The Tree of Life

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:19)

The best place to seek God is in a garden.  You can dig for him there.

-- George Bernard Shaw

As a nature photographer, I envy an artist like Monet, who spent most of his career painting a landscape he designed and tended himself, with help from his own staff of gardeners.  He was spared the inconvenience of lugging equipment over unfamiliar terrain against the vagaries of light and weather in search of a suitable subject.  In 1883, Monet settled in Giverny, a small village in his native Normandy, drawn there in part by the soft light of the Seine Valley.  The property he rented and eventually bought came with its own garden, which he expanded by purchasing adjacent land and then digging a pond.  Monet left nothing to chance.  The garden’s orientation, layout and colors were all carefully planned with an eye toward what he would paint.  His water garden was positioned with one pool in the sun and the other in shadow, connected by his famous Japanese bridge. The pond was expanded twice, and Monet introduced hybrid water lilies that featured colors not found in other water lilies of the region.  One of his gardeners was given the job of cleaning the lily pads each day to remove soot deposited by passing trains.  More than almost anyone, Monet took to heart Voltaire’s admonition to cultivate one’s own garden.

Voltaire’s Candide, which contains this bit of advice, is so relentlessly satirical it is not entirely clear how much weight to give to his gardening tips.  Candide is a credulous young adventurer in thrall to a witless philosopher named Pangloss.  They lurch from one appalling misadventure to the next, with Pangloss trilling his mantra, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”  This is a sly dig at the real-life philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who expressed similar sentiments to justify the cataclysmic 1755 earthquake in Portugal.  Candide and his companions survive the Portuguese earthquake, along with a string of other natural and man-made disasters, including the Inquisition and the Seven Years’ War, plus assorted beatings, rapes, butchery, strangulations and impalements.  Eventually even Pangloss begins to suspect that this best of all possible worlds could hardly be worse.  At this point they encounter an old farmer who contentedly cultivates his small plot of ground while professing total ignorance of the violence and upheavals in the wider world.  In the end, they vow to follow the farmer’s example, with Candide saying, “We must cultivate our garden.”

In case anyone misses the Edenic references sprinkled throughout Candide, Pangloss observes in the final chapter that God placed the first man in a garden in order to tend it. There are two trees in the midst of this primordial garden, with a serpent coiled alluringly around the root of the tree that will be the man’s undoing.  The serpent beguiles the man into eating forbidden fruit with the promise that he will become like God, knowing good and evil.  Adam is as innocent as the young Candide, who is strung along by windy pronouncements about all things being for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  Adam is exiled from paradise before tasting the fruit of the other tree.  There is no mention thereafter in Scripture of the Tree of Life, until John’s vision of the heavenly city in the final chapters of the New Testament.  There are no temples in this city, but the Tree of Life may be found there, growing along both banks of a river.  There is no mention of an angel with a sword to guard the way, and no serpent to create a distraction.  To taste the fruit from this tree, you have only to take and eat.    

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