Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It’s 11 a.m, Monday, November 14, 2011, nearly an entire year into the second decade of the 21st Century. Do you know where your favorite Garden of Eden is?
Mine’s in Florida. Liberty County. Up in the Panhandle, not far from Tallahassee. The amazing thing about it is that nobody knew it was there until sometime in the 1940s when Elvy Edison Callaway realized he owned a piece of it.
As Brook Wilensky-Lanford explains in her book, Paradise Lust, an entertaining, amusing, and informative collection of interlocking essays about seekers and discovers of the Garden of Eden, Paradise has been definitively located in a variety of places outside Sunday School stories and the imaginations and dreams of true believers.
Around 1900, the Reverend Edmund Landon West revealed that the Garden of Eden was in southern Ohio, the spot marked by the---what else?---Serpent Mound. A decade or so earlier, William Warren, the first president of Boston University, proved that the Garden of Eden had been up above the North Pole when the world was warmer and the Arctic was not a sea of ice. Tse Tsan Tai, a Chinese intellectual, businessman, and politician wrote a book in 1914 making the case that Eden had been in central China but all traces of Paradise had been wiped out in a flood caused by the sinking of Atlantis. Among other things the angel Moroni told Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was the news that the site of Eden was Independence, Missouri.
The explorer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl didn’t believe Eden was an actual place, necessarily, but more of a happy state of mind possessed by the earliest humans that allowed them to see and experience life in a simpler, wiser, saner way than their 20th Century descendents and when he went looking for Paradise, his searches were more existential than theological or geographical.
Elvy Edison Callaway was a lawyer and politician, a native of Alabama, a lapsed Baptist, and an admirer of Clarence Darrow, who accepted the theory of evolution as established scientific fact and yet believed the the biblical story of creation was historical truth, more or less. A devout skeptic for most of his adult life, Callaway “reasoned” his way back to religion in late middle-age.
Callaway didn’t have to struggle too hard to reconcile his bible and his Darwin. All it took was the realization that God had created man twice. In separate creations, he caused a species of human beings to evolve just as the scientists had it, although somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains instead of Africa, and then he blew breath into a pile of dust in Florida. This explains Cain’s wife, by the way, as well as the spouses of Adam and Eve’s other children. The difference between the two sets of humans is that the evolved ones didn’t have souls.
The photo up top shows Eden as it was in the 1930s. It also shows a survey crew for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Callaway would have bristled at that picture. He hated Franklin Roosevelt, hated the New Deal. He was a libertarian with political views indistinguishable from Ron Paul’s. But this was the site of the Garden of Eden, he was sure of it. These days it’s known as the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. The Nature Conservancy looks after it, not an angel with a fiery sword. Callaway believed in the Garden. He did not believe in the angel or rather he did not believe that the angel was stationed at the gates of Eden to keep people out. He did not believe God intended to keep people out. He believed God wanted us to return, for a small admission price, a dollar-ten.
The angel was there to protect the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil---which Callaway had identified as the Florida yew tree---from communists.
Something else Callaway didn’t believe. He didn’t believe the story of Adam and Eve was the story of the Fall of Man. He believed it was the story of the liberation of men and women.
As Wilensky-Lanford explains, Callaway rejected the notion of Original Sin and along with it the idea that Eve---Mother Eve, as he liked to call her---had cursed humanity through her giving in to the serpent’s temptation.
Just the opposite. Mother Eve had given us a gift through the heroic sacrifice of her personal immortality.
Callaway was against a lot of things: Prohibition, welfare, labor and farm regulation, Roosevelt, the abandonment of the gold standard, World War I, World War II, and communism. But if there was one thing he had always advocated…it was women’s liberation. He was pro-women’s suffrage, pro-women’s education, pro-birth control, and against women being pressured into shotgun weddings by an ignorant church. So now, here in Liberty County, Florida, he could hardly stand by the traditional scapegoating of eve as the original sinner, tempter of men, and bringer of curses.
Despite the threads of reaction woven into his Libertarian politics, Callaway was in many ways a progressive thinker and his myth of Eden was not the story of a fall but a manual for a climb to self and societal improvement.
These days, in the United States, at least, the belief that the story of Adam and Eve is true and the Garden of Eden was a real place that could be located on a map is associated with the sort of fundamentalist Christianity that is the very opposite of progressive: anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-modern, backwards-looking and not at all forward-thinking, thoroughly reactionary. The people who believe Eden existed and was as described in Genesis are the people who believe the earth is only a few thousand years old and want “Intelligent Design” taught in public school science classes.
They are the people for whom the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky was built, who take their children there to see the animatronic cavemen living side by side with dinosaurs and are reassured at having that problem cleared up.
Traditionally, the story of Adam and Eve is a myth of a fall and a loss, a myth humankind endlessly re-enacts. This is implicit in the jeremiads of every conservative priest and preacher explaining the degeneracy of the times. We have fallen away, the fall and the loss are all but irrevocable; our only way back to Eden, Paradise, Heaven is through God’s grace which He is very reluctant to bestow.
What’s at first bewildering, then bemusing, then intriguing is that few of the men and women Wilensky-Lanford writes about can be pegged as that sort of Christian. Wilensky-Lanford’s own bewilderment began when she learned that her great-uncle, a doctor who taught at Columbia University, not only believed that the Garden of Eden was a real place but had planned to search for it by plane with a pilot friend of his:
When I first heard the rumor that my great-uncle---WASP, professor, New York City allergist---had been searching for the literal Garden of Eden in the 1950s, the cognitive dissonance was immediate. That’s because I had grown up during Scopes II: The Culture Wars. I associated people who thought the Book of Genesis was a map to the real world with minimal education and ultra-conservative politics. I thought those people, the Christian conservatives, they must believe the Garden of Eden is a real place. They think they know where it is. Not my family. I didn’t realize then that religious life in America hadn’t been so polarized. My uncle could see both sides. In his offices at Columbia University, he dreamed of Eden; in the pews of his Presbyterian church, he dreamed of science.
Not only are the people we meet in Paradise a heterodox collection of idiosyncratic believers, many of them were progressive and forward-thinking. They believed in their bibles, although not necessarily literally, they accepted and trusted science, and while they may have despaired at the sorrows and sins of humankind in the present, they were optimistic about the future. They expected things to get better.
And for many of them a path to that better future was through the Garden of Eden. Paradise was not lost in the past or beckoning from the after-life. It was spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally accessible here and now.
For them, the story of Adam and Eve was not about a fall. We weren’t driven from the Garden, we had merely wandered out of it and forgotten the route back. A return to Eden was a metaphor for getting back to first principles.
So Callaway’s Eden is a guide to the equality of men and women and individual liberation. Tse Tsan Tai used his Central Asian Eden to preach against war, militarism, and imperialism. For William and Lena Sadler, both doctors and scientists, the return to Eden wasn’t a myth, it was what was happening all through the first half of the of the 20th Century. The return was explicitly the advances in science and technology that was turning this world into a paradise. This isn’t surprising, considering that the Sadlers believed that Adam and Eve were scientists themselves, biologists from another planet who came here---the Garden of Eden is where they landed and set up their field camp---as advanced scouts for an extraterrestrial exploration and benign colonization of Earth that was ongoing.
Ok, the Sadlers were a bit more eccentric than Wilensky-Lanford’s other protagonists. You might think they were a bit more than “a bit” more eccentric after you read (in one of my favorite chapters in Paradise Lust) about they “communicated” with the visitors from outer space and the quasi-religion they founded based upon those extraterrestrial communications, but the point is that their myth is still a progressive myth; in it, Adam and Eve were reformers who came here “to promote cooperation, biologic uplift, and consensus building.”
And while the Sadlers may have been eccentric they weren’t nuts and their communications with aliens didn’t get in the way of their having not just successful but illustrious careers in their fields. Lena Sadler, just to pluck one item from her impressive CV, was one of the founders of the American Women’s Medical Association. William Sadler was a professor of psychiatry at the Post-Graduate Medical School of Chicago.
In the meantime, while the Sadlers were contacting the alien explorers, Thor Heyerdahl was exploring---re-exploring---the paths of earthling adventurers who carried Eden around with them in the form of a culture that was happier and more caring and cooperative and less acquisitive, materialistic, and self-aggrandizing than what he saw working itself out in the present day of World War II and Cold War Europe and the United States. Unlike Callaway’s and the Sadlers’, Heyerdahl’s personal myth of the Garden of Eden included a fall, or at least a falling away, and loss, a but a different, opposite loss than depicted in the Bible---Adam and Eve’s sin, of course, as eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge; Heyerdahl believed that our ancestors possessed a special knowledge that had become lost to us. Heyerdahl’s great sailing adventures, starting with the Kon-Tiki, weren’t just about proving that ancient peoples could have traveled the great distance from an unlikely there to an improbable there. He wanted to show that they had made those voyages regularly and that they carried this knowledge with them and shared it wherever they went. It was the knowledge of how human beings could live in harmony with nature and each other.
Paradise Lust is a kind of group biography that could be titled Eminent Cranks and Crackpots, but Wilensky-Lanford has a lot more on her plate. In the course of these essays, she writes with verve, humor, and persuasive confidence about many subjects, moving from theology to geology to cartography, archeology and anthropology, literary theory, cultural history, botany, hydro-engineering, and boat building. There were times when I felt I was reading Stephen Jay Gould, other times when I felt more like it was John McPhee. Still, the personalities dominate, and I was mostly reminded, again and again, of Virginia Woolf’s biographical essays, which, by the way, I think rank among Woolf’s best stuff. Wilenksy-Lanford brings all these people to colorful life, writing always with sympathy, affection, objectivity, respect, and an understanding of how they fit in their time and place.
Wilenksy-Lanford’s sympathy, objectivity, and patience are tested in her visit to the Creation Museum. Up above I mentioned how Elvy Callaway turned his patch of Eden into a Florida roadside attraction. But at least after you paid him his dollar and ten cents admission fee, you got to walk the paths that Adam and Eve trod when the place was theirs. You were in direct contact with if not the Lord then the good Lord’s own creation and there was in that the possibility of a real spiritual experience. But for all its state of the art design and special effects, the Creation Museum seems intended to cut off contact with anything spiritual because it is designed to cut off discussion. Real museums inspire questions and wonder. The Creation Museum heads them off at the pass.
As ideas about the Garden of Eden go, I found this empty, invisible Eden disappointing. Mongolia, Ohio, the North Pole---these locations, however far-fetched were human. They represented possibility, even in the face of disaster. Tse Tsan Tsai’s country was on the chopping block in the midst of World War I, but he still held out the Garden of Eden as a dream of world peace. Thor Heyerdahl was convinced that man had ruined Eden, yet he still worked for world cooperation and environmental stewardship. William Warren believed in original sin, but he loved the northern lights of his abandoned Polar Eden; at the very least, it could be a good source of electricity. The Creation Museum brought to mind another “C,” coldness.
What was at the heart of the Creation Museum’s religion? Its prescriptions all involved things Christians should fight against: sex outside marriage, the theory of evolution, the reality of climate change. But what did Christians fight for?
Because it’s meant to be a place for Christian parents to take their kid to divert them (and themselves) from asking those questions, the Creation Museum is just a diversion, another roadside attraction, a place to go because the kids are bored and everybody you know has gone so why not?
If this was the only point to Wilensky-Lanford’s writing about the place, it would have provided the one irritable chapter in an otherwise extremely good-natured book. But she uses her visit to the Creation Museum as a springboard for a profile of the one living seeker after Eden (besides herself) in Paradise Lust.
Lee Meadows is a professor of science education at the University of Alabama. He’s a believer. He’s always been a believer. He grew up a fundamentalist Christian in Mississippi thinking that every word of the Bible’s story of creation was true. He also grew up fascinated by science. He was like Wilensky-Lanford’s great-uncle. He could see both sides. In church, he dreamed of science. In the classroom, he dreamed of Eden. In college, he figured out there was a way to dream of both.
What he’s up to these days is trying to help public school teachers in the South teach evolution to their fundamentalist Christian students.
Meadows wanted kids to have the same liberating moment he had had in college: the freedom to look at science and religion next to each other and not necessarily have to make them match. That was tricky. Kids inevitably saw conflict between what their church told them and what they learned in school…Meadows believed that if teachers could get them to understand the evidence for, and the process of, evolution---well, that was a start.
“There are kids---and I know because I was one---who struggled just to understand the evidence.” Meadows clearly relished the challenge of overcoming that struggle. “If you can get a kid to see that there’s this amazing blue whale that came from a creature in the marshes of the Middle East, if they can get that, that’s good stuff.”
Neither Meadows himself or Wilensky-Lanford reaches for the obvious joke. But I’m happy to. To fundamentalists, this makes Meadows the snake in the Garden.
To Wilensky-Lanford, this makes Meadows another idealist mapping a way back to Eden.
The marshes in the Middle East Meadows refers to? Those are in Iraq, in an area known until recently as Mesopotamia, long thought by most scholars and believers to have been the actual location of the Garden of Eden, if there actually was one. In the years before World War I, the area and its many waterways were mapped by the British military engineering genius, William Worrocks, who later oversaw the construction of canals and dams that reclaimed the marshes and turned them into farmland, that is turned them back into what Worrocks assumed they were in Biblical times. Along the way, Worrocks located, positively, the exact site of the Garden of Eden.
But that’s another story---which Wilensky-Lanford is happy to tell and one you’ll be happy to read.
Meanwhile, what Meadows is implying is that “in the beginning,” God created evolution.