Think back to your first impressions of the world when you were very young. Do they look like Eden?
One psychological theory has it that our early childhood memories are embedded with earlier ages of the species. Those first lights shine back on the grand savannahs where homo erectus walked from the treeline some 2 million years ago. Leaving that homeland must have borne an echo of departure from Eden. Sandor Ferenczi argued in Thalassa that the cataclysm of birth echoes the trauma of the first fish emerging from the sea about 500 million years ago; if so, our early are ripe with an early, growing Earth.
Given the despair of these times, with so much falling apart so fast, no wonder we feel Eden drifting farthermost away. We are haunted both by the eviction of this historical moment and the extinction is portends. As I wrote last week, grief and hope are as imbalanced and wobbly as summer and winter for many of us now. Since that post, the torrid alternation of heat-waves and furious storms have continued in the US, with the Northwest and western Canada suffering record heat, wildfires raging in California and record rainfall events in Missouri and a few days later in Kentucky. The widespread intensity of this summer (extreme heat also in Japan and Korea, north Africa and Turkey, Siberia, southwest France; flooding in Pakistan, Iran and the United Arab Emirates) Startling events become a duration, like the sursurrus of drenching rains which smoothed over the geography of rural Kentucky.
In such ends, are there new beginnings?
If time is circular — an immense throb of beginnings and ends repeated endlessly — then we might look for evidence of Eden seeding in the destruction of our Earth. There is also a confusion of times in a round world, where Oklahoma in the U.S. unmercifully roasts where you might be enjoying a placid winter morning in South Africa; even in one location like my own in Florida, daybreak casts the image of one world far different and menacing mid-afternoon. Globally we may feel the impending doom of a rapidly-changing climate, but our angst will probably seem halcyon to someone living 50 years from now; and downright strange to someone living far North or South 200 years from now, in the placid and temperate zones of what was once Antarctica and the Arctic.
As the I Ching says, to and fro goes the way.
But let’s try. Recall, as you can, your early hours and days on this Earth. Where did light first break for you? What did the great world look and feel like when you were outside? What games do you recall playing, what places did you explore? And how do those early memories resonate for you now?
Was there an Eden once? When did the Fall come, and how did it happen?
It’s important to point out that the Judeo-Christian myth of Eden and the Fall has many similar motifs in other cultures. According to some ancient sources, the four main rivers of the ancient Near East—the Tigris, Euphrates, Halys, and Araxes — flowed out of a garden. Scholars today debate the origin of the word Eden. Some believe it comes from a Sumerian word meaning “plain”’ Others say it is from the Persian word heden, meaning “garden.”
Yet in other cultures, our place in creation is not defined by a Fall. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass (2013):
On one side of the world were people whose relationship with the living world was shaped by Skywoman, who created a garden for the well-being of all. On the other side was another woman with a garden and a tree. But for tasting its fruit, she was banished from the garden and the gates clanged shut behind her. That mother of men was made to wander in the wilderness and earn her bread by the sweat of her brow, not by filling her mouth with the sweet juicy fruits that bend the branches low. In order to eat, she was instructed to subdue the wilderness into which she was cast.
Same species, same earth, different stories. Like Creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are. We are inevitably shaped by them no matter how distant they may be from our consciousness. One story leads to the generous embrace of the living world, the other to banishment. One woman is our ancestral gardener, a cocreator of the good green world that would be the home of her descendants. The other was an exile, just passing through an alien world on a rough road to her real home in heaven. (6-7)
Exile brought Western settlers to North America, and they carried with them a haunted sense of the Fall which made them extractors and developers, stealing everything they could from the wilderness their God told them to master. (In the United States, those descendents now tell woman their body belongs to the will of the religious state, a garden women are finding themselves banned from.)
Divisions of culture and nature also create a false wall where inside is human plenty and outside is the raw material for that comfort. Suburbias are unholy Edens, a gated paradise adorned with walls and security systems and rich green lawns and viciously overworked irrigation systems.
Back at the end of the 19th century, there were those here in the U.S. who sought to conserve some fraction of the frontier which had been fenced and portioned off. They sought government protection of public lands and made national parks out of lonely islands of the old wild — Yosemite and the Grand Canyon in the U.S., Banff National Park in Canada, Plitvis Lakes in Croatia, Torres del Plaine in Chile and Kruger National Park in South Africa.
As good intentioned as these national parks are, they reinforce the sense that wild nature is out there and far away, hiding the living wild that is part and parcel of our daily lived reality.
Indeed, nature in the Anthropocene is no less everpresent, and though resembles far less the Edens of memory, it is still something to be loved. We may have to reimagine our relation to the wild, as Jedediah Purdy writes in After Nature:
American environmentalists imagine wild nature as diametrically opposed to lowland of society, technology, and politics — a view that enables nature’s devotees to divide their loyalties in a too-convenient copout. When in the lowlands of everyday life, they are not entirely of it, because they hold apart the most essential portion of themselves. In wild nature, they cultivate a (supposedly) higher part of the self, but to assume that this, the best of them, cannot thrive where they spend most of their time and energy. The best and highest, what they live for, is elsewhere for most of their lives. This divided attitude … is an excuse to neglect and disrespect the places where environmentalist actually live and the people they live among. This attitude ironically also fails to take seriously the “higher” values of nature, because it reserves those values for rare occasions in faraway places, rather than working to bring them into everyday life. (283-4)
Which means if we are looking for beginnings, it is well for us to begin in our own back yards, that place of personal experience and enactment.
For this week’s challenge, write of Beginnings — wherever they may be found.
SOME KEEP THE SABBATH
Some keep the Sabbath, going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.
Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church,
Our little sexton sings.
God preaches — a noted clergyman, —
And the sermon is never long:
So instead of going to heaven at last,
I’m going all along!
Give me a church
made entirely of salt.
Let the walls hiss
and smoke when
I return to shore.
I ask for the grace
of a new freckle
on my cheek, the lift
of blue and my mother’s
soapy skin to greet me.
Hide me in a room
with no windows.
Never let me see
the dolphins leaping
for this water-prayer
rising like a host
of sky lanterns into
the inky evening.
Let them hang
in the sky until
they vanish at the edge
of the constellations —
the heroes and animals
too busy and bright to notice.
From Oceanic, 2018
THE SUMMER DAY
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
— from House of Light, 1990
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
— “The Little Gidding” is the last of Eliot’s Four Quartets and was originally published in 1943