Parilia 2023!

On Wednesday, April 19, we in the Classics Department—in partnership with the Zilkha Center and the Center for Environmental Studies—were delighted to welcome to campus some very special guests: a small flock of Tunis, Merino, and Dorset sheep from Brattle Farm in Pittsfield, MA! From 10 am – 4 pm, these adorable wooly visitors could be found grazing and kicking up their heels in the “Solar Savannah,” the meadow underneath the pole-mounted solar panels in between the ’66 Environmental Center and Hollander Hall. Throughout the day, students and the wider college community were invited to stop by to help us celebrate the Parilia, an ancient Roman festival that marked the leading out to pasture of the new flocks each spring. Just as importantly, we wanted people to experience the pleasure and wellbeing that come from landscapes that intentionally integrate human beings and other animals. And there are few things as restorative to the human spirit as contemplating a flock of sheep—hence the term “pastoral” to mark whole genres of art, music, literature, and landscape design! 

Man in beige jacket smiles as he pets a light-colored sheep in a pen

During our Parilia 2023! celebration, students from my two courses CLLA 102 (Introduction to Latin) and CLAS 243 (The Nature of Work) presented their research projects on topics ranging from the etymology of English vocabulary (e.g., “gregarious” from the Latin grex, meaning “flock” or “herd”) to ancient cheesemaking, textile production, and the special role of sheep in Roman religion and political culture. We also read aloud together a description of the ancient Parilia by the poet Ovid, an activity which my colleague and co-organizer Professor Amanda Wilcox also did in conjunction with her course on Roman Literature (CLAS 102). And, of course, there was plenty of time given over simply to soaking up the unfamiliar but inspiring sight of sheep on campus and to talking with our wonderful farmers, Donna and Bill Chandler, who brought along samples of their flock’s award-winning fleece and yarn. Thanks to a last-minute connection made with the Green Mountain Spinning and Weaving Guild, we were also joined by Professor Iris Howley (Computer Science) and Laura Walters, a community member from Cheshire, MA, who generously offered demonstrations of their spinning wheels and other fleece-processing techniques. And a sampling of delicious cheese, produced by the local cows at Cricket Creek Farm and generously provided by CES, perfectly rounded out the event.

None of this could have happened without the help, support, and partnership of so many folks along the way. While the Classics Department had been mulling over an event like this for a while, we were all the more excited after meeting last fall with the organizers of the “Sustainable Ewe-Mass” project at UMass, Amherst, itself inspired by the “SheepMowers” project at UC Davis. Thanks to their examples, we were much better equipped to propose our idea for a sheep-centered event at Williams, which would similarly build a bridge between the humanities and campus sustainability efforts. Man in blue vest and woman in pink coat stand smiling in front of a pen of sheep

In fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of planning our day was this collaboration, as Mike Evans (Deputy Director, Zilkha Center) and I worked closely with colleagues in CES and the extremely dedicated staff in Facilities, Campus Safety, and the General Counsel’s Office, to identify the right event space and ensure the safety of all members of our community, as well as our animal visitors. At the same time, we view both the planning process and the event day itself, which was tied to the college’s EarthWeek calendar, as part of larger sustainability efforts to reeducate and reconnect people with better integrated landscapes. We are also very proud to help support our local farmers in very real and practical terms as well. In writing to express her thanks for the fee we were able to offer Brattle Farm, Donna Chandler writes: “The money will be used towards paying for our new manure spreader that enables us to utilize a byproduct of raising sheep (sheep manure) to help achieve more productive pastures and greater resilience to climate change.”

A number of small children in coats watch sheep in a penSo – we hope very much that the Parilia will become an annual event! There are certainly many more exciting possibilities for expanding its focus and reach across the curriculum, such as partnering with faculty who study other cultures that include similar springtime agricultural festivals. And, of course, we live in a rural community, with many staff and townspeople with expertise in keeping animals and managing their land sustainably, so there are lots of co-curricular and experiential opportunities to explore, too. 

Meanwhile, if you missed Parilia 2023!, you might be able to catch a glimpse of Bonnie, Brandy, Gigi, Isaac, Brock, and Allie at Brattle Farm, where their farm stand is open 7 days a week. And true sheep fans will not want to miss the annual Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair, over the hill at the Cummington Fairgrounds, May 27-28, 2023.

Dr. Nicole G. Brown is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Williams College.