David Gobel on Annette Giesecke and Namoi Jacobs (eds.), Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden
Mighty Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon and gardener par excellence, once had a disturbing dream about a truly impressive tree. Its “leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.” So great was this tree that its “top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth.” The king’s dream tree was, of course, a vision of himself as the source of a perfect earth. As we read in Daniel chapter 4, the tree was also a portent of his own demise. Nebuchadnezzar’s tree recalls an earlier and even more ominous tree: the one described in the Genesis account of paradise, which tells us that “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” That story of a lost paradise resonates throughout the essays in Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden, which reminds us that humanity’s recurring dreams of comprehensive human flourishing and wholeness have been and continue to be rooted in the garden of the earth itself. More poignantly, it reminds us that the Earth-Garden-Paradise of our dreams is infuriatingly elusive.
As the question mark in the book’s title suggests, the project to regain paradise is fundamentally problematic. Giesecke and Jacobs’s introductory essay frames the problem: “A garden,” they write, “is the result of humanity’s attempt to carve out an ideal place in nature, thereby fashioning ‘a perfect’ Earth.” The garden is thus a utopian project, and utopianism, they urge, is an essential human drive, one not to be dismissed merely because it is unrealizable. So gardening is seen here as a project of resistance and hope. “The creation of a garden is a small candle lit in the darkness of impending ecological disaster.” It is “an intimate setting that helps us find hope in the ‘garbage dump’ of the present. The problem of paradise seems therefore to boil down to four propositions about the human condition: 1) We are all gardeners; 2) We are all utopianists; 3) We are feeble and flawed in our paradisiacal pursuits; and 4) We must persist in hope.
That we are all gardeners is implied by the shared premise that the earth is a garden. David Cooper’s opening essay, “Gardens and the Way of Things,” addresses the centrality of the garden in the quest for human meaning. This role is found in Daoist and Zen Buddhist thought in which the garden represents the “dialectical relationship between nature and people,” and in Renaissance humanism, in which the garden represents the “congruity of human existence with the wider universe.” For Cooper, however, the more modern diagnosis of co-dependence best describes our relationship with the garden: “co-dependence is the ground on which human practice and people’s experience of nature stand.” That the planet on which we live and depend can be seen as a garden is further emphasized by Lynda Schneekloth, who examines the Genesis account of a lost paradise in relation to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 2009 novel, The Year of the Flood. She argues that the Garden is an “imaginal type” of paradise, a leitmotiv in Western culture and, as such, it represents our beleaguered and endangered planet .
That we are all utopianists follows from our vocation as gardeners, a notion eloquently developed by Naomi Jacobs, who begins her essay with the assertion that, “Every garden is a utopian text, expressing the desire for a more perfect world as well as an implicit critique of the less-lovely world in which it is located.” But the gardener’s task of perfecting of the world is complicated by a number of factors, including the competing demands we make of our planet to sustain competing views of human flourishing. More fundamental yet is our ambivalence about our proper relationship to Nature and our place on the planet. Jacobs quotes William Cronon on this subject: “… [if] we cannot help leaving marks on a fallen world, then the dilemma we face is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.” Following this approach, Jacobs advocates for “critical utopias,” utopias that are not really utopian because they relinquish the “dream of perfection” and accept “the ambiguities and compromises inherent in every choice we make.”
Underlying the careful, small-scale, grass-roots utopianism that pervades this volume is a general belief that human caretaking of our Earth-Garden-Paradise has been and will continue to be both feeble and flawed. Larger forces — habits of consumption and domination — seem to be at work, inhibiting and dismantling all our best intentions. A sense of imminent dread persists throughout the volume: “the Earth’s depletion and ultimate passing cannot be reversed,” the editors proclaim, but “the process can be slowed if we embrace the fact of the essential, atomic unity of all life on the planet.” Susan Willis poignantly summarizes our predicament in her essay written as antiphonal diary entries chronicling two seemingly unrelated chains of events in 2010: the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the cultivation of her own small plot farm in Killingworth, Connecticut. Although her little farm is a place where “the pleasures of the senses meet the gratification of productive activity,” she concludes her essay with the grim suggestion that “the wages of destruction” — brought by corporate, globalized greed — “may well outpace the impetus for utopia.”
Despite the gloomy global forecast, the book’s ultimate lesson for us is that we must garden in hope. It’s a reprise of Voltaire’s conclusion to the despairing adventures of Candide: “we must all cultivate our own garden.” This is the central theme of several of the book’s essays. Entomologist Douglas Tallamy concludes the volume with a chapter on bio-diversity that functions something like the ask at a gala fundraiser. More practical and less philosophical than many of the other essayists, Tellamy calls each of us to create “ecological utopias in our landscapes.” The book’s final statement, however, is not an essay but a reproduction of a Joseph Beuys postcard with the scrawled words, “Laßt Blumen sprechen” (Let Flowers Speak), accompanying a commercially produced image of violets, a fitting ode to the Earth-Garden-Paradise problem. It’s an image that prompts us to ask whether we might find beauty and hope emerging from even the most crass and banal objects of our despoiled garden.
Alternating between hope and despair, Earth Perfect is itself a garden of assorted delights. Its eighteen essays are the fruit of a conference held by the Society for Utopian Studies in 2010. Like the society, the book represents an international and interdisciplinary constituency. Its authors come from a variety of scholarly and artistic disciplines including history, classics, literature, philosophy, botany, entomology, landscape art, and photography. Several of the authors are gardeners. The tone of their essays ranges from didactic to confessional, but an earnest, personal voice pervades. The multidisciplinary nature of the volume yields an introductory survey quality to some of the essays. Some of the authors’ contributions are too general to provide a focused and original contribution to their respective fields. But the payback for this approach outweighs its cost: this collection does not suffer from the pedantic focus on minutiae that characterizes many mono-disciplinary academic proceedings; it deals instead in wide sweeping relevance, with issues that are earth shattering. Likewise, the pursuit of utopia discussed in these essays is not an arcane, antiseptic abstraction; it is a real and urgent task.
As Nebuchadnezzar could tell us, the problem of paradise has haunted humanity on this planet for as long as we can remember. Is it an unsolvable problem? Is it an interminable condition? Can it be ignored? The gardener-authors of Earth Perfect? have ventured down many paths searching out the contours of this existential predicament. Though they have not brought us any closer to regaining paradise, they have reminded us of the devastating nature of its loss.
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