Return to Eden
In her song about the 1969 Woodstock music festival, Joni Mitchell sang, “We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.”
This thought sounded beautiful in 1970, but did people ever really live in a garden? While the Bible says we started in a garden called Eden, that story is a myth, shared by cultures from Mesopotamia to China. But like most myths, it holds a deeper truth.
Indigenous people — which included all of our ancestors at some point — did live in a global garden for 40,000 years, up until the 19th Century, when industry took over farming. Some people had always lived in towns, but even urban areas including imperial Rome had lots of gardens. Now, we have damaged Earth so badly that our survival depends on getting back to the garden as soon as we can.
According to David Graeber PhD and David Wengrow PhD in The Dawn of Everything, the prehistoric garden wasn’t paradise. Food could run short in the winter; neighboring tribes could go to war. Some even took slaves. But people’s relationship to land and life was much closer.
As native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, explains, her people saw the whole world as a garden they shared with the animals and plants they ate. As a result, many were surprisingly rich.
When Europeans first arrived on the East coast of North America, they were astounded by the profusion of animal and plant life, far richer than what they were used to. They attributed it to the bounty of God before humans came. In reality, it was the humans living here, according to a thorough article by archeologist Peter Stahl, who were gardening it. People hunted and gathered, but they did it in ways that increased the life around them, brought more animals, birds and fish to hunt and helped plants grow better. They also grew food crops around their homes.
It’s not that indigenous people were/are saints or supernaturally wise. Only that they have had thousands of years of experience, trial and error over generations, and a willingness to learn what they needed to survive. Although they made some mistakes and may (or may not) have hunted some species like the woolly mammoth to extinction, by 1492, they had pretty much got it figured out.
Industrial civilization has since decimated the indigenous people, changed the climate, degraded soils and seas, and created prolonged droughts, putting the world on the brink of widespread starvation. But much indigenous wisdom still holds. If we get back to seeing the world as garden, we will be healthier and happier, and we might survive.
At the individual level, Kimmerer writes that if we want to heal our relationship with Earth, the best thing we can do is plant gardens. In a garden, she says, you give love to the Earth, and it loves you back with gifts of food, medicine, and beauty. Love means not exploiting Earth for profit, not running it over with tractors or spraying it with chemicals, but giving it time and attention, as indigenous people and family farmers have done for thousands of years.
How we lost Eden
Monotheist religions teach the Biblical story of Adam and Eve as humans’ falling out of grace with God. They were living in paradise, but that wasn’t good enough. They wanted to know more; they wouldn’t settle for child-like innocence. They ate from a tree that made them curious, judgmental and smart, and so they lost Eden.
The Bible says, “So the Lord God told Adam, “Because of you, the ground is cursed. By hard work you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”
This story answered early farmers’ question: ‘Why are we working so hard?’ Since the paradise of Nature was forever closed to them, people set about changing and using the natural world in any way that could make life easier. Things like dams, roads, cities, chemicals, and guns started to appear. Land started turning to deserts.
Contrast the Eden myth with the Iroquoios/Huron creation myth of Skywoman, who fell to Earth and made a garden of it, with the animals help. In this version, the story we need now, humans are an integral part of Nature and can only be successful if Nature succeeds too.
Emulating Skywoman, Native Americans gardened their world. Some of this gardening included setting fires; some of it building raised beds to grow food and digging ditches for irrigation. They worked, but not the endless hours peasants, serfs, and the rest of us work in Western civilizations. They also enjoyed life.
Kimmerer says that if we saw the world as our garden, we would look for ways to beautify it, enjoy it, help it, not to profit from it. In capitalist societies, men look at a piece of land and say, how could we make money with that? What could we build on it? What resource could we extract from it and sell? What if, instead we asked, how can we help that land be more productive and happy? What does it want to have growing on it?
Maybe working together with the land, we could help it heal from the wounds we have caused. There is a whole science of Permaculture that studies how land can regenerate itself with people’s help, and it’s being done all over the world. Although the destructive forces of industrial civilization are more powerful, land can still recover, and surprisingly quickly, as you can see in scores of YouTube videos.
I have written about individual people who brought whole districts back to life in India. Even larger regions have been healed in China and Ethiopia with permaculture practices, informed by indigenous wisdom and scientific research. Gardening needs to go global, and we should all be doing that or helping those who do.
Becoming world gardeners
So what could people do to garden the world? The big things will need large groups or governments, but individual actions also help.
● If you have space, you can plant your own gardens. They’ll help you eat, and done right, they can help heal the land. In permaculture, the farmer seeks to maximize the health of the land, not one season’s yield. This could involve planting trees and digging ponds to hold water, combining crops that protect each other from pests, and many other strategies indigenous people, farmers, and scientists have learned. Healthy soil can absorb large amounts of carbon from the air, reducing global warming. A video about such “regenerative agriculture” is here.
● Plants and animals can help each other grow. Gardening can include bees, chickens, butterflies, fish, and small mammals if there’s room. Larger mammals like cattle can also help soil grow strong if they move around enough. Look at some of the videos at the end of this article or search for them.
● If you can’t grow your own, support organic farmers in or near your community. Maybe join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) plan where you get food delivered every week.
● Live like a gardener — We don’t have to work all day. Do what people do in gardens. Read, sunbathe, make love, create. Relax.
But individual gardening is not enough. Ecological researcher and filmmaker John Liu says, “One backyard at a time won’t do it anymore. We have to do this on a global scale.”
Fix what can be fixed
Part of global gardening is protecting the land. We can’t get back to the garden if it’s been paved over, or drenched with chemicals. We might need to tear up some lawns, plant trees, convert militaries to conservation programs. (The US military is the world’s biggest polluter.) We need to preserve what we can.
Permaculture News says: fight to protect forests. Keep open space open. We don’t have to build on or pave over everything. We might be better off tearing some things down. Life creates life; this is how things will come back.
Keep plastic out of the garden. Use far less, and develop means of getting rid of it. I know people are researching and have found types of worms and microorganisms that can eat plastic, though not in the quantities we’re producing.
Slow emissions — reduce driving, flying, and energy use to a minimum. Do we need to be always plugged in, always buying more things and always moving around?
Living in Eden
Going back to Eden doesn’t mean going without clothes or metal tools or going back to the Stone Age. It means getting our hands dirty with the world, working with it and learning about it, not treating it as something to shut the door on and ignore.
What will people do all day? A lot of bullshit jobs will disappear, but growing food, restoring forests, wetlands, and habitats for animals will provide lots of hard but rewarding work. And then we can relax, create, and have fun. We can be together pursuing the great cause of restoring life. We might feel united the way people do in crises, helping each other out instead of stepping over suffering people on the street. We might find healing Earth a good reason to live and alternative to war.
TBH, it won’t all be fun. There will be a lot of activism involved, and the world’s land and water defenders often face violent attack. But the cause is worth it. The cause is life itself. Imagine a world you can walk through, put your hands into, see, smell, and love, as gardeners do. This is one vision of a potential future; the Matrix movies are the other. If enough people embrace a vision (OK, call it a religion) based on indigenous wisdom, science, and love of Nature, we could still create a more beautiful world.
If you want to make gardening your life’s work, check out videos such as: How to Start a Regenerative Farm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3So3oIsnxg
The Biggest Little Farm is a farm that includes Nature instead of excluding it. https://www.apricotlanefarms.com/biggest-little-farm/
To see how land can be reclaimed, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VZSJKbzyMc
John Liu — reclaiming deserts in Africa, Jordan, and China https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDgDWbQtlKI
Water reclamation projects in India https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDMnbeW3F8A
And so many more amazing videos those will lead you to.
To learn how science can combine with wisdom and renew life, read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, PhD, Native American wise woman and botanist.
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