Back to the Garden: Nature and the Mediterranean World from Prehistory to the Present, by James H. S. McGregor

Laurence Coupe on an ambitious and challenging exploration of the ecology of the past

March 12, 2015

Although James McGregor does not mention her, it is obviously Joni Mitchell who has provided him with this book’s title. It’s hard to forget the haunting refrain from what is arguably her most famous song, Woodstock: “We are stardust, we are golden,/And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Mitchell’s is a mythic imagination, evident also in another of her well-known songs from the same era, Big Yellow Taxi: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

We might say that those of us who are concerned about the state of the planet will inevitably express our concern in terms of myth. We will adopt a narrative form of understanding that is broadly equivalent to the biblical story of the Fall. If we believe that something has gone wrong in our relationship with the Earth, we will necessarily have a notion of the moment when the error began: when we left the garden.

An obvious event to point to would be the large-scale industrialisation that took place in the 19th century. However, many green historians and activists have been known to adopt a much vaster timescale, and some have pointed to the Neolithic revolution that took place in the millennium before the common era. The argument goes that, prior to that event, Homo sapiens had lived lightly on the Earth, following the lore of the land and taking only what was necessary from it. It was, then, the move from a hunter-gathering way of life to an agricultural way of life that was decisive. Thereafter, the Earth was regarded as a body of resources to be not only cultivated but also managed and exploited.

It is this influential model of history that McGregor, a scholar of comparative literature, sets out to challenge in a fascinating work that is full of audacious insights. Back to the Garden is not an engagement with the mythic imagination as such – although it does refer at some length to Genesis, to Homer and Hesiod, and to Lucretius. What it offers us is thorough historical scholarship, skilfully deployed in support of McGregor’s thesis that it was precisely through agriculture that human beings learned to live in harmony with the Earth.

Charting the legacy of farming in the Mediterranean world over three millennia, he refers back constantly to a “consensus” that he calls “first nature”. This term might at first seem misleading, suggesting the state that existed prior to human intervention. But McGregor defends his usage by repeatedly emphasising the balance between human and non-human life that was effected by the respectful cultivation of the land, and which should remain our primary concern.

What, then, went wrong? McGregor leaves us in no doubt of the disastrous changes wrought by modern agribusiness: changes that have been aggravated by the overdevelopment of towns and villages catering for mass tourism. So he acknowledges a kind of Fall, but sees it as gradual – and, indeed, still happening. As for paradise, he would say that our best model of culture is “agri-culture”, and it is by restoring its balance that we will redeem ourselves and repair the Earth. To lament a lost wilderness, thought to precede it, can only distract us from this project.

Back to the Garden is an ambitious, challenging book that should prove indispensable to students of history, literature, ecology…and yes, myth.

Back to the Garden: Nature and the Mediterranean World from Prehistory to the Present

By James H. S. McGregor
Yale University Press, 384pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300197464
Published 26 February 2015

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