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.