Thursday, March 6, 2014

The First Garden: Eden According to Karen Armstrong

            People who love gardens like to point out that Western religion has a long tradition of regarding the ideal, perfect, paradisal home for human beings as "a garden." When God created human beings he established them in the Garden of Eden.
           What happens next is a matter of interpretation. Karen Armstrong, whose recent book is titled simply "The Bible," points out that from its beginning the Judeo-Christian scripture defeats any attempt at a literal, consistent understanding of the text.
            "From the first, Biblical authors contradicted each other and their conflicting visions were all included by the editors in the final text," she writes. "There is for example no single doctrine of creation in the Bible and the first chapter of Genesis was rarely read as a factual description of the origins of the cosmos..."
            Both accounts of creation in Genesis, however, do place Adam and Eve in the garden, and some of us still find comfort, and inspiration, in that choice.
            For Armstrong's theological reading of that creative choice, however, the idea of "garden" is not a matter of a certain arrangement of plants and other facilities -- water source? archway? benches? hermitage? -- but of creating a setting to make ecstasy possible.       
            Ecstasy -- from the Greek ekstasis: "standing outside one's normal state" -- transcends the divisions and fragmentary nature of ordinary life. Armstrong writes:  
            "The biblical story of the Garden of Eden depicts this experience of primal wholeness: God and humanity were not divided but lived in the same places; men and women were unaware of gender difference; they lived in harmony with animals and the natural world and there was no distinction between good and evil..."
            I'll start with the "harmony" point in this evocation of wholeness, since I doubt I'll have much to say about the others. For me, ideally at least, harmony means everything is welcome in our gardens. All creatures that thrive in urban and suburban human settlements find their way into our gardens and most escape without molestation. In our own case we've had squirrels, skunks, racoons, a muskrat, wild turkeys, a snake, a rabbit, and both feral and domestic cats and have dwelled, if not always "in harmony," then in a coexistence more peaceful than not. I've been known make some exceptions when it comes to squirrels, who dig the place up when hiding acorns, and even to wandering cats. For what purpose, exactly, is a cat nosing about in my garden? To leave behind some special feline donation?
            When it comes to insects, I've been trying to put out the welcome wagon for honey bees in recent years, and this year I will try to plant even more of the flowering plants they find useful. Some people, of course , are allergic to bee stings and understandably shy of their presence. I've come to regard them as part of the life blood of the garden and have grown used to deadheading blown flower heads while the bees make their collection visits to the blooms of the same plant.
            Similarly, butterflies are a reward for growing the plants they like. Our butterfly bushes draw the monarchs. But the monarch caterpillar, as I have lately learned, will eat "only" eat milkweed. I will find this plant this year and grow it.
            Even if our home gardens are not perfect models of the peaceable kingdom, gardening tends to put us on better terms with both the plant and the animal kingdoms. In the places where most of us live we don't raise chicken, milk cows, tolerate goats or pigs, and the practical value of grazing sheep as lawn services is only lately being recognized. We keep pet animals, but they mostly indoors with us.
            But in our gardens we live not only with the plants we grows and the bugs that crawl or fly, but with birds, those miniature angels of the sky's dominion. I'm not sure the birds feel they're in harmony with us, but I do my best for them, from the winter-long feeding program we maintain, to the cultivation of certain crops such as blueberries that they get more out of than we do and the prodigious expansion of the mulberry tree that provides a June feast for winged creatures but almost nothing usable for us.
            And the birds do hang around. Very few accounts of the pleasures of gardening omit mention of the pleasure of bird song.
Even wth nothing much to eat in the back garden this time of year, certain birds -- cardinals, bluejays, grosbeaks, make regular, perhaps daily stops at the weeping cherry tree behind the house.
            The routine goes like this.
            Bird lands on upper branch. Turns head one direction. Turns head opposite direction. Back, forth. Back, forth. Hops to one side. Hops to the other side. Receives sudden crucial information imperceptible to human senses, and darts off. Repeats whole performance two minutes later.
            It's the grosbreak, I think, I've often seen poised on a viburnum that keeps its large, purple-black berries for much of the winter. There must be a connection.
            If you garden you are ipso facto in harmony with "the natural world." If you are not, it's a sad labor trying to impose one's will on the earth. Harmony means allowing the other party to make at least some of the decisions. 'Oh, I see you want to live over there rather than where I put you. OK, we'll try it your way and see how that works.'
            Plants grow where they like, as much a
s they like, or get discouraged and fade. We shape them, cut them back, and encourage the slackers. They win at least half the contests. That's my idea of harmony in the garden.
            I know there are more exacting approaches to making a garden. Versailles, for a prominent example. But I believe that if human life ever enjoyed a "paradisal" Garden of Eden, it less resembled Versailles than a lush, marshy, overgrown, enormously fertile chaos of flowering, fruiting abundance. A messy treat for the senses. The fertile crescent in ancient Babylonia, perhaps. Or some spot on the Amazon -- somehow minus all the creatures that sting, poison, or enervate. A place of abundance and variety. Water and sunlight.
            Before the tree of knowledge was plucked, Armstrong notes, the Bible depicts man and God sharing the same space. She also says its readers early on raised the question of literal meanings: "For example, did God really walk with Adam in the cool of the evening?"
            Well, if God ever did go for a stroll in search of the "cool of the evening," as Genesis aptly puts it, he wouldn't have chosen a desert, or a parking lot, or a mall, or a tavern, or a corridor of power. He might have said to himself, "Oh, let's drop in on Adam. I hear he's got a pretty little garden."