Permaculture ABCs: Apples, Boundaries, and C(K)ings

Permaculture ABCs: Apples, Boundaries, and C(K)ings
David R. Weiss – June 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #28 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Eden’s idyllic garden setting (the focus of my last post) doesn’t last long, of course. As the tale continues (Genesis 3:1-24) we encounter apples,[1] boundaries, and—hiding at the edge of this narrative—c(k)ings. Without claiming that this 3000 year-old myth speaks directly to the issues of a changed climate, I do believe it can help us re-root ourselves (and our faith) in a worldview rich in pre-scientific wisdom.

I noted earlier (GIT #26) that permaculture—the DNA for the Transition Movement—began in the 1970’s as a response to a very broken garden. Its own antecedents appeared early in the twentieth century through pioneering thinkers and growers whose holistic views of an interconnected living world shaped their approach to agriculture. But it was the post-WWII boom in the use of petro-chemical fertilizers—and the mechanized machinery that applied them—that permaculture directly responded to.

In particular (although they wouldn’t have phrased it exactly so), permaculture arose as we increasingly traded tending the soil—our kin if you recall my last post—for dominating it. Industrial agriculture represented a tragic dys-tending of the living earth, twisting it asunder from its own natural cycles and pressing it to deliver according to our desires. Genesis warned us of this. And warns us still.

As anyone familiar with the creation account featuring the Garden of Eden will recall, there is a tree in the center of Eden that is off limits to Adam and Eve, those first humus beings.[2] It’s the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s the only tree they are forbidden to eat from, but of course they do, and that eating becomes responsible for “the Fall”—the end of that first paradise and the entry of sin and death into the world. Now, this is myth (see GIT #27), which means there is no biblical claim here that there was some time in primal history when humans didn’t die. Myths offer truths not facts.

There was never a time when death itself—mere mortality—was not part of human life in this natural world. But there was a time in our pre-human past when instinct still reigned and our cognitive capacity was poised just at the cusp of self-consciousness. And this story tells the truth of what happened as we moved beyond that cusp into fully self-aware beings. It tells us that (at least, in this Hebraic tradition) only God has sufficient perspective to render final judgments about good and evil. We humans are consigned to live by making our best assessments of moral situations—and maintaining a hefty dose of humility. And when we choose to act as though we are privy to absolute knowledge of good and evil? Inevitably: sin, domination, violence, and death. From Cain’s murder of Abel right on up to the present.

This myth is not about breaking an abstract divine command (as though God simply made one tree off limits to test our uncritical obedience). It was always about more substantial boundaries: that we live best when we make a wise peace with the ambiguity that speaks the final word about our best guesses—and thus allow that ambiguity to usher humility to the forefront of our judgments. More often, however, from Eden onward we transgress that boundary. And our overblown confidence that we—little more than dirt whirling in Wind—can assert absolute value judgments … that kind of thinking has often characterized the worst excesses and atrocities of human history.

Apples and boundaries. And c(k)ings. This creation myth is part of the larger Yahwist narrative, that long strand of the Hebrew Scriptures—myth/legend/history—named for its use of YHWH as the name of God.[3] And it has a couple kings hiding at the edges. The Yahwist narrative as a whole is interested in recounting the accomplishment of King David in uniting Israel’s tribes into a monarchy, which then reaches its apex under King Solomon (and then almost immediately fractures). But this creation myth stands as a subtle critique of both kings and their unwillingness to live within Eden’s boundaries.

David is largely honored within the biblical tradition—his passion for God becomes the measure of future kings, and an entire millennium after he lived, the Gospels view it as an honor to link Jesus to David. But the sin that undoes his kingdom from within is his rape of Bathsheba.[4] When the prophet Nathan confronts him over this, his words evoke Eden’s garden. Basically he tells David, “As king, you could have chosen a wife from any of the trees in Israel—except one: the tree of married women. Yet you took from the one tree forbidden to you.” David’s sin is to presume that boundaries do not apply to him.

Solomon is lauded for his wisdom and wealth (1 Kings 1-12). Less known is that after David’s death Solomon consolidates his rule by violence. And the opulence of his reign rests on plundering his own people and the land.[5] None of his prosperity reached the peasants in Israel. Ultimately, his many wives are blamed for luring his loyalty away from Israel’s God to foreign gods. There may be some truth to this, but the “proof” of Solomon’s disloyalty to YHWH is less that he has multiple marriages than that he turns Israel into a kingdom that, for those at the bottom, echoes the experience of their ancestors who were slaves in Egypt. Solomon’s sin, like David’s, is to presume that whatever he could do, must be good.

Both kings are hiding in this tale—eating the apple, transgressing its boundary, and wreaking havoc as a result. The power of myth is that it exists “outside of time” and tells a tale that can be true again and again.

In so many ways the story of our modern acquisitive culture is the story of presuming that whatever we could do, must be good. Apples, boundaries, and c(k)ings all over again. More is better. And when the land—our kin—shows its inborn limits, why, we’ll force it to give us what we want, when we want it, and as much as we desire. That’s the story of industrial agriculture, too. And by now it’s done untold damage to the familial earth beneath our feet. It’s played a lead role in threatening the very extinction of insects. It’s fostered structural violence against both farm workers and farm animals. And … insofar as “we are what we eat,” all of us raised on industrial agriculture have been fed not simply the food but the story that somehow earth’s limits don’t apply to us.

When I said industrial agriculture began in the “post-war boom” of petro-chemical fertilizer, that wasn’t colloquial dating. During the war “thriving” industries developed to produce nitrogen-ammonia for weapons: for dealing out death. After the war, there were stockpiles of nitrogen-rich ammonia and the means to make more—that needed a market. So what we couldn’t use for bombs we sold to farmers to “bomb” the soil with chemicals to bend it to our will. When Cain murders Abel (Gen. 4) God says to him, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” What irony, that we used the overflow of materials no longer needed to kill people to curse the ground instead.

Permaculture believes a better way exists. Transition builds on permaculture. And our future rests upon our ability to hear both the wisdom and the warning in this creation myth. And to hear in permaculture a story about what might be. What must be if we want a future to be at all.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] While most of us do encounter “apples” in Eden in our popular imagination, the Bible only mentions “fruit.”

[2] There’s A LOT going on in this tale (including an infamous serpent). I’m only scratching the surface.

[3] There’s currently a lively debate over the dating of the Yahwist narrative. For years it was dated around 1000-950 BCE: contemporaneous with King David and/or King Solomon. Recent scholarship cites linguistic clues and allusions to historical/theological motifs to argue for a much later date, perhaps between 600-550 BCE.

[4] 2 Sam. 11:1-12:23. Often described as David committing “adultery” with Bathsheba since she is married, there was ZERO consent in this sex. This is royal rape; any other description erases the very real power dynamics at play.

[5] The forced labor, large army, and high taxes predicted by Samuel (1 Sam. 8:10-18) are fulfilled under Solomon.

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