Searching for the Forbidden Fruit of the Garden of Eden

Having spent the last several years writing a book about people who search for the Garden of Eden on earth, I am a little sensitive about the topic of apples.
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It's that time of year again: apple season. Here in the Big Apple, farmer's markets are filled with them. The crisp color fruit augurs fall, holiday meals, American pies and the Garden of Eden. It's one of the most persistent elements of the story: Adam, Eve, apple, snake. At least, it is for most people. Having spent the last several years writing a book about people who search for the Garden of Eden on earth, I am a little sensitive about the topic of apples.

You see, the Bible never says "apple," just "fruit." And if you imagine that the Genesis stories came to us from the Middle East, as most scholars and believers would, well, there are no apples growing in the deserts of southern Iraq. The apple was first cultivated in Kazakhstan, thousands of miles away.

No one really knows how the apple got caught up with original sin. Probably it happened in the Renaissance, when lots of elements of the Bible were becoming Latinized. Apparently the Latin words for apple and for evil are similar. Or it could be a reference to the Greek myth of the golden apples. But however you cut it, the apple is a late addition, and anyone harking back to an authentic version of the story must toss the apple out.

That's what most of the Eden-seekers in my book did. They all started with the same verses of the Bible, and all ended up at different places, many centered in the Middle East, but also as far afield as Mongolia, Ohio and the North Pole. They all had different ideas for the species of the Tree of Knowledge, including the sequoia, the banana and the grapefruit. Fair enough.

But then, in August, my book came out, and I started to hear from readers. A lot of readers. With a lot of opinions on where the Garden of Eden was, or is, depending on your point of view.

An archaeologist insisted Eden was in Turkey, of course -- he found it years ago. Another reader sent fascinating videos of his expedition looking for Eden along the Mediterranean Sea floor between Cyprus and Syria. I was sent an academic analysis of the verses in question using "flood geneology" to prove that we could not prove where Eden was. A radio caller made a convincing case for Eden in the Bermuda Triangle -- since, according to the doctrine of original sin, we should not be able to get back in. Another proposed a synthesis of biology, chemistry and the Bible that would place Eden on a specific mountain in Turkey. (That makes two votes for Turkey!) A lovely woman in Half Moon Bay, Calif., believes that the garden starts from seeds of love in the heart. A teacher from Massachusetts wrote a tribute to his beloved summer camp on Lake Champlain, an Eden of sorts.

The Garden of Eden seemed to be an infinitely renewable idea, emblematic both of loss and eternal optimism of return. So I was surprised by something a Catholic theologian said on another radio program, after hearing tales of the quirky historical characters in the book. He said that "all religious people" know that you can't get back to Eden, can't un-eat the forbidden fruit and to do attempt to do so is a sin. So the search for the Garden of Eden is not a religious search at all, but a secular one; more about the Enlightenment hunger for knowledge than about faith. I wouldn't presume to say what all religious people know, but I can tell you that many of those historical Eden-seekers -- who were Methodist theologians, Baptist preachers, and Anglican deacons -- would disagree.

In fact, I think that characterization is only true to the extent that we equate "religion" with "certainty." And I think many of us would object to that characterization. I know I would. (Or, should I say, I'm pretty sure I would?) I have learned that many of us are seekers, unwilling to settle for one authoritative reading of the Bible, believing that the text is too sacred for that. In short, people for whom the search for the perfect paradise is more the point than the finding of it.

I happen to find the abundant variety of interpretations not disheartening, but liberating. And for that reading of the Garden of Eden, I've come back around to the apple. For me, it's actually the perfect fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. It grows almost everywhere, as knowledge should; there are 7,500 varieties of cultivated apples. It is vast: Scientists recently mapped the genome of a Gala apple, and it had more chromosomes than any other known plant, more possible variations even than the human genome.

And the apple is endlessly changeable. It's known biologically as an "extreme heterozygote," which means that even when you plant the seed from, say, a Granny Smith, the tree that grows will express itself completely differently. To create a specific strain of apple, each individual tree must have a piece of the desired type grafted onto it. Much like faith, you never know what you're going to plant. Sow the same seed many times, as with the same verse of Genesis, and you'll come up with as many variations. You have to go tree by tree.

So this fall, as I fill my shopping bags with Braeburns, Fujis and McIntoshes -- not to mention Hampshires, Hawaiis and Herefords -- I will try to use the occasion to celebrate the varieties of religious experience, and the continuing availability of the "forbidden" fruit.

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