this essay is published in On the Necessity of Gardening: An ABC of Art, Botany and Cultivation
Against Gardening: Moments in the Life of a Gardener
by Patricia de Vries
The story is the schoolbook example of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth template: a protagonist encounters a decisive moral challenge and, after some struggle, learns an important lesson and is transformed. The question I’d like to broach here is: what moved the protagonist? But first, it is worth reminding ourselves of the setting of the Book of Genesis.
Over a seven-day stint, we follow a character named LORD God as he creates the heavens, the earth, and everything in between (Genesis 1). He then goes on to form, from the dust of the earth, a male human. After breathing life into this man’s nostrils, he hovers eastward to Eden, not too far from Ethiopia. There, LORD God plants what is described as a lush, vibrant, fragrant, animated, and colourful garden with birds and bees, flowers and trees. A river runs through the garden hydrating its flourishing and prospering flora and fauna. In this heavenly abode of great beauty, he drops the unnamed man, for him to ‘to dress it and to keep it’ (Genesis 2:15). Decidedly, LORD God also plants two trees in the middle of the garden: a so-called tree of life and a tree of knowledge of good and evil. To provide sustenance, the nameless gardener is instructed to freely drink from the river and eat from the garden’s vegetation—but not from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. LORD God says thus: ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’ (Genesis 2:17). Before temporarily leaving the scene, he makes the gardener ‘an help’ from the man’s rib—in today’s vocabulary, a clone. From then on, the gardener is referred to as Adam and accompanied by a female assistant gardener who, we later learn, is called Eve. Thus, the setting in which the action unfolds: a divine place, in popular parlance often referred to as paradise.
It is in the third chapter that the plot both falters and thickens. A major plot gap has this chapter starting with a talking serpent approaching Eve. The chain of events that led up to this situation remains unknown. We have to make do with what little the narrator relates to its readers, which is merely that the serpent is the most cunning crawler LORD God had let loose in the garden—apparently unbeknownst to Eve, who seems unfazed both by its visit and by its ability to talk. She is milling around the tree of knowledge of good and evil when the serpent comes along and encourages her to eat from it. The serpent murmurs to Eve that the tree’s fruit will not kill her, like LORD God said it would. Instead, it will give her knowledge equal to that of LORD God. Or, in the words of the talking serpent, ‘your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). Here, the narrator inserts another almighty shortcut. All they relay is that Eve found the tree ‘to be desired to make one wise’ and that its fruits looked good and nutritious to eat (Genesis 3:6). Maybe the serpent was feeling particularly sly that day and, by ingenious contrivance, left Eve in a cleft stick pitted against LORD God? Maybe the serpent was in cahoots with LORD God? It is hard to read a room with a thin plot to work with and an unreliable narrator. Anyhow, according to the narrator, the serpent bamboozled Eve, who picked the fruit, ate some herself, and then gave some to Adam.
Things quickly go downhill from here. Ostensibly bloated with spite, LORD God condemns Eve to a life of anguish and hard reproductive labour ruled over by Adam. ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’, he hisses (Genesis 3:17). And as a punishment for listening to his wife, LORD God sends Adam off to toil his fingers to the bone on cursed and infertile soil in the oppressive heat of the desert. The rest is Biblical HIStory: after the original sin, the subsequent inherent shame, the expulsion from Paradise, and the wrath of LORD God, what remains is endless suffering and eternal guilt.
The Book of Genesis remains a colossal myth and is widely considered to be the mainstream narrative of Western culture. It has taken a host of symbolic meanings, which parts of Western culture use to understand and justify their relation to the earth, to foreign lands, to natural resources, to animals, to so-considered Others, and to its patriarchal division of reproductive labour, to name but a few. Its ethical dimensions have been thoroughly studied, unpacked, dismantled, and critiqued from various perspectives and disciplines (e.g. Prest 1981; Lerner 1989; Ewing 2000; Merchant 2003; Harrison 2008).
The limelight in discussions on the meanings of the creation story in the Book of Genesis often falls on Adam. This is unsurprising in a patriarchal culture, but it also short-changes Eve who, we have to acknowledge, is the actual protagonist of the story.
It is only after Eve is introduced that the story becomes meaty. It is Eve who moves the action from the uneventful and inconsequential to the life-altering. The thick of the action revolves around her. Not skirting the unknown, it is Eve who has the gumption to nibble on the fruit, which cuts right to the story’s heart.
What moved Eve? The narrator leaves her desires and deliberations to the imagination of the reader. The garden seems to be an uplifting and blissful place. Maybe Eve hated her job with the force of a thousand suns? Maybe she was curious, hungry, bored, or just done with her garden existence? Or, perhaps by chance, something gave her a swift kick in the conscience? Who’s to say? To ask why Eve plucked the fruit is a misguided question—though it is safe to assume she probably had plenty of thoughts of her own, spending her days in a garden with no place to hide as the assistant gardener to Adam, a job she never applied for, working for a master landscaper with a punitive streak whose commandments and measures put the ‘b’ into subtle. To ask what moved her is not a question of retrospective soul-searching, speculation, or guessing her motives. There is no conclusive answer as to why she did what she did. But we may explore how it is that she acted as she did.
One instruction Eve received on dressing and keeping LORD God’s garden was the commandment ‘thou shalt not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. In his ‘Critique of Violence’ (1921), Walter Benjamin makes the point that ‘shalt not’ offers a ground outside itself to reflect on the commandment. The commandment is a command, not an absolute prohibition. ‘Shalt not’ functions ‘as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases to take the responsibility of ignoring it’. This suggests that doing what one shalt not do, disobeying LORD God’s commandment, is grounded in individual moral reflection. It is also to suggest that disobeying LORD God’s commandments is never in and of itself wrong or evil. This is an important insight, yet unhelpful in the quest to understand what moved Eve, as her doing is not the result of well- (or ill-)considered ethical reflection.
For how could she take moral responsibility for plucking a piece of fruit if she did not (yet) know right from wrong? As she knew of no good and no evil, she could not have wrestled with an ethical dilemma; nor could she know she was about to err and commit a sin in LORD God’s book. She only learned that after the fact. She did not know, could not have known, that she was about to throw the whole god-blessed splendid Glory—and with that, herself—under the bus. Judging her act as evil, immoral, or a fall is, therefore, a retrospective judgment. It comes ‘too late’, post factum, according to Kierkegaard. According to the narrator of Genesis, Eve claims the serpent beguiled her. That does not help us any further either. If this were so, Eve only had to have willed to open her eyes, to know good from evil. But Eve could not have understood the words of the serpent, let alone its possible implications. For, again, how could she understand what ‘knowing good and evil’ meant, when she was ignorant of it (Kierkegaard, p. 89)? The serpent could not have explained it to her, either, as the distinction comes into the world after she eats the fruit; it follows with her nosh (Kierkegaard, p. 90). ‘Innocence is ignorance’ (Kierkegaard, p. 80).
Add to this the unreliability of the narrator, the faltering and thin plot, and we arrive at a dead end. Simply put: Eve was no evildoer. She had no way of knowing her act could be considered a sin. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. Therefore, one may condemn her act, if one so desires, but no guilt can be attributed to her for what happened afterher fruit snack. Whether she grasped, effectively, the meaning of a command—and of death or dying—is another matter, and open to speculation and dispute. But this is not the place for this discussion. The question remains: what moved her to pluck the fruit?
Garden as False Promise, Noun and Verb
One’s environment is a crucial factor in human existence and well-being, according to Carl Jung (1950). Here, my working assumption is that the Garden of Eden, being Eve’s direct and only environment, was an essential factor in her existence and, concomitantly, to her life decisions. Essentially, the Book of Genesis is about the innate desire—or should we say disorder?—to garden. Starting with LORD God, who plants a garden in the barren land of Eden, which is continued by Adam and Eve, the first gardeners, who were tasked with keeping and dressing his garden—although perhaps not entirely voluntarily. It is passed on to a large part of humanity, in mutated form, in attempts to create a garden existence by building a world within a world in the form of, to name but a few, nation states, colonies, institutions, cults, gated communities, collections, houses, prisons, rooms of one’s own, the internet, man-caves, bunkers, and, of course, parks, gardens, orchards, patios, allotments, and yards, public, private, botanic, and otherwise. Concurrently, the story of the Garden of Eden continues to produce an endless amount of namesakes—in the form of holiday resorts, landscaping agencies, florists, day cares, bed and breakfasts, and lounge bars—and has inspired numerous utopia stories set in Eden-like gardens (e.g. Howard 1902).
More than a physical space, a garden is a mental and a symbolic space—a safe haven, a sanctuary, an asylum, a refuge, a dwelling space, a space to retreat, to take leisure, and to think. Clipping, weeding, and watering plants may be a delightful distraction from everyday realities. A gardener gathers, grows, and keeps organisms, and with them builds a world within a world. Seen this way, gardening is a redemptive act and offers a miniature model or reincarnation of the idealized lost Garden of Eden. A garden is a fabricated completeness within a demarcated space, cleansed of frustration, protected from outside interference. To spin this further, more than physical, mental, and symbolic spaces, gardens are moral spaces. They reflect an idealized society in which things all have their designated place, in which what is considered to belong together is kept together under the gardener’s operative control.
You would think the Garden of Eden, in all its blissful perfection, should shield Eve from having it disappear on the horizon. But things are not that simple. A garden, to borrow a line from the poet William Wordsworth, throws us ‘in the midst of the realities of things’. And realities, as we all know, are not all that idyllic, pristine, harmonious, or innocent.
‘Garden’ is not merely a noun or a possessive, but a verb—a doing. To plant a garden is to draw a line in the earth. To draw a line is to demarcate a space. To demarcate a space is to enclose it. A garden is an enclosure and an enclosure is the mark of division. A garden’s hedge, picket fence, and gate help mark off territory. Turf, paving, flower beds, borders, and terraces create a system of division. And mowers, hedge shears, rakes, tying wire, tree saws, and leaf blowers form some of the tools to create order within the divisions. Enclosures, as Silvia Federici (2004) has taught us, produce hierarchies and distinctions—in the given context, between, for example, ladybirds and aphids, slugs and budworms, weeds and plants, faeces and manure—as well as the force and violence required to impose them.
Garden work is ordering work, and ordering work involves classification. Classification is the practice of exclusions. To exclude is to bar, to prevent from entering to maintain what is considered inside from outside, the desirables from the undesirables, order from disorder. To garden is to occupy territory, which requires repetitive effort to reimpose a constructed order. Gardening requires ‘keeping and dressing’, repeatedly performed and reinforced through one’s tending efforts of ploughing, weeding, pruning, curtailing, clipping, removing, repelling, and exterminating. It requires a constant dressing to curtail other forms of dress. ‘For like a story, a garden has its own developing plot, as it were, whose intrigues keep the caretaker under more or less constant pressure’ (Harrison 2008, p. 7). It is the pressure to prevent a garden from developing into a sprawling multitude. Gardening, therefore, is an ‘interruptive act’ (Derrida 1992, p. 969) that always involves some quality of force, skewing in some arbitrary directions and not others: yes to butterflies and bees; no to vine weevils and caterpillars; yes to hedgehogs; no to moles. No garden exists cleansed of the force required to maintain it. Indeed, no garden exists without a destruction drive [I salute you, Freud].
Eve the Reluctant Gardener
It is important to note here that Eve is not an observer of the garden-environment she inhabited, dressed, and kept, nor of its enabling conditions. Rather, she is part of it, of its ongoing intra-activity and also takes part in it. Which is to say, we must take into account that she was marooned in a garden, brought under the command of LORD God and made available—together with Adam—for keeping and dressing LORD God’s garden. This is to suggest that she keeps and dresses the garden that keeps and dresses her, too. Until, one fine day, she preferred not to—n-1.
What conditioned her disobedience? The most straightforward, yet somewhat circular, answer is that her act arises because it is possible for it to arise. What enables her disobedience is the ‘possibility of being able’ (Kierkegaard 1844, p. 89). It is about the possible ability to do what she shall not do. More generally, the very existence of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is the condition under which disobedience is possible.
In The Concept of Anxiety, Søren Kierkegaard (1844) makes the poignant point that in the Garden of Eden there is no movement, no becoming. Nothing arises in the Garden. The Garden is; all that LORD God created merely is. Eve is supposed to take simple delight in what exists.
When nothing arises, when everything simply is, then nothing is possible. Nothing can arise or become in the Garden. Nothing ever changes. Seen in this light, her disobedience is the condition for the possible arising of difference in a situation of sameness and standstill. Eve eating the fruit is the condition—not the cause—for an arising, for a becoming, for a possibility. Seen from this viewpoint, change is the condition of existence of the tree and Eve eating its fruit is the condition for the occasion of its arising. Put differently, without her ability to disobey, no change would arise—it would simply be impossible. The quality of the possible change, or its manifestation, was, however, unknowable to Eve. Change is, in and of itself, neither good nor bad. It follows that her act is the occasion of the extension of the present, beyond what is given.
For Eve, what was given was to be Adam’s garden aid under the auspices of LORD God in an enclosed space where nothing ever happens. Most obviously then, what moved Eve was an appetite for change—if…—the tree’s fruit offered a possibility to sate that appetite—then…
Here, the story of Eve assumes diverse forms. It offers a deconstruction of gardening as a prodigious paradox. A garden, the story reveals to us, is both a sanctuary space and a space of confinement, both an act of creation and destruction. The story of Eve is also a critique of the structures and principles that enclose, appropriate, and impose with a quality of force. It is a cautionary tale against the false promises of Edenic world-within-world building. It offers a word to the wise on the vulnerability of female life in a patriarchal order and the violence that can result from an attempt to move against, through, or around it. To exceed the lines of one’s enclosure could become a step in the direction of liberation, but that is only a possibility—and it comes without guarantees that it will not lead to (more) violence.
The story of Eve is, therefore, also a tale of courageousness. Finding a way around any system of order is treacherous; it is also the condition of the possibility for change. To move beyond the present, to extend it, is risky business. It requires bravery and spunk, as well as a leap of faith. Eve, the Mover-and-Shaker of Eden, took that leap, a performative movement that questioned the circumferences of her garden existence, and intervened in the relations of authority, order, and hierarchy that entangled her. But her leap was also the occasion for her becoming a trailblazer for allher daughters, past, present, and future.
May Eve teach us to refuse to garden, in arbitrary and uneven ways, the enclosures we inhabit and that keep and dress us. May she be a reminder to her daughters to overgrow, branch out, creep over walls and through fences, and perforate spaces, trodden and untrodden, in all directions, including those we are told we shalt not be. After all, there is only ever a Garden of Eden for as long as there is a gardener who tends to it.
Benjamin, Walter. ‘Critique of Violence’. In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938–1940. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, (1921) 2003.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library, (1949) 2008.
Ewing, Doris. ‘The Fall of Eve: Racism and Classism as a Function of Sexual Repression’. Race, Gender & Class 7 (1), 2000: 10–21. jstor.org/stable/41675308.
Daston, L., and Katherine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150–1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.
Derrida, Jacques. ‘Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority’. In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell and Gray Carlson Rosenfeld. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2004.
Harrison, R.P. Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Howard, Ebenezer. Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1902.
Jung, C.G.. ‘Man and His Environment’. In C.G. Jung Speaking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, (1950) 2020. doi.org/10.1515/9780691216393-034.
Kierkegaard, S. (1844) 2014. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Oriented Deliberation in View of The Dogmatic Problem of Hereditary Sin, ed. and trans. Alastair Hannay, New York: Liveright Publishing Company.
Lerner, Gerda. 1986. The Creation of Patriarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Merchant, Carolyn. 2003. Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture. New York: Routledge.
Prest, John. 1981. The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-creation of Paradise. London and New Haven: Yale University Press.
 ‘Paradise’ is a form of garden of ancient Persian origin. Such gardens were enclosed places. The term (in the ancient Median language paridaiza, and in the ancient Avestan language pairidaeza) is compounded of ‘pa’iri’ or ‘pari’ meaning ‘around’, ‘circle’, and ‘da’eza’ or ‘diaza’, meaning ‘built wall’. Hence, a walled garden.
 The King James translation of the Bible does not specify the fruit hanging from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In the Torah, Eve eats an unidentified fruit: the generic Hebrew term ‘peri’ is used, which could be any fruit. Some Rabbinic commentators have variously characterized it as possibly a fig, a pomegranate, a grape, an apricot, a peach, and a citron. Other commentators have thought of the fruit as toxic (e.g. Spinoza) or possibly intoxicating. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Latin, in the fourth century AD, ‘peri’ was translated as ‘malus’, which could refer to any seed-bearing fruit, such as pears, tangerines, avocados, cherries, and apples. However, it is unlikely apple trees grew in Eden.
 John Prest argues in The Garden of Eden (1981) that sixteenth-century botanical gardens were not merely a collection of plants, they were considered re-creations of the Garden of Eden. And in Wonders and the Order of Nature (1998), Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park have documented how medieval Western European writers of encyclopaedias were often monastic Christians that studied God’s creation in order to come closer to Him. Encyclopaedias often followed the structure of the days of creation by God.