For UVA Jefferson Fellow, literature Ph.D. candidate and classics scholar Stephanie Bernhard, the path to her true calling began in a garden.
“I did a lot environmental writing when I was in college [at Brown],” Bernhard says, “and before starting my first job I took a summer to [work with] WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. I had to do a lot of weeding, and it was a very, very rainy summer.
“Here’s the nerdy part,” says Bernhard, who became interested in classics in her seventh-grade Latin class. “One of my favorite poems was Vergil’s ‘Georgics,’ which is a very long poem about agriculture and agricultural labor. One day I was just out there in the field weeding and being extremely miserable, and then I realized it was exactly these lines from the “Georgics.” The line is, ‘Labor conquers all.’ It made me feel very connected to a tradition that I adore. And yet there’s nothing more modern and millennial than caring about where your food comes from. I appreciated the long reach of this tradition.”
Born in the suburbs outside Boston, Bernhard didn’t get her hands dirty, so to speak, until WWOOF, and then “there was a break in my ability to engage in that kind of work,” she says. She moved to New York, where she worked in publishing and did an internship with radio station WNYC. “The one story I did myself was on WWOOF-ing,” she says.
When she moved to Charlottesville to pursue her Ph.D. in literature, Bernhard was thrilled to be able to live in a house with a big backyard. “I was able to transform it into this little mini farm of my own,” she says. “I grow enough to almost keep me and my boyfriend in produce for the year. It’s winter, so right now I have carrots, turnips, radishes, mustard greens, kale, collards and shallots and garlic in the ground.”
Her appreciation for diversity extends beyond her green thumb to the many types of writing she’s pursued over the years, especially non-fiction. Now she writes about literature, agriculture, the environment and climate change.
The literary research she encounters and criticism she writes for her fellowship leads her to write reviews and personal essays for magazines and journals such as the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Millions. In one essay, she writes about her experience “trying to live out one of Hemingway’s stories. My goal was to cook all of the meals that the main character makes in this one story. It was a bit of a disaster because a lot of the food turned out kind of gross,” she says. “But it was fun to play with literature and not just take it very seriously, as often happens in academic departments.”
Personal experiences aren’t the only stories she tells in an effort to bring tradition to life. “I’ve been branching out into more journalistic and creative writing,” she says. “The piece I have coming out in Orion this spring is a profile of this gardening expert named Ira Wallace who lives out in Mineral. She wrote a book on gardening in the Southeast that I use and adore. She’s one of the primary brains behind Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.”
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s mission, to preserve Southern heirloom vegetables and crops, resonates with Bernhard. “They find old seeds with a very long history, and they nurture them and grow them the right way so that people can continue enjoying those seeds indefinitely,” she says.
“In our contemporary world we’re facing a tremendous extinction because of things like climate change, and there’s also a great agricultural extinction already going on because so much of our food comes from big corporations, blah, blah, blah, Monsanto. We’ve just lost a tremendous amount of seed diversity.”
Bernhard tackles these modern issues not only in articles and her dissertation but most recently a novel. In her fiction, Bernhard says, she tries to operate in a tradition of agrarian literature while adding contemporary elements. The novel, which she’ll debut during this month’s The Bridge PAI’s Reading Series, “takes up a lot of the same concerns as many of my political and essayistic work about agriculture and the relationship between humans and non-human organisms,” she says.
The story focuses on one growing season at a small organic “do-gooder” farm up in Maine, and its characters’ lives exemplify not only wonderful ideals but the hard realities of modern farming. “For those of us for whom plants are soul food, we go to farmers markets and get this really idyllic image of small, progressive organic farms. Obviously, it’s hard work, not just physically hard, but there are human difficulties that go into making a place like that—how it should look, who gets to run it.”
All her work hangs on a simple idea: the preservation of what’s important. She says she identifies with companies such as Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, whose motto is “saving the past for the future.”
“For me, this idea of the classics is something very similar,” she says. “One job of a scholar is to preserve knowledge and to make it available and make it accessible and make it exciting for future generations. I think that is one of the reasons that studying the classics appeals to me.”