On Our Expulsion From the Garden: How Our Ideas of the Garden Shape What We Do

There are those who argue that life is short and violent, that we have nothing to look forward to other than our deaths…so we might as well grab for whatever we can now!….that is the path of the nihilist and the greedy, it serves as an excuse, a rationale for their choices, following an ethic of ‘why the hell not!’  This is consistent with the ‘beliefs’ of those who feel the weak get what they deserve, that anything that opposes their idea of dominance, is weakness and failure and they pursue it with the righteousness of a ‘true believer’.  “Only the strong survive”.  If our gardens can teach us anything it is instead that, ‘He/She who has the graciousness to take only what they need and gives back whatever they are able to, live on through the love and lives of those and that which they’ve nurtured, helped, befriended and mentored along the way and in this way have helped build a richer, more complex and diverse world.’  Our true legacy will be best expressed in the richness and health of the world we leave behind, of those that we’ve loved and taught.  As competitive as the world is, it is this positive, cooperative, supportive aspect of life that makes it all possible.  While the world is divided into heterotrophs and autotrophs, those that must consume to live and those able to grow and metabolize that which they need from the world around them, it requires them both, working in a balance to sustain them all.  We humans, ultimately, cannot be any different if the world is to continue on.

I hesitate to go here….

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden illustrates a central tenet of Christian and western thought.  This question has been discussed by many scholars dissecting its meaning.  While some take it as fundamental and literal, others, just as seriously, argue for it as allegory…my own preference is to see it as allegory.  I would hope that if you disagree, that you read on, as it is not my intention to argue over interpretations of the Bible, something I am ill equipped to do, but to examine what this has meant for us as modern western people, as gardeners and occupiers of this remarkable world.


In Peter Paul Rubens depiction of Adam and Eve picking fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man, 1617, Eden is depicted as a peaceful kingdom with the animals, herbivores and carnivores alike, laying down alongside one another, an idyllic and naive imagining of the garden. This image adds much power to the idea of our Fall, emphasizing what we’ve lost due to our own insouciance, narcissism, even hubris, taking what we choose, selecting one ‘fruit’ or bit of knowledge over another and thereby putting the entire garden at risk, and in so doing, rejecting God and his ‘plan’. For this ‘sin’ Adam and Eve were expelled.  Some would argue, that by this act of choice, removing themselves from the garden, believing they knew ‘better’ than the life forces and patterns in play within the Garden they had previously followed…they chose a path that lead them away.  Others will argue that this original or ‘first sin’ became a device for the powerful so that they might control the many.  There are a lot of arguments that have been made around this.

I’ve often been told to shorten the pieces that I write, and I do try…but my writing is less description:object:goal oriented than it is an attempt to understand this living, evolving world and my place in it.  I write first for me, to understand, and invite others to consider.  This is my path….Words will always be incomplete, inaccurate, because while the ‘target’ is ‘real’, in my attempt to define it, pin it down with words, abstractions of our own making, giving a ‘name’ to a phenomenon that exists apart and separate from us, isolated from us, not directly knowable, complex and dynamic.  So, I build up words like an oil painter, working and reworking it with multiple base layers and sometimes, I tear it up, and use it as a beginning for the next attempt.  We can experience the world, but what we take from it, is dependent upon what we each bring with us to the experience.  If we choose to never examine the ‘ground’ on which we stand, never question our basic assumptions, which everyone of us has, we will never progress…we will only build a more bulky edifice against the world around us.  Only when we are able to free ourselves from our preconceptions, can we begin to experience what something may truly be, but even then it can get tangled up in our thoughts as we attempt to ‘make sense of it’.  This is our strength and curse as thoughtful and reflective beings.  If we do not see the ‘trap’ we will ensnare ourselves in it.

Brevity can also easily cause us to diminish the sacred, render it profane…reduce the world of the garden to the easily ‘knowable’, comfortable patterns, and, in so doing, strip it of much of its meaning and value, render it common.  We have a tendency to do this with most ‘things’, in our habit of putting a price on it.  The sacred, however, cannot be for sale.  Today, in this ‘modern world’, all things have been rendered  secular, made less than, because everything has its price…only the ideal is above the market and that is a world beyond our touch and ability to possess or consume.  Our gardens and landscapes have been reduced, in fact all that lives has been as well.  This makes it difficult to find meaning and value in our own lives and so, many of us have stopped looking.


A more modern interpretation of the expulsion story illustrated in very simplistic terms, by Emil Keyser, showing two, shame faced children, sent out of the garden for doing what they were told not to…guilty of having been ‘caught’ taking fruit.  Such a simple rendition, though I love this image, loses much of the detail and ‘weight’ of earlier paintings, leaving us here with little more than a ‘do what you’re told’ lesson while the values and beauties of the garden are ignored, lost, setting up the future as a repeating story of youthful rebellion against authority, and a world where the garden has little value in and of itself, defended by a seemingly arbitrary authority, preventing us from taking what we want.  Who but a crazy old lady cares….

Our gardens today are shaped by the same ideas that have shaped our own lives and in our culture, there are few more powerful than the idea of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden.  ‘Sinners’, for centuries we have seen ourselves as being excluded from paradise, separate from nature, and separate from the sacred as well, a state we’ve longed to correct, our current state of isolation from God, the Garden, from nature, we’ve come to accept as a condition of our own being alive, that we can only re-enter once we surrender completely.  We have, it is commonly understood, lost our way, fallen from ‘grace’, without having taken a step.  There is something inherent to our human-ness that has precluded our return.  But, why this same ‘fall’ for nature?  Why are we, in our demoted state, allowed to demean nature, this other vast work of God’s creation?  We have put it under continuous assault, taking and laying waste to it, as it is our ‘sinful nature’ to do, while at the same time hoping to someday reside in the rarefied atmosphere of the Garden we have come to idealize, a garden of the mind, of heaven, some rare perfect version of the ‘Garden’ God created here for us on this Earth.  We fail to see the connection.

One of the other lessons we have learned is that Eden was originally idyllic, a peaceful paradise on Earth and that along with Adam and Eve’s Fall, the garden too fell becoming a place of danger, threat and violence, but if I read it right God did not transform the Garden in ‘his’ act, he cast Adam and Eve out, made them separate, changing both the way they viewed themselves and their view of the Garden…not the Garden itself, as it was still inviolate and sacred.  It was Adam and Eve who no longer saw themselves as a part of God’s creation, that they must, in a sense, ‘earn’ their way back into Paradise.  Western civilization has been gifted this view from the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Other belief systems, most of those of indigenous people, have been very conscious of their belonging to the Garden and its role as the source of life and therefore of their obligation to it so that it might continue in their support.  Our nearly polar opposite views have left profound marks on our cultures.  Whether we are active Christians or not, it is an integral part of our Western world and shapes our views, our place in it, our institutions, including our economy, all of the way down to how we garden.  We see ourselves as outsiders in terms of nature and seek to both protect ourselves from its vagaries and threats and manipulate and control it in order to meet our needs and very often, as gardeners, to create our own vision, a private ‘Eden’.  For me, in all of this, I detect a kind of bitterness, a resentment, that because we were expelled we respond like both fearful and petulant children, consistently undervaluing the ‘wild’ garden while also trying to create a kind of ideal paradise, that survives only with a great deal of our own energy and resources, and, if we’re powerful enough, those of others under our control…a demonstration of mastery and power over, again of dominance and strength, though this time clothed in our own aesthetic.

We don’t understand that this is the world, not some practice world, where we get to ‘work’ at being ‘better’ people.  Many of us are like children who think what we’re ‘playing’ at has little meaning in that ‘higher’ world, that ‘here’ and what we do, doesn’t matter, while wanting to be accorded ‘adult’ status and thereby gain access to all that we want, all that we have previously been prevented from having.  We have engineered an almost schizophrenic divide in ourselves insisting on the rightness of what we do and our world view, while decimating the one we have, simultaneously longing for one we are ill prepared for.  Because we view ourselves as ‘outside’ of the garden, as sinful, broken beings, unworthy and likely incapable of rejoining the garden, overlooking the more supportive, synergistic role, that we could return to.  For many of us we find it much easier to enter into the idea of communion with an idea, an abstraction, than we do the living world that surrounds us.  We are so ‘seasoned’ to believe that this real physical world is only here to meet our own needs…that whatever befalls it is of secondary consequence.  We have not only lost our ‘place’, we have given up looking for it here and instead hope for it in death.  While God may have ‘banished’ us from Eden, with our haughty ideas, our sense of entitlement, our greed and hubris, it is us, each of us, who have embraced that role and stand in the way of our return, a return that is possible with careful self-examination, humility, compassion, joy and gratitude for the simple things offered to us everyday, for our nourishment and enrichment.

Gardening often puts us on our knees, a humble position from which to view the world and its life.  And it is my humble opinion, that by good gardening and the awarenesses that it can bring us, we can find our way back into the garden and regain the path of the vibrant, beautiful and evolving Earth.  Just as we have accepted the darker path, the meaner one that separates and divides, we can regroup and choose the lighter path and dedicate our lives to health and vitality, pursuing the path that is several billion years old rather than this short, few hundred years deviation we still find ourselves on.

Plunging your ungloved hand into the soil, pulling it back, so that it might receive the roots of a plant, imagining the sun, rain and frost that will penetrate your garden, how that might change over time…you can never write all of this down for yourself or others in a way that can be easily recalled.  I am interested here in changing relationships, some of them seemingly fixed, others in continuous flow, cycling, that make themselves known over time.  I write to create an opening, to find that receptive center, in myself, in each gardener, so that an idea, can begin to propagate itself, moving from one to the next, grow to fruition, and transform us, reorganize our thinking into a new whole, a state of being, motivating and empowering us, like a necessary ‘virus’, capable of rewriting our lives and become a dynamic part of us.  Ideas are real and I want to see this one grown and manifested out in the living world.  If I could consolidate all of this down into a simple meme, a bit of spoken magic, I would…but without the suitable context a meme and its magic will fail, because it is the context that gives the meme its power and that lies somewhere underneath the ‘skin’ of a culture and an individual tying our entire world together into a knowable whole.  All of it, the idea, our world view, our culture and the world which we create, sustain and destroy are a single integrated whole.  To pull on any one ‘piece’ is to pull on the whole thing.  It is all together greater than any of us, but at the same time susceptible and malleable to the work of each one of us.

We must be made ready…we must be prepared, the ground made receptive.  There must first be a particular vulnerability, a susceptibility, a readiness, that desire for ‘being’, for becoming, not simply for self-satisfaction, for more, to consume, to dominate, to triumph…that isn’t the ‘goal’ of nature, of the garden.   To do this with one’s eye’s open, committed and passionate isn’t easily done, but few things worth doing are rarely done so easily…old connections must be reawakened, habit and ease questioned.  Such ideas grow organically as if from seed and spore and once planted follow their own path, short or long, harmonic or discordant.  In nature infection fills a role in the overall health of a community, causing change, challenging the static, the too comfortably satisfied, the unhealthy, even when its path brings about epidemic, plague and widespread death.  Some attribute to it transformative powers capable of bringing together the formerly isolated, opening the door to previously unthinkable possibilities such as that which joined photosynthesis to higher plants upon which we all depend and enabled the metabolism of ‘modern’ organisms built around the eukaryote cell.  These things were not always so.  What was unimaginable, were there anyone there to wonder, became common, almost universal, and life moved on, the course of its stream altered.  A virus, an idea, can play an important role, in evolution, working with the entirety of life toward its goal, but sometimes the pathway, takes it far out of balance, the next larger step requiring something itself well outside the previous patterns and bringing about a kind of ‘rebooting’ for nature to pioneer its way.


Jacopo Bassano, Garden of Eden depicts the garden before the Fall. The artist’s life spanned most of the 16th century and he spent his life painting religious scenes, often including animals, here the domesticated farm animals he would have been familiar with, while excluding those predators, intimating that Eden was without such things, though we ourselves are one as well. In this painting Eden is without death or its threat, and the need for predation and decomposition.  This helped separate these things in the western mind and reinforced the danger of wild nature as a further result of the Fall.  Bassano’s was a simplified and highly idealized world.  He painted in mid-Renaissance, when many of the ideas held by the Catholic Church during the Dark or Middle Ages, still held sway, though they were declining in their central power.  Nature was still predominately considered to be wild and dangerous and it was viewed by the Church as a powerful tool to gain compliance over believers.

We are that out of balance population today, putting nature into a state of stress, selecting and mixing its component parts, changing the daily realities of life, preparing it for a correction, but unlike the models we could follow, we remain resistant and insistent, our methods and goals, pushing the limits to ever greater extremes, setting ourselves up for the greater ‘correction’ which follows an ‘overshoot’.  Nature does not ‘forget’, it stores away everything in its own library of genetics, its catalog of relationships and forms, available for use as needed, biding its time.  Others argue that that is not all that is going on here, describing and arguing for the existence of a  morphogenetic field, an information and energy rich field, comparable to the gravitational and electro-magnetic fields, invisible, continuous, a veritable storehouse of pattern, directly influencing everything…only knowable by their effects on us.  If we want to avoid potentially catastrophic corrections…then we need to be working toward making those that we can and do so by following the lessons expressed in our gardens and landscapes within which we live.

This is not a one plus one world.  Change does not happen at an incremental pace determined by us.  We were for many millions of years not even part of the equation.  There is no simple recipe in which we can add, mix and stir our way to success…we have to find our way back into the community we have largely abandoned and, to do that, we must take advantage of what is purportedly our most unique asset as a living organism, our ability and capacity to observe, reflect and redirect both our view of the world and our energies which shape it….If not, our insistence that we are above this world, our hubris, will ultimately find us outside of it, without a place, as the Earth reinvents itself without us.

For me, I would rather find my way back into the ‘joy’ of the garden, marvel at its wonders and delights, in the complex warp and weft of nature’s relationships, in partnership, adding my own humble contribution, as a gracious participant, giving back what I can, sacrificing when it’s time in the dance of life.  I think this is possible and, indeed, that it is of absolute necessity, if this life is to continue with us as a part of it.  Perhaps if we quit ‘celebrating’ our expulsion, punishing ourselves for the ‘sins’ of Adam and Eve, for the sins of our fathers, and instead began to celebrate what notable others have recognized as ‘original blessing’ for this beautiful opportunity of life, (See the work of Matthew Fox, specifically his books, Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth, and Original Blessing,) we could find reason and a pathway for our return to it


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