won’t submit to our wants and demands.”

That latter tenet could mean your tomato plant just won’t produce fruit. Or that a virus could upend the way people live, learn and work.

The discussion and virtual gathering occurred as part of a new series for first- and second-year Duke students organized by Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, Exploring Self and Community in Dark Times. With a variety of faculty-led sessions continuing throughout this spring, each installment involves examining the world through a humanities lens.

Much of the discussion about COVID-19 has focused on health care and policy, but our current global crisis also highlights the relevance of rigorous, critical humanistic thinking, according to the faculty working group that created the discussion series. They believe it’s an opportunity to better understand ourselves in relationship to each other and to the world.

All sessions are hosted on Zoom and attendance is capped at 16 student participants.

Register for an upcoming session or learn more about Exploring Self and Community in Dark Times:

Saskia Cornes teaches a course at the Duke Campus Farm in 2018. Photo by Avery Rhoades.