300 Words


Notes from a Davidson Classroom

Ancients and Their Environments,” a classics course that is also an offering of the environmental studies major curriculum, meets in a classroom overlooking Chambers Lawn. The course title evokes Davidson’s own “ancients,” and their environment. In 1929, this building was new; a century before that, the land itself was virgin woods.

Darian Totten, assistant professor of classics, transports her pupils back in time not a century but millennia: “We’re using classical poetry as a way to see the divine in a lot of different contexts and to explore the relationships of religion and the natural world.”

Did she say “religion and the natural world” or “religion in the natural world”? Ah, just so, that is the question.

First, a virtual visit to the hallowed Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens, as Totten rattles off 12 divinely familiar names, from Athena to Zeus. She notes that beyond these familiars, far beyond the urban fan base for, say, Athena in Athens, out in the local particularities of countryside religions, the hills themselves are sacred. Hear Pliny the Elder:

“The trees formed the first temples of the gods, and… indeed, we feel ourselves inspired to adoration, not less by the sacred groves and their very stillness, than by the statues of the gods, resplendent as they are with gold and ivory.” —A Natural History, XII, ii, 3

Here, the very waters and winds are divine—religion in the natural world.

Next class: Theocritus, Virgil, the Bucolics. In preparation, Totten encourages her students to pause and reflect in the moments remaining in today’s class: “How do people violate the relationship between man and nature, and how do they set it right when they do? Let’s think about that.”

Tomorrow’s Davidson ancients gaze out the window at Chambers Lawn and do just that.   – John Syme


About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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