The second story the Bible tells us, right after recounting how God created Heaven and Earth, and set humans up in a bountiful garden, is the story of how we got kicked out of the garden. Historians believe that the story of the Fall has been told for 10,000 years, which is about how long we’ve had agriculture. (Coincidence? I don’t think so.) For ten millennia we have lamented the exchange of a life of ease and plenty for our hardscrabble existence marked by loss and pain.
When I contemplate the coming crash of the Industrial Age, when I visualize its massive wreckage, I have come to believe that I can see, in all the smoke and horror, a path leading back to the Garden that was once our birthright, and could be again.
After all the time we have been telling each other this story, you’d think we’d have a pretty good grasp of its contents, if not its larger meaning. But we mostly seem to think it has something to do with disobedience, or eating an apple, or associating with serpents, or something. But the Bible is quite clear: we were booted for arrogance — for claiming for ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil.” (My layman’s close reading of the story in Genesis is the prologue of my book Brace for Impact.)
When we presumed to know the difference between good plants (crops) and evil plants (weeds), between helpful animals (domesticate them!) and evil animals (eradicate them!), between bees (build hives for them! On 18-wheelers! Truck them all over the country and make tons of money!) and mosquitoes (eradicate them!), we lost our residency in the Garden and began a centuries-long war with Creation, a violent and destructive struggle to bend it to our purposes. It’s a war we are now in the last stages of losing decisively.
We got kicked out of Eden, God said to a friend (or somebody — the quote in Genesis is intriguing) lest we lay hands on the Tree of Life itself. By which I take Him to mean lest we, no longer content with the physical destruction we have wrought, start tinkering around with the ultimate mystery, our genetic code.
I have always assumed that the story of the Garden and our Fall was metaphorical, meant to be instructive and not understood as a literal description of two incompatible approaches to living on Earth. Now I am not so sure.
I have become a novitiate in the study and practice of Permaculture — restorative agriculture whose goal is to grow abundant food by nurturing the web of life, instead of destroying it as industrial agriculture does. Permaculture teaches us to contemplate our fields for a long time, before intervening gently and helpfully to husband their water, replenish their soils, assemble their plants into guilds of mutually beneficial species from subsoil fungi to lofty oak trees. One of the results of this behavior is the emergence of a food forest, a source of an abundance of fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms that requires no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, no petroleum-fueled tillage, no irrigation, little labor for its maintenance, and that flourishes for decades if not centuries.
Sounds like Eden to me.
Permaculture, as I am just beginning to understand it, is sustainable agriculture raised to a new level and extended into every aspect of life. For example, one of the requirements of its practice, one that is so alien to the attitude of the industrial age as to be almost incomprehensible to us, is the commitment required to a piece of land. It is a commitment not of years but of generations, not by an individual but an entire family at least, a whole community at most.
People are doing this now. People born captives of an iron industrial age, taught to exploit, destroy and move on, mercenary nomads conditioned to expect immediate gratification, are learning how to nurture slow abundance not only in beautiful and hospitable places but in desert places, in depleted and injured and tainted places. And they are finding that as the land in their care heals, so do they and their families and their associations.
In a real sense they are going back to Eden. Maybe it’s possible, while the destroyers reap the whirlwind of their destruction, to create the beginnings of a new world from which the curse of our presumption — to know the difference between good and evil, as if we were gods — has been lifted.
For me, the possibility is enough to keep me from despair, and to make me want to live long enough to see the other side of the coming cataclysm. I’d like to give my forwarding address as: a state of grace.