Autumn isn’t far off now. It’s too dark anymore at 6AM for us to harvest so we’re now starting the work day at 6:30. The sun is bright and hot on our backs at mid-day, but the shade under the trees along the creek at the edge of the field is getting deeper and cooler. Evening arrives earlier than it did a month ago, and even with the smoggy glow from Silicon Valley dulling the brilliance of the night sky we’ll soon be able to see Capella rising just after dark.
Capella means “little female goat” in Latin, but don’t look to the sky for a goat jumping over the moon. Capella is a giant star, relatively close to earth as stars go. To scientists, the Goat star is alpha Aurigae, a spectral type G 8 III 0.1 magnitude, binary star that lies 42 light years away in space. This astronomical data sounded like Greek to me until I read what the Greeks really thought.
The ancient Greeks identified Capella as the she-goat Amalthea who suckled the infant Zeus. While he was playing rough house with his goatish wet nurse the rowdy young god broke one of Amalthea’s horns by mistake. Later, as a more mature god, Zeus imbued this broken horn with the power of dispensing copious quantities of food and drink to all who desired it. Poor, wounded Amalthea’s horn became the Cornucopia, or the horn of plenty.
Over time this mythic image of a broken goat’s horn bleeding forth nature’s bounty was appropriated by artists who wished to suggest overflowing abundance. Advertisers followed in the wake of art and the horn of plenty made its appearance in countless ads and logos. Illustrators working for advertising agencies reworked the original bloody goat horn into a charming but less visceral horn-shaped wicker basket. No mystery there; Madison Avenue invites us to wallow in consumption; there’s not much money to be made stimulating consumers to meditate on the capricious nature of abundance.
The identification of overflowing bounty with a goat’s horn didn’t seem as odd to the ancients as it may to us now. At one time people measured their wealth in goats. Second Chronicles 17:11 tells the story of Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. “Some of the Philistines brought Jehoshaphat presents, and silver for tribute; Arabians brought him flocks, seven thousand, seven hundred rams and seven thousand, seven hundred goats. And Jehoshaphat waxed great exceedingly and he built in Judah castles…” As the Goat star made its seasonal ascent into the evening sky the ancient farmers of the Fertile Crescent were reminded that both the autumnal equinox and the bounty of the fall harvest were drawing near.
Scientists look at Capella through a telescope and describe two distant balls of constantly exploding gas locked in a gravitational Fall Renewal Time tango. The Goat star’s ritual fall rising is dismissed as an optical illusion. Earth is not the center of the universe. We spin on an axis and in due course we revolve again to witness Capella over our northern horizon at dusk. The fact that this cyclic event occurs as our seasons slip from summer into fall is a mere coincidence having nothing to do with goats. Science leaves the nanny goat, Amalthea, with no role to play at all in astronomy and the myth of her broken horn is a children’s story.
But even when science explains everything, it means nothing. Explanation is about facts, and meaning is about us; we are self-centered and significance revolves around our needs. Naming a spectral type G 8 III 0.1 magnitude, binary star after a goat tells us nothing to us about stars but the myth of Capella can be appreciated for the faint light it casts on the meaning of abundance. Capella, the name, is cognate with the Latin noun capra, meaning goat. Mother Nature is “capricious” in the purest sense of the word, which originally meant “to behave like a goat.” The harvest does not come spilling out of a horn-shaped wicker basket horn; that is truly a childish attitude. There is blood to pay. We work hard for everything we eat, whether we labor in actual fields of vegetables, grains and fruit, or slaughter and butcher livestock or work in more metaphorical “fields of endeavor.” Sometimes a rich harvest is a just reward for all our labors. Other times, despite our best efforts, abundance bounds away from us like a wild goat gone to hide from the slaughter in thick brush.
This year, as I look around our two small farms, I see tomatoes and peppers hanging red and gold on the vines, and rows of carrots, strawberries and lettuces. Our coolers are stuffed with potatoes, our barns are stacked high with onions, and our fields are filled with squash and pumpkins turning sweet in the heat of late summer. When I get out of bed in the middle of the night to check on a bleating sheep or quiet a barking dog I see a faint sparkle getting brighter, low in the north eastern sky; Capella is rising. Alpha Aurigae shines back down at me unblinking. I rub my eyes and I think of the slit pupils of Amalthea’s weird, golden, goat eyes; alert, beautiful, inscrutable and uncanny.
copyright 2009 Andy Griffin
This Saturday I’ll be in San Francisco with one of our ‘Too Many Tomatoes‘ Events: all by pre order: email me to let me know what you’d like. I’ll be on Folsom at one of our Two Small Farms pick up sites. When you make an order, I’ll send you the address. 10am-12 noon. San Marzano Tomatoes, Early Girl Tomatoes, BeefSteaks, Mixed Sweet Peppers for roasting and freezing, Spicy Chiles for making salsa etc, and of course Pimiento de Padron peppers!
brand new San Marzano Tomato Canning Photo Essay! 1 box = 9.5 quarts in my house…
2 more Tomato Upick Days planned: Thursday 9/24 & Saturday 9/26: both in Hollister at our farm, both from 9am to1pm. All Tomatoes 50 cents/pound. See you there! (open to all)
Ladybug Truck Farm Buying Club (open to all)