The Ecology of Eden

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For thousands of years, we have dreamed of going back to a time, to a place--Eden, Arcadia, the Golden Age--to a paradise that we ourselves have never known. The Ecology of Eden is at once an inquiry into this dream and a startling new vision of humankind's role in nature.

Images of paradise arise from the down-to-earth facts of our lives--of our relationship with land, water, air, other creatures, and other people. In turn, these images of paradise reshape our lives. Tracing this interplay, Eisenberg recasts Western history as a tragicomedy whose heroes--Gilgamesh and Henry Ford, Virgil and Louis XIV, Lorenzo the Magnificent and Frank Lloyd Wright--struggle to regain a paradise lost. With elegance and refreshing wit, he shows how dreams of an earthly paradise both reflect and disguise our actual dealings with nature.

He illustrates, too, the shifting nature of nature itself: how alliances of species--most recently, alliances led by humankind--have continually remade the planet. Ranging gracefully from myth to molecular biology, from the Bible to urban studies, from garden lore to evolution, Eisenberg explores the actual circumstances of our exile from Eden.

The Ecology of Eden sheds a bold new light on present-day environmental problems, showing how we can make peace with our exile not by going back but by looking forward: by learning from nature itself--with, perhaps, some help from Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker--how humans and nature can make tough, supple music together.

The profundity of this book's vision is made vivid by the richness of its scholarship, the surprise of its associations, the authority of its engaging voice. Weaving humor with urgency, compassion with insight, Eisenberg succeeds in the rarest of achievements: allowing us to see the world with fresh eyes.

Many nature writers choose humanity's relationship to wildness as their topic. Evan Eisenberg examines the question with an eye toward Eden, "the wild place at the center of the world from which all blessings flow."

Humans left Eden; indeed, having left Eden is a defining human characteristic in almost all cultures. Eisenberg identifies three basic before-the-fall dreams: Eden, a paradise in space and time; Arcadia, the perfect pastoral blend of city conveniences and wilderness beauty; and the Golden Age, a time when things were really good. Humans almost universally think that sometime "before" or in some "other place," we (and all other species) lived in harmony and balance. Through examples ranging from cyanobacteria poisoning the early atmosphere with oxygen to ants raising aphids like cattle, Eisenberg reveals the fallacy of this notion. What humans have done that's different from previous world changers is allied ourselves with the annual grasses--quickly using up half a billion years of soil formation. With our crops, pets, and viruses, we've nullified continental ecological boundaries. The globe has been remade before, but not this fast or this far. We'll probably have to scale back our influence--the question is how and how much. This is where humanity's environmental battles will be fought in the future. Eisenberg trips up a bit in lumping environmentalists into two camps: planet managers (conservationists) and planet fetishers (preservationists), but he definitely seems to see the ecological pivot points on which our civilization rests.

This is a witty, charming, and well-referenced book, full of scary environmental facts and comforting ecological truths. His conclusions are not new--that humans need thriving cities, not sprawling suburbs, to avoid overwhelming the wilderness that's left. But Eisenberg's insight into how we can be at peace with our world is valuable advice, if we can stop dreaming and heed it. --Therese Littleton

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