One of my favorite parts of our rustic homestead is a woodland trail that winds steeply to the uppermost limit of our property. Over the past 8 years of walking it, I’ve crossed paths with many snakes there. Like polite strangers, we note each others’ presence and continue on our separate ways.
Recently, I had a different kind of snake encounter. Just before dusk, the dogs and I started up the trail eager to log some mileage before we lost the light. They caught wind of something and went dashing ahead. I walked on, watching Luna and Linus disappear in the distance.
Suddenly, I found myself jumping back several feet and cautiously walking backward for several more feet until I was out of reach of the coiled up copperhead that had just struck at me.
Lesson from a Copperhead
For a few days, after that encounter, I felt as if I’d just barely saved myself from a venomous bite. That brush with severe illness (and a potentially large hospital bill) made me feel vulnerable. What if I hadn’t noticed at exactly the right moment to get out of the way on time?
I started wearing my work boots everywhere. I walked our paths defensively. Like driving in traffic, I slammed on my foot breaks at small sounds. I felt pangs of adrenalin recede upon spotting the bird or lizard that made them.
Then, I dreamt I was walking on a moonlit trail. It was lined with hundreds of snakes bearing their venomous fangs and striking near my legs. Yet not one of them actually bit me.
When I woke, I knew I hadn’t miraculously escaped tragedy thanks to my amazing reflexes. That copperhead only gave me a warning strike and allowed me to safely step back.
I also knew my dream wasn’t just about my snake encounter in the woods. Life is full of natural warnings that help us navigate safely and find true meaning.
A Garden and a Library
If you are a gardener, reader, writer, or librarian, I bet you’ve heard this one by Marcus Tullius Cicero.
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”.
Today, this idea is often treated as a lifestyle destination: to own a personal library and a garden. Yet, that application of the quote doesn’t mesh with the everything we know about Cicero.
Cicero was a Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher, and writer who traveled extensively. As a famous political orator, fluent in Greek and Latin, he reinvented himself many times through political and personal controversy.
He also made other grand statements that are as true today as they were two millennia ago.
“Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:Marcus Tullius Cicero
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.”
That first Cicero quote wasn’t just about owning a personal garden and library in our modern terms. It was a formula for navigating the complexity of the times he lived in and his personal limitations.
Libraries in Cicero’s time were social spaces where intellectuals gathered to continually educate themselves by reading. The scrolls they housed were academic works on history, science, politics, philosophy, and other cultures. Using them was the ancient equivalent to getting an advanced degree at a top university today.
Wealthy Romans, like Cicero, designated scroll rooms in their homes to keep their collections of critical texts. Those well-curated personal libraries were like magnets used to attract acclaimed scholars and intellectuals to visit your villa.
Roman gardens, as places of refuge from urban life, were relatively new concepts back then. Many people had food plots, of course. Yet, ornamental pleasure gardens and edible landscapes were on the cutting edge.
They were influenced heavily by Egyptian, Persian, and Greek culture. They functioned as symbols of multiculturalism and intellectualism.
Pleasure gardens were created by designers, natural philosophers, architects, and engineers. And they were also used as gathering spaces for complex political interactions and philosophical inquiry in the Epicurean Garden sense.
Gardens were also places where intellectuals could apply their knowledge of the natural world. Cicero put it this way.
“By means of our hands we struggle to create, a second world within the world of nature.”
For Cicero, gardens and libraries weren’t old-fashioned, reclusive spaces that evoked ideas of isolation and retreat. They were intellectually stimulating, exciting, and entirely modern spaces that offered refuge from ignorance, mediocrity, and boredom.
Libraries and gardens also served as strategic social settings for intellectual sharing, philosophical discourse, and political influence.
Cicero in Context
That quote “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” is part of a letter that Cicero wrote to Marcus Terentius Varro. Varro was Rome’s leading garden and agriculture expert of that time.
When he penned those words, Cicero lived in exile in his villa, barred by Caesar from participating political life. He also wrote that ‘Being driven from my dominion in the forum, I have erected a sort of Academy in my own house’. Cicero was offering his library, garden, and academy as enticements to convince Varro to visit.
Basically, Cicero survived exile not because he had a library and a garden. He survived because he used them to attract important visitors to exert political influence even while banished.
Eight years ago, Matt and I turned an inexpensive piece of agriculturally-unsuitable land into our home academy of sorts. We were both educated by today’s standards. But we lacked the basic self-provisioning knowledge that the average peasant in Cicero’s times would have possessed.
Here, at our self-made villa academy, we learned, practiced, and perfected those self-provisioning skills.
We also lacked knowledge of how to interact effectively with and influence natural systems. For example, we understood the mathematical framework for calculating the force of gravity. But we’d never harnessed it, using the weight of water over an elevation drop, to create an automated irrigation system.
Our homestead became our laboratory for putting that kind of theoretical knowledge to work in practical applications.
Mastering that missing knowledge seemed critical in the context of the challenges of our times (e.g., climate change). In Cicero’s words, we understood this.
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.”― Marcus Tullius Cicero
Our Garden and Library
Our gardens are made in the same spirit of Roman estate gardens. They aren’t old-fashioned by any means. They’re climate change resilient, self-regulating, ecological spaces informed by emerging scientific data and experimentation.
They’re also smaller, more practical, and created on a limited budget relative to their ancient Roman equivalents. Plus, for us, they aren’t status symbols. They constitute part of our contribution toward improving our shared environment.
We also built our library as a destination within our garden landscape. It’s sheltered inside an off-grid climbing wall “tiny house”. And our gardens and library serve as attractions so friends and family want to visit.
Doing the work to create these spaces has also been one of my mechanisms for survival during my “exile”. Of course, Caesar didn’t banish me for disagreeing with wars of aggression.
Instead, it was a health condition. My asthma triggers made it impossible to remain healthy while working and living in and around Washington DC.
Now, surrounded by a perimeter of forest trees, nestled in their air filtering embrace, my asthma is a non-issue. I’ve also honed my ability to detect the early warning signs before an acute asthmatic response begins.
Recently though our homestead has lost the “academy” feeling. After eight years of intensive study, research, and experimentation I’ve become like Varro – almost encyclopedic — when it comes to self-provisioning and working with natural systems.
Also, because we focused on permanent agriculture, I’ve worked myself out of a job. The plants grow themselves and animal care is minimal.
That’s why, back in June, I shifted gears to writing fiction. I needed something more challenging to keep me occupied. When I did, I discovered I had an extra 65 hours in my weekly schedule — after doing all my chores, dad care, fiction writing, and relaxing with Matt.
In truth, I’d been over-occupying my time with tons of projects because I wasn’t ready to heed another warning that started striking just before the pandemic.
Boredom is pretty much the mental equivalent of a snake striking to warn you to move in a different direction. Psychology Today explains it as follows.
Boredom indicates that a current activity or situation isn’t providing engagement or meaning—so that the person can hopefully shift their attention to something more fulfilling.
You know what happens to a garden bed if you don’t keep it sufficiently engaged with cultivated plants, right? It fills up with weeds. Bored minds are like this too.
Mental weeds take many forms. A tendency toward being judgmental, being easily distracted, and procrastinating dealing with problems are some examples. In a sufficiently occupied mind, mental weeds are easy to clear out just as they are in healthy soil.
Back in July I wrote about my trip to Asheville and what an awful, judgmental, unfun person I behaved like. I’m still ashamed of myself! But that trip showed me how many weeds I’d allowed to grow in my mind by not sufficiently addressing my boredom warnings.
Cicero put it this way.
Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body.
My encounter with a copperhead helped me accept that my mind had become weedy because our actual gardens and library are no longer everything I need. It’s what they symbolize that’s missing.
I need opportunities for intellectual challenge and interaction with people who are focused on ideas and technological innovation.
For Cicero, he got that from being a lawyer and statesmen. For me, it was being an intellectual property administrator. Thankfully, clearing my schedule to write fiction helped me see that I have the time, the good health, and the deep desire to go back to my old profession.
Also, in recent years many IP firms have transitioned to remote work. So, something that was unthinkable eight years ago – doing my old job from our remote, rural homestead – is now completely possible today!
Back to the Future
When I left my last firm, my colleagues threw me an incredible going away party. Although the party was nominally in my honor, we were really celebrating our shared accomplishments. We’d navigated huge changes and challenges, smoothed out so many wrinkles in complex processes, and grown together as a cohesive team.
In lieu of a card, they circulated the pig’s butt in the photo above. They bought my first chicken flock. Plus, they gave me an extravagant bottle of wine to save for celebrating my later successes.
Writing this post has served a similar purpose as that party and the future those thoughtful gifts symbolized. It’s been a pivot point for reflecting back and shifting my focus forward.
In just a few weeks, I’ll be officially starting my search for a position as an Intellectual Property Administrator. I know you can never step in the same river twice. My old firm already has a wonderful IP Administrator. So, despite my wishful dreaming, the fact is I can’t go back to that exact job. The workforce has also changed significantly due to a global pandemic, the great resignation, quiet quitting, and the frugality phenomena.
Frankly, as a former hiring manager, I also recognize that my present resume will deter some employers. Yet, I also know that between our “villa academy” and the gig work I’ve done these past eight years, I’m not the “child” (to use Cicero’s phrase) I was before.
This lifestyle has made me more adaptable, responsive, creative, compassionate, and skilled than before. And I believe innovative, forward thinking employers will be able to see that.
In truth, I have a feeling my past eight years of experience will give me an edge navigating workforce challenges today. Hopefully I’ll be able to test that theory soon!
Simplestead has always been my “free time” project. So, just an FYI, I will continue posting new articles here periodically. I’ll also share images and videos from our homestead on Instagram.
In case you missed them, below are four recent chicken articles I wrote for Thrifty Homesteader. The final two breeds in the series will be coming soon!
Until next time, good luck navigating the snake-strike type warnings in your life. I also hope you keep on finding your equivalents of Cicero’s garden and library so you have everything you need to live well!