The other day, my wife and I were visiting my elderly, widowed, father at his home in suburban Chicago. We remarked to him that, in his 15 years in this home, his gardening had achieved outstanding results, due not only to his efforts but to this superbly fecund loam. Since all three of us enjoy Latin (although none of us is fluent in the language), we enjoyed identifying some Latin synonyms for the English “fruitful.” I mentioned fecundus (also meaning “abundant”) and felix (also meaning “bringing good luck”). My father cited fertilis (also meaning “fertile ” and “fertilizing”) and fructuosus (also meaning “fertile”). And my father and I marveled at my wife’s suggestions: uber (also meaning “rich” and “copious”) and genitalis (also meaning “creative”). After this excursion into the number of Latin words for this phenomenon, my father acknowledged that, although he had been gardening since he was a boy, even the seeds from the shrubs took root in this suburban loam without any aid.
As night fell, the three of us sat and talked outside. Among other topics, we spoke of the phenomenon of events in Iowa, Maine, Vermont, and California on same-sex marriage. He turned to my wife and said that he didn’t know if he had ever told her the story of the people of the plant. I piped up and said that I remembered something about it from the time I was about 14, but she agreed that she had never heard it.
He related that he learned of this people when he was growing up in San Francisco from a man about 80 years of age. They had been neighbors. It was this man who had introduced my father to gardening.
When this elderly neighbor was a schoolboy, his school’s headmaster told the students about a tribe in Roman times. The tribe was located in what is now northeastern Turkey — just on the outside of the Roman Empire. The Romans traded with this tribe and learned something of its language and customs. One Roman, whose name my father has forgotten, wrote of some details.
One of the customs the Roman trader wrote about had to do with marriage. When a couple became engaged, each set of parents grafted branches from a certain domesticated plant to a third plant provided by the chieftain. At the wedding, the chieftain gave this plant to the couple. My wife interjected that this was similar to couples today bringing their separate candles to light a single candle. True enough, my father said, but, he added, there’s more.
This plant bore an attractive fruit and it was known among all members of the tribe to be indescribably delicious. Yet, children knew they couldn’t eat it because their taste buds had to be more developed, just like their taste for wine or mead.
The married couple would regularly care for the plant, pruning it, watering it, fertilizing it. Whenever they wished (since the fruit was never out of season), a married couple would together select a piece of fruit and pluck it. Typically, they would set a beautiful table and dine. The fruit was the only food to be consumed. They would begin by giving thanks to the household and tribal gods. For these meals, no one else would be present. The couple would linger over this meal. Often enough, one would place a piece of it in the mouth of the other. And they would speak of their lives and their dreams.
The Roman who wrote about this stated the obvious: this fruit and these meals were somehow life-giving.
This Roman trader nicknamed the tribe populus plantae, the people of the plant. He gave the Latin name conciliatio to the plant because it brought the couple ever closer together. My father said that he was studying Latin at the time he heard this story, so he memorized the Latin words. Besides, he told my wife and me, the elderly neighbor had been teaching him the Latin words for a great many plants in their gardens.
There was a plentiful and wild variant of this plant, common at that time in what is now northeastern Turkey. The fruit from the wild plants was often more attractive to the eye than the domesticated variety. And it was rumored that many pieces of the wild variety tasted better than the domesticated kind. From a young age, however, children were told not to eat it. Not only were their taste buds not developed enough to enjoy the fruit, some of the wild plants were toxic, just like some mushrooms are toxic. For this reason, the Roman trader used the Latin word disturbo for the wild variant — because it could bring its eaters to ruin. While it may have been possible to examine individual plants to determine whether they were toxic or not, it was best just to avoid all of these wild plants in favor of someday savoring the domestic variety.
The Roman trader who wrote of this custom — again, my father could not remember his name — stated that his business did not bring him back to this area of the world for 20 years. When he returned, he discovered that there were only a few members of the tribe alive. He asked what had happened in the course of such a short period of time. He expected that the people had been killed in war or kidnapped. What he learned astounded him. The survivors said that, soon after the time the Roman had visited some 20 years earlier, the young people would gather in the fields at night and begin eating the wild variety of this plant. In the beginning, adults would continue their warnings, but eventually they came to believe that the young people were not able to discipline themselves. Indeed, even the adults started eating the wild variety. And men would eat the wild fruit with other men, and women with women. The fruit was both delicious and deadly. Instead of bringing people — spouses — together for nourishment in mind and body, instead of bringing lasting joy, the wild variety destroyed family and tribal life. The tribe was decimated.
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