Earthquakes and Gardens

Earthquakes and Gardens coverEarthquakes and Gardens: Saint Hilarion’s Cyprus
Virginia Burrus
University of Chicago Press (February 19, 2023), 211 pages
Kindle edition $20.49, Amazon paperback $27.50

The structure of Earthquakes and Gardens is somewhat unusual. Author Virginia Burrus provides a summary of Jerome’s hagiography of St. Hilarion before offering a series of essays on related topics, some closely related to Hilarion and others less so. Each essay begins with a quote from Jerome’s work.

Burrus’s interest in Hilarion derives from his close association with the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Although Hilarion was well-traveled (he spent time as a disciple of the renowned ascetic St. Anthony in Egypt and lived in the Holy Land) he spent the last years of his life on Cyprus. Jerome writes about the ruins of Cyprus caused by an earthquake years before Hilarion’s arrival (hence the “earthquakes” in the title), and he describes how Hilarion moved from his first home on the island to a more remote one next to a garden (hence that part of the title.) The garden was near a ruined temple, perhaps dedicated to the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

In a marvelous essay entitled “Poetry and Place,” Burrus writes about how ancient poets wrote about Paphos, the principal town on the island, and about Aphrodite. From there the author writes in detail about earthquakes, and what we know about earthquakes that occurred in antiquity. In that same essay she segues into a discussion about a modern art exhibition in rural Texas. She then writes about the archaeology of Paphos, and how parts of buildings that were destroyed by earthquake or other means were used in the construction of newer works.

In other essays, Burrus writes about the geography and landscape of Hilarion’s garden, and the comparisons Jerome makes between Hilarion and Anthony. Jerome takes the trouble to note that Anthony cultivated trees and ate from their fruit, while on Cyprus Hilarion left the trees in the state in which he found them and did not eat their fruit (perhaps because the trees were in a garden dedicated to a pagan goddess).

This was not the book Virginia Burrus intended to write. Her plan was to visit Cyprus and write about her experience there. But COVID disrupted those plans, as it did those of so many others. So she wrote the book without the travel. She plans, she tells us, to make it there yet. Perhaps by the time of this writing this she will have done so.

From the beginning of the book I knew that Burrus and I shared a bond. She opens the book writing about experiencing the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. I was at work in a small software company in Mountain View, California on the San Francisco Peninsula when the quake hit. I knew she would be a fine tour guide on this Cyprus trip. I was not disappointed.

With respect to genre, Earthquakes and Gardens is hard to classify. It’s not really a religious book, but those interested in saints and hagiography will find much to appreciate. Certainly there is plenty here for those who enjoy the study of antiquity. There is material for people who enjoy reading about agriculture and horticulture. Certainly those who like geology and are interested in the study of earthquakes will find plenty to appreciate. Most of all, however, the book is simply good reading for anyone who loves fine writing and a well-constructed essay.

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