The end of Eden

“At times I think there are no wordsBut these to tell what’s trueAnd there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden.”

— Bob Dylan, “Gates of Eden”

It’s the end of October as I write this, and I’ve still got tomatoes on the vine. Native, June-blooming rhododendrons are flowering again. Hummingbirds are still here and coming to the feeders. Walnuts hang from the leafless trees like Christmas-tree ornaments, unable to drop. Yellow jackets still come and go to their underground nests, and raccoons are still coming into the corn patch, thinking it’s August and there’s corn to eat. Following the wettest summer anybody can remember, we’re now in the midst of a drought. Here in Tuckasegee, it’s only rained twice in the last two months. I’m having to hand-water the heather, just to keep it alive. And with my woodpile ready for the winter, I’ve not even thought about starting a fire. Strange days.

Generally an early riser, I find I’m getting up later these days: 8, 8:30, 9 — even 9:30! It’s as if my subconscious were resisting, not wanting to face the day. I’m usually a hopeful person, searching the darkness for some sign of light. These days, however, my mood is much more often one of resignation. I find myself walking about in the world looking for signs of natural beauty while they’re still there, unsure of how much longer nature will be there — or we humans will be around to enjoy it.

The weather, usually an afterthought in the news, is the lead story nowadays. Flooding. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. Tsunamis. Drought. Global warming. It’s as if the earth woke up one day this year, took a look at what was going on around her, and shouted, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

The problem I’m talking about is global, but what’s going on immediately around me illustrates it as well as anything else and probably has more to do with my lethargy and extended sleep habits. Right here in Tuckasegee, excess, surreal wealth and overpopulation have all become my neighbors. Less than two miles down the road, the Bear Lake Reserve has already sold 200 lots, and I’m told they’re planning 500 more homes. That would bring 700 new households — almost overnight — into one of the most rural mountain farming communities in Western North Carolina. According to someone familiar with the project, the owners of these second and third homes have a median age of 39 and are primarily from out of state. And the economic and cultural effects of this development will be shocking, if not devastating, to the natives and longtime community residents.

Even closer to home, the 60-acre pasture and mountain adjacent to where I live is now in the hands of its third real-estate agent/developer, and there are rumors that a shopping center will be built on this land to serve the Bear Lake gated community, so its residents won’t have to drive to Sylva or Cashiers to shop. Highway 281, which runs in front of my house, is already overrun with traffic. And with 700 more families and a shopping mart next door, the pristine bottomlands of the Canada community will soon look and feel more like the Lovesfield community at the entrance to Wal-Mart. The relative peace and serenity that have typified my life here for the past 13 years will be replaced by increased amounts of noise from big trucks and SUVs. And instead of the stars in the sky, we’ll have the glaring, all-night lights of the shopping mall. It’s clearly the end of an era: the end of Eden.

Earlier this fall, 91-year-old “ecologian” Thomas Berry addressed the Environmental Leadership Council at Warren Wilson College. (The title, coined especially for him, combines the fields of ecology and theology.) Berry, the author of such books as The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work, told his audience: “We’re looking at a new era in earth history; I call it The Ecozoic Period. Ecology will dominate both the news and our consciousness. With combined planetary perils ever present, we’re looking at a new paradigm for humanity. This will mean a new era of activism that will fall predominantly on the shoulders of the younger generation, who will inherit the dubious job of recovery and reinhabitation of our natural habitat — saving what’s left of Eden — manning the social programs that will care for the unexpectedly displaced and destitute at a time when food, health and shelter can no longer be taken for granted.”

Noted scientist William Schlesinger, an expert on global climate change, delivered a similar message to an all-too-sparse audience at Western Carolina University on Oct. 18. “The rising human population, currently at 6.5 billion, has brought about changes in the basic chemistry of earth’s atmosphere and oceans, which have formed the evolutionary environment for all life now on Earth,” he said. “There has been irreparable damage. The Arctic ice we are losing, for example, will never be replaced. To ignore climate change and other global environmental problems is fundamentally and ethically wrong.”

With experts like these lined up in agreement, the writing is on the wall. The garden world that has been the planet Earth is fast disappearing, replaced by a noxious environment bred of human disrespect for nature and cravings for personal, material wealth and comfort. The end of Eden.

But if this is true, then what incentive do I have to get up with the sun each morning and go out into the daylight (or, in the case of the Smoky Mountains, the smog) to work in my garden, or to gather firewood in the woods, or to throw a trout line into the Tuckasegee River across the road? No wonder all I want to do is sleep!

Unable any longer, in clear consciousness, to discern a world where natural beauty and diversity abound and where our needs are provided for, dreams seem a better option. It’s a pity, because once upon a time we had it all — and we let our Garden of Eden slip away.

[Thomas Crowe writes regularly for the Smoky Mountain News. His back-to-the-land memoir, Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods (University of Georgia Press, 2005), won this year’s Ragan Old North State Award as the best nonfiction book by a North Carolina resident.]

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