The Ecology Of Eden: An Inquiry Into The Dream Of Paradise And A New Vision Of Our Role In Nature

Paperback | October 1, 1999

byEvan Eisenberg

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"Dazzling . . . a prose epic." --The Washington Post

A mountain peak, a rolling pasture, a boulevard alive with sound and light--each of us carries, deep inside, a dream of paradise.  In this magisterial contribution to the literature of ecology and the environment, our nostalgia for the myth of paradise--the primeval, self-sufficient, nurturing garden where mankind was born--is the starting point of a brilliant inquiry into what our place in Nature has been and ought to be.    

Writing in lively, imaginative prose and drawing deftly upon disciplines as varied as biology, geology, anthropology, history, physics, and music, Evan Eisenberg examines the ways in which people have envisioned and tried to re-create the earthly paradise even as they have dealt with the often disastrous effects of their increasing manipulation of the environment. An encyclopedic survey of efforts to heal the dangerous rift between culture and nature, The Ecology of Eden is a landmark work that is enormously suggestive, informative, and a joy to read.
"It's a question many writers have tackled, from Paul Ehrlich to E. O. Wilson: How can we survive while population grows, resources dwindle . . . and the threat of global climate change looms ominously? Few have explored it with more originality or historic sweep. . . . A rich harvest, filled with many kernels of wisdom about the future of our elusive Eden."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"An ambitious, thickly braided narrative that makes the clearest bid to nudge the dialectic along. . . . Eisenberg traces the story engagingly, energetically, with a remarkable breadth of learning and a metaphor-maker's eye. . . . A vision of substance and genuine insight." -Los Angeles Times Book Review

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"Dazzling . . . a prose epic." --The Washington PostA mountain peak, a rolling pasture, a boulevard alive with sound and light--each of us carries, deep inside, a dream of paradise.  In this magisterial contribution to the literature of ecology and the environment, our nostalgia for the myth of paradise--the primeval, self-sufficient, ...

From the Jacket

"Dazzling . . . a prose epic." --"The Washington Post A mountain peak, a rolling pasture, a boulevard alive with sound and light--each of us carries, deep inside, a dream of paradise. In this magisterial contribution to the literature of ecology and the environment, our nostalgia for the myth of paradise--the primeval, self-sufficient,...

Evan Eisenberg lives in western Massachusetts.

other books by Evan Eisenberg

Format:PaperbackDimensions:640 pages, 8.04 × 5.22 × 1.14 inPublished:October 1, 1999Publisher:Vintage Books USA

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375705600

ISBN - 13:9780375705601

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Bookclub Guide

A Conversation with Evan Eisenberg, author of The Ecology of EdenQ: How did you come to write The Ecology of Eden?A: When I began thinking about this book, I was in what you might call a "back-to-the-land" mode. In my writing, I was moving gradually from culture (mainly music) to nature--or, more exactly, to the intersection of the two. And I was working as a gardener for the New York City parks department, which was about as close to the land as I could get in Manhattan. Both in the park and at my desk, I kept thinking about the way people’s lives--especially their dealings with nature--are shaped by an unconscious image of paradise: by the sense that human life has taken a wrong turn at some point, and that it may not be too late to find our way back.Eden is a home from which we have been evicted; we stand on the sidewalk on tiptoe and find that the window is just a few inches too high to peer in. Exactly what evicted us? History? Society? Sheer numbers? The need for food? The retreat of the glaciers? Adulthood? Birth? I wanted to look at these images of paradise--of a time or place of perfect harmony between humans and nature--and find out where they come from and what they mean. My hunch was that they could tell us a great deal about the actual facts of our place in nature, from prehistory to present, and maybe even give us some guidance as we face the future. And they might explain why I was about to pull up stakes and move to the country.Q: You write that this is a book about humankind’s place in nature, real and imagined. What does that mean?A: Images of paradise arise from particular facts--biological, social, ecological--of our relations with land, water, other creatures, and other people. Sometimes they reflect those facts, and sometimes they disguise them in fairly ingenious ways. And then, in turn, they help shape the facts. And this has been going on since Eve ate the apple, or the quince, or whatever it was. (Some of the ancient rabbis, by the way, said it was wheat, and in this book I argue, in ecological terms, that they may have been right.) Q: The Eden story is something of a chestnut, maybe the oldest chestnut of all--a story that has been told, retold, and reinterpreted countless times. Have you found something new in it? A: I hope not. I hope I’ve found something that was there all along. When you set the story in its ecological context--when you hear it against the clink of the plow in stony soil, or the trickle of an upland spring--it sounds like nothing you heard in Sunday school or Hebrew school. And it has a surprising bearing on present-day environmental problems.The ecological context I’m talking about is, first of all, that of the ancient Near East. But also the much larger sweep of human life from its origins--in fact, much of the career of life itself. Comparing Eden with other, subtly different versions of the earthly paradise--Arcadia, the Golden Age--I try to show how each arises from the basic human situation of the last ten thousand years (and, to a degree, the last half-million), in which successive waves of human-led change have moved across the globe, upsetting natural ecosystems and, in many cases, previous human arrangements as well.Q: That sounds a bit like the old environmentalist tirade--humans as blight on the face of the planet, etc. Is it? A: Not exactly. We humans tend to think of ourselves--pridefully or guiltily, depending on our mood and the spirit of the age--as unique in our remaking of the globe. But we haven’t remade it single-handedly: we’ve allied ourselves, at various points, with annual grasses, perennial grasses, quadrupeds, and a host of other organisms, living and dead. What’s more, our various alliances are merely the latest of many examples, over the course of Earth’s history, of conglomerates of species that conquered the planet.Q: If our role in nature is "natural," does that mean anything goes?A: Not by a long shot. Man-made landscapes survive only by the grace of the wildness around them, or the wildness that remains in them. The flow of energy, water, nutrients, and genetic information; the maintenance of temperature and the mix of atmospheric gases within narrow limits; the fertility of the soil -- all these are achieved by wild nature in ways we don’t fully understand. Since we don’t know how the job is done, we can’t do it ourselves. Even if we could, we’d end up spending most of our waking hours working for something that we used to get for free. In other words, humans and their allies are able to conquer the world, but they are not able to run it all by themselves.The Bible says that we were put in Eden "to work it and protect it." This is a sort of Zen koan, or maybe an example of God’s sardonic humor. Our nature is to move across the globe in waves of work, turning Eden into something else. The danger--which has nothing to do with the rhetoric of "natural" or "unnatural"--is that by trashing or supplanting wild ecosystems and throwing their processes into disarray, we may choke off the source of our own life. So we have to protect Eden from our own work.Q: What does all this have to do with the current environmental debate? A: Eden is the wild place, the mountain of the gods; it is no place for the likes of us. We were fated to eat the apple (or whatever it was) and we are fated to eat it again and again, in new forms--each tastier, more toxic, more mind-altering and planet-altering than the last. But the two dominant schools of environmental thought--the Planet Managers and the Planet Fetishers, as I like to call them--don’t seem to realize this. The Fetishers dream of returning to Eden, restoring a state of harmony in which wilderness reclaims the planet and man is lost in the foliage, a smart but self-effacing ape. The Managers dream of a man-made paradise, an Earth managed by wise humans in its own best interest--and by happy chance--humankind’s as well. To borrow the Bible’s imagery again, the Fetishers want to get past the fiery sword that guards Eden by crawling humbly under; the Managers, by vaulting over.Q: If nature is not the harmonious thing the Planet Fetishers think it is, how can we live in any kind of harmony with nature? A: Since you used the word "harmony," let’s take the musical analogy a step further. The Planet Fetishers want us to sing one faint part among millions in nature’s (imagined) harmony. The Planet Managers want to compose and conduct a planet-symphony of their own devising. Maybe there is a third possibility: a kind of Earth Jazz. Its advice for humankind might go something like this: Ditch the notated score--whether you wrote it, or you think nature did--and learn to improvise. Respond as flexibly to nature as nature responds to you. Accept nature’s freedom as the premise of your own; and accept that both are grounded in a deeper necessity. Relax your rigid beat and learn to follow nature’s rhythms--in other words, learn to swing.There are dozens of examples of how this might translate into practice, ranging from the efforts of Wes Jackson and the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, to breed an edible prairie, to the "industrial ecosystem" of Kalundborg, Denmark, to a response to global warming that would be flexible enough to shift direction--if, as is conceivable, global warming suddenly triggers a new Ice Age.Q: You have said that Eden is the mountain of the gods. Where does this idea come from?A: Two ways of looking at the world arose in the ancient Near East and are still with us. For one, the center of the world, the axis on which it turns, is the Mountain; for the other, it’s the Tower. The Mountain is the wild place, the ultimate source of nature’s bounty. The Tower is the city, where nature’s bounty is transformed, stored, and controlled. Unfortunately, Western civilization has largely tilted toward the Tower.Q: Why unfortunately?A: We think of our own social and technological mastery as the source of our life, of the bare necessities as well as the perks. We ignore a basic fact that certain ancient myths--including the myth of Eden--somehow guessed, and that recent science has confirmed: namely, that human life could not survive for the length of a bank holiday in Zurich without wild places and the processes of wildness--the very wildness that we are relentlessly cutting down and paving over.Q: Does that mean that cities are evil, and we should tear them down? Or that we should all move to the country? A: On the contrary. In one sense, the people who tried to build the Tower of Babel were right--the city is rightly the center of the human world. Without that focused, concentrated center, civilization is not civilization at all; it’s just a gray wash that floods the world, leaving no wild place free to do its vital work. The Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry has said many wise things, and one of them is this: "The only thing we have to save nature with is culture." If he followed this logic to its conclusion, I think he’d have to drop his agrarian bias and recognize that--to twist a famous line of Thoreau’s--in cities is the preservation of the world.Q: Do you really think that Mountain and Tower--wilderness and the city--exhaust the alternatives? Isn’t a happy medium possible? A: I don’t know if it’s possible, but the search for it may be necessary. The exile from Eden is the bedrock fact about humankind, but it’s not a fact with which we rest easy. It doesn’t feel like bedrock: it feels like a chasm. The Mountain pulls us one way, the Tower the other. The world has fallen away and we’re left hanging. Pleasure gardens, pastoral poems, suburbs, summer homes, the Gaia hypothesis, the whole American experiment: all can be seen as attempts to close this fissure in the world and in ourselves. You could say my book recasts Western history as a somewhat muddled epic whose heroes--Virgil, Nero, St. Augustine, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Louis XIV, Alexander Pope, Henry Ford, and legions of others--struggle to regain a paradise lost. And if this were a more personal book, I might have included myself as a bit player.When my wife and I moved to the Berkshire foothills, we were looking (as I realized in retrospect) not so much for Eden, as for Arcadia: the midpoint between Mountain and Tower, the place where nature and culture are perfectly mingled. We came close to finding it--close enough to feel that the quest was doomed to failure. I’m talking not about the usual misadventures with runaway cows and marauding hedgehogs (though we had our share of those) but about something more fundamental. Trying to get the best of both worlds, you end up endlessly greedy for more and more of each. And unless you’re a fanatic, you end up having a much larger ecological impact in the country (much of it issuing from your tailpipe) than you had in the city. My disillusionment with Arcadia is a hidden subtext of the book, and maybe not very well hidden. In any case, shortly after the book comes out, my wife, my daughter, and I will be moving back to Manhattan, where it’s possible to raise a child without being surgically implanted into a sport-utility vehicle.

Editorial Reviews

"The Ecology of Eden is no    ordinary book; it is, in fact, something of a masterwork ." - The Globe and Mail "Ambitious--a broad rumination on the fragile state of the earth's natural environment and what might be done to protect it." - The New York Times Book Review"Eisenberg presents a rich store of information --with dazzling wit and impressive learning."         - Washington Post Book World"It's a question many writers have tackled, from Paul Ehrlich to E.O. Wilson: How can we survive while population grows, resources dwindle--Few have explored it with more originality or historic sweep--A rich harvest, filled with many kernels of wisdom about the future of our elusive Eden."  - San Francisco Chronicle