Monday, 28 January 2013

Sunday Sermon: The End of the Garden 1

Hello Everything. Thank you for all things and all people. Thank you for the living Logos. Allow us our humanity as we allow the humanity of others. Thy will be done Everything. Amen.
My intention is to go back to the Genesis story and speculative prehistory, but Saturday was 'Australia Day', which Aboriginal people and their supporters call 'Invasion Day', accurately and understandably enough. The Australian Aboriginal society has served as my main model for discussing Garden society after all, and like every other Garden society in history it has indeed been broken, the people cast out apparently never to return. Weirdly, last Saturday Australia celebrated this event. It may be the only Garden destruction event with its own national holiday.

For in Australia we can date the end of the Garden very accurately, and it is fairly well documented. They didn't eat any forbidden fruit. They were invaded by a post-Garden society and their land was stolen. That much is a matter of history.

Future Big Historians may note that the Australian Continent was the last of the large-scale Garden cultures to have their ecological society broken. To study the destruction feels to be almost in bad taste, as the wounds of the survivors are still fresh, as is the guilt of the invaders. On Australia Day the country becomes its most polarised, between those who celebrate "Australia Day" with drunken, flag-waving fervour and those who mourn "Invasion Day", for the death, dispossession and genocide that it represents for them. Somehow within this emotional and political turmoil, my intention is to see what we might learn about the destruction of the Garden generally.

We won't learn a thing about the original dialectical situation which might have unravelled Garden society, because culturally and demographically Aboriginal society was fairly stable. But given the Australian destruction came about by interaction with an expanding, colonial population which had far superior destructive and productive technology and a weak spiritual connection to land, the themes that arise may well be indicative of stories throughout the Old World from about 10,000-2000BC.

For, to recap the previous three sermons, Homo sapien managed productive landscapes all over the world. In our prehistoric nature, it's what we did. We neither 'hunted and gathered', strictly speaking, as did Homo erectus, nor settled to sow the land and build fences for animals. We gardened, and free-ranged the herds and flocks with great skill and knowledge, generally wandering over a lot of territory to both manage the country and to enjoy its harvests, camping in our favourite spots for periods of the year along the way. I'm not saying all societies were just like Aboriginal's - there were enormous differences, not least the ecological differences that induced different land management techniques. But they all developed long-term conscious relationships with their country, which incrementally developed the productivity of the landscape and probably developed many species (even if inadvertently) to their pre-domesticated states. I have discussed all this and how it might work enough perhaps, but here I am emphasising that this is our species, all over the world, for the vast portion of our existence.

Next Sermon, God help me, I will attempt a dialectical, if still very speculative, explanation of how Garden society first broke down, giving way to higher concentrated populations with urban centres and the beginnings of hierarchies of power, a process which shattered not just relationships with country and kin, but also began the process of the subversion of totemic and shamanistic religion into the ancient pagan systems we are familiar with from early history. God help me, that is my brief for next week. But explaining how garden society was destroyed after this first event (it may have happened more than once, but only once is needed) is much, much easier, tragically enough, so that is my current task.

Disease was probably a factor from the beginning. Diseases spread and evolve quickly in more concentrated populations, and pathogens which evolved alongside the concentrating populations may have found good low-resistant carriers the further from that population it went. There may have been many occasions in human prehistory where disease "prepared the way" for migrations of people. The Australian and American experience shows us how horribly effective this process is. In the Australian case there is solid evidence that the invaders made deliberate use of this local vulnerability to accelerate their 'advantage', through actively contaminating food and water. There is every chance that our ancestors also used this cruel technique, just as accessible then as now, around the world. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997) discusses the role of disease in history extensively and is very accessible.

The most striking possible metaphor I can find in the Bible for the invasion and occupation of gardens is the Biblical 'promised land', painted for us as a land not merely full of milk (half-tamed herds of goats probably) and honey (accessible bee colonies selected for productivity and placidity for generations), but of tended fruit trees and vineyards as well, and with a very small population to defend it. It was, according to one version of the story, there for the taking.

Aside, there is as much archaeological evidence for the Hebrew invasion of Canaan under Joshua as there is for the Garden of Eden - ie none - so once again I am treating this story of imminently occupiable 'Promised Land' as a possible tribal memory, or the intuition of a memory, probably with no original connection to the rest of the story. For me it evokes the English invasion of Australia, with endless well-managed pasture (meant for kangaroos) the promise rather than vineyards and olive groves. Areas like the Darling Downs, when they were discovered, evoked the phrase, 'promised land' repeatedly.

For we can see that the Garden society is as vulnerable as it is ecologically complex. The Garden country is immensely attractive to an invader - far more attractive than unoccupied wilderness. And yet it sustains a relatively small population. Any larger population, even with no technological advantage but especially if it is organised, has the capacity to occupy the Garden and instantly marginalise its inhabitants. If such an organised invader also gains a taste and talent for war and occupation, the destruction of Garden might have occurred very rapidly.

And there is a chain-reaction as the displaced Gardeners become refugees crowding the land of other tribes, as did happen in Australia also, causing conflict between tribes, bringing disease ahead and pressuring resources, all contributing to the destruction of the ecological totemic and kinship relations of the country. Once this starts somewhere - and I think it did probably begin in the Levant, quite aside from the Hebrews - it is relentless. The Garden populations will defend themselves. The country is their whole being so they have little choice. But even with occasional persistence from higher populated and organised invaders, they cannot stand.

Broadly we are in a position to see how rapidly garden society can be destroyed and how little evidence for the society might be left after only a handful of generations. Many Aboriginal languages have become extinct and even where tribal lands are still maintained the complex totemic and legal relationships with country and kin are a shadow of their former selves. With not a little irony it is our affluent, liberal society which is at least making some efforts to help preserve whatever possible, and we can easily imagine that invading peoples of millennia ago would not have mourned cultural loss nor felt the sort of abiding guilt that liberal moderns do. Even less ambiguously than our Christian ancestors with their Bibles in hand, our ancient tribal ancestors saw such conquests as victories for their gods. An occasional word for a place-name might be the only remnant, if there is any at all, of thousands of venerably ancient cultures.

I have just carved through, in a fairly impassionate way, some territory that is fraught with not only emotion but hotly contested policy implications. This is ideographic landscape which requires compassion at every step. I am a descendent of the invaders of Australia, after all, and the descendants of the displaced gardeners are still too often in pain, socially and spiritually, and too often alienated from the society which I so much enjoy, somehow caught between a past they cannot return to and a future that seems unavailable to many. I might forgive my English and Irish ancestors, but I am not prepared to forget or ignore our real past, nor pretend the resulting problems have disappeared. Most of all, I want us to help the survivors retain as much as we can of the wisdom and culture of these ancient societies, and to find, from the past and the future, full selves in Every's diverse blue jewel.

But I'm not really going to discuss the politics or the morality of the current situation - there is much debate about it elsewhere and, if I really tried to do it justice as a subject in this format I fear it would take many sermons. But I will say that I think it is possible for all parties to face the full humanity of the tragedy honestly, without denial, guilt, blame, inferiority or superiority, and that such honest, non-sectarian reflection will help all of us continue forward. I'll also say that by doing so all of us will learn very important things about ourselves, and especially about our psychological and ideographical genesis.

For the past series of sermons about the Garden is not for the sake of a random intellectual excursion. The Garden of Eden provides the origin story for most of the world, including arguably our oldest continuous but post-Garden religious tradition, Judaism, which indeed appears to tell a version of a story of all of us. It has anchored our sense of ourselves into our pre-human past and in doing so provided us with symbolic and ideological frames for values and agency. Genesis is not the whole Bible of course, and the Garden is not the only source of ideas, but it is, let us say, primal. Its motifs, thousands of years after authorship, still impact our world in a big way. And what I am trying to say is that we have some new information. There have been further revelations. The text of Genesis has grown. And religion must grow with the living text.

Kev Carmody should have the last word. Whether or not we think that Kev's people can get their land back, and it is with no pleasure that I suspect they can't and won't, there is one part of his message about which there should be no argument. We must heal the land, as it is terribly damaged. And that is another sermon.
Everything, please bless this continent of Australia. Help us to all to empathise with one another and to work together toward your future. Bless every strand of our diversity, but that every strand may weave a greater harmony. Bless all of those in pain, and help them find a more understanding and helpful tomorrow. Finally Everything bless my readers, that they may consider what I have to say with clarity and discernment, mindfully sifting the wheat of my words from the chaff. So be it.


  1. Speaking of which, I need to get my little garden started soon. :)

  2. Ha! All the best with that Lloyd. It's an ancient practice, and I know from experience a very rewarding one, though I have no garden to tend myself at the moment. One day again...