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The Ecology of Eden

From the Introduction:
For thousands of years we have dreamt of going back. To what, exactly?

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?

This is a book about humankind's place in nature, real and imagined. There are several reasons why such a book should find its center in images of paradise. First of all, those images show our muddled feelings about our place in nature: our guilty pride, our snug discomfort. They reveal our sense that something has gone wrong somewhere down the line. By imagining a time or place of perfect harmony between humans and nature, they indict the discord we feel here and now. Whether the harmony they imagine is, or was, real is a good question, but in a way beside the point. The discord is real enough.

Besides, if you stick a skewer into any body of environmental thought you will find, somewhere near its heart, a firm if amorphous idea about Eden. Consider (as we shall have occasion to do later) the two schools of thought conspicuous in the present debate: I will call them the Planet Mangers and the Planet Fetishers. 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 manmade paradise, an earth managed by wise humans in its own best interest and, by happy chance, humankind's as well. The Fetishers want to get past the fiery sword that guards Eden by crawling humbly under; the Managers, by vaulting over.

Both these dreams grow from confusions about our role in nature. Mainly they grow from a failure to see that wildness and civilization have, and must have, their own domains. The health of the planet depends on the health of both. While they are always shifting and always mingling, it is crucial that each maintain a distinct center where it is free to follow its own laws. The human condition is (among other things) the state of trying to keep one's balance on the shifting
soil between these two domains.

That balancing act is what this book is about. In order to stand in a right relation to wilderness, one must stand in a right relation to civilization. It is tricky, for by temperament or argument each of us leans toward one or the other. Since ancient times, some peoples have felt that the Mountain--the wild place, the source of water and life--must be the center of the world. Others have claimed that role for the Tower, the human construction from whose heights nature is scanned and controlled. Still others have sought a middle realm where wildness and civilization are mingled in just the right proportions--a place known to the ancients as Arcadia, to us as suburbia. ...

A Jewish curse goes, "May he inherit a hotel of a hundred rooms, and be found dead in every one of them." For the heirs of Western civilization, the curse seems to be coming true. We live in a first-class hotel, a place of remarkable beauty and comfort, full of marble busts and leather-bound books; yet in one room the tap water tastes of indeterminate chemicals, in a second insects are dying in midair and plummeting to the floor, in a third the temperature rises ominously and there is no way to open the window. The fact that it is our non-human guests who are dying first--first them, and then the non-Western humans in the cheaper rooms--does not offer much reassurance.

The search for Eden and its meaning is not just a sentimental journey; it is a matter of life and death. I will dwell on our present ecological ills only where they illustrate a point. But the newspaper
headlines that shout of doom (and if one out of ten is accurate, that is still doom enough to go around) must be understood as the context of the book, part of the concrete meaning of exile from Eden.

How do you strike a balance between nature and culture while being knocked about by waves of change? How do you find a paradise that does not depend on the misuse of nature or your fellow humans? How do you live in harmony with nature when nature itself is a caterwauling brawl?

From the reviews:
"Eisenberg proves to be one of those all-to-rare literary creatures: a serious environmental thinker who is also a sprightly entertainer and a born raconteur. He winningly riffs his way across centuries of history and broad swaths of science, tracing how our notions of 'a time or place of perfect harmony between humans and nature' have both inspired hopeful nostaglia and collided with reality."


"Delightfully written... Wonderfully original and provocative."
--Boston Globe

"A blend of information and visionary knowledge... around which a new cultural moment might form."
--The Reader's Catalog / New York Review of Books Online

"A broadly rooted yet gorgeously precise narrative that ranges from biblical interpretation to musings on wilderness, agriculture, bacteria, chaos theory, and music... A breathtakingly versatile and sagacious performance."

"A huge, audacious book overflowing with ideas... Delightful, passionate, thought-provoking."
--Kansas City Star

"Far-reaching... a rewarding and fascinating endeavor."
--Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Rigorous thought expressed as poetry--Eisenberg sees the mandala of the Earth from above, like local deities, and from below, like the equally powerful nematode worm: like God, he was once a gardener, and his opening ode to soil, plain dirt, is divine."
--The Guardian

"Eisenberg, a gardener and gifted musican, explores people's fascination with the image of earthly paradise--Eden, Arcadia or the Golden Age--and asks what it shows about their relationship to nature... The author deftly unpacks this myth... Well worth
--The Economist

"Engaging and stimulating."
--Conservation Biology

"Extraordinarily useful in helping a reader to keep a clear vision amidst the claims and counterclaims of today's environmental controversies."
--Sam Bass Warner, Environmental History

"Wide-ranging, often brilliant investigations... His prose sparkles and sings."
--The Jerusalem Report

"Browsing this book is like canoeing a wild river without a map: You keep on hitting intellectual rapids that get the blood rushing."
--Toronto Globe and Mail

"Literary panache... impressive mastery of ancient myth, modern science, and the history of gardens... Milton's epic crossed with John Donne's conceits gives us Eisenberg's prose version of the story of our exile from Eden and all its multifarious consequences."
--William H. McNeill, Washington Post Book World

"A rich trove of treasure--an exceptionally learned and fascinating account of the relationship between the human and the natural. Eisenberg offers a powerful, perhaps a pivotal, understanding of how we might make an elusive peace between these two."
--Bill McKibben

"Fascinates as it instructs."
--Lynn Margulis, planetary biologist and author of Symbiotic Planet

"Brilliant. The delight of Evan Eisenberg's mind is how he excavates cultural myths to uncover what it means to live in place."
--Terry Tempest Williams, author of Refuge