Published August 14. 2011 4:00AM
If there's one thing all Christians can agree on, it's that the Garden of Eden, at least symbolically, is the birthplace of humans. But try to get any further than this basic idea, and you're bound to run into confusion and dissension. It's these quagmires that Brook Wilensky-Lanford, a freelance journalist, finds the most fascinating, and with "Paradise Lust," she may convince even the least religious among us of the allure of this great question mark in Christianity.
As told in the Bible's Book of Genesis, the garden is the very first scene in the story of civilization, the home of Adam and Eve before the original sin banishes them from their God-given paradise. A large part of the appeal of the Garden of Eden lies not in its paradisiacal qualities, Wilensky-Lanford explains, but rather in its symbolism as the very beginning of things for Christians: the seed, the foundation, the oldest record. And it's what we don't know about Eden that may show us the most about humanity.
It's impossible to say where the Garden of Eden lies, if it ever really existed, but the "where" isn't what Wilensky-Lanford is after. She leaves that question to a colorful cast of "Eden seekers" that includes explorers, clergymen, scholars, engineers and educators, whom she profiles in an effort to better understand Christianity and the eccentric, amusing and inspiring people captivated by Eden. Though the author appears to be spiritedly shopping around for her favorite Eden theory, she quickly finds that the question "What is Eden?" is really the more appropriate - and more fruitful - inquiry.
She begins with William Warren, a Methodist minister and the first president of Boston University, who determined that the Garden of Eden was at the North Pole, its gates conveniently "barred against us" because of the harsh conditions. This conclusion doesn't stop Warren from writing a 433-page book on his theory titled "Paradise Found!," its disappointing denouement left until the very last page: "Even could some new Columbus penetrate to the secret centre of this Wonderland of the Ages," Warren writes, "he could but hurriedly kneel amid a frozen desolation and, dumb with a nameless awe, let fall a few hot tears above the buried and desolated hearthstone of Humanity's earliest and loveliest home."
Indeed, Earth, with its cataclysmic ice ages, floods and droughts, keeps getting in the way of the search for Eden. Juris Zarins, a prominent professor of archaeology, has to turn to NASA satellite imaging to locate what he believes is the submerged Garden of Eden in the waters of the Persian Gulf, this advanced technology allowing him to get as close as possible to the purported source. People like Zarins, who uncover bones and tools that help map our long existence on this planet, end up complicating things even further.
But like Warren, many of Wilensky-Lanford's Eden seekers find ways of making sense of it all; they are only spurred on by the discoveries of their predecessors, and by the growing momentum of science over religion. Kentucky's Creation Museum, for example, sees dinosaurs and humans as having co-existed, with dinosaurs eventually evolving into dragons.
On a visit to the museum, Wilensky-Lanford observes "a tiny model caveman child" standing "giggling next to a tiny velociraptor, a benevolent prehistoric pet." The museum is also home to a stunning reconstruction of the Garden of Eden, but its theories are too cursory for the author to grab hold of; she calls the whole experience "profoundly discouraging."
These words could describe many of the ideas Wilensky-Lanford presents, but there is such a rich amount of insight, drama and adventure to be found in the process of not finding the Garden of Eden that readers will not feel any such letdown. Wilensky-Lanford approaches her subjects with respect, enthusiasm and conscientious research, and succeeds in doing what the best one-subject historical studies do, which is to reframe history, freshening up long-familiar events.
The quest for Eden has not just been motivated by religious fervor, we learn, but by history: imperialism, patriotism, exploration and more. As Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer, concludes in his quest to find Eden in Iraq, "This is no real beginning. This is the continuation of something lost somewhere in the mist." This "continuation," the "lust" Wilensky-Lanford is referring to, locates Eden in such far-flung locales as Iraq, Missouri, Florida, China, the North Pole and nowhere at all. "Paradise Lust" is a celebration of the surprisingly peaceful co-existence of such radically different theories.