The Forest As Garden: Visions of Plenty

The weather warmed up here this past week to an unseasonable fifty degrees. I took advantage of the warmth to open up the walls of our house where the addition will join it, put in the new structural members, and closed it back up again just in time for the cold to return. Now I’m back to cutting firewood and waiting for the forest ground to freeze solid so I can drag out the pine and spruce logs that will become rafters, purlins, and tie beams. The timbers are being logged from an area of about two acres inside an imaginary oval with our house in the middle. The portion of the oval just south and southeast of our house was cleared by the original owner eighteen years ago. Since then a scattering of paper and gray birches and quaking aspens have grown up. We’ve left most of these since we’ve been here for the pleasures and benefits they provide: shade, beauty, soft shaking music of wind-blown leaves, cover for birds and squirrels visiting the feeders we put out, and protection for the tree seedlings and saplings that will eventually take their place. We see our entire eight acres of forest as a garden; this part, just beyond our front door, is the most intensively cultivated. It is our version of a front yard. The canopy trees are mostly ones of our choosing, and with a couple exceptions are not native to our eastern forest: apples, pears, persimmons, medlars, plums, and a peach. We’ve left a couple red oak seedlings that some blue jay or squirrel buried and then forgot. Some time next decade they’ll begin providing mast for the wild turkey and deer that visit.This year I’m cutting out the small handful of aspens though. They’ve done their work as pioneer trees, helping prepare the ground for species that follow in succession, though in this case it is cultivated fruit trees rather than climax forest species that are taking their place. Next winter they’ll do their final work, providing the fuel to cook our meals and heat our house for a few weeks.

The agricultural tradition has left our culture with a strong preference for highly simplified landscapes. So the conventional arrangement for a collection of fruit trees is an orchard with grass and maybe some clover and wildflowers carpeting the ground. But our model is an ecological one, where some species or other exploits every available niche. So under and around the canopy of fruit trees, we have a layer of shrubs. Here almost all the selections are native to the eastern forest; most have delicious fruit too. Planted in clumps are highbush blueberries and elderberries and gooseberries and currants and serviceberries and hazelnuts and chokeberries and raspberries and beach plums and a highbush cranberry. A few of the blueberries were already present, as were the chokeberries and a scattering of wild raisins. We’ve left these last for the birds—we like the fruits too, but the birds clean them out before we get any. In the sunny patches and dappled shade among the trees and shrubs we’ve planted a varied layer of herbaceous perennials—some for food, others for adding nutrients to the soil and making compost, still others to attract insects and hummingbirds. Among these plants are borage and lovage, anise hyssop and lemon balm, catnip and comfrey, Jerusalem artichoke and yarrow, rhubarb and asparagus. Blank spots are filling in with ground covers of cranberry and lingonberry and alpine strawberry and clover and sorrel. Logs inoculated with mushroom spawn lie in shady spots beneath the fruit trees. Grape vines climb a long arbor. At one edge of the garden is a large fire ring I built for outdoor cooking. Friends join us there for dinners on summer weekends. Finally are the rock piles and logs scattered in strategic locations for snakes, salamanders, frogs, and other small critters. They belong in the garden too, and feed on slugs and other insects.

There are various prototypes for this type of forest garden, many in tropical climates, a few pioneering efforts in temperate zones, but I like the oldest one best: the Garden of Eden. Every culture has its own creation myth, and the one that served western culture for the roughly fifteen hundred years up to the middle of the nineteenth century, is found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In chapter two Eden is described as a place of effortless abundance, where every want is satisfied. “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.” The original garden was a garden of trees, a forest garden. Although the Old Testament was written down some time in the first millennium BC, some of its stories seem rooted in oral tradition that reach far into the past. So the story of Noah and the flood finds echoes in flood stories from cultures all over the world that most likely describe the truly epochal flooding that would have accompanied the end of the last ice age as sea levels surged. In similar fashion the story of Eden seems to preserve a very old folk memory of the world inhabited by hunter-gatherers, living off the natural abundance of the land.

We know from modern hunter-gatherers that their knowledge of the local ecologies on which they depend is virtually total. We know too from the work of anthropologists that on average they work far fewer hours to secure their food than do farming people and that their diet is more varied and more nutritious. And we know that the text of Genesis presents a bleak picture of the farming life. When Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden for usurping God’s knowledge of good and evil, God’s punishment is severe: “cursed is the ground for they sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” From forest garden to weedy field of grain, their fall is complete. The message seems clear enough: so long as man is one member of the community of life, all his wants will be satisfied by the natural abundance of that community. Aspire to the knowledge reserved for God, and the curse will be exile and the unremitting toil of the farming life. A few chapters later the message is reinforced in the story of Cain and Abel: the farmer’s offering is rejected by God, while the shepherd’s is gratefully accepted. Cain too is cursed with barren land and exile. But it is his lineage that survives, just as it was agriculture that survived and spread, eliminating hunter-gatherers and pastoralists in the process.

A modern, historical example of the clash between the lifestyles, economies and ecologies of hunter-gatherers and farmers—and one that is central to our own work—occurred here in New England at the start of the seventeenth century. Eastern North America was settled by the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English; the English of course ultimately prevailed in the contest of European nations for ownership of the continent. England’s native ecology is not unlike parts of eastern North America; with abundant rainfall and a climate milder than New England, it is naturally forested. But England has been farmed for thousands of years, and by the seventeenth century, the native ecology had been dramatically altered. As British science writer Colin Tudge puts it, writing about the pastoral landscape of his homeland:

“I chauvinistically suggest that there is none more beautiful in the world.
Yet this is the glory of devastation. Britain is the northern temperate equivalent of denuded Crete, whose beautiful pastel rocks shine in the sun, but which, just a few thousand years ago, was covered in forest that might have harbored dwarf elephants and hippos. The soft purple hills of Scotland, with their melancholic accompaniment of pipes, were formerly smothered in ash, pine, and birch in the warm, damp west, and oak, pine, birch, and rowan in the Grampian Hills. The lush green fields of England were once covered by open oak forest—the temperate equivalent of australopithecine country—practically from border to border. In fact, Britain retains less of its pristine forest than any other country in Europe.”

As go the forests, so go the animal and bird species that depend on them for habitat, and Britain is today impoverished in both. Impoverished too—or cursed as Genesis has it—were the peasant farmers who were yoked to an agricultural economy that wrought this destruction. Disease and famine were constant features of all the countries of Europe in the centuries before and just after the colonial enterprise began. The eminent French historian Fernand Braudel records no fewer than forty general famines (not counting the “hundreds and hundreds” of local famines) in France from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. And France serves as a stand-in for the continent: “The same could be said of any country in Europe,” he writes. (Under the heading
Be Careful What You Wish For, it should be pointed out that the sickness, the starvation, the malnourishment, and the wholesale destruction of native flora and fauna—in short the impoverishment of a wide swath of the biota of England to the benefit of a handful of domesticated crops and animals—was the work of a culture of organic farming powered by energy from the wind, sun, water, and animals).

Farming came late to New England before European settlement, if it can truly be said to have arrived at all. A date of around 900 AD is generally accepted for corn cultivation in eastern North America, but in most places it formed only a part of a diverse diet of wild game, fish, fruit, herbs, and tubers. The small civilization centered at Cahokia was already in the past, and whatever urban culture de Soto encountered in the Southeast in the sixteenth century was gone by the seventeenth. In most of Maine corn cultivation never arrived at all until initiated by the English and French. The people of eastern North America had a woodland economy, as they had for about 10,000 years. That the various native tribes modified the forests to serve their own purposes there is no doubt. The forest was no pristine unpeopled wilderness, it was home to dozens of diverse but related tribal groups, the basis of an economy that provided wood for shelter, heat, cooking fuel and transportation; game, fruit, and vegetables for food; and shelter for defense and attack. That the early explorers and settlers were in awe of the abundance they encountered—fish, fowl, wood, and game all far exceeded what was commonly available in England, as the letters home from early settlers attest—points to the very different relationships between people and their native land in Europe and America. Speaking in broad terms, European farmers tended to obliterate their native landscapes, replacing species wholesale with domesticated, imported varieties of grains and animals that they attempted to isolate from the ecosystem as much as possible. The Native Americans of New England—hunters, gatherers, part-time gardeners—on the other hand, fully integrated their own lives with the local ecologies, modifying them to suit their own wants and needs, but avoiding wholesale destruction. The two modes of living, the two economies, are as distinct as the lives of Adam in Eden and after the fall. And if the interpretation of Genesis as a folk memory depicting the displacement of hunter/gatherers by full-time grain farmers is accurate, then that same displacement occurred in New England in the seventeenth century—as it must have all over the world at various times whenever farming spread into intact ecologies and the human economies they sustained. That the farmers ultimately won—the beneficiaries of disease and superior technologies for killing—is a matter of historical record. But which mode of life is actually preferable, or more tenable in the long run, is a matter of perspective and the assumptions from which conclusions are drawn.

The story that tells of farming as the first major step forward leading humanity out of the darkness and into the light of urban civilization, the refinements of high culture, democracy, industrialization, material comfort, and finally technological prowess, is well known. It’s our story, or at least the official one we most often tell ourselves about ourselves. But other stories fit the facts too: of a fall from grace perhaps. Or of a loss of connection with the rest of life; and of a loss of freedom, security, and equality that are among the features that many people find admirable in indigenous societies. Or of a long dark age of slavery, poverty, starvation, and warfare on a scale previously unimagined. Or perhaps the most depressing possibility of all: the story of a species that proves once and for all that an organism with a large brain and a capacity for tool use is an evolutionary dead end, the biological equivalent of a super virus or of a meteor crashing into the side of a planet.

But then again a dark age can only be seen clearly once the light has dawned. And the proper perspective for the history of modern humans is 50,000 years, not 3,000, and it encompasses the entire planet, not just the regions that produced literate civilizations and self-aggrandizing cultural elites. I can imagine the outlines of a story told a century or two from now where a millennia-long dark age that encompasses all written history to date ends with the closing of the final frontiers and the end of the social experiment that began with the rise of farming. For expansive, acquisitive societies need a frontier, to absorb excess population and to accrue new resources. In the last 500 years a global economic system rooted in agriculture and centered in Europe discovered and colonized half the planet (which had been inhabited under very different economic circumstances) and then discovered and colonized an entire planet’s worth of fossil fuels and minerals. These frontiers are now closed or closing. There are no more continents to be settled and exploited, no untapped sources of virgin resources to be mined or drilled. Those who argue that the current status quo can continue indefinitely are obliged to point out where the next frontier is to be found, or how the circumstances of the past 500 years are not entirely exceptional. For our particular economic and social arrangements—capitalism and constitutional democracy especially—have only existed in a world with an ever-expanding frontier. In 1500, the world’s population was perhaps 500 million; in 1800 it was about 1 billion; later this year it will reach 7 billion. The next frontier had better be a big one. That is the story of our culture, even though it is too rarely told in those terms.

The most likely story of our immediate future is one where the harsh trajectory that began with the rise of grain agriculture and the foolish, profane notion that the world belongs to us ends in a cultural implosion that is inevitable and necessary before we consume all life on the planet. I imagine that the dominant global culture of industrial capitalism, having finally reached the limits of growth, will begin to viciously cannibalize itself. I imagine a minority choosing to simply walk away from the long history of control and domination and the destruction and suffering and impoverishment they bring about. In this story Genesis is one creation myth of many, rooted in the history of loss and epochal change, the story of hubris and despair that are the dark heart of the agricultural enterprise and the empires it feeds. I dream of forest gardens and the restoration of Eden.


The contemporary version of forest gardening in temperate climates dates only to the 1980s. The best books for North America are
Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, which is particularly well suited to suburban-scale plantings, and the two volume Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke, a comprehensive resource that is particularly good for the northeast.

The quote from Colin Tudge is from his book
The Time Before History. The Structures of Everday Life by Fernand Braudel is volume one of the three-volume Civilization & Capitalism: 15th-18th Century. It provides a fascinating portrait of the material life of people throughout the world during those centuries as well as a wealth of data. Stone-Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins is the seminal study of the economies of hunter-gatherers. The best place to begin a study of the relationship between the ecology and economy of New England during the colonial period is William Cronon’s landmark Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. The bibliographical essay, though somewhat dated now, is alone worth the price of the book. A good overview of the history of agriculture is Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization by Richard Manning. And finally, an extended discussion of Genesis along lines somewhat similar to my own brief comments, though with a different emphasis, can be found in The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World by Hugh Brody.