Archived Opinion

Contemplating the end of Eden

“At times I think there are no words

But these to tell what’s true

And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.”

— Bob Dylan (“The Gates of Eden”), For Michael Davitt and Sam Gray, in memory

It’s the end of October as I write this, and I’ve still got tomatoes on the vine. June-blooming rhododendrons are flowering again. Hummingbirds are still here and coming to the feeders. Walnuts hanging from the leafless walnut trees like Christmas tree ornaments, not able to drop. Yellow-jackets still coming and going actively to their underground nests. Raccoons still coming into the corn patch thinking that August must have come ’round again and that there is corn. Following the wettest summer on record, we’re in the midst of a drought. Here in Tuckasegee, it’s only rained twice in the last two months. I’m having to hand-water the heather just to keep them alive. With my woodpile ready for the winter, I’ve not even thought about starting a fire. Strange days.

Usually an early riser, these days I find I’m getting up later (8 a.m., 8:30, 9, 9:30!). It’s as if my subconscious is resisting, not wanting to face the day. I’m usually a hopeful person — searching the darkness for a sign of light. These days, however, my mood is much more often one of resignation. I find that I’m walking about in the world looking for signs of natural beauty while I still can, unsure of how much longer it (Nature) or we (the human species) will be around to enjoy it.

What this is all about is that the weather, usually an afterthought in the news, is now-a-days the lead story. Flooding. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. Tsunamis. Drought. Global warming. In addition to all the weather news, there are stories of pandemics, greedy politicians, oil mongers, corporate raiders and mindless terrorism.

I’m reminded of a true story I heard about 25 years ago told by a Sufi teacher — about a meeting that he had had with his guru. When visiting India during the 1950s at the height of nuclear escalation and conflict between Russia and the United States, and sitting at the feet of this wise and gray-bearded man, he asked the question: “What is going to happen to us, to everything?” After a long pause the elderly prophet turned to the young Sufi novitiate and said, “It’s not what you think.” “Do you mean that there is not going to be a nuclear war or some sort of nuclear holocost,” the younger man responded. Again there was a long pause, until finally the old man looked the younger in the eye and said: “Mass insanity.”

To me, this true story seems to sum up and explain almost everything we are experiencing these days. The idea of moderation seems to have been thrown out with both the baby and the bathwater. Everything man-made is being conceived of and is being done in excess. Consequently, it’s as if the Earth woke up one day this year, took a look at what was going on around her, and shouted: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!”

The “end of the world” cartoons that appear regularly in the printed media are beginning to look more and more pragmatic. Prophetic. If one looks at the data offered up by the scientific community having to do with economics, ozone and CO2 pollution, population, etc., the arc of all graphs converge around the year 2000 and shoot straight up, skyward, out of sight. In the past couple hundred years — following what had previously been millennia of relative environmental stability — instability in the environment has steadily been on the rise, and what we’re looking at, now, and into the indefinite future, is a dubious lifestyle based on essential maintenance and repair. In fact, what we may be witnessing is the end of Eden.

While what I’m talking about here is a global problem with global ramifications, looking at what is going on right around me serves as as good an example as anything anywhere else on earth and is more the reason for my lethargy and my excessive sleep habits. Excess, surreal wealth and overpopulation have all become my neighbors here in Tuckasegee. Less than two miles down the road, a huge development has already sold 200 lots and has plans, I am told, for 500 more homes before it is finished. That would bring 700 new homes, almost overnight, into a community that is one of the most rural mountain farming communities in Western North Carolina. The economic and cultural effects of this development of second and third homes owned by people (with a median age of 39) primarily from out of state will be shocking, if not devastating, to the natives and long-time residents of this community.

Even closer to home, the 60-acre pasture and mountain adjacent to where I live is currently in the hands of its third real estate agent/developer, and there are rumors circulating of a shopping center being built on this land to serve the large, gated community — as a convenience to its residents so they wouldn’t have to drive to Sylva or Cashiers to shop. NC Highway 281 that passes in front of my house is already over-run with traffic. With 700 more families and a shopping mart next door, the pasture-pristine bottomlands of the Canada community will soon look and feel more like the Loves Field community at the entrance to Wal Mart. The relative peacefulness and serenity that has been my life, here, for the past 13 years, will be replaced by even more heavy equipment truck and SUV noise, not to mention the glaring all-night lights in the shopping mall that will take the place of the stars in the sky. The end of an era. The “End of Eden.”

At a recent address given earlier this fall to the Environmental Leadership Council at Warren Wilson College, 91-year-old ecologian (a title designed especially for him combining the fields of ecology and theology) and author of books such as The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work, Thomas Berry told his audience, “We’re looking at a new era in Earth history. I call it The Ecozoic period. Ecology will dominate both the news and our consciousness. With combined planetary perils ever-present, we’re looking at a new paradigm for humanity. This will mean a new era of activism that will fall predominantly on the shoulders of the younger generation, who will inherit the dubious job of recovery and reinhabitation of our natural habitat — saving what’s left of Eden — manning the social programs that will care for the unexpectedly displaced and destitute at a time when food, health and shelter can no longer be taken for granted.”

With a similar message given to an all-to-sparse audience at Western Carolina University on Oct. 18 in Cullowhee, noted scientist and expert on global climate change William Schlesinger said, “The rising human population, currently at 6.5 billion, has brought about changes in the basic chemistry of earth’s atmosphere and oceans, which have formed the evolutionary environment for all life now on Earth. There has been irreparable damage. The Arctic ice we are losing, for example, will never be replaced. To ignore climate change and other global environmental problems is fundamentally and ethically wrong.”

With experts like these lined up in agreement, the writing is on the wall. The garden-world of the planet Earth is fast disappearing and being replaced by a noxious environment created from man’s disrespect for Nature and his greed for material and personal wealth and would-be comfort. The end of Eden.

If this is true, then what incentive do I have to get up each morning with the sun and go out into the daylight (or in the case of the Smoky Mountains, the smog) to work in my garden, or to gather firewood in the woods, or to throw a trout line into the Tuckaseigee River across the road?

No wonder all I want to do is sleep! Unable any longer in clear consciousness to see the world as one where natural beauty and diversity abound, and where our needs are provided for, dreams, these days, seem a better option. A pity, as once upon a time we had it all. A “Garden of Eden.” This is, before we turned our heads and looked away.

Thomas Crowe is a regular writer for the Smoky Mountain News. His back-to-the-land memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods which appeared in monthly installments from 2003 - 2004 in the pages of this paper, was published by the University of Georgia Press in May of 2005 and is available in all area bookstores.

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