Back to the Garden

“The Garden of Eden” painting (between circa 1655 and circa 1661) by Izaak van Oosten.

A Friend’s Evolving Relationship with Creation

The lions and other animals were friendly in that first ideal garden of Eve and Adam. This was the picture I had from my really young days: a mirage that was wonderful for a young imagination. And while that ideal has slowly grown more complex through awareness of evolution’s details, my understanding also became progressively clear that we indeed once were closer to being a part with everything in the garden. Our small human numbers were not a sustainability challenge then, for earth’s restorative potential was far more than adequate to cover our human activities. Thus was our relationship with creation for approximately 95 percent of human existence, when we lived as one species among many, depending on intimate relations with our ecosystems.

Today we no longer choose to remember or acknowledge that earlier phase of eco-equality. Our human estrangement from earth and creation has complex social and religious roots. But this human self-declared divorce from creation (human exceptionalism) is a large reason my connection with earth and creation is now so very difficult to find.

But my journey back toward the garden has begun. Trees receive full credit for providing the inspiration, drawing me to the starting point of this journey. They have my respect for their evolved role as a part of creation that have learned to give more than they receive. Beyond having a sustaining lifestyle for all in their community, they also help to repair the unsustainable lifestyle humans have developed. 

Donald W. McCormick’s “The Mystical Experience” is a very enlightening—even liberating—explanation from the August 2021 issue of Friends Journal of the range of Quaker mystical experience between theistic and unitive. This brought me an understanding of how stepping down from human exceptionalism could open a relationship with the Spirit of creation that I had not fully explored. In an example of a unitive framework, it quotes British philosopher Walter Terence Stace to describe how one “continues to perceive the same world of trees and hills and tables and chairs as the rest of us. . . but sees these items transfigured in such a manner that Unity shines through them.”

Affinity with nature has run through my veins since before my neuron-synapse system made permanent recordings. As an adult—wherever the many moves have taken my family—I’ve committed to growing something from the land, supporting native plants, knowing the non-welcome invasives, and rousting them with almost patriotic righteousness. But another awakening finally found me in a moment of greater openness and allowed me to see that we humans have developed patterns that clearly meet the various definitions of invasive species. This awareness has infected my conscience, and angst now accompanies a range of heretofore routine decisions over land use and invasive issues. 

Partly as a result of this growing consciousness, I have become a champion of all creatures from the smallest to the largest that pollinate anything and everything, including the mama bear and her cubs who ravaged my small bean crop this year and the rabbits that think my small garden plots are their private briar patches of yore. My pollinator awakening came with learning the proportion of our human food supply that is critically dependent on natural pollination, and of our role in the disappearance of pollinators. It is painful to see how we obsess over our property, ignorantly replacing as much of the pollinator support system as possible with grass and other biologically inert chemically dependent fake verdancy. Even formerly positive terms like grass-roots organization and landscaping now have a darker, counterproductive, and colonizing connotation for me. An alternate path that I am adopting is to convert as much as possible to pollinator positive nature-scaping. And I’m spreading the word that replacing our fake verdancy will lead us back into a living connection with more of creation.

On a different plane of consciousness, a slowly growing awareness through much of the last decade or two has recently come into sharper focus, aided in part by media focus on sensational weather and climate-change-related catastrophes. This is the long-evolving saga of our capitalization of fossil fuels; the human population explosion, with rapid demise of non-human species; the combined effect of these factors upon the climate; and the detritus and jetsam of our fossil-fuel-addicted societies, most notably plastics. The number of looming crises in so many different environmental quarters is clear evidence that humans are exceeding fundamental sustainability limits of earth. Ours is a human population in seeming despair over declining chances for pride in what we leave behind to those who will follow us. 

This is my journey: my attempt to step down from the pinnacle of exceptionalism; transition through my personal, liminal zone; and begin the search for my home place in creation with earth and the Spirit within. Though this is largely a personal journey; at times it enjoys the company of others in Quakerism. There are those with wisdom with whom I share this travel. The example of John Woolman, Indigenous-based teachings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, and watershed ecotheology of Cherice Bock are all offering hope and direction along the way.

John Woolman labored with his lifestyle decisions to progressively minimize superfluities, convinced they directly supported the continuation of slavery. He implored his fellow Quakers and all Quakers that he could reach with his writing and traveling ministering (often made by foot) to see the direct and indirect connections between living unsustainably and the support they provided for slavery, human conflict, and war. He implored them not to extend their life’s labor for the sake of building wealth that would infect the children of the next generation with an addiction to affluent lifestyles that could lead to resource conflicts and war.

John Woolman’s life and thought have given me greater appreciation of what the Quaker practice opens through deep listening and continuing revelation. He must have had a conundrum though: being completely committed to Quakerism but deeply estranged from so many other Quakers over the issue of slavery. Similar to Woolman’s concern about slavery, I am concerned about enslaving earth directly through my affluence and personal carbon footprint (as are now billions of others). This condition is likely to result in resource wars and human conflict. Woolman’s concerns on human slavery and mine on humans enslaving earth lead to the realization that messages ahead of their time may not be readily appreciated. Nevertheless, they must be broadly distributed; discerned through the Quaker body; gestate; and, at some future time, become a new more broadly accepted revelation. This he learned about slavery; this I need to learn about our human enslavement of earth.

Scientist and Indigenous voice Robin Wall Kimmerer brings us the ecological cultural intelligence that was inherent in the lives of those here before us, and tells us who they were in the web of creation. In books like Braiding Sweetgrass, she gives many examples of their personal connection and thankfulness to earth. Her writing and speaking has made me greatly aware of the gap between my sustainability profile and that of the Indigenous cultures. They were here on this very land that I now own, which was “claimed” by White Europeans from those earlier peoples. Her cultural stories from those here before us show how they truly were far more noble toward the earth than the culture we brought that replaced theirs, and them. For example, the abundant metal tools, cloth, guns, gunpowder, horses, and rum White Europeans brought to trade for early Americans’ natural resources served to seriously poison the Indigenous kinship relationships with earth and each other.

Recognizing the gulf between where Indigenous peoples were and where we all are now, Kimmerer asks: “What is it that needs to be destroyed so that creation can flourish again?” She responds that it is not humans but human exceptionalism. She says that before colonization and industrialization, humans lived in balance with the living world and their fellow humans, and perceptions were guided by the laws of ecology: the same laws to which every other being is subject. However, she notes that a short half-century ago, we began an experiment that chased divinity from earth to the sky where we thought we would follow to our true home. And in that upward gaze of humanity, we lost sight of our kin folks on earth, our mutual responsibilities, and our earthly gifts, and we abandoned the idea of our relations for a hierarchy of being with humans perched on the pinnacle. Those who used to be family are now seen as servants and property.

She said, “We tested what would happen if we thought ourselves masters of the universe as opposed to the younger brothers of creation, and the results of this experiment are now in.”

Cherice Bock is an inspired Quaker voice, who asks us to look critically at where we are and leads us towards a renewal of our relationship with creation. She brings an ecotheology with a path of watershed discipleship. This “invites Christians to a way of following Jesus that requires Friends of European descent to move through repentance toward reconciliation, taking our place within the community of creation.” She encourages us to see ourselves as part of the community of all life in a region, in an integrating way that “commits to a place and its inhabitants in a creative blend of traditional knowledge and innovation to meet current social, economic, spiritual, and ecological needs.” Her watershed discipleship extends the concept of community to everything from microbiota to mega fauna (like humans) who are connected in relationship, and responsible for the health of their watershed. 

But she reminds us to take an earlier reference point to gauge sustainability, starting at the time colonialism was driven through Indigenous lands under the flag of the doctrine of discovery. She says Friends of European descent have to address the questions: 

  • What is our responsibility to the people whose land we now legally “own,” but which was acquired through shady or illicit means? 
  • What is our responsibility to the ecosystems our ancestors destroyed, and which our lifestyles continue to sicken and fragment? 
  • What can we do now to work toward reconciliation with the land, other species, and diverse people groups? 

Before we journey on, let us pause for a silent moment to ponder the question that we tend to fear: what really is sustainability? And let us also consider whether we mean to apply it narrowly to just our own human sustainability or more widely to the sustainability of earth and creation? There is some general reluctance to use the term “sustainability.” And it is often that those using this term avoid describing specifically where sustainability exists or what its requirements are. The typical usage indicates “sustainability is in this direction,” as if it were some currently unknowable place that we cannot imagine (or don’t want to admit to because it asks too much of us). A more common alternative to describing the term is to query about our feelings about responsibility and stewardship for earth and creation. But in the present context of human exceptionalism, both approaches will be vulnerable to compromising anthropocentric interpretations. 

Indigenous thoughts on sustainability are clear: what resource you now have cannot be used at a rate that exceeds earth’s ability to replace it; that resource needs to be available for seven generations into the future. This appears to be the true definition of sustainability for earth. Recognizing how far removed my life is from this requirement illuminates how much change is needed for me to live sustainably. However, the further my distance from the exceptional pinnacle, the more personal opportunities open to take me toward that seven generation horizon. Presently, meat is in keen focus for me, and my consumption is continuing to decrease. Our home-energy system is very green, and we now seek ways to decrease our total energy use. Conventional landscaping (like grass) is progressively being converted into edible and pollinator-friendly plants. There are new ways that I find to whittle down my water consumption, especially hot water. And green burial is a reasonable possibility for the distant future. And even though my transportation has drastically decreased, opportunities remain for improvement. For instance, our SUV is suddenly an obvious environmental embarrassment. 

On a larger scale, I’m contributing to the upcoming presentation by our meeting that will highlight human addiction to plastics and the conspiracy by the fossil-fuel industry to redirect their investments into plastics. I’m working with the Quaker Earthcare Witness Population Working Group to develop and distribute information to the Quaker community on equitable, just solutions to gain a sustainable balance between human population and earth’s capacity to support it.

Never at age 20 would I have dreamed of the extent of damage to creation that would result from exponential increases in population and affluence in one, short lifetime. I am walking down the road today at age 77 on an earth that I have warmed, and overwhelmed by how many unthinking, unconscious choices that I made along the way, which were each sustainability opportunities. If the environmental damage can heal in time for the next generation, the choices were sustainable. Or did my choice deliver an unsustainable, indelible carbon footprint to my sons and grandsons? Because eight billion others are now making many similar poor choices, it is difficult to expect that earth will be able to neutralize all the damage.

Each new opportunity now encountered must be met consciously with the query: “Will my choice support earth, or will it support me and my lifestyle?” Having asked this, I must choose: “Which side am I on?” “Does my choice meet the sustainability seven-generation criteria?”

Tom Cameron

Tom Cameron is an attender at Hartford (Conn.) Meeting and member of the Population Working Group of Quaker Earthcare Witness. He is a mechanical engineer and materials scientist. His photography avocation has given him intimacy with the natural world.

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