A search for the Garden of Eden had been considered from time to time but the collective will to find it had never reached a sufficient level to justify the effort. There were some, however, who wished to proceed and there was no shortage of scientists, historians and theologians who entertained the possibility that the Garden, or what remained of it, existed somewhere in the world. On occasion, commissions were established to consider the matter and, periodically, professional associations lobbied for support to search for the site. That interest, however, would wane as quickly as it arose.
Though the collective desire to take on such a project rarely reached significant levels, the notion that the Garden of Eden could, in fact, be recovered did stimulate public imagination at certain times in our history. Whenever interest was generated, the need to find the Garden would sweep over us like a fever and become an obsession. This mania usually occurred during periods of societal malaise or social upheaval and was often relied upon by those in power to deflect attention from the stresses and tragedies of everyday life. The public grows excited when, for example, the sarcophagus of an ancient king is uncovered or the remains of a dinosaur are extracted from the earth. The reality, however, is that it is not until such discovery occurs, usually by accident, that the prospect stirs the collective imagination. Interest is raised when there arises the possibility that the past, memorialized through legend or myth, can somehow be retrieved. The notion that the holy fabric of our identity can be seen and felt is a tantalizing proposition. For some, however, it is a disturbing possibility: evidence of our origin, placed under the lamplight and examined too closely, might cause that fabric to unravel.
From time to time, stories would circulate that the Garden had been found. Now and again, some historian, anthropologist or religious zealot would claim to have wandered into the jungle in search of the Garden and come away with a piece of it. Every few years, much would be made of some purported discovery in the form of a husk of holy bark, for example, or a fossilized apple and so on. Periodically, newspaper headlines would proclaim some fantastic tale of discovery which would quickly be dismissed, typically, as a hoax or grievous mistake. It was quite often the case that the holy remnant – fruit, bark or fern - turned out to be nothing more than rotten vegetation, well preserved but quite ordinary. Often, these findings were the work of profiteers and scientists on the margins.
For bona fide scientists and professionals, a serious search for the Garden was inconceivable. No archeologist, for example, would knowingly squander precious years to plan and carry out such a project. Assuming a person was capable of implementing a search of such magnitude, it is unimaginable that an investment group or government agency would agree to finance such an undertaking, especially given the low likelihood of success. Even if one were willing and able to carry out the mission, how would that person prepare? Where would he or she go to look? How would one even begin?
The inertia of thousands of generations in the course of civilization forces it ever forward. Societies need to progress in order to survive and the collective mind is disinclined to reverse direction and somehow recover the past. In this case, no one was eager to accept the arduous burden inherent in so questionable a venture as a search for the Garden of Eden. Why take such a huge historical detour simply to satisfy some socio-psychological or philosophical need? It hardly seemed reasonable or appropriate to devote societal resources and energy in a futile effort to reclaim our origin and, in that way, confirm the historical truth of what we already knew. Thus, the excavation of the Garden could not have taken place until there arose a set of conditions that allowed no other option. The project would remain aspirational until the reality of the Garden could no longer be denied.
There came a day, however, upon which the existence of the Garden became irrefutable and, on that day, the mission to retrieve it became unavoidable. The remains of the Garden were located by accident, thousands of years after that fertile ground had been abandoned and left to decompose like a rotting corpse. An old tribesman came upon it while wandering through the desert. He had strayed miles from his home and was lost, perhaps, or may have been on a mission of some sort. He was hungry, thirsty and scared as he walked directionless across sand and scrub. Cold night descended, he was desperate, he collected a few twigs and leaves with which to light a fire. His plan was to dig a small firepit. On that particular day, in an attempt to survive in a place that wasn’t survivable, he crawled upon that freezing sand and dug a few inches into the ground with his bare hands. He dug with all his strength, he dug in a hurry, he dug as if his life depended upon the size and depth of the hole he could create. He didn’t realize, in that moment, that he was touching a lost world, one that had disappeared and fallen out of sight, miles and years beyond the scope of collective memory. There was no sign of it, no marker, no monument or outline but, by chance, this one man had brushed up against it. He had located the holy ground that had been buried for an eternity beneath the cruel, barren sand, tortured by the throbbing heat of day and frozen by midnight winds that seemed to emanate out of some arctic netherworld. In an effort to save himself, that tribesman cleared a path through time and liberated the air and soil of our origin.
He reached down and touched the ancient vestiges of the Garden: old seed, bark, bits of branches, leaves and berries, flower and root and other fragments of life’s array, all of which were fossilized, sealed and frozen in clay and amber. The detritus of Eden, the remnant of the paradise through which man first walked and breathed, had been waiting for humanity to catch up to it. In the light of day, acres of uneven topography consisting of sorry patches of dirt and dust, hilly with protrusions and pockmarked with gullies, hinted at a world that lay interred beneath windswept sands. The holy trees, vines, ponds, plants, dried streambeds and fossilized animal bones that had slept forever in the depths of the dark ground, beyond the reach of time, now squinted in the light of day. These were remarkable treasures, to be sure, but they also served as harsh reminders of the abundance and beauty of the life that had once thrived and exulted here and had drained into the earth long ago. Man, having been expelled from the Garden, had discarded his primordial self and had staggered into a foreboding future while the Garden, having been abandoned, succumbed to nature’s apathy and lay buried in its grave. By chance, man had returned to reclaim it. Word quickly circulated: the Garden of Eden had been located and its existence was, at this juncture, undeniable. The substance of neonate humanity had been waiting for us and had found salvation in discovery. In short, the past was staring at us in the face and we could no longer ignore that reality.
The revelation immediately and completely transformed the way in which we lived. We were, as a people, overcome with elation and the project became our single priority. In a frenzy, an army of scientists, planners, managers and specialists converged upon the desert and, at once, a steady stream of equipment, money and personnel surged into the site through a pipeline that seemed endless. The intensity of activity was such that one could hardly remember a time at which the project had not been operational and ongoing. It is ironic, I note in passing, that the dubious theories of all but the most marginal scientists now constituted the basis upon which respected experts relied. In fact, some of those original doubters shamelessly credited themselves as having served as longstanding proponents of the mission. I note, in addition, that the vast undertaking that lay ahead of us – retrieval of the garden and its relocation and reconstruction in a manner accessible to the public – was simply assumed but it was questionable, at least in my mind, whether the project was scientifically valuable, culturally beneficial or theologically necessary. In terms of the collective imagination, however, the merit of the mission and the degree of effort devoted to its realization may not be a matter that can be gauged or even understood.
The scientists came as well as anthropologists, soldiers, engineers and archivists. The planning itself required the contribution of myriad professionals who conferred continually to review findings and determine direction. Early on, a standing order had been issued requiring the site to be phased in as slowly as possible. The archeologists constructed walls and barriers with painstaking precision and the shallow field trenches they established were each cordoned off into small plots and subsections. Specialists were brought in to conduct the delicate process of excavation which was carefully orchestrated: field crews would loosen every inch of sand and soil with trowel and spoon, the ground would be exposed to a certain depth each day and the dig would be delayed until every crumb of the Garden had been gently lifted and packaged. It would take hours and, in some cases, it would require days to extract the tiniest specimen. Each time a remnant was uncovered, a platoon of scientists converged upon the spot to direct its removal. Every leaf, pit and pebble was carefully treated with chemical preservative or was frozen, wrapped in treated gauze and gingerly placed in an airtight box or bottle.
Surveyors were urgently needed to establish boundaries, set corners and delineate the features of the Garden and I was one who answered the call. On a day upon which the sun shone cruel and bright, I arrived by helicopter and, as I gazed down from the sky, I was struck by the degree to which that hallowed ground appeared unremarkable. The entire site was nothing more than a craggy patch of rock and sand and it reminded me of leftover crumbs scattered on a plate. I disembarked and realized that I had journeyed to the middle of nowhere. There was no town, there was no city. There was simply the rolling desert upon which a few huts and tents had been planted. Beyond a broad sand plateau, the Garden slept beneath a pale blanket of powder.
It was the most inhospitable location I could have imagined. The heat was unforgiving. Water was scarce, every drop was a valuable commodity and I was perpetually thirsty. I had difficulty walking: my feet would sink into the fine sand and it took focus and strength to lift one foot up and out as the other sank. In time, I learned to take the least number of steps possible to get from one place to another. The air was thin and dry and each breath seemed a minor victory; I celebrated each time I succeeded in inhaling air and forcing it out of my lungs. I learned to avoid looking out toward the horizon because the sun was a ruthless headlight that seemed to have chosen my face as its target. From the first moment of my arrival, I suffered a headache that never left. My daily experience was one which felt as if I had been rolled into a hot blanket.
It took some time for me to find my way around the site but, eventually, I grew familiar with my surroundings. I studied the grounds in the days and weeks that followed my arrival. Though the site seemed dull and unexceptional at first, that impression changed as soon as I came to the pits. I looked down into a wide ditch and I was astounded. Before me lay petrified leaves, vines of incredible length, fossilized flowers, insects trapped in amber and other remnants of a lost world. I stared at those remains and I was mesmerized. It felt as though they belonged to me in some odd way. I was overwhelmed with a sense that I had fallen back, through millennia, toward an old habitat I couldn’t quite remember: a home, perhaps, from which I had wandered. I was not so much overcome by a sense of history as I was consumed with a strange sense of fulfillment, an assuagement of a yearning to reconnect with the broad span of life that had receded from conscious memory. I was alive within a dream but one that arose out of some primordial, collective experience or, perhaps, was simply one borne of the mind of the lost child within me: my own sanity demanded some sense of place along the long arc of civilization. I had been consumed by the long, living shadow cast at dawn, a shadow that darkened as I receded into it. That ancient shadow wasn’t black or any shade of grey but was, instead, the beige-brown filter of the ubiquitous haze of desert dust.
There were hordes of workers at the site. They wore long cotton tunics and they wrapped their heads with linen scarves that darkened with the silt of the desert as the day wore on. On that first day, I stood in front of my tent and I was astounded by the number of people on the ground. I was overwhelmed, at times, by the constant movement of people and equipment. I felt as if I was a citizen of a thriving, active community notwithstanding the isolation of the place and severe conditions that prevailed. I brought out my tripod, level and water ration. I began my work and I exulted in it. I was part of a momentous effort and felt propelled by the great force of humanity that seemed to swim through the sand toward the Garden itself. I dusted my compass, I aimed my scope, I cleaned my lens and I spent long hours establishing lines with the rest of my crew.
In a sense, my work was no different than the field work that had been typical of my prior professional life but this work was far more demanding. We would wake long before dawn to avoid the heat, wrap our heads with scarves and masks, advance toward the pits and set our instruments. The risk was high: if we charted a path that was but a fraction of a degree off, a whole section of the Garden might be missed and lost forever. I was certainly overcome with a sense of mission: it was not the money so much as the commonality of experience that attracted me. I had a sense that I was returning to something essential within myself. I had enlisted as part of an army driven by a shared desire to circle back upon its own ancient conception and I was but one of many who were compelled by an unyielding need to locate, somehow, a moment and place that had been irretrievably lost, long ago, within the deep well of a forgotten epoch. I was a soldier in search of a way to reconnect to a point in space and time that marked the first step in humanity’s long march.
Despite the profundity of purpose and consequential nature of the mission, nothing could be accomplished without hard, physical labor. The reality was that the excavation of the Garden required brute human force to proceed. Unfortunately, a reliable source of labor was not readily available in such a barren, remote region. Workers had to be transported to the site, usually by helicopter or in jeeps and trucks that drove through the night in long lines resembling ancient caravans. There was a constant need for bodies to be brought in to dig, sift through sand-filled craters, crack through impenetrable rock and, at the same time, carefully tread to avoid crushing remains no larger than a fingernail. Crude labor was also needed to haul heavy pallets of dirt and rock to various stations so that trained specialists could inspect the detritus and extract remnants. These workers had no choice but to rely upon primitive tools: there was no access to power here and it was virtually impossible to pipe in fuel or establish electric lines through hundreds of miles of impassable desert. All the work had to be done by hand, somewhat in the manner of those who built the pyramids so long ago. It is worth noting that those ancient builders constructed grand structures in the desert and, in that manner, had marched fearlessly into their own future. We, on the other hand, had returned to the desert to embrace the point from which we had come. Our mission was one of deconstruction and removal rather than one of art and innovation practiced by those bold, ancient architects. Needless to say, the work was grueling and exhausting. We had been reduced, in a sense, to our collective animalic self: we had devoted ourselves to the task of digging through the dirt like moles in pursuit of worms and grubs to survive.
At first, the size of the labor force was sufficient and the glory of participation was its own reward. There was a constant stream of laborers who joined in the effort. However, that supply of incoming labor, initially steady and sizeable, soon dwindled. Those who needed to earn a living became less impressed by the nature of the mission as time went on. The messianic purpose lost its sheen and the work became routinized. Moreover, as more people became aware of the hardship of life in the desert, enthusiasm for the work dissipated. Public interest waned as the project wore on and the project fell behind schedule. Financing and governmental support declined, wages suffered as a result and the workforce contracted even further. The labor shortage fell so dramatically as to slow the pace of excavation to an alarming level. Through deceptive reporting and misleading public relations efforts, the worrisome state of affairs was covered up for a time but, eventually, the word got out. Political leaders and managers agonized over deteriorating conditions. It was essential that the project, now central to our collective character, continue without interruption: a halt to the work – or even a significant delay – would undermine public confidence. It was feared that failure would lead to political and economic unrest. To forestall a calamity, troops were brought in to take on some of the work. At one point, an entire division was diverted to the site to perform the most rudimentary, menial tasks. Political leaders and project managers understood, however, that the army could not be relied upon indefinitely. The situation grew dire and a tragic reality loomed. After much public debate, outcry and dissension, a fateful determination was made: laborers would be conscripted by force from nearby tribes to save the project.
The brutal decision to employ forced labor was supported by some and decried by others. It was the source of considerable disharmony and profoundly compromised our character as a people: it destroyed the faith we had in ourselves. We had evolved as an enlightened society over the course of thousands of years – or so we thought – and the proposed solution was anathema to so many of us on a fundamental level. It became apparent, however, that this step was the only means and sole hope of relieving a society in turmoil. In an attempt to mollify those who were outraged, it was said that conscription would be “temporary” and would be terminated as soon as the project had been stabilized. Grudgingly, the proposal was accepted by political leaders and public at large. Though various palliative measures were proposed – future reparations, preservation of the extended family unit for on-site workers, limited work hours, liberal leave, etc. – alleviatory measures were omitted from the final conscription order. In any event, the pitiless die was cast: the project would be carried forth through the use of compulsory labor. The angst and anger arising out of the controversy threatened to undermine stability across all strata of society and it seems ironic, in hindsight, that the solution devised to save the project and restore public confidence served, in fact, to damage societal cohesion and undermine principles by which we lived.
Once the decision was made, however, the plan was immediately executed. We sent our military into neighboring tribal villages and a great number of the inhabitants were either lured through deception or forcibly captured and assigned to specialized labor battalions. In some cases, entire families were relocated to the site to support those laborers and family members served as cooks, messengers, launderers and other capacities. Children were impressed into the work force as well and were compelled to carry equipment, serve meals and clean work areas. As more workers were conscripted and a greater number of work crews established, primitive camps were constructed along the perimeter of the site to house and sustain a growing population. In a short span of time, the project became wholly dependent upon compulsory labor. Without the work of a captive labor force, the project would undoubtedly have fallen apart.
It was a truly disturbing development, no doubt the most despicable aspect of the entire venture. Platoons comprised of units of men, harnessed like pack animals, were forced to haul long pallets piled high with rock. I watched this and I was appalled, certainly when I first arrived: I was sickened by the sight of human beings yoked to each other like oxen and forced to tread forward while weighed down by tons of rubble. However, over the course of days, months and years I became accustomed to the sight and I am ashamed to say that I became indifferent to it. I became inured to the suffering of young men, old men, brothers, sons and fathers, trapped like random prisoners, chained together like horses, heads bent to the ground, leaning forward against the weight, sweat glistening along leathered backs, inching along with no choice but to inch further along and, upon arrival, return to load up once again.
Those who were particularly efficient or enthusiastic would rise in status and were granted authority to help manage the lowest of the low. Not surprisingly, those so rewarded developed intense enthusiasm for the mission. The degree of cruelty they displayed surpassed even that of the project managers. These new evangelists displayed unbound fervor that might have reflected an elevated sense of faith in the mission but, more likely, their brutality was borne of ambition and, perhaps, some vision of freedom.
In any event, these minor commanders executed their duties with religious resolve that bordered on fanaticism. They wielded long canes with which to thrash the backs of their former comrades in order to maintain the pace of the work. The whip came down unceasingly and in horrible rhythm: they struck like the hands of the clock of death and the men who bore the brunt of the punishment brandished long scars and open wounds across their backs. The steady drum of the impact of canes upon human skin could be heard across entire sections of the site. It was a common sight to see shirtless men whose torsos were streaked with the crimson grooves of their wounds and their skin oozed red and yellow with infection that never seemed to heal. Though I was horrified at first, I justified the barbarity in my own mind by the grand nature and purpose of the mission itself. If my enthusiasm for the mission eventually waned, so did my humanity: I simply grew accustomed to these crimes, committed every minute of each hour of the day. In fact, if a particular section needed to be cleared in order for me to set lines, I would call for more men to be brought in to remove rock and boulder so that I could complete my work and move on.
There is one incident, however, that I think about with greater frequency as time passes. Some years ago, a member of a work brigade assigned to pull one of the wagons decided one day, for no apparent reason, to refuse to continue. He was not particularly old or infirm; in fact, he seemed as fit as any other member of the labor reserve at that point in time. He simply stopped in his tracks and demanded to be unleashed. The wagon came to a halt; the work could not proceed. One of the project captains noticed the stalled cart and approached. Accompanied by his lieutenant, he walked directly toward the intransigent worker. The captain seemed calm as he drew near. In a casual tone, he ordered the man unchained and separated from his brethren and asked him to step away from the pallet. However, the captain purposely failed to loosen his leg shackles. He ordered him to race up an incline toward the crest of a small hill. The man repeatedly tripped and fell as he ran. It was a heartless, humiliating exercise but was only the beginning of his ordeal.
When they arrived at the top of the hill, the captain turned and faced his prisoner while the lieutenant stood directly behind the unfortunate laborer and locked his arm around the man’s neck in a manner that barely allowed him to breath. The captive’s lips tightened in a grim brown line and his shoulder twitched in fear. He stared at the ground and kept silent, either unwilling or unable to respond. The lieutenant stepped away and, as he did, the rays of the sun found the thin red gashes that lined the man’s back: fresh wounds from recent whippings. His weathered appearance was due, no doubt, to the course of abuse to which he had been subject but, despite his worn visage, he seemed simple and childlike in voice and demeanor. The captain, on the other hand, exuded the power and force of the soulless desert: his head rose above thick shoulders and his body seemed to have grown out of the ground as if he were an edifice unto himself, despotic in nature but resembling an ancient dune or hill. It was as if he were a feature of the terrain and it was easy to forget that he was a man.
His mustache fell over one side of his lip and he spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “Do we have a problem?” asked the captain. He maintained his cool, detached manner despite the tension of the moment.
“No, no . . . no problem,” stammered the doomed worker. He grimaced and continued to stare at the ground.
The captain yawned, eyed the worker and then, in calm, measured tone, addressed his detainee. “But it seems that, perhaps, we do have a problem, my friend. The problem, I’m afraid, is you. You are one, just one, among many who have the privilege of working here. Let’s keep in mind that we are standing upon hallowed ground and, in fact, you’ve been given the opportunity to participate in a holy undertaking . . . and for whatever ridiculous reason, you have taken it upon yourself to subvert that historic mission. Actually, I don’t care what your reason might be because no reason would make sense . . . but you’ve decided, quite selfishly, to get in the way, to interrupt the process, to undermine goals we share as a community. It’s a problem . . . yes, you are a problem. I’d say that if one, anyone, were to conclude, on any one particular day, that the mission was no longer worthwhile . . . that there was no point to it . . . if he was bored by the work or felt, perhaps, that he was too good for it and considered the project to be a waste of his time . . . if he had appalling thoughts such as these . . .” He paused for a moment, turned his back to his prisoner and walked away, hands clasped behind his back, head bowed as if lost in thought. He then turned back abruptly and faced the simpering worker once again but his tone, however, had changed. He now seemed irritated and accusatory. “What would happen if those other decent, dedicated men who stand beside you . . . each one of whom labors so hard every day . . . what if one . . . or some . . . . or all . . . what if they entertained the fantasy that they, too, could simply stop . . . stop on a whim . . . and decided to follow the example set by some slacker? They might think, ‘well, maybe he’s got it right . . . what’s the point? Why bother?’ And what if all your friends over there . . .” and, at that moment he pointed to the work brigade situated below the hill, still standing and harnessed to the cart, “what if they arrived at the same stupid conclusion and took your lead, decided that they had better things to do, bigger things, greater than the historic mission in which we are now engaged, grander than this crusade . . . our crusade? What if each, that is, everyone . . . simply . . . stopped?” he asked. He fell silent and grinned beneath his uneven mustache as if the answer were self-evident. It was a rhetorical question that the wretched worker did not attempt to answer, at least at first. The leader’s point had been made and the logic of his argument was unassailable if one accepted, of course, the validity of his premise, i.e., that the excavation of the Garden of Eden was a holy priority and men were expendable and were duty bound to break their backs and lose their lives in the desert.
At this juncture, the doomed man managed to formulate an answer to the question that had been asked though an answer was not expected and certainly not wanted. He looked up but avoided the captain’s eyes. “The work can’t . . . the work shouldn’t stop . . . sir!” he managed to say. His voice was flat. His forehead was coated with beads of sweat that reflected the sharp light of the noonday sun. The air was stagnant, there was no sound but for the words that were spoken and the shuffling of feet in the sand.
The remaining members of the work brigade, forced to witness the encounter from the flat path below the hill, waited with apprehension. Each of them felt relieved that they, respectively, had been spared the ordeal that this pitiful worker was now undergoing. It was clear to all that he was no longer a worker but a prisoner who was about to die and each member of the work brigade felt guilty for experiencing that sense of relief. They also felt angry and unnerved by the man’s weakness and stupidity. They felt resentment, most of all, because the episode was causing them to fall behind schedule and the lost time would have to be made up. They shuffled their feet in the sand, they pretended not to notice, they looked back and forth but carefully avoided each other’s eyes.
The prisoner’s words hung in the air and dissipated in the heat. The project captain didn’t bother to respond at that moment but his face swelled and his eyes widened. He appeared as if he were about to explode and words did, in fact, burst from his mouth, loud across the sand so that all could hear him. His words resounded like the words of God that once resonated across the leaves and grasses of Eden long ago: “You had been forewarned . . . . you knew the law . . . you were well aware . . . and yet you chose to ignore it, disregard it . . . disregard me. You are relieved of your duties, you are dismissed, you are banished and you must leave at once . . . you are hereby ordered to crawl by yourself into the depths of the desert . . . and never return!”
The stunned worker, paralyzed by fear, couldn’t move. It was as though he hadn’t heard the words or lacked the ability to understand his fate. The captain saw that his order had no effect upon his prisoner who, it seemed, was not about to retreat. Again, the captain ordered the man to leave but the traumatized worker couldn’t move. Enraged, the captain grabbed a shovel that lay beside him on the ground, lifted it high in the air with both hands and, in one quick motion, brought it down like an axe upon the man’s head. The laborer slumped to the ground. He lay perfectly still. His arms were still coated with the dust of the rubble he had been carting only moments prior. Blood leaked from his forehead. He had collapsed like a boxer who hadn’t seen a devastating punch coming but this man was not unconscious like a fallen boxer: this man was dead. The lieutenant signaled for assistance and the body was quickly dragged by the feet back down the hill. He was thrown into a ditch adjacent to one of the pits. His body lay there for all to see for quite some time until, in the late afternoon, he was covered. Several workers kicked sand over his body and, in a quick moment, he had disappeared. He was gone. The incident never happened, or so it seemed, though it lingered in the hearts of his compatriots and remains fixed in my own memory.
Another man, similar in appearance to the man who had just been killed, was brought in to take his place. His name didn’t matter, it didn’t matter that he had a family waiting for him at one the camps, it didn’t matter that he had been lifted out of his life. He was collared and chained and the brigade moved on, this time at a faster pace, pulling the same long, heavy pallet piled high with rock and sand. The new man was strong and, for now, he attacked his work with vigor and focus. He had taken someone’s place but was well aware that, in time, someone else could or would replace him. Though he was nameless, blameless and had melded into the platoon of workers who toiled beside him, he was preemptively and presumptively guilty. He was guilty by virtue of who he was. His guilt was an essential aspect of his humanity.
I was not shocked and I was not disturbed. In fact, I was glad to see the dissident laborer removed from the platoon so that the work could proceed. I didn’t much care about his fate. The moment he refused to continue, I knew he was as good as gone. I was annoyed, I felt impatient. My job and the general pace of the project was delayed by this minor drama and I had no choice but to work twice as fast to remain caught up with my assignments. Once the man had been dealt with and replaced, my life could continue.
It was not long after this time that I began to have misgivings. My thoughts traveled far beyond the pits and ditches and sand. We had discovered the Garden of Eden, we were within it and we were well into the process of removing it and preserving it. But what, in fact, were we trying to accomplish? How could any of this be justified?
In truth, I had always experienced a deep-seated sense of guilt and I suffered from this condition for as long as I can recall. It was a disability that never abated though there was no root cause that I was aware of and no explicit trigger or reason for it. It was a state of mind that had been a part of me and it was, in a sense, a legacy from some place or some time that long preceded me. I was overcome by an innate sense of guilt at every turn, for no particular reason. I couldn’t understand it and I came to think that I felt this way simply because I existed. Ultimately, I resigned myself to the permanence of my condition: it seemed that I had been lost in it for longer than I could possibly remember, lost in a sea of it, somehow lost before I had consumed my first breath or had taken my first step. My role in the project only exacerbated this feeling: I came to realize that the entire excavation was itself a grievous, grotesque crime and I had enthusiastically participated in it. I had assisted in a comprehensive plan to use human beings, collectively, as an industrial tool. I may not have been a planner and I may have been only a surveyor – but I was complicit. I had been caught up in the spirit of the mission and I had wholeheartedly joined in the venture. No matter how high my level of idealism, no matter the quality of my work, no matter the personal sacrifice I endured toward the realization of a goal that was, ostensibly, laudable and important, it simply didn’t matter. I was as guilty as any other person involved except, of course, those who had been subjugated by it and beaten into the ground in the course of it. I was as lost as I had ever been.
My sense of guilt flowed through me like a river. It would flood beyond its banks during my conscious hours and the deluge often swept through my dreams at night. I loathed my spiritual being and I detested my physical self as well: I felt my own weight upon the ground, I heard my own silent footsteps and I hated each one of them and I hated each moment, hated the feeling of each moment, hated the absence of my own essence and identity. That identity, that core should have bloomed within me long ago and should have shrouded each atom of my being and melded into my spirit but that process had somehow been stunted long ago. I felt the agony of living in the absence of a reason: I felt condemned to live. I worked progressively harder each moment of my life, not to achieve or succeed but, rather, to escape the abscess which was my existence and expunge the guilt that seemed to circulate like blood through the channels of my body. The fact that I had taken part in a mission that was nothing less than a war waged against humanity only contributed to my sense of self-loathing.
I continued to have problems understanding the purpose of the dig and, as time went on, I had trouble coming to terms with it. We had labored to uncover the fabric and spirit of our origin in the hope of embracing it. Even if we had succeeded, nothing would have changed, at least from my perspective. It was silly to think that the excavation of the Garden of Eden would enable us, in some way, to shed new light upon the past or somehow revitalize history. It was even more absurd to imagine that we could, through our efforts, alter the sequence of events through which we had come into the world. Nothing could undo what had happened long ago: the bite of the apple was a historic reality and that apple could never be made whole again. There is no way to annul the sin and shame implicit in our assumption of deific knowledge, there is no way to alter the reality of our own mortality, there is no way to deny the expulsion from Eden and there is no way for us to purge ourselves of the guilt and trauma that have persisted since the dawn of our existence. Moreover, there is no way to refute or negate the slaughter we had perpetrated in the desert. We simply cannot ignore these sorry episodes of our history. Our plight and our own nature are fixed and continuous: our race toward the past is inexorable as is our descent into a disheartening future. The result of our efforts is unalterable no matter how successful we might be in extricating the Garden from the ground and dancing in its ruins.
In any event, despite tragedy and suffering, the work continued at a steady pace. Dying at the site became commonplace and there were many casualties. The dying had various causes and took various forms: desert fever, physical injury, exhaustion and execution. These deaths, however, were greatly outnumbered by those that took place at the outlying detention camps where food was scarce, sanitation was inadequate and disease ran rampant. The camps were periodically decimated by outbreaks of cholera. The horror was rendered more horrible through the logistics of death: corpses were dredged away like dead cattle and were cremated in the open air while fresh populations were brought in from outlying regions to replace those who had been lost. In effect, humanity had become a fungible resource but the horrendous level of suffering was overlooked: men, women and children were nothing more than a source of power to sustain a project that would otherwise implode.
By the fifth year, the excavation began to yield impressive results. Every few weeks, a bone, branch or plant was recovered which, after careful analysis, was determined to be authentic. Celebration of these victories propelled the mission further along, especially at times during which enthusiasm seemed to ebb. There came a time, however, at which a truly remarkable development occurred: geologists believed they had discovered remnants of the Tree of Knowledge. Preliminary reports were encouraging though the scientists initially viewed the evidence as ambiguous and insufficient. Further examination would be necessary but they were confident that the few bits of bark, calcified fruit and leaves that had drawn their attention would prove to be genuine.
Unfortunately, the reaction at the site was anything but restrained. News of the purported discovery caused a riot. The lowest cadre of workers, lacking hope, a future and any semblance of a life other than one of constant, grinding work and suffering, made a rush for remnants of the Tree that had been carefully set aside. It was a pitiful scene: the workers, after having managed to loosen their chains, ran as one from the staging area like some manic herd. Once they had stumbled upon the cases that housed the sacred remains, the herd broke apart and each man fought off the other in a desperate attempt to break open containers and grab as many crumbs and pieces as possible. They believed that these fragments had been sanctified by God and could somehow empower them to overcome their overseers and break the bonds of their imprisonment. They were frantic and ran from one corner of the site to the other in a desperate search for pieces of the Tree. Those who carried off bits of bark, leaf or fruit proceeded to eat what they had procured in order to absorb their power. They soon fell sick though they did recover after a short while. The unfortunate truth was that the bits they had consumed were random remains that had no connection with the Garden of Eden. The scientists had been wrong.
Chaos prevailed in the hours that followed until the rioters were overcome by their overseers. Eight men were killed in the course of the rebellion. “So this, I suppose, is Eden . . .” I thought to myself, “. . . the new Eden, the real Eden.” I watched in horror as they fought and gradually exhausted themselves as cadres of guards quickly surrounded them and gained control. The guards bound the men in chain, pummeled them with canes and forced them to stand and bear witness to one execution after another. Those men had violated the law and they were no longer innocent. They needed to be punished, they needed to be expelled from the human nation, they needed to die. This was the truth of the desert, miles from the world, miles from the heart of civilization, long after the Garden of Eden had died and had sunk into the ground.
The minor rebellion that took place that day was immediately suppressed. There were other rebellions from time to time that were quashed in the same summary fashion. The torture continued, the killing continued and, despite the abject inhumanity of the project, the work continued. However, the project was beset by additional problems that, collectively, had a corrosive effect upon unity. These issues were endemic and intractable: frequent disruption of communications, equipment failure, shortages of spare parts, cost overruns and security concerns were but a few of the myriad logistical challenges that plagued the project. Responses and solutions were typically hampered by incompetence and delay caused by labyrinthine bureaucratic procedures established to address such issues. Moreover, planning was erratic and strategies varied with each incoming political administration. Though these difficulties were consequential, I believe they were accorded exaggerated levels of importance due, perhaps, to the immense stress and frustration experienced by top-tier managers and planners. They were, as a group, suspicious and territorial and were quick to oppose each other at every turn. In essence, the leadership came to wage war upon itself. For these reasons, progress slowed as time went on. The project seemed interminable.
The greatest practical problem to emerge, however, was confusion over the goal of the project itself. The objectives of the mission had shifted over time and, at this juncture, it was difficult to find agreement as to its ultimate purpose. It was also questionable whether the mission, however defined, was still achievable. Those who were “realist” in their approach had concluded that the project was no longer viable. They believed that the project had served to stratify society rather than unify it. In their view, the mission had become unmanageable and constituted an unacceptable drain upon available resources. They petitioned for an end to the project and proposed that remnants extracted thus far be placed on exhibit but the remainder of the Garden be left in the ground and reburied.
There was also a religious contingent whose members had formerly been fiercely in favor of the project but now demanded that the project come to an immediate halt. The collection of remnants that had been retrieved thus far was so prosaic and unremarkable in their eyes as to cause a panic among them. Their fear was that religious faith and the holy word, established through thousands of years of worship and commitment, would be degraded, impugned or even contradicted were the Garden to be wholly extracted and systematically examined. Proponents of this position insisted that the Garden be reburied and the site be permanently sealed. They also demanded that all remains recovered thus far be destroyed.
There were those, of course, who wished to continue to the end. The glory of the mission still shone brightly in their minds. In their view, the discovery of the Garden provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to embrace our identity and understand our nature. They maintained that it would be tragic to cease our efforts at this juncture, especially after so much time, money and effort had been invested in the project. This group, perhaps the smallest but most ardent, believed that the problems we experienced were strictly logistical and could be overcome, in time, through innovation, creative thinking and reliance upon emerging technology. In short, the mission was achievable, essential from a humanistic perspective and historically imperative.
These differences could not be resolved. Difficulties proliferated and disharmony reached greater, more profound levels as time went on. The most controversial aspect of the project – the issue of forced labor – was continuously debated but a resolution was never realized. It became clear, as the dispute dragged on, that the labor issue was irreconcilable and, ultimately, the problem was simply disregarded.
Perhaps the saddest truth and greatest failing of the project arose out of an inherent contradiction rooted in the mission as originally conceived. The vastness of the undertaking and the immense breadth of vision that gave rise to it were, in fact, the cause of its demise. One generation confidently handed off the work to the next with the expectation that the work would continue with unabated resolve but, through the course of each transfer, the inspiration that initially gave impetus to the mission faded a bit further. By the time I retired, it was rare that the young planners and managers who had been brought in to continue the mission had any familiarity with the story of the Garden. Each generation of specialists who helped bring the Garden to the surface were less aware than their predecessors of the unique significance and critical position the Garden held in our history. As time went on, a dwindling number of those involved in the undertaking had any sense of it. Though it had survived the passage of millennia, the meaning of the Garden was lost in the sand of the desert. The work proceeded through the force of its own inertia but the point of the project was missing.
This spiritual erosion was exacerbated by the way in which the work was carried out. The project was carefully broken down into a series of stages, each of which required the completion of plans, tasks and jobs within fixed time frames as measured and understood in familiar, human terms, in keeping with clock and calendar. Our notion of time, however, was inadequate as a basis for us to comprehend the Garden as a whole. The Garden seemed to stand outside the boundaries of time as we understood and experienced it, quite different than the way time itself might have been apprehended by others ages ago. We simply weren’t capable of embracing the Garden in a way that transcended time as a construct other than as one fragmented and arranged into groupings of days, weeks and hours. A comprehensive work schedule was illusory at best because the project, like some overwhelming monolith, could not be wholly understood by any one person or completed within a single lifetime. It was as if we stood within the shadow of a huge skyscraper that we knew to be immensely tall but were too close to its walls to see the top of it. Consequently, the mission drained into the crevices that ran between the thousands of moments that comprised it. Understandably, the division of the grand scheme into sub-projects, carried out in accordance with the dictates of a day planner, was the only methodology available for us to grapple with so immense an undertaking: we are, after all, only human. Nevertheless, the division of the work into timebound stages and sub-projects served to undermine the grand scheme itself.
Moreover, the division of labor between various groups of managers, specialists and workers, a standard feature of any modern industrial enterprise, actually contributed to the disfunction and impeded progress. Myriad managers and laborers whose responsibility it was to complete specified jobs were scattered among operations teams that constantly gained and lost personnel through the typical course of promotion, transfer and attrition. Thus, the character of the work force changed continuously and, over time, it was the case that sundry work teams weren’t even aware of the existence of other teams engaged in the same general effort or endeavor. And though it is true that many of the technicians engaged in the project were extremely gifted and highly advanced in a particular science or discipline, the most gifted among them lacked the capacity to understand, in any meaningful way, the work of colleagues who were engaged in different areas of inquiry and focused upon other issues. They may have worked at desks within a few steps of each other but, in a real sense, each technician was ensconced within his or her own private work silo and was thereby denied the opportunity to absorb or appreciate more than a tiny fragment of the project. These technicians, characteristic of the entire workforce, were afflicted with a professional myopia dictated by the limitations of his or her own experience, the inviolable set of requirements and expectations determined by managers and the utter enormity and shifting scope of the mission itself. Completion of disparate jobs that had no inherent meaning in themselves became, in the final analysis, the sole and ultimate goal of the mission. It might be more accurate to say that the mission no longer existed as originally conceived but had devolved into a thousand minor missions loosely connected within the netting of a nebulous plan.
Despite these realities, the project continues to be funded, even at this late date. The work has become a norm of existence and, like the scenery one routinely passes on his way home, it is an aspect of everyday life to which we have become oblivious. It is also a burden that grows heavy over the course of time. Given the impasse that has arisen as to its future, it seems likely that the work will continue indefinitely. Despite the many problems, the truth is that the excavation has become a raison d’être: it is the heartbeat of contemporary society. No one believes that the project can or will end in his or her own lifetime and no one speaks of the day upon which the work will be finished. The prospect of completion seems utterly frightening: once the work is done, what would be left? What project could possibly be meaningful once the source of all meaning has been unearthed and placed on display? No one dares to imagine how many generations of work and sacrifice will pass before the excavation is deemed “complete.”
My retirement as a surveyor was, in actuality, a dismissal and was not at all voluntary. I was perceived as too old, at this point, to discharge my duties effectively and I was suspect in the eyes of incoming managers who had new ideas as to the meaning, purpose and direction of the mission. I was thought to be an impediment simply because I was so very aware of the history of the project: I knew how it had come into being and I knew how it had meandered in purpose and scope. I was the repository of institutional memory that no one wanted to remember.
Since my dismissal, I have heard that much of my work has been revised or discarded as new minds see the land differently, new instruments are relied upon and advanced technologies are developed but, in my view, the ongoing survey work seems redundant and, for that reason, a bit senseless. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, I compare boundary lines of the Garden that I had drawn when I first arrived with those set forth on recent surveys that I’ve managed to acquire. I am pleased, to a certain extent, to see that my calculations were not too far off though it doesn’t much matter in the scheme of things: it is inevitable that technology yet to be developed will render even the newest surveys obsolete and inaccurate.
I was kept on, however, to run the small museum recently established to conserve and display ancient remains and document the history of the project. It is a small building that sits upon ground that I once surveyed long ago. There are few visitors and I sit at the front desk with much time to myself. Housed within various glass cases and cabinets are fossilized bits of wood, leaves, ancient seed and a variety of other remains. On occasion, an old surveyor or scientist will come through to review some of the old records. We are also visited, from time to time, by former administrators who seek to come to terms with their own role in the undertaking. Members of the clergy often retreat to the museum to bask in the cool air that circulates within our exhibition rooms and, every few months, we receive groups of school children who are driven out all this way to study the Garden. They hardly glance at the collection of twigs and bone that are neatly labeled beneath thick glass: clearly, they are bored by the exercise. I watch as they lean on those cabinets, their elbows steeped in the dust that has swept in from the desert, accumulated over the course of years.
The excavation continues. Miserable souls continue to be conscripted into labor brigades and are forced to pull the same old, creaking wagons and pallets. Men continue to dig, anthropologists continue to sift through all that has been lifted out of the ground and administrators continue to push the project to its inglorious end, whenever that may come. Running the museum is the best I could hope for at this point and is, in truth, quite enough for me to handle.
I am unaware of any recent discoveries or grand projects that have stimulated public attention. If the tablets of Moses were to be discovered beneath the ground at the foot of some mountain or if the branches of the burning bush were to be uncovered within the heart of a sand dune in the desert, I’m sure such discovery would generate a new sense of excitement and give rise to new projects and new realities. At this juncture, all that is beyond my ability to comprehend and, certainly, I would not have the energy or will to play any part in it.