Artists, including Michelangelo, generally have portrayed the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as a calamity, fraught with violence: Angels, with swords drawn, banish the terrified and downward-looking couple on a road to nowhere. But Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the new book “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition” gives the scene another reading.
Artists, including Michelangelo, generally have portrayed the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as a calamity, fraught with violence: angels with swords drawn, banish the terrified and downward-looking couple on a road to nowhere. Paradise was lost in an act of disobedience.
But Robert Pogue Harrison, author of the new book “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition” gives the scene another reading, with an assist of other writers and poets.
“As I see it, the fall liberated humanity from an environment that was altogether sterile and without issue,” Harrison writes in an e-mail interview from Rome, where he’s spending the summer. “Our basic humanity was perhaps out of place there.”
Early on in “Gardens,” Harrison, a professor of Italian literature at Stanford University, posits the question: Did God create Adam to keep the garden or shield him from the reality of the world?
He surmises that the primordial couple were beneficiaries of, but not caretakers in, Eden, and that the overprotection extended to the serpent’s trickery.
“Through the fall, humans became creatures of care. They became caretakers,” Harrison writes. “It is only through care that our deepest human potential comes to fulfillment.
“Care has no place in Eden, whereas it has its proper home on the earth, which calls on humans to cultivate its soil and become its custodians.
“The gardener is for me a figure for this postlapsarian creature of care.”
That caretaking is not only central to gardening — it is the definition of who we are as humans, toiling “in the sweat of one’s brows,” he writes.
Though admittedly not a gardener himself, Harrison — born in Turkey to an Italian mother and an American father — draws on the familiar (Dante and Homer) and the not-so-familiar (Wallace Stevens and Karel Capek) in talking about the passions, devotion and daily solicitations that define a gardener’s relation to his or her plot of cultivated soil.
Harrison writes that Capek’s book, “The Gardener’s Year,” especially is a form of education, detailing “a gardener’s love affair with the earth.”
Capek, an early-20th-century writer and playwright, was an obsessive gardener in Prague who realized, Harrison writes, that “gardening was a year-round cultivation.”
“Capek’s profound suspicions about modern technology (most notably in his play ‘R.U.R.,’ in which the word “robot” was coined) have to do with the fact that there is no gardening ethic in technology,” Harrison writes. “Technology is impatient, desirous to speed everything up and to obtain instantaneous results.
“The gardener learns the lesson of patience, without which nothing in his garden would ever come to fruition.”
Today’s unconstrained consumerism, he says, “seems to be driven by a remorseless will to recreate an Edenic condition on Earth, a condition in which the citizen would have no greater obligation than to consume, rather than husband, the resources of the earth. More and more, thanks to the advances of modern technology, it seems that things are provided for us freely, without assumption of responsibility on our part.”
Islamic carpet gardens, the parks and groves of the Greek schools and British college gardens all get treatment in Harrison’s fourth book, as do “makeshift gardens” — compositions that have sprung up in urban areas and may not be limited to leafy vegetables and flowers, but often have included stuffed toys, piles of leaves and recycled trash.
Harrison features the story of two transplanted Southerners who started a garden in a median in the tough Bayview District of San Francisco where old batteries, mattresses and fast-food flotsam once ruled.
“One of the lessons of the community gardens is that gardening is not only the work of cultivation, but also of restoration, call it even redemption,” Harrison writes. “That a garden could spring up — thanks to the efforts of an entire community — where discarded things were dumped by careless individuals serves as an allegory of sorts for us today.
“One could say that humanity has fouled much of its habitat that what is now called for is a massive communitarian effort of restoration and re-cultivation of those place that have become, allegorically speaking, like garbage dumps.”
But about re-creating Eden, Harrison writes to be careful what you wish for.
“The paradox of the age, is that we are profoundly conflicted when it comes to Eden. On the one hand we dread it; on the other hand, we chase after it.
“One of the perverse consequences of this paradox is that the path back to Eden is littered with ruins, corpses and destruction. Our attempts to re-create Eden amount to an assault on creation.
“That is the danger of the era.”
GARDENS: AN ESSAY ON THE HUMAN CONDITION
By Robert Pogue Harrison,
University of Chicago Press, $24
Steven Spearie is a freelance writer who can be reached at 622-1788 or email@example.com.