In 1881, General Charles Gordon of Britain declared the Vallee de Mai, on the island of Praslin, in the Seychelles, to be the Garden of Eden. The turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean; the pristine sands; the unique palm tree with a fruit exactly the shape of female buttocks. Gordon even published a laboriously detailed map connecting the innocent island to the four rivers that the Bible mentions as landmarks for Eden.
He wasn’t the only one to do so. I’ve spent the past four years writing a book about people who look for the Garden of Eden on earth, using the Bible as a map. Each chapter focuses on a different seeker with a different proposed location, each of whom is absolutely sure that their Eden is the only Eden.
When I mention this to friends, they light up with excitement, assuming I’ve gotten to travel to beautiful places like the Seychelles. The Garden of Eden, after all, is supposed to be synonymous with paradise, perfection, lush foliage, and naked couples. Faces fall fast when I reveal that actually the people I’ve been writing about found Eden in Mongolia, Ohio, and Iraq. All places mired in desolation and destruction, so un-paradise-like, in fact, as to be some kind of sick joke.
There was the Boston University professor who insisted that the Garden of Eden had been at the North Pole—before God flooded it, and it froze. Joseph Smith prophesied that Independence, Missouri was the Garden of Eden, until the Mormons were forced out of town at gunpoint. Ethan Allen named an inaccessible Vermont mountain “Eden” in order to encourage people to settle there. (Nobody did. Today, it’s an economically depressed area of trailer parks and auto-body shops, with a special “microclimate” that provides an unusual amount of snow. Cursed.) The story of Charles Gordon and the Seychelles actually didn’t make it into my book, because that vision of Eden seemed just too perfect. And I don’t trust perfection.
Maybe it’s because of where I come from. In 1795, the first European settlers of my hometown on the coast of Maine christened it “Eden.” It was an appropriate name—an unspoiled, mountainous island with immense pine trees and granite cliffs. Its natural perfection had long been appreciated, even by the Native American tribes who used it as their summer hunting grounds. And Eden it remained, for 123 years. But in 1918 it was decided to change the town’s name to “Bar Harbor.” They say the name was changed so as not to confuse the tourists who had heard about the famous sandbar. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it was actually an obscure sense of caution, protection against the Fall happening again, to us. Some superstitious historians have even claimed that Eden was never meant to reference the Bible; it was in tribute to a long-forgotten British diplomat named Richard Eden. Sure it was. Bar Harbor is now a prosperous, protected national park; would Eden have been so lucky? Probably not.
The story doesn’t end well in the Bible either. Theologically speaking, the Garden of Eden and its loss was the basis for the concept of original sin. Our “first parents” sinned, and we’ve inherited their wrongdoing. God kicked Adam and Eve out, and stationed an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance to Eden to keep them out. Then God, anyway, presumably destroyed His perfect garden in the Flood.
Strangely though, we rarely dwell on the downside. Though the image of Eve eating the apple is seared into our collective mythology, original sin is not the irreversible condition it might appear to be. In Christian terms: we believe in redemption. We can overcome our essential character as sinners through works, through faith, or through salvation in Christ. Some traditions even conceive of Christ as the “second Adam,” who came to cancel out our first wrongs and get us back into the kingdom of heaven. In cultural terms: we are perfectionists, unwilling to settle for exile and an unhappy ending.
Instead, we are focused on the perfection of pre-sin Eden. Why shouldn’t we have a chance at getting that angel to lower its flaming sword and let us back in? That spark of excitement I saw on my friends’ faces had nothing to do with religion or salvation. That longing for a perfect place is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Whether we find the location of Eden already existing on the earth, or we build our own, the need for Eden persists.
That’s why, no matter how I speak of the search for Eden to people, no matter how cynical I think I’m being, eventually I get the question: So where do you think Eden is? I would love to be able to answer this question, but every possible response would be a disappointment. Because the question that we’ve forgotten to ask is not where, but what? What is Eden for us, really?
Eden isn’t quite the same as utopia: it doesn’t bother with social systems; it is exclusive, a party of two. Eden is also not the same thing as paradise. Paradise is an end: permanent, perfection. Eden is always capitalized, as if it were the name of an actual geographical place, but Eden is actually temporal.
It’s a cycle: in the beginning, things were perfect, yes, but then something went wrong, and we had to leave, and then we began to yearn to return. Yes, Eden was a place of plenty, with all the conditions most fruitful for life, but more in the way an incubator is a place of plenty—nutritious, but not designed to be permanent. So the Garden of Eden always includes the Fall. It wouldn’t be paradise if it weren’t already lost. Stay too long in Eden and it becomes a cryogenic Shangri-La whose perfection turns meaningless, even menacing. Perfection leads to destruction. Even—especially—in the Bible. Adam and Eve picked themselves up after the expulsion from Eden, learned to till the earth, begat several generations. But then God decides to destroy the whole earth with Noah’s Flood. The flood is sort of a continuation of the Eden story: creation, destruction, then recreation again.
You can see this cycle all too clearly in the place where most seekers found Eden: Iraq. The best guess of modern archaeologists is that the Eden story in the Bible developed from an ancient Sumerian myth about the loss of fertile farmlands as sea levels rose, which in turn developed from actual pre-history. The Sumerians then settled in Iraq’s southern marshlands. Since then, those lands and the people who’ve lived on them have gone through countless Eden cycles: fertility, civilization, peace, followed by drought, invasion, and war. The environmental organization set up in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion to restore the marshes after Saddam Hussein drained them is called the “Eden Again” project.
But it’s not just Iraq. The destruction we face now is on a massive scale. Original, individual sin is no longer the problem; now, it’s collective sin. Whatever used to be Eden is now gone—marshes, drained; poles, frozen; islands, flooded. Even the perfect Seychelles, where the British royals took their storybook honeymoon, have succumbed to the Edenic cycle. Today, Praslin Island’s protective coral reef is mostly dead. The exotic coco de mer palm tree that so enthralled General Gordon is an endangered species. And, like everywhere else, sea levels are rising.
Seen on a long-enough time scale, pretty much the entire earth now qualifies as an Eden. God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and sentenced them to “till the earth and to keep it.” The expulsion to the earth isn’t the end, it’s the beginning. Our latest Fall is what we’ve done with the earth since then. Everyone can be saved from themselves, from sin, but no one can be saved from the Flood, from cataclysm, disaster, punishment.
So when you call something an Eden, understand that you are already writing it off as lost. Pouring all your hope for the world into one perfect, unspoiled place is just setting it up for failure. That used to go for just a few separate, beautiful places. Now it goes for the whole world. Maybe the only hope is to have many, many Edens, all of them slightly imperfect. We’re not quite ready for a fall, an expulsion, a flood, just yet, thank you very much. Carve a little imperfection in your statues so as not to make the gods jealous. Don’t build your towers quite so high. Love the world, but prepare for the flood.
Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth