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That ancient dialogue between men and trees

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That ancient dialogue between men and trees

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Not only are plants upside down men, as Empedocles and Democritus, Plato and Aristotle had thought. But the opposite metaphor also returns because the branches are the arms of humans, the leaves are the hair. The dialogue between trees, humans and of course the divine world unfolds in the pages of “They lived in the woods one day”. The cultural life of trees in ancient Rome by Mario Lentano. The professor of Latin language and literature at the University of Siena reconstructs with a learned mass of quotations «an ecological niche, with its “local system of meanings” and its specific vision of the world», deducing that «for the Romans, and to a large extent already for the Greeks before them, the relationship between the vegetal universe and the human universe can be described more precisely in terms of continuity: they, in other words, do not appear divided by an unbridgeable gap, but on the contrary are placed along a scale continues that places them in mutual relation no less than it separates them.” In addition to the philological method full of passion that innervates the essay, the clarity of the research does not go unnoticed: there is no holographic or idyllic vision because those cultures, although infinite, «have carried out on a large scale the intensive exploitation of the environment, the destruction of forest covers linked to the needs of the economy and war and harbingers of devastating effects and widespread pollution of which the ancient sources themselves repeatedly demonstrate awareness”.

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The definitions of the ancients

The scholar starts from «The flowers and the herbs lived, / the woods lived one day», lines from the song Alla primavera, o delle favole antica, written by Giacomo Leopardi in 1822, in which the poet expressed melancholic and dreamy regret – typical of the pre-romantic era – of a past in which the natural world appeared animated by the presence of the divine and in solidarity with human events. In ancient times, the problem of defining the precise nature of plant life had been addressed by Greek thought since its inception, with Thales, Pythagoras, Democritus, Anaxagoras and Empedocles. Lentano begins a long journey through etymologies (that of Prisciano according to which arbor derives from robur, the oak, is a suggestion which however underlines how the oak is the tree par excellence) and the sex of trees, almost invariably female, as it is the name of the land. To continue with the definitions given by the ancients: for Plato the gods «by mixing a nature similar to human nature with other forms and with other sensations, gave birth to another type of living being. And these are the trees and plants that are now being grown and the seeds”; Aristotle, however, distinguished between “living being” (zôn, which includes plants) and “animal” in the strict sense (zôion).

The botanical identity of the gods

Then there is the chapter on the botanical identity of the gods: Pliny already claimed that the woods were temples of the gods and that some tree species «are the object of continuous protection as each is dedicated to its own divinity, like the farnet to Jupiter , the laurel to Apollo, the olive tree to Minerva, the myrtle to Venus, the poplar to Hercules.” Which opens a window on Virgil. When the poet was born, according to the customs of the countryside around Andes, a poplar branch was planted which soon grew out of all proportion, prefiguring the excellence of the author of the Aeneid. Alexander’s greatness was also announced by a plant, a laurel, which appeared near the house of the future prince. And, next to it, a peach tree, the malus persica, had grown, so much so that the interpreters were able to predict Alexander’s victories over the Persians. The plants showed the way to the ancients: the destiny of Rome is revealed in the development and drying of a fig or a dogwood linked to the founder and birth of the city, the destinies of patricians and plebeians are linked to the fortunes of two myrtles. Not to mention the myth that dissolves in nature: the hyacinth emerges from the blood of Ajax, the violets from that of Attis’ wife, Ia, the lilies from the milk escaped from Hera’s breasts, the lilies from the slime of Cerberus a poisonous plant like ‘aconite.

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The sense of graft

But perhaps the most interesting part is the one on grafts, yet another relationship of dialectical mirroring between the human world and the vegetal universe. Pliny presented grafting as an adultery between plants and there is a close link between the verb of grafting, to insert, and the simple serere, used with its derivatives in metaphors on kinship, from semen (seed of the plant and of man ) to satus (son of, sown by) to sator (father, sower). Lentano brings to light references and roots, suggestions and poetry, almost as if to reiterate that plants have a soul given that, according to Pliny, “without the latter nothing can live”.

Mario Lentano, «The woods lived one day». The cultural life of trees in ancient Rome, Carocci, pages. 248, €24

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