It was just a story after all, but a pretty good one... I thought... told by unlettered ancient nomads... and retold. This was the glory of a verbal tradition. No one knew who first told the story, but in the constant retelling, the story was perfected... not elaborated, but perfected in its simplicity. It told of a beautiful garden wherein the first man and first woman were created. And in the garden grew two trees with magic fruit. One was the tree of KNOWLEDGE whose fruit, when eaten, would bestow upon the mortals knowledge equivalent to that of the gods. The second, the tree of LIFE, could bestow immortality. Just a story, of course, but one that everyone still knows. The Creator of the man and the woman said the tree of KNOWLEDGE was forbidden. If they ate of it, they would be expelled from the garden and so lose access to the tree of LIFE and surely die. We know the ending. They disobeyed, ate the forbidden fruit, were expelled, and all mankind suffered mortality thereafter. It’s just a story, of course, but its details, imagery, and even its humor, are impressive story telling. The joke, for instance, that Woman comes from Man’s rib, a kind of reverse pregnancy myth allowing men... forever thereafter born of and indebted to women for their creation... to say, “Well sure, but originally you’re from our stomach.” Any more evidence of Male ego needed? Not really. Or, if the story is incorporating the seven spiritual centers, chakras, of the human spine, it may imply that Woman, sprung from a higher chakra, is the more spiritual of the two. Works for me. But then there is the marked misogyny of the Creator who ordains that the woman’s “desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee,” proof surely of a male story teller either himself misogynistic or reporting a primitive male/female condition that looked ordained to him. (Warning: do not quote God to Wifey on this point nowadays.)
And then the symbol of DUST is neatly woven throughout the tale. The Creator scoops a handful of dust blowing His own breath of life into it to create the two, resulting in beings both physical and spiritual. Satan, who persuades the two to eat the forbidden fruit, is punished by being turned to a legless serpent. “Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all thy days,” says the Creator, putting the taint of evil on the dust or physical half of the pair as well. And finally as they are expelled from the garden, the Creator reminds them, “For dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” It’s just a story, of course, but a nice use of imagery, irony, myth, and symbolism. Almost poetry, indeed written... when they at last acquired writing... in verses.
And so the story endured, told and retold for two thousand years, till Christian poets used it to imagine a more loving Creator’s forgiveness of disobedient mankind by restoring access to the Tree of Life in the person of Christ on His tree (the cross), Himself the recovered access to Life everlasting. It’s just a story, of course, but one now surviving another two thousand years, recounted each December when we place Jesus on His cross atop the magic tree of Life in our living rooms. Just a story perhaps, but one with real legs.
Devotees of the Tree of KNOWLEDGE have had their champions too. Its latest, greatest practitioner, no doubt, was Albert E. of 20th century fame who hoped to give us nothing less than the THEORY OF EVERYTHING. Using the knowledge tools of Math and Science, he set out to crack the stuff and matter of things physical. Devotees of dust, you might say, he and his colleagues devised methods of hurling dust at dust busting the dust to ever finer, tinier dust, like children ransacking a Cracker Jack horde to find the hidden prize. Unhappily no prize lay in that direction. In Math the precision their numbers lapsed into the merely PROBABLE, their Physics into UNCERTAINTY... a story without legs. (But at least they gave us a bomb.) Other of their colleagues, stymied in the Micro-world, looked to the Macro. JFK gave them money to sail to the moon, an adventure story that lasted eight years, till Neil Armstrong made his great leap and felt his boot sink its print forever into... what was that stuff? Dust? We went back to the moon once or twice before giving it up altogether. “To heck with the moon then,” said the men of KNOWLEDGE, “we will sail on to Mars”... though unmanned probes there found nothing but more dust. It’s all dreams and stories and hard sometimes to give up, but NASA is now quietly... and correctly... folding its tent. Let Elon Musk and the Russian kleptocracy spend their billions on space follies. The American taxpayer should pay not another nickel. Kurt Vonnegut was a pretty good story teller; his spacemen soon met space/time’s CRONO-SYNCLASTIC INFUNDIBULUM, which said in effect to mankind, “What makes you think you’re going anywhere.”
So here we are, mortal children still, back in the Garden, over which we were given dominion and commanded, as good gardeners, to tend, keep, and renew it. It’s just a story, of course, but one we might heed if only for its persistence. There is no knowledge prize, no theory of everything beneath the Cracker Jacks or inside the dust, but there are still stories. It’s all dreams and stories after all. Call them stories, dreams, ideas, thoughts, or concepts, but not TRUTH, not REALITY. These are not in our gift. And poets always were the best story-tellers. They haven’t a story of everything, but they can help us dream our own private stories, as each of us must. Poetic imagination offers no final Wisdom, which is for the best, as good God! What we do if we had it? But imagination can entertain us on the dark journey, and like the ancient nomads or Emily D, help us dream of “night’s possibility.”