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East of Eden

THE ECOLOGY OF EDEN.\o7 By Evan Eisenberg (Alfred A. Knopf: 612 pp., $30)\f7 ; NATURE: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times.\o7 By Peter Coates (University of California Press: 246 pp., $29.95)\f7 ; ENCOMPASSING NATURE: Nature and Culture From Ancient Times to the Modern World. \o7 Edited by Robert M. Torrance (Counterpoint: 1,248 pp., $46)\f7

November 08, 1998|ERIC ZENCEY | Eric Zencey is the author of the novel "Panama" and, most recently, of "Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture" (University of Georgia Press)

"Man is born free," wrote Rousseau in 1762, "and everywhere he is in chains." Today that sentiment seems dated if not altogether mistaken. Man lives within biologic, chemical, thermodynamic limits he can't transgress. Still, he tries--and the effort lays waste to our planet, producing a rate of extinction not seen since the comet wiped out dinosaurs. Man is born enchained, and everywhere--obstinately, obtusely--insists that he is free.

The political idealization of Nature long predated Rousseau; as early as the third century BC, Theocritus warned that city life corrupts. The tradition came to North America with the colonists, for whom Nature was a blank slate awaiting their essays in social perfection. Clearly it undergirds American environmentalism, stretching from Muir's celebration of "God's wildness" to contemporary arguments about tree-spiking (a form of self-preservation: The human psyche requires the wild) and gene splicing (devil work). To the romantic, Nature is Eden, tonic, touchstone, unimpeachable ideal.

Yes, yes. But what, exactly, is it?

The short answer: what we make of it. In idea (very much) and in fact (within limits), Nature is humanly made. The morals we draw from it tend to be ones we project there in the first place, and no physical landscape inhabited by humans is ever purely other, not even New World wilderness. (The ecosystems of this continent were shaped by their human members--people Europeans shot and chased away. The land wasn't so much virgin as recently widowed.)

And this makes for a problem. As sources of transcendent (or at least trans-historic) meaning go, Nature was pretty much all we had left. Commandments from on high? The Almighty speaks in a cacophony of voices, none of which a consistent golden-ruler can enforce on others as the One True Voice of God. Tradition? Old practices and values are often demonstrably wrong-headed, and picking just what we like undercuts their claim to moral authority, their semblance of impersonal necessity. "Industrial progress" still has fans, despite an easy association with fascism and a reliance, increasingly unrealistic, on perpetual economic growth. Postmodern identity politics? Its relativism encourages cynicism, hostility and sentimental attachment to self, giving it all the moral heft of bad TV.

"Natural" seemed our last best hope. Now that it too has become too fluid, what's an ethicist in search of firmament to do?

Study history. When caught in flux, an overview of the flow can orient.

Which is to say, maybe Rousseau is no better an ecological totem-saint than Thomas Hobbes, his anti-romantic predecessor, who thought life in a state of Nature "nasty, brutish and short." Hegel ought to be our man: he of the historical, dialectical vision, the time-unfolding truth. History, he said, will ground us--history, that contest ground of antagonistic complements that combine, Tao-like, to form a larger, emergently perceivable whole.

The three books considered here each aim to ground us by giving a thoughtful survey of Nature's history. They stand in sequence: more to less popular, more to less polemical, more to less distant from sources.

At the popular end, Evan Eisenberg's "The Ecology of Eden" is an ambitious, thickly braided narrative that makes the clearest bid to nudge the dialectic along. In the 1940s, Aldo Leopold exhorted us to reject a narrow species focus and "think like a mountain." Fifty years later Eisenberg calls on us to think like a Mountain-and-Tower--his terms for the opposites, wilderness and city, whose interplay defines our experience. We turn to these extremes as cosmopoles, places where transcendent meaning emerges in mundane life. Some get Commandments from Mt. Sinai or the High Sierras; others build Babel Towers and cyclotrons to spy the face of God. The result is a familiar division, Nature Fetishism versus Nature Management. Eisenberg's message, difficult for explorers at either pole to hear, is that humans live in between. In effect Eisenberg pans the camera a step further back than Leopold, showing us not just Nature whole but wholly within nature-and-culture, a system we need to see entire.

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