The garden of Eden?


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It was a high-tech orchard.

I’d like to say something about ecology, and I’d like to do it beginning with a story from the Bible. Not an easy choice to make: what does the agricultural and pastoral world of ancient Israel have to do with our global warming, our talk of sustainable development and questions we have regarding our sourced of energy?

Well, let’s try and return, using our imagination, to the first story of the Bible. Our protagonists are a man and a woman. The parable of Adam and Eve, narrated in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Genesis, has been represented an innumerable number of times in painting and, subsequently, in cinema, being gradually read anew, reinterpreted, and enriched with new meaning. It’s one of the founding narratives of our civilization. Within it are embedded, even for the non-religious, a number of deeply rooted symbols and feelings: from guilt to the dream of an original innocence, in part expressed by man’s harmony with the natural environment.

Now, we always use our imagination to represent, according to the indications we’re given in the Bible, the possible scenery in which this story takes place. “And the Lord God planted a garden … and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis chapter 2, v. 8). A first misunderstanding of the text might arise here. The term “garden” reminds us of those urban botanical structures, built almost exclusively for ornamental and recreational purposes. The garden is, par excellence, the place where one rests, takes a break, and doesn’t work. Taken in this sense, a garden suggests a relationship with nature that is exclusively aesthetic, free from any purpose related to productivity. It would appear a curious destiny, then, that the first men should be placed in the garden to “till it and keep it” (chapter 2, v. 15). For who’s benefit, we might ask?

The second misunderstanding is born of the fantasies of some cinematographers, who have represented Adam and Eve’s living in nature as living in an uncultivated forest, recalling the myth of the “good savage”, of the man still innocent before civilization corrupted him through economy and politics. A myth that doesn’t die easily at all, constantly becoming fashionable again, finding a way in through the works of the philosophers, from Rousseau to Thoreau’s Walden, on to the neo-primitivist and anarchist hypotheses of John Zerzan.

Of these two approaches – the aesthetics of the artificial, and the idealization of “nature” understood as the counter-definition of civilization – we find no trace in the Bible.

For the reader of biblical times, Adam and Eve’s “garden” has all the appearance of an orchard. For such a reader, the orchard is where those species of fruit tree specially selected by the wisdom of generations of farmers and, therefore, tended with care, are to be found. A solid perimeter wall protects this luxury – these riches – destined to be consumed by the wealthy. This changes our perspective on the meaning of the story. Let’s see why.

The cultivation of fruit trees probably begins around 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, marking a watershed in the history of agriculture. It took centuries to learn grafting techniques – that is, techniques of cloning, or non-sexual reproduction – which maximize production and guarantee the quality of the fruit. To this we might add the study that was needed of the characteristics of each species, with regard to the type of land suitable for a particular tree, their water requirements, and so on. Finally kick-starting a productive orchard could require the patient investment of several generations, up to the first harvest. To plant a productive orchard, it takes not only knowledge but, moreover, time and money. While cereals and legumes are grown that man may survive, fruit trees are planted once man has survived subsistence and can invest in non-essential and long-term projects. The cultivation of fruit, therefore, implies a monetary economy, historically connected to the cities. The cultivation of fruit was therefore part and parcel of the affirmation of urban civilization: it was born together with the sciences, with literature and with spirituality. The Garden of Eden presupposes all of this. In other words, in the story narrated by Genesis, man is born into an already humanized nature, made his friend through patient work. Between man and creation there is already a mutually beneficial alliance which has been established, founded on human intelligence, a taste for the beautiful and the good, and ultimately gratitude towards God the Creator. Any discussion of nature, consequently, immediately becomes a reflection on civilization and on the way in which man is civilized through his intelligent and responsible relationship with creation.

Secondly, this understanding of the text suggests the meaning of Adam and Eve’s nudity: they “were both naked, and were not ashamed” (chapter 2, v. 25). This isn’t the nudity of the primitive or of the child. Both are, in their “birthday suit”, just “as God created them”: intelligent, industrious, at peace with one another, with God, and with other creatures. They’re civilized men and women living a relationship with creation which is original. Original not chronologically, but on the axis of meaning: 100% authentically human, a man and a woman, as a consequence of their harmony with their surroundings.

This biblical narrative serves us as an indicator towards an attitude we can assume towards the environment, an alternative to both the self-destructive exploitation of resources and the romantic idealization of the wild. On the contrary, it helps us realise that thinking about the environment is always thinking about civilization, the economy, and politics. Nature and culture, environment and civilization aren’t separate spheres. Our relationship with nature always passes through the mediation of the cultural, social, and political. Even environmentalism, in its various modes of articulation, belongs to the culture of advanced capitalism, and tends to envisage a new relationship with nature which involves systems of production, the social order and individual behaviour. “Thinking green” therefore means thinking politically, making culture, exploring the possibilities of the economy. But it also means posing an anthropological question, asking oneself who man is, what belongs to him, and what the meaning of his presence on earth is.

Photo by Nathan Hulsey

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