When Michael told me he had quit his job to spend time alone tucked away in the forest of our already remote island, my eyebrows immediately lifted toward my hairline. Alarm bells rang out, but his decision also piqued my interest. “You have to tell me all about,” I declared, not giving him much of a choice. To be fair, I only know so many people willing leaving their homes to live off the forest. Thankfully, Michael was cool enough to share a bit about his experience and how his thoughts on life and the Christian narrative on the early moments of life have changed since his stay in our every own Eden.
Here is what he had to say:
According to Genesis, original man lived in perfect contentment – in harmony with self, natural surroundings and the cosmos, wanting for nothing, in a state of perpetual bliss.
It’s a nice story – if only I believed it were true.
Last year, I went out to test this hypothesis (in a very non-scientific sort of a way), spending ninety days living off the land – hunting and gathering in the Rosalie forest in Dominica. As challenging as it was, I can’t deny – it was a truly magical experience.
It gave me a newfound sense of place in the universe and appreciation for the web of connectivity that is our planet, but it also made me realize that life is always hanging in the balance, ever so precariously. Most of my time was spent securing food, and if it weren’t for the coconuts (which were introduced to the area by man), I would have had to spend 100% of my time searching for food. So much for carefree living.
This is a common enough situation for many animals. Simple grazers like cows and goats spend most of their life eating in an attempt to source sufficient nutrients, while the more exotic predators like lions and leopards (or herons and boas) must spend countless hours stalking their prey. And for those animals who have the misfortune of being small and vulnerable (like crabs or agouti), in addition to the time spent searching for food, even more time must be dedicated towards the evasion of predators.
Out in the wild, all creatures, myself included, are able to glean just enough to stay alive and not much more. It is a system which favours no one individual nor any one species too greatly, leaving space for others – a space which of course, is quickly filled to capacity, requiring fierce competition among those in attendance for limited resources. This is simply the way of the world. Is it possible that man was ever content under such conditions? I don’t know.
Out in the forest, one of my most regular challenges was keeping firewood dry to cook with. If I could have accepted that my chopped wood was going to get wet and that the fish I spent all day trying to catch might spoil as a result, I wouldn’t have tried to build any sort of firewood shelter. But I knew – and my body knew – I needed protein. So I spent countless hours building and improving my firewood shelter until I finally had a structure that was somewhat watertight. What nature alone provided wasn’t enough. I needed more. And luckily, I was equipped to build it.
Back in the ancient forests and savannas of East Africa, (the likely geographical location of the biblical Eden) man would have had to face much more serious problems than just keeping wood dry. Not only would he have had to compete with the other animals for resources, but he would have had to fight, slink and skulk to avoid becoming dinner for the more monstrous creatures which thankfully are not present in Dominica! I imagine that early man would have constantly experienced a primal form of fear (as other animals do) even if he were not conscious enough to recognize it as such.
If however, by some miracle there were no lions, crocodiles or snakes preying on man, nor deadly insects, diseases, natural disasters, or the myriad of other natural afflictions that have traditionally caused death and suffering, man’s numbers would have inevitably multiplied until the available resources came under enough strain that migration, fighting, starvation or infanticide eventually stabilized the population. To imagine man as content in such conditions, would be to imagine man as either so enlightened as to be indifferent to death and suffering, or of such a low grade of consciousness that the terror and suffering he experienced could not register as discontent, much as a tree cannot lament a broken branch.
History shows that he was likely neither, and as a result man inevitably went about changing the world to better suit his needs. Our story as a species is one that starts not in the garden but in the wilderness. It is a story of attempting to fill the black hole of fear, death, and “not enough” with innovation, adaptation, and the pursuit of ”more”. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with innovation and growth, unfortunately we have proven that “enough” is a concept not well understood by our species. As a result, our thirst for “more” which stems from our deep-seated fears of suffering and scarcity has brought us to the brink of environmental collapse and total alienation from the world. It is with these thoughts in mind that I originally set out to the forest to ask, “If Eden was so idyllic and yet the modern world is such a mess, why did we ever leave in the first place?”
Having spent some time in the forest, now I understand, but understanding is only half of the battle.
Here – in 2018 – we as a country and as a planet stand overlooking the ever-widening precipice of climate change and global warming, one of the greatest existential threats we have ever faced. Homes have been destroyed, lives lost, and many species are on the brink of extinction – and yet, a glimmer of hope exists, a light which burned brightly in Eden and is still burning now. I feel Genesis may be inaccurate in it’s physical description of man’s early days on earth, but, it contains more than a kernel of truth: inner peace and happiness have always been and will always be ours for the taking, even in the face of death and suffering whereas craving, desire, and thirst will always result in more craving, desire and thirst. Existence may be imperfect, and may always have been, but if we are willing to be still, to bear witness to ourselves in the moment, we can in fact roam freely in the garden without fear, thought, or want, in perfect peace. When we can do this, we can tackle our problems with strength and clarity, and many of our challenges -such as the emissions of greenhouse gases due to excessive consumption – will resolve themselves as a result.
My time in the forest opened my eyes to what we left behind, both bad and good. The question now is, “Where do we go from here?”