Back to the Garden

medieval image of deer

Livre de chasse, ca 1407

[This is the first post in a new series.]

Lately I have been thinking about that old Joni Mitchell song, Woodstock, where she says:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

This idea haunts me. I find references to this song, to the Garden and gardening and Eden everywhere I turn, as if the universe is whacking me upside the head, saying, “Pay attention!”

Genesis tells the tale of humankind’s expulsion from Eden. It is a myth. The definition of a myth is a tale which is not factual, but which is true. In our age of empiricism this can seem like a contradiction of terms, but it isn’t. A myth is a truth which is always playing out beneath the surface of things. It isn’t a past-tense event, it’s the current state of affairs. Every day we are Falling. Every day we chose to leave Eden.

Once we did not consider ourselves separate from nature–we walked with it and in it. And then something went terribly wrong and we fell out of balance with the rest of the world. We fell out of right relationship with the world and all the other beings which we’d once loved. We imagined ourselves the masters of the world, and to make up for the pain and loneliness of our estrangement from which we once loved, we used our creative intelligence to pillage all of the resources of the world. Like greedy children we demanded more and more toys, and then broke them all. Now we sit in the debris of our own wastefulness, wanting still more. We want more because we are empty inside, and we think power and things can fill that lonely space in our hearts.

Some people think humans are an evolutionary mistake, a sort of rampaging virus which is destroying the world. I think we are doing a good job of destroying the world, but I don’t think that was ever the path we were meant to follow.

When we look at the natural world we see how every living thing, from lactobacillus to elephants, have a role to play in the dance of life. I’ve often wondered where humans were meant to fit in the dance. We are such odd creatures: naked, bipedal, abstract thinkers far too clever for anybody’s good. It’s easy to imagine that the world would be better off without our interference. But I don’t think that is the case. I think the world needs us, has always needed us.

Intelligence runs throughout creation, and I never underestimate the intelligence of other creatures and even plants, but human intelligence is unique. A falcon will distinguish between a lark and a rabbit, but only we can imitate both the lark and the rabbit. Only we can craft images of them, make up songs and stories about them, and weave those stories into the meaning of all things.

I’ve had only a few visions or epiphanies in my life, things I believe with all my heart, though I cannot prove them to be true. This is one of them. Our role is to celebrate Nature, to witness it, to love it. We are Nature’s mirror and Nature’s poets and Nature’s guardians.

cave painting of lion heads

Cave lion drawings from Chauvet Cave, France

The cave paintings of our paleolithic ancestors show an astonishing familiarity with the animals they represent, a close eye for detail, for movement and physiognomy, for the subtle differences between males and females of the same species, for instance. No one knows exactly what the paintings were for, but for me it is enough to know that we were reverently engaged with the world around us. And while we didn’t paint mice or mushrooms, I’m sure we were as deeply engaged with all of the plants and animals within our range. I can’t even imagine the tales and songs we must have shared when we were in this deep relationship with the world–when we were in Eden.

Eden? You might be saying. Hardly. Life was brutal and short back then. Well, yes. We died under tooth and claw, and from raging infections and long winters. But I don’t know that anyone is qualified to say that our ancestors did not have lives full of meaning and joy. I don’t know that if we brought one of them forward to our time that they wouldn’t pity us in turn.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to go back to that world, even if it were possible–but do I want to get back to the Garden. And I think that is possible. We just have to change the stories we’ve been telling ourselves.

I’ll have more to say on our role as caretakers of nature, and how that fits into home gardening and much more,  in my next post.

Thanks to Father Mark R. Kowalewski for inspiring me bring some of these ideas together.

Leave a comment


  1. The Other Side of Eden might be a fantastic read for you, if you haven’t read it already. Hugh Brody is the author. He lived with the Inuit people long enough to truly learn the language – not just the words, but the ways of living that are grounded in the language. It’s a fantastic analysis of the book of Genesis, from an agrarian vs. hunter-gather perspective.

  2. You and I are in tight harmony on this theme. I included the website for my poetry blog because most of what I write has to do with what you just said.

  3. We are stardust
    Billion-year-old carbon
    We are golden
    Caught in the devil’s bargain
    And we’ve got to get ourselves
    Back to the garden

    “Paradise Lost”, not to get all religious (I’m the last person to do that) but you started it and this seems relevant. (=

    • Ah yes, you’ve got the better hunk of lyric there. I should maybe switch it out for mine. A devil’s bargain indeed.

  4. Beautifully expressed. That innate longing for what we have lost has been at the core of my evolving spirituality for the last thirty-five years. I thank you for your post and am looking forward to the next one.

  5. I love “reverently engaged with the world around us”. I have 3 little kids and have really been trying to figure out how to spend more time outside with them. It doesn’t come naturally to me – but that’s a fantastic phrase to capture what I’m trying to experience myself and create with them. Thank you!

    • You might want to check out the Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. It’s about teaching nature awareness and helping kids and adults connect with nature. It’s sort of a professional manual, a pedagogical model, which might be more useful to camp councilors and teachers, but I think a mom could find it useful as well.

  6. Iterresting considerations, but i just wish to know where the lovely deers image on the top o this post is from.
    I’m not able to collocate it in the time nor the places..

    • You are right! I am sorry. I forgot to credit both photos. I’ll go back and do that.

  7. I recently listened to a podcast interview about Sudden Oak Life, a tree-healing service. There is substantial evidence that the tallest and oldest trees on earth were tended by humans. That really helped me feel that we have a vital role in nature. Unlike other species we have ways of opting out of our role, but we can opt back in and manage forests again with fire and tending, provide ourselves with food and with a better understanding of our place on the planet.

    • Interesting. I do know that out here, Native Americans tended oaks very carefully (since they were a key food source), keeping the ground beneath them clear– planting that ground with edible wildflowers, which made for beautiful flowering meadows dotted with huge spreading oaks. I’ve been places where I’ve seen huge oaks in clearings that I think may have been tended once. Now the oaks are fading, and no new oaks are coming up, and there are no wildflowers. Now I’ve depressed myself! 😉

  8. You probably ought to view the film Back to Eden ( ) wherein the gardener, Paul Gautschi says in a couple of ways that we were not meant to till the soil (which we now know leads to soil erosion and the death of a soil food web), but that we were meant to tend the garden. He spouts a lot of scripture, but you can’t argue with his methods or results.

    • I don’t know the Bible that well, but wasn’t tilling the soil part of our punishment? Maybe that meant it wasn’t supposed to happen in the first place. I’ll check out the film–thanks!

  9. Beautiful post… thank you 🙂
    This book by Stephen Harrod Buhner is amazing: Plant Intelligence & the Imaginal Realm: Beyond the Doors of Perception into the Dreaming of Earth,” I’d highly recommend reading it!!!
    Among other things, he talks about the possibility of human being’s evolutionary purpose being to help Gaia reproduce (helps explain a lot of our space travel/escapist moon-colony fantasies!) — he has a lot of other great books too.

  10. Deanna,
    Get few chickens for your children. It will get you outdoors, too. My youngest child could be found squatting with a little piece of a branch, scraping in the grass. Or, she would have her eyes inches from the huge oak in the front yard, raking a little broken stick on the tree surface. She was less than two on up until she was around five.

    Lovely, thoughtful post. I so much agree with all you wrote. I am not so sure how much the earth actually needed us. But, as humans we do seem to take an idea and run with it causing much worthy progress along with destruction.

    Adam and Eve were the parents of Cain and Abel. Cain tended fields and Abel tended flocks. Cain brought offerings from the field while Abel brought blood offerings from his animals. God approved of the the blood offerings, but he did not approve of the field offerings. So, Cain killed Abel out of jealousy.

    I studied the bible for several years in a Bible College. The more I learned, the less I believed.

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