Following months of rain here in southern Indiana, it’s the middle of May, the sun has reclaimed the sky from clouds, and every green thing is growing like mad. You can almost hear the sizzle of shoots breaking ground. Every creek and pond rings with the horny calls of frogs. In our neighborhood of big trees and old houses, birds chorus lustily, especially the robins, who sound half-drunk with mating frenzy. On the nearby campus of Indiana University, young couples dally about, holding hands when they’re not busy texting, and gazing into one another’s eyes when they’re not busy peering at their phones.
Prize-winning essayist Scott Russell Sanders turns to the imagination as a spiritual guide and material method of living through climate disruption, as climate change and broad extinction forever alter our place on the planet and our lives together.
Ruth and I did our own share of dallying when we met on this campus as high school students over half a century ago, strolling along the same paths, among the same limestone buildings, under the same towering oaks and tulip trees. Unlike today’s lovers, however, instead of carrying cell phones in our pockets we carried slide rules, for we were attending a science camp, spending our days in labs pungent with toxic brews and our evenings reading poetry aloud to one another or discussing life’s mysteries—a nerdy Mom-meets-Dad story that embarrassed our kids when they were teenagers.
This was in the summer of 1962, not quite five years after the orbiting of Sputnik I. The launching of that first satellite, along with other Soviet exploits in space, had stirred up fears among Cold Warriors that America was falling behind in the brains race as well as the arms race. So tax dollars flowed into science camps across the land. A full-ride scholarship allowed me, a country boy from Ohio, to take a break from building houses and spend eight glorious weeks in Bloomington, Indiana, boosting my IQ for the good of the nation. Thus I can thank the Red Scare for introducing me to the girl who would become my wife.
Right now that wife is outside conducting her morning survey of the garden. Still inclined to dally about, I go to join her. Is the rhubarb ready for harvesting? Ruth muses aloud. Has the cucumber vine latched onto the trellis? Have the zucchini seeds sprouted? How can we keep cabbage butterfly caterpillars from shredding the kale? What flowers and vegetables have the deer and rabbits munched overnight? Meanwhile, I check to see if the mama skunk has dug a new entry to her den beneath the screened porch. Have carpenter bees drilled more holes in the rafters of the woodshed? What mischief have the raccoons and possums and groundhogs been up to? Has the compost begun to cook?
In the original Garden, the one in Eden, so the story goes, before Adam and Eve defied God’s instruction not to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” they had an easier time of it than any gardener is likely to have today, what with global warming and air pollution and throngs of pests. The first couple, still innocent, could wander around naked and pluck unblemished fruit from the trees whenever they were hungry. They could admire the lion and leopard without fear of becoming supper. Life was bliss. Then the serpent spoiled everything, so the story continues, by enticing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, claiming that it would give her Godlike knowledge, and then she in turn enticed Adam—a mythic scene still invoked today, in certain religious circles, to justify the subordination of women to men. After committing the primal sin, Adam and Eve became aware and ashamed of their nakedness, a condition God remedied by making them garments from animal skins. As punishment, God kicked them out of Eden, condemning them and all their descendants to till the soil and grow food by the sweat of their brow. For having given in first to the serpent’s guile, Eve was condemned to suffer pain in childbirth and to be ruled over by her husband.
Ruth’s brow and mine begin to glisten as she pulls weeds from the raised beds and I rig wire fencing to fend off deer. Since she is definitely not ruled over by her husband, she decides it’s time for us to go in, and we go in. She returns to her sewing machine, where she resumes work on a quilt. I return to my keyboard, where I resume these travels through time.
While there may be no cure for this malaise, there are pain-relievers, and for me there is no more potent drug than spring, no better therapy than gardening.
During our summer of science and romance back in 1962, Ruth and I could not have imagined that in the years to come we would marry, return to Bloomington after graduate school, pursue our careers at the university, bring two children into the world, and rear those children, Eva and Jesse, in a fixer-upper house we would slowly renovate over the course of four decades. Nor could we have imagined that illness and late-life needs would prompt us to leave our old house and undertake the building of a new one, just down the block from the bungalow where Eva and her husband are bringing up their own two children.
Even after two years’ residence in the new house, when insomnia rousts me from bed at night I still must pause to find my bearings—to locate the bedroom doorway, to recognize the unfamiliar glint on the oak floor as a slant of streetlight, to identify the rattle from the kitchen as the sound of the refrigerator compressor kicking in. In childhood, my insomnia arose from fear of death, the suspicion that if I gave in to sleep I might never wake. In my middle years, it arose from the stress of playing too many roles— husband, father, son, writer, teacher, colleague, householder, neighbor, volunteer, citizen. Now, in my 70s, I am kept awake chiefly by grief. In addition to personal grief about our son’s cancer, my sister’s heart condition, and the decline and death of friends, I grieve about the condition of our shared world, the pervasive violence and injustice, the tribal hatreds, the rending of Earth’s living web.
Anyone who has survived childhood, I suspect, feels some combination of personal, social, and ecological grief. While there may be no cure for this malaise, there are pain-relievers, and for me there is no more potent drug than spring, no better therapy than gardening. On this May morning, with our windows open to a breeze that ruffles the papers on my desk, I listen to lusty robins and smell sun-warmed soil, I watch young couples sidle by on the sidewalk, and I renew my faith in the resilience of nature and in our own paradoxical species.
The paradox is that we are at once the most creative and the most destructive of all the animals. Our cleverness may doom us. And yet, despite the damage humans have caused, I trust nature to find ways of creating new life, as it has done after previous global disruptions, such as those caused by meteors, volcanoes, and ice ages. Granted, this confidence in nature’s resilience is easier to feel in May, when life seethes and sings and surges on all sides, than in dim, frozen December. But even in winter, seeds, roots, rhizomes, suckers, burrows, dens, and beating hearts carry the promise of spring. The durability of our species is less certain than the durability of life itself, but I suspect that humans will prove imaginative and resourceful enough to escape, if in diminished numbers, from the ecological mess we’ve made. As for individuals, however, no matter how resilient they might be, sooner or later they will succumb to disease, accident, or simple wear-and-tear.
The wear-and-tear caught up with Ruth and me in our 60s, when our joints began to creak on the stairs and our muscles began to strain at tasks we had once accomplished with ease. Our house at the time, on Wylie Street, was nearly a century old, and we had lived there almost half that span; like our bodies, it was in steady need of repair. In a book called Staying Put, written when I was in my 40s, I described how we came to purchase the house, how we reared our children there, how we nurtured friendships and celebrated holidays within those walls, how we wired and plumbed and insulated and mended the old shell, how we turned a husk into a home. In my 40s, it was still possible for me to believe, and to write, that Ruth and I might live there the rest of our days. But as our aches and pains accumulated, we began to realize that the Wylie Street house, infused with 40 years of memories, would be a hard place to stay if our joints failed or our hearts weakened. A day might come when we could no longer climb the two flights of steps from the street to reach the front door, or the further sets of stairs to reach bedrooms and bathroom on the second floor; when we could no longer carry laundry down to the basement or fetch boxes from the attic; when we could no longer maintain a structure that had been exposed to weather and gravity for a hundred years.
These concerns became more pressing when Ruth consulted a neurologist and learned that the persistent tremor in her hands was caused by Parkinson’s disease. She was 68; I was a year older. If we lived another decade or more, it was likely she would eventually need to use a walker or a wheelchair. The doorways in the Wylie Street house were too narrow and the rooms too cramped to accommodate either device, and the lot was too small to allow for a ramp from the sidewalk. An architect advised us that the house could not be remodeled to provide for one-floor living without distorting its character. Built in 1920, it’s a tidy example of a style called American Foursquare: a two-story cube, 26 feet on a side, with a basement below, a porch on the front, and a pyramid-shaped roof. It’s compact, efficient, largely solar-powered, and carefully refurbished from foundations to roof—ideal for a young family, but not for a pair of elders. We loved the place too much to distort its character. So we would have to move.
Adam and Eve, you will recall, were also compelled to move from a home they loved, only in their case it was on orders from God. I draw this grandiose parallel because the Garden of Eden story has been on my mind lately, as Ruth and I labor, by the sweat of our brows, to cultivate a garden in our yard, which was reduced to a smear of raw clay during construction of the new house. As to where Adam and Eve moved, we learn only that they were banished east of Eden, there to “eat the plants of the field” and grow crops amid thorns and thistles, for God had cursed the ground to make life harder for the Original Sinners.
I first heard the Garden of Eden story from Sunday school teachers in a Methodist church on a backroad in Ohio, long before I read the written version. When I did read the Bible, naturally I began with Genesis, which revealed that not everything I learned in Sunday school conformed to the Scriptures. For instance, we children were taught that the fruit Adam and Eve had been forbidden to eat was an apple. Since I loved apples, this detail disturbed me. Only when I studied the biblical account did I discover that it never specifies what sort of fruit grew on “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Had the story been submitted in a creative writing class, the author would have been advised to name the fruit, identify the tree, and offer sensory details.
To be fair, the story does provide a few concrete details, enough to create a picture in a child’s mind. For me as a young reader, the most vivid passage described the effects on Adam and Eve of tasting the forbidden fruit: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loin-cloths for themselves.” On my first reading, I had to consult the dictionary about loin-cloths. I already knew from my Assyrian grandfather that fig trees grew in the Holy Land, for he had traveled there, and he brought the dried fruit, strung together with cord, as a gift when he visited our family. Once Adam and Eve donned their leafy clothes, the passage continued, “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” [Gen 3:7-8] How could any child read those lines without sensing the first couple’s shame, without feeling the wind at dusk, without hearing the tread of God’s feet? They were feet like ours, I imagined, only much larger, like everything else about God.
For me as a child, those lines reinforced the impression that God was a bigger, stronger, moodier version of my father, whom I loved nearly all the time and feared some of the time. This Father God was also older than my dad, as demonstrated by the long white beard God wore in the posters on the Sunday school wall. Between church lessons and Bible reading, how could I have imagined God otherwise than as male, powerful, and temperamental, blessing the first people one minute, cursing them the next?
It’s edifying to read Genesis, as much for what you don’t find there as for what you do. You don’t find apples in Eden, nor do you find lions and lambs cozying up to one another (that’s in the Book of Isaiah). You don’t learn why God considered wandering naked to be natural inside Eden but taboo beyond, nor why God cursed the soil, the life-giving soil, because of human disobedience. You don’t learn why these bodies of ours—created, we are told, in the likeness of God—could be cause for shame, nor why they succumb to injury, disease, and the rigors of time.
The Garden of Eden story has been on my mind lately, as Ruth and I labor, by the sweat of our brows, to cultivate a garden in our yard, which was reduced to a smear of raw clay during construction of the new house.
Faced by the necessity of leaving the Wylie Street house, Ruth and I debated where to move. The one-story houses in our neighborhood were of roughly the same vintage as our old one, many of them rundown student rentals, and those in good condition rarely came up for sale. Newer houses out in the burbs—beyond walking or bicycling distance from library, coffee shop, grocery store, post office, and university—were mostly wannabe mansions, squatting amid vast, poison-perfect lawns. A condo or apartment would not allow space for Ruth’s quilting or my carpentry, or grounds for gardening. Many people glimpsing old age on the horizon opt for retirement communities. But Ruth and I weren’t ready to give up living in a neighborhood where kids play in the street under an archway of trees, students whiz past on bikes or electric scooters, parents and grandparents amble by pushing babies in strollers, homeowners share tools and chat about subjects other than their bodily ailments, and families troop by carrying blankets and picnic baskets on their way to the park.
While in the midst of these deliberations, we visited close friends, about our age, a husband and wife who were having a house built on one of the last vacant lots near the center of their Vermont hometown. Like Ruth, the wife suffered from a neurodegenerative disease, one even more aggressive than Parkinson’s, that would increasingly impair her balance and mobility. Their home of many years, a 19th-century Victorian, posed obstacles at every turn. So they had designed a house that would keep her safe. During the construction they were living two blocks from the building site, within earshot of circular saws and pneumatic nailers. Whenever there was a burst of activity, the husband would say it sounded like another stud or joist had been put in place, and did I want to go see? I certainly did want to go see, for I had worked as an apprentice carpenter during my teen years, and everything about making a house, from laying out the floorplan to digging the footers to shingling the roof, intrigued me. So the husband and I, sometimes with the added excuse of walking their dog, made repeated trips to gauge the progress.
Back in Bloomington, our friends’ example was on my mind one evening as Ruth and I took our after-dinner walk, mulling over where to move. We were strolling along Fess Avenue, a street that held romantic associations for us, because we had exchanged dozens of amorous letters addressed to and from a rooming house on Fess where she had lived during our senior year in college. By happy coincidence, Eva and her family lived a few blocks away from that rooming house, at the corner of Fess and First. We were approaching Eva’s home on our evening stroll when we came to a Rose of Sharon hedge that screened off the side yard of a house belonging to friends of ours. Nearly all side lots in the neighborhood had long since been sold off and built on, but this one remained open ground.
A wild thought stopped me in my tracks. I parted the hedge and gazed into the green space, where I envisioned a new house rising, one that would be accessible to wheelchairs and kind to aging joints. When I described this vision to Ruth, I expected her to groan, for she had always dreaded the upheaval caused by my bouts of renovation in the Wylie Street house. How could she bear the prospect of building one from scratch? Quite happily, as it turned out. For when I suggested that we ask our friends if they would consider selling us their lot, instead of groaning, she gave me a sly smile and replied, “It can’t hurt to ask.”
Whatever her misgivings, they were outweighed by the prospect that our hypothetical house would be located five doors away from our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters.
Eighteen months later, the house was no longer hypothetical. I could provide a nail-by-nail account of the construction, for I spent hours at the site every day from the groundbreaking to the handing-over of the front door key. But I realize that nobody else, not even Ruth, shares my fascination—alright, my obsession—with the process. So I will summarize by saying that our friends let us purchase their side lot; Ruth sketched out a floorplan, which a local architect refined into a blueprint; we hired a veteran contractor, a longtime friend, and he in turn hired carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, tile-layers, painters, and other skillful tradesmen, who transformed our vision into a handsome house. It includes a studio for Ruth, a study for me, an attached garage with room for a small workshop (our first garage in 50 years of marriage), and a screened porch in back where we can observe the life of our disorderly garden without donating blood to mosquitoes.
The house fits right in on Fess Avenue. It’s a story-and-a-half American Craftsman bungalow, clad in fiber cement siding shaped like traditional clapboard and painted the blue of summer skies, with deep eaves, exposed rafter tails, overhanging gables, side dormer, mullioned windows, and an open front porch framed by pillars made of limestone quarried within a few miles of our front door. The style blends so well with other houses in the neighborhood that several passersby congratulated us, during the late stages of construction, on how thorough a renovation we were undertaking. When I responded that it was in fact a brand-new house, they were surprised; one man even argued with me, insisting he remembered this place from before it was spiffed up.
We could leave our Wylie Street home with less regret because we sold it to a young couple who were expecting their first child, and their daughter now sleeps in the room where our own daughter and son slept when they were newborns. Ruth made a quilt for the baby featuring an owl, the mother’s favorite animal, at the center of the pattern.
While our bungalow harmonizes with the old neighborhood, it incorporates the latest energy-saving features, including super insulation, heat-recovery ventilation, and efficient appliances; as a result, it uses only about a third as much energy as other houses with comparable square footage. In fact, it uses less electricity than our rooftop solar panels yield over the course of a year, so we donate surplus kilowatts to the grid. Still, when half a million Americans have no home, and many millions of refugees worldwide search for a place to live, my conscience gives me pangs over the ecological cost of making a new house for an aging couple. So many trees cut down for the framing, so much copper mined for the wiring, so much glass and tile and paint, so much fossil fuel burned at every stage from excavation to completion. I salve my conscience with the knowledge that other families will live here after we are gone, perhaps family after family for generations to come, if humans figure out how to live without ravaging Earth.
Here is the human paradox: we are smart enough to adapt nature’s forces and materials—fire, water, stone, wood, iron, coal, petroleum, uranium—to our uses, but not smart enough to avoid depleting or destroying the sources of our wellbeing.
Adam and Eve did not have to worry about ravaging Earth, nor did any of our ancestors, legendary or actual, until they invented tools powerful enough to take more from nature than nature could restore. The earliest of those destructive tools were chipped from stone and bound to the shafts of spears, which the first humans to reach the Americas used so effectively in hunting large mammals that they helped drive many species to extinction—mammoths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, giant armadillos, and ground sloths, among others. Changes in climate also likely played a role in those early extinctions, as climate disruption caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases is accelerating the rate of extinctions in our own day.
Here is the human paradox: we are smart enough to adapt nature’s forces and materials—fire, water, stone, wood, iron, coal, petroleum, uranium—to our uses, but not smart enough to avoid depleting or destroying the sources of our wellbeing. According to Genesis, God cursed the soil with thorns and thistles; we have cursed it with DDT, PCBs, glyphosate, and thousands of other manufactured chemicals that brought short-term convenience and long-term harm. Some of those toxics are circulating in my bloodstream right now, as they are in yours, no matter where you live, no matter what precautions you take. Exposure to pollutants in air, soil, or water may have triggered Ruth’s Parkinson’s disease, our son’s rare form of thyroid cancer, or an affliction in someone you love.
We proceed recklessly not because we are wicked but because we are ignorant. And the cost of our ignorance grows along with the size of our population and the power of our technology. Flint-chipping and atom-splitting give rise to quite different degrees of danger. We rightly honor the knowledge of Indigenous peoples who have learned how to balance the power of their tools with the limits of their place. But we are naïve to think that all pre-industrial cultures possessed ecological wisdom. The globe is littered with the ruins of peoples who never learned the lessons of respect and restraint. Certainly no industrial society, least of all America, has sufficiently curbed its appetites or its population to avoid unraveling the web of life.
A friend tells me that her daughter weeps every time someone mentions the climate crisis. Now 25, the daughter is generally optimistic about personal matters, such as her chances of landing a job or finding a lifelong mate. But reminders of public calamities over which she has no control cause her to sob. I know how she feels. Chances are, so do you, if you are reading these lines.
This dismay over humankind’s seemingly inexorable abuse of Earth is what I mean by ecological grief. It’s different from personal grief over the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. It’s different from social grief caused by the persistence of racism and poverty, the violence of a gun-happy culture, the corruption of politicians, or the scourge of addiction. It’s what one feels on learning that 500 Appalachian mountaintops have been blasted away and the surrounding watersheds have been polluted in the quest for cheap coal. It’s what one feels on learning that the population of orcas or chimpanzees or monarch butterflies has plunged, that the Greenland icecap is melting at a record rate, that the ocean’s corals are dying, that one-third of the human population is facing water scarcity.
We look to our leaders in government and business to show us a way out of this impasse. But with a few worthy exceptions, they have failed us. Their vision is too small, focused on the next election or the bottom line. We look to our churches, synagogues, and mosques for guidance in how to care for Creation. But again, with worthy exceptions, they have failed us. The most numerous bodies of believers are more preoccupied with extending their power and defeating rival faiths than with preserving the health of Earth; the most fervent religious leaders are more concerned with policing human sexual behavior than with challenging the industrial order and its ideology of perpetual growth.
We must seek guidance elsewhere. We can consult science, which informs us of the need to harmonize our actions with nature’s patterns and limits. We can consult spiritual traditions whose followers choose to live in a conserving way without shouting, proselytizing, or waging war—Quakers, Buddhists, Unitarians, or Hopi, to name a few examples. We can consult the creatures with whom we share the neighborhood—birds and butterflies, skunks and squirrels, mosses and flowers, bushes and trees, browsing deer and bumble bees—to see how they make a living, how they use the land without using it up.
For a hands-on lesson in the difficult art of attaining harmony with the rest of nature, there’s no better place to learn than in a garden—not the idyllic kind that Adam and Eve enjoyed before their fall, but the ordinary kind, with its aches and sweat, its weeds and wilts, its blights and bugs and droughts and floods. Gardening entails giving and receiving, human care in exchange for nourishment, breath for breath, carbon dioxide for oxygen, close attention for vigorous growth. Gardening is conversation, not dictation. A tractor pulling a gang plow and spraying herbicide imposes a uniform design on thousands of acres; a trowel or a bare hand coaxes a crop from a few square yards of dirt.
Those two approaches—industrial farming vs. gardening—illustrate the difference between dominion and stewardship, the rival models proposed in Genesis for the human role in nature. In the first account of Creation, which precedes the Garden of Eden story, God fashions Earth and its creatures over the course of six days, finishing up with humankind, to whom God gives instructions that have been used to license plunder: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” In the second account of creation, starring Adam and Eve, we are told “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Although pundits offer conflicting translations and interpretations of these two verses, as they do for most passages in the Bible, to this common reader the distinction between subduing the earth and taking care of it seems lucidly clear.
While we relish the produce, we receive far more than food from gardening.
On the slender portion of our city lot not covered by house, garage, driveway, or sidewalk, Ruth and I tend several hundred plants—annual and perennial flowers, ferns, herbs, native bushes, prairie grasses, and eight species of trees. Most of them provide seeds, nuts, pollen, nectar, or berries for wildlife. In addition, we cultivate a raised-bed garden crowded with vegetables meant for human consumption, although wild critters eat a substantial share. Nearly all our plants require attentive labor in the course of the year. We prune, weed, water, fertilize, pick off pesky insects, wash off mold, and fence against rabbits and deer.
While we relish the produce, we receive far more than food from gardening. We enjoy the pleasure of having our hands in the dirt, feeling the breeze on our faces, smelling the fragrance of herbs and flowers, watching birds and bees and butterflies. We participate in a community that includes not only the plants we tend but also the soil, microbes, fungi, pollinators, sunshine, wind, and rain. We learn lessons we might not learn anywhere else—lessons in gratitude, patience, close observation, frugality, humility, and nurture. Within the confines of a city lot, we savor our communion with life on Earth. We sense that along with our planet, the entire universe is alive, and we are part of this aliveness, animated by the same energy that uncurls in the sprouting seed, sounds in the finch’s song, drives clouds across the sky, and shines from our nearby star.
Above all, in the garden we revel in beauty. The religious tradition in which I was reared taught that value comes from outside of nature: the world is good because it was created and is sustained by God. While I respect those who embrace this belief, I no longer share it. I believe that nature itself, this great evolutionary flow to which we belong, is inherently good; and the key to this goodness is its beauty, which I take as evidence that we are suited for this green planet and this dazzling cosmos.
I write these lines on the screened porch, looking out on our narrow backyard. Beneath the floor, three skunk kits and their mother are snoozing—or at least they should be, since they spent the night burrowing fresh escape routes from their hiding place, and digging holes all over the yard in search of grubs and worms. Their excavations look like pockmarks on a fairway left by overzealous golfers. The skunks do not know that human actions are cooking the planet. Nor do the birds, butterflies, chipmunks, rabbits, deer, and other creatures that frequent our garden. They simply get on with their lives as best they can, while following their instincts to produce new offspring.
Ruth is more anxious about the proximity of skunks than I am, although she agrees, when we study them from the kitchen window, that they are gorgeous. I’ll need to do something about them eventually, before they spray a neighbor’s dog, a curious child, or me when I venture out at dusk or dawn to dump the compost. For now, though, we’re sharing use of the porch, the skunks slumbering while I work, and I sleeping while they forage. With its motley collection of plants and animals, our urban homestead may not be the peaceable kingdom envisioned by preachers and painters and Hebrew prophets. But it gives me an inkling of such peace, one man scribbling above deck, four skunks dreaming below.
The Genesis account reveals that Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden in order to prevent a transgression even more subversive than their theft of knowledge: “Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.” [Gen 3:22-23] I leave it to the scholars to interpret that odd pronoun, us, which implies a multiplicity of gods. One doesn’t need scholars, however, to read the story as an explanation for how death entered the world.
After all, there is no obvious reason why everything born must die, why everything the universe makes must be unmade. It is simply the way of things. Both creative and destructive, nature shares our paradoxical quality, ceaselessly making new forms, unmaking them, and making anew. Atoms, stars, galaxies, all arise, persist, and dissolve, arise, persist, and dissolve, joined in a dance that has continued for nearly 14 billion years. The nature we observe outwardly is similar in this respect to the inner world of consciousness, where images and thoughts emerge, moment by moment, only to dissolve and be replaced by new ones.
The passage in Genesis immediately following the first couple’s exile from Eden recounts how they defied death: “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’” [Gen 4:1] When I first read that sentence as a boy, I did not understand in physiological detail the meaning of such “knowing,” but I understood enough to realize it referred to that mysterious business adults kept secret. Evidently the allure of sex had not seized Adam and Eve while they were lazing about in Eden, conveniently naked. Only after the fall, the story implies, did humans bring forth new life. So the fall was fortunate. It exposed us to the pleasures and travails of sex, and to the travails and pleasures of child rearing. It forced us to work instead of lounging about, to imagine, invent, and strive. It prompted us to garden for ourselves, and thereby to develop our own gifts.
With a global population approaching eight billion, we humans have been extraordinarily successful with the kind of knowing that Eve and Adam pioneered. In a lifetime of loving, Ruth and I have contributed a daughter and son to that number, and they in turn, along with their partners, have contributed four girls and a boy. Naturally, I’m partial to my own offspring, but I don’t begrudge the presence of a single soul now alive, although I do wish those of us who dwell above the poverty line would live more lightly.
Knowing that transience is the way of things makes it easier for me to accept my own mortality, but not to accept the likely early death of my son.
Knowing that transience is the way of things makes it easier for me to accept my own mortality, but not to accept the likely early death of my son. Ruth and I learned of Jesse’s cancer soon after we built our new house. Had we known about it earlier, we might not have undertaken such an ambitious move, choosing instead to focus on supporting him and his family. Although the cancer is spreading, he is still holding a full-time job, still playing his role as husband and father, still doing much of the cooking, still working out with treadmill and weights to conserve his waning strength. When he sits down to rest, as he does more often, his three young children take turns crawling into his lap. Sensing his fatigue, his inner struggle, they wrap him in love.
Ruth still manages her Parkinson’s in good spirits. She is flourishing in our new house, which she has filled with flowers, weavings, quilts, music, and her own beauty. She sings with the Unitarian Universalist choir and with a community chorus. She keeps hummingbirds and bees supplied with sugar water, keeps me deliciously fed. She practices yoga. She gardens. We savor each of our days together as a gift. Her Parkinson’s, like Jesse’s cancer, is a progressive disease, which means that her condition, like his, will get worse over time. But then, living itself is a progressive condition; we all wear out, sooner or later, with greater or lesser pain.
Thinking of Ruth, of Jesse, of our garden, I recall the title of a book, The Wooing of Earth, by the American microbiologist René Dubos. It suggests the right metaphor to convey what I have been up to in these pages—wooing, courting, giving and seeking love. I have been wooing Earth, its creatures and glories; I have been wooing Ruth, not only in recollection but in the present; I have been wooing Jesse, in hopes he will stay with us longer; I have been wooing readers to join in caring for one another for this planet we share. If a reprieve does come for my loved ones, for yours, or for our suffering world, it will not be delivered by a white-bearded Father God who answers our petitions; it will come from the hearts and hands and minds of people working in concert with one another and with the rest of nature.
I began this book by warning that we are in trouble—rich and poor, old and young, human and nonhuman, every living creature. Nothing has occurred during the writing to challenge that glum view. Of course life has always been precarious, for individuals and for species. Unlike previous threats, however, our current troubles are largely of our own making. They are unintended results of our gifts—our cleverness, technology, and reproductive success. Despite my worries, the story I have tried to tell is not of illness but of healing, and our capacity to help bring about that healing. Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Whether the quote is authentic, I leave to the scholars to decide; in any case, I like the sentiment.
When deer browse the red osiers, gray dogwoods, and hazelnuts in our yard, the bushes respond by producing new shoots and leaves. Like other woody plants, they have evolved to deal with browsers; when a branch is injured or severed, dormant buds wake up and sprout, quickly replacing with new growth what has been lost. The seeds of some plant species can remain potent in the ground for more than a century in times of drought, and then germinate when the rains come. We, too, harbor dormant potential within us, the ability to recover from damage, to learn, to pursue new ways.
The season is May, as I said at the outset, and life is booming all around me. In honor of spring, I have stopped brooding for the moment about whether the world will go to pieces. Instead of fretting, I set out plants and sow seeds with Ruth. Earth is alive yet, despite human folly. Although the atmosphere is trapping more heat, the sun still shines. The rain still falls, though sometimes in monstrous amounts and other times too rarely. The soil, however abused, is still fertile. And so is the human imagination, this visionary power that gets us into trouble and may, with our gathered effort, get us out again.