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Back to Utopia

IN MAY OF this year, the Reverend Harold Camping and his followers awaited a Rapture that would carry the faithful straight to heaven and leave the sinners to suffer in the hellfire of an abandoned Earth. Camping remained adamant in the face of widespread cynicism, telling New York magazine that, “It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. … The Bible is not—God is not playing games … It is going to happen.” Although the day came and went, distinguished media outlets conducted interviews with Camping in the hopes of unseating his convictions, while other papers printed pieces with titles such as “Apocalypse, Now?” Despite a recalculation that set the date of Judgment for October 21, Camping was eventually moved to a nursing home.

The idea of a divine power manifesting itself on Earth and interfering with human life shows no signs of disappearing. From roving bearers of apocalyptic tidings during the Black Plague to the picketing devotees of Family Radio, doomsayers have never failed to capture mankind’s attention with their warnings. Somewhat less celebrated are those who seek Genesis rather than Judgment; there is something more pressing about the End of Days than about a long lost garden.

But while most people do not believe that the Garden of Eden can be found, its geographical location has been a point of obsession in the minds of a handful of bible-scholars-cum-archaeological-explorers. These “Eden-seekers,” the subjects of Brook Wilensky-Lanford’s book, are the rare few who are more interested in where we came from than where we are going. From the Polar ventures of an eighteenth-century American college president to the river boat expeditions of an environmentally-conscious Norwegian oarsman, she has endeavored to discover not only where the journeys of these paradise-chasers took them, but why they went in search of humanity’s origins.

Wilensky-Lanford began by following up on a bit of family history: she has an uncle, an allergist, who once flew a plane over Mesopotamia to see if he could spot the Garden of Eden. Not unlike her subjects, Wilensky-Lanford is easily seduced by coincidence. She serendipitously ended up writing most of her book along a river in Vermont named for one of the Biblical rivers that borders the Garden of Eden. “Eden had found me,” she writes, but the grayish parallels that enthrall her do not seem any more reliable than the surveying expeditions, boat trips, and soil tests that brought each Eden-seeker to his respective Eden.

In 1908, for example, William Willcocks was surveying waterways in Mesopotamia for the new British colony when he discovered his Garden of Eden. It only took a little Scriptural finagling to convince him that he was right. In trying to determine how a paradisiacal garden could be grown in a land with no rain, Willcocks relied on the argument that since “that word ‘mist’ appears only once in the Bible … the word might very well mean … what Willcocks wanted it to: water that allows ‘free-flow irrigation’!’’ The Biblical scholar who led Willcocks to this solution was Professor Archibald Henry Sayce of Oxford who, tiring of the academic life and prone to illness, bought a boat called the Ishtar and spent his “nonresident” professorship floating down the Nile in search of Eden. He remained there for thirty years.

Wilensky-Lanford, in her description of Sayce’s life along the Nile, is more envious than critical. Instead of condemning the pseudo-science of Eden-seekers, she takes pleasure in the quaintness of her subjects. While her description of free-flow irrigation and its relevance to British colonial politics in the twentieth century is remarkably engaging, she overindulges the eccentricities of these supposed scholars and scientists who relied heavily on book deals and grant money. They do not seem to merit the sentiment that they inspire in her.

The more faith the Eden-seeker has, the less reason is required. Some, like Willcocks, refuse to acknowledge the conflict, seeing “no contradiction between archaeology and belief, just as he saw no contradiction between canals made by man and rivers made by God.” Providing a spiritual solution to a practical problem is the most intriguing part of Eden-seeking—the more urgent the problem, the more bizarre the solution. Since 1830, Mormons have believed that the Garden of Eden was located in Independence, Missouri. As Wilensky-Lanford points out, “having a frying pan from the same era as the founding prophet of your religion … makes belief complicated.” But when Joseph Smith went looking for the Garden, he did not have the luxury of a riverboat expedition or a team of archaeologists. Jackson County, Missouri, was not exactly paradise, but unlike the previous Mormon centers in New York and Ohio, it was supposed to be out of reach of violent persecution. Thus a stone was laid, a bush was planted, and for a time the Garden was the answer to Smith’s most immediate problems. Unfortunately, the Mormons were chased out of Paradise in 1833: as with so many other Eden-seekers, utopia eluded them.

Wilensky-Lanford is fascinated by the “details, proofs and interpretations” Eden seekers use to justify their search, but she organizes them under headings such as “Unity” and “Civilization”, based on the type of Paradise each was looking for. It only takes one “moment of faith,” a mistranslated word or environmental shift, to convince an Eden-seeker that “Unity” or “Civilization” is at hand.

Curiously, it is the man least concerned with finding Eden whose theory is most convincing. Using a history of oceanographic studies, Juris Zarins concluded that there was a time in human history when land passage between Arabia and Iraq would have been possible. Using NASA imagery, he locates a place beneath the Persian Gulf where what could have been the four biblical rivers of Eden met. When glacial melting filled the Gulf with water, the resulting flood—perhaps the Great Flood—was disastrous to the early agricultural peoples dwelling there. Zarins only published this information once, but he has been fielding phone calls about it for almost two decades. Uninterested in stretching his findings beyond their logical bounds and making “ideology out of archaeology,” he is unique among Wilensky-Lanford’s subjects. She does not ask, unfortunately, why the least desperate Eden-seeker was the one most likely to sway the cynics.

Wilensky-Lanford doesn’t find Eden, but she does define it. “The Garden of Eden is not about abundance and perfection … it is also not about creation. ... the Garden of Eden is about exile.” Eden-seeking is about the belief that man can get utopia back. She relates a story that took place at the spot in Independence, Missouri, where Joseph Smith declared in 1833 that Adam was thrown out of Eden. The rock he stood upon is officially missing, believed by many to have disappeared with a conniving vagabond in the middle of the twentieth century. Rocks continue to disappear from Independence Park, despite the fact that the Mormon Church officially states there are no sacred altars there. On a small path outside the main grounds, a young boy becomes excited when he stumbles upon a squarish rock that he believes to be the Nephite Altar.

“Maybe because it was too big to unobtrusively remove, he wanted to take a picture of it. His father relented and brought him the camera. The older sister hadn’t said a word until that moment.

‘But Dad,’ she whispered, peering down at the stone as her brother took its picture, ‘that might not even be it!’

‘I know,’ said her father, and winked at her, ‘but it’s good for him.’”

Wilensky-Lanford journeys through history the way the Eden-seekers she writes about journeyed across the world, but each sojourn Eden-ward is really a personal journey into the mirage where unattainable desires and reality meet. Lusting after Paradise is not so much about finding man’s origin as it is about having faith in a better future.

Caroline O’Donovan is a literary intern at The New Republic.