East of Eden

When I was a little boy I had towards my father’s garden a rebellious and even a vindictive attitude, because I was not allowed to tread on the beds and pick the unripe fruit. Likewise Adam was not allowed to tread on the beds and pick the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, because it was not yet ripe; but Adam — just like us children — picked the unripe fruit, and therefore was expelled from the Garden of Eden; since then the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge has always been unripe. — Karel Čapek, The Gardener’s Year

This is a well-worn story. Either we have long forgotten where the Garden of Eden was (though not utterly as we have never stopped searching for it in the hope this mythical place can still be located somewhere), or, the Garden of Eden is not something that can be pin-pointed and we will not be able to say one day, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the Paradise of God is in our midst. That is, in our hearts, imaginations and memory of a beautiful place planted by LORD God, where He placed us, the man whom He had formed, and who, by the way, has a memory like a sieve.

While I was only a remote and distracted onlooker of the accomplished work of gardens, I considered gardeners to be beings of a peculiarly poetic and gentle mind, who cultivate perfumes of flowers listening to the birds singing. Now when I look at the affair more closely, I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He is a creature who digs himself into the earth, and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for nothings. He lives buried in the ground. He builds his monument in a heap of compost. If he came into the Garden of Eden he would sniff excitedly and say: “Good Lord, what humus!” I think that he would forget to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; he would rather look round to see how he could manage to take away from the Lord some barrow-loads of the paradisiac soil. Or he would discover that the tree of knowledge of good and evil has not round it a nice dish-like bed, and he would begin to mess about with the soil, innocent of what is hanging over his head. “Where are you Adam?” the Lord would say. “In a moment,” the gardener would shout over his shoulder; “I am busy now.” And he would go on making his little bed. Karel Čapek, On The Art of Gardening

There surely must be a reason why many of us are constantly searching for our own paradisical gardens, willing to make numerous sacrifices to establish or find, cultivate and keep it. Perhaps it is the value of plants good for food, perhaps more all those upstretchinh verdant creatures pleasing to the sight, which have touched fragile human hearts longing for beauty ever since God expelled Adam and Eve from their garden. Now “east of Eden”, and seemingly banned from returning, we are still foolishly trying to undo the signs and effects of picking the unripe fruit, remaining anxious that the kind of intimacy God established between us and His plants can’t be restored in full.

Look at those flowers, in very truth they are like women: so beautiful and fresh, you can feast your eyes on them and never see all their beauty, always somethings escapes you, good Lord! When beauty is so insatiable; but as soon as they begin to fade, I hardly know, but they cease to look after themselves (I am talking of flowers), and if one wished to be brutal, he would say that they look like rags. What a pity my sweet beauty (I am talking of flowers), what a pity that time is so fleeting; beauty comes to an end, and only the gardener remains. — Karel Čapek, The Gardener’s July

One of my favorite proverbs says: he who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord. Adam obtained even more favor and didn’t have to strive for a wife, as it was God Who on His own initiative said it was not good to be alone, and made him the best wife of all, the mother of all the living.  Life was a carnival and everything came on a silver plate. Looking after the Garden of Eden and cultivating it was perhaps not an easy task for the couple, though much easier than eating the plants of the field by the sweat of the brow until returning to the ground from which we are taken. But the man wasn’t mindful of the commandment of his Garden Designer in Chief; since then it has been no picnic.

I tell you, there is no death; nor even sleep. We only pass from one season to another. We must be patient with life, for it is eternal. — Karel Čapek, The Gardener’s November

The Torah makes it clear that shortly after the beginning something truly important happened in Eden and “east of Eden”, particularly at the time before Adam’s wife gave birth to Seth. Still, it remains a mystery to me why man largely doesn’t ask God how things ought to be. To find a suitably satisfactory answer perhaps we need to study thousands of years’ old pieces of information more thoroughly, or to cast our minds back to the dawn of the human race. Perhaps a scholar with life-long dedication to the true meaning of available ancient information could provide us with a definite answer; perhaps someone among us could still somehow recall and understand what happened before the time people “began to call on the name of the LORD”.  Whatever the case it seems to me to go without sayings that these were key events of a now largely forgotten human history, events which created hurdles still to be jumped today, crucial for our understanding why today’s world is as it is.

I have a cedar of Lebanon on my lawn almost as big as I am; according to the experts a cedar can grow to a height of three hundred feet and a width of fifty feet. Well, I should like to see it when it reaches the prescribed height and width; it really would be only fair if I lived as long in good health and, so to speak, reaped the reward of my labours. In the meantime it has grown a good ten inches; well – we must wait. … We gardeners live somehow for the future, if roses are in flower, we think that next year they will flower better; and in some few years this little spruce will become a tree – if only those few years were behind me! I should like to see what these birches will be like in fifty years. The right, the best is in front of us. Each successive year will add growth and beauty. Thank God that again we shall be one year further on! — Karel Čapek, On Gardening Life

The future is not in front of us, for it is here already in the shape of a germ; already it is with us; and what is not with us will not be even in the future. We don’t see germs because they are under the earth; we don’t know the future because it is within us. Sometimes we seem to smell of decay, encumbered by the faded remains of the past; but if only we could see how many fat and white shoots are pushing forward in the old tilled soil, which is called the present day; how many seeds germinate in secret; how many old plants draw themselves together and concentrate into a living bud, which one day will burst into flowering life – if we could only see that secret swarming of the future within us, we should say that our melancholy and distrust is silly and absurd, and that the best thing of all is to be a living man – that is, a man who grows.— Karel Čapek, The Gardener’s Year (Preparations)

We are branches of human history sprouted from a trunk of historical experience. People like Karel Čapek who expose the roots of humanity discretely enough to survive long on this Earth are very rare though. East of Eden, after the fall, and standing before one of the greatest descents into evil of all time with a loving kindness, a civilizing mind of society, as the conscience of his nation, there was no writer like him.

Literature: Karel Čapek:  Zahradníkův rok (The gardener’s year), Praha 1929

Important note: This article was inspired by the fact that a month ago today (on the 14th of November 2017) Ruth Bondy, a distinguished Israeli journalist, translator and writer, passed away at the age of 94. A native of Prague, she translated many books from Czech into Hebrew, including this thin and amusing book by one of the finest Czechoslovak writers Karel Čapek. Thank you, Ruth Bondy.

Illustrative photos were taken by the author of this blog in the garden designed, planted and looked after by his wife.

About the Author
Ivan Zahrádka is a citizen of the Czech Republic. He was born and lives in central Bohemia. He graduated as a mathematician from the Charles University of Prague and soon devoted himself to teaching and scientific activities. However, he spent the greater part of his career as an investment management specialist working for a few domestic and foreign private financial institutions at home and abroad. He currently works in Prague as a civil servant in the area of the financial market regulation.
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