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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Introuction to The Gardeners of Gaia: Cultivating the Immanent worldview through the Three Ages of Humans

Enjoying the wonder of the natural world



Where have you been, Phaedrus, and where are you going?—Socrates

We must cultivate our garden.—Voltaire

Now, I make a point of never having any prejudices, and of following docilely wherever facts may lead me—Sherlock Holmes


Six thousand years ago, in what we now call south-central Europe and central China, our Neolithic ancestors lived in villages and towns ranging from dozens to thousands of inhabitants.  They lived well, with plentiful time for play, story-telling, making love, and creating beautiful objects from gold, silver, ivory, and stone. 


These villages and towns were typically located in well-watered areas with rich soil, or in wetlands teeming with waterfowl and aquatic life, attracting vast herds of migratory ungulates, as James Scott shows.  Their economy was a mixed one, combining the best of three levels.  The old hunting of large animals and gathering of smaller animals as well as a wide variety of fruits, seeds, and tubers was the first layer (HG).  Thousands of years of close observance and interaction with their habitats had permitted these early humans to develop sophisticated management techniques to encourage and maximize what they foraged from their habitats, including the judicious use of fire, coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, thinning, and selective harvesting. This "tending the wild" (as M. Kat Anderson terms it; see Sources at end) was the second layer of their economy (HGT).


Finally, during the last several thousand years, they had domesticated certain plants and animals that were tame-able and demanded minimal care.  This early stage of agriculture consisted only of what I term gardening: small plots that yielded adequate nutrition for each family that tended such a garden, and small, easily tended animals such as jungle fowl and early pigs.  Such gardening was the third layer of the Neolithic economy, which incorporated and complemented the earlier first and second layers.


Gardeners of Gaia. This early form of agriculture was vastly different than the all-demanding, labor intensive drudgery of vast, ploughed fields of monoculture crops that came much later, which I term intensive agriculture.  We might characterize this Neolithic subsistence economy incorporating three levels by the term "hunting/gathering/gardening." (HGG) Its modest demands of time and energy permitted the rich social and cultural life characteristic of human cultures of this mid-to-late Neolithic period.  Since the later Greek term Gaia represents the earth, then these hunting/gathering/gardening cultures might be called Gardeners of Gaia. Indeed, distinguished scholars (such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari; see Sources hereafter) wonder whether these Gardeners of Gaia might not have achieved the apex of human happiness and prosperity during our species' tenure on the earth.


Long-established as well as newly-discovered (see James Scott) archeological evidence shows that the Gardeners of Gaia societies were solidly egalitarian.  While there were apparently no strict roles assigned to either gender, males tended to be mostly the hunters and artisans, especially metallurgy; females tended to be mostly the gatherers and makers of ceramic objects and baskets.  Usually, grave goods indicate that females were the most highly respected and honored members of these cultures, and that descent was tracked through the female line, a matrilineal system (as established by Marya Gimbutas for Europe and Liu for China).  But clearly this was no matriarchy; both males and females had important and respected roles in society, a situation Riane Eisler has termed gylany (gy indicating the female aspect, an indicating the male, from the Greek roots). 


Violence occasionally occurred in these societies; they were not idyllic utopias.  But the archeological evidence and judgment of most scholars (R. Gabriel and A. Metz, as well as John Keegan) indicates that violent outbursts were not frequent and not widespread.  There is no evidence of chieftains or warrior classes, nor weapons specialized for killing humans. Particularly compared to the devastation of the ensuing Iron Age, characterized by the rise of patriarchal warrior states, as chronicled by the scholars cited above, these Neolithic cultures were for the most part peaceful—though, again, not utopias. 


And most importantly, these cultures of hunter/gatherer/gardening villages and towns were not momentary, fleeting Camelots.  There were some 46 in Europe, 19 identified so far in China (see Gimbutas and Jiao, respectively), each lasting many centuries, often millennia, and when they disappeared they were replaced by similar cultures of villages and towns which also lasted centuries and millennia.  The archeological evidence, in fact, establishes that these cultures existed continually in parts of Europe (Gimbutas) and China (Lee, and Jiao) from the late Paleolithic to the late Neolithic—some 10,000 years! 


While the details of the hunting/gathering/gardening economies varied within these dozens of cultures, shifting with the seasons and the weather, as emphasized by James Scott, and while the defining traits of the art and decorative objects also varied, the social organization—egalitarian, gylanic, extremely knowledgeable about the natural world—was surprisingly similar among them.  And the art, the location and traits of cemeteries, the goods contained in graves, the objects made by the artisans of the society, all indicate a similar way of thinking about the world and their place in it among these peoples.  This evidence (which we'll examine in early chapters) indicates that this worldview common to early human cultures for 10,000 years was most importantly based upon three pillars. 


The Immanent Worldview. First, these peoples were completely focused on the everyday, this-worldly here and now.  The natural world in which their economy was imbedded was respected and considered to be sacred and sufficient.  They gloried in the natural world, regarding it as not just the basis of their nutrition and health, but the basis of their esthetics and their reverence.  This was not so much a religion, in our western sense of the word, but an attitude, an appreciation, an acknowledgment that the natural world was all, and was enough.  They considered that humans needed nothing more to be fully and richly human (as we might say today).  This way of seeing the world is described as an immanent worldview.  The physical, manifested, here-and-now immanent world is full reality.  These people neither imagined nor needed other realms of existence.  They were happy and secure in the immanent world.


Anthropologists Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris studied the tombs, seal stones, and temple objects of the Minoan culture on Crete, the longest-surviving citadel of the Neolithic immanent worldview. "The construction of the tomb (at Koumasa) was apparently geared towards—and the needs of community and ancestors were perhaps believed to be served by—not the worship of a personified deity, but alignment to the cycles of the natural world…(In) the twentieth century's preoccupation with human and emotional affairs…we may have been missing evidence of a very different experience and very different concerns, ones to do with bones and heat, life and the dead, animals and plants, the weather and the passing of time." The Immanent world.


Gaiacentrism. Secondly, these Neolithic Gardeners of Gaia did not consider humans to be anything special.  Humans were kin to all other living things.  Their intimate knowledge of their environment and their fellow creatures convinced them that in all important respects, they and their fellow creatures shared all their important traits, that all contributed to the healthy functioning of the whole.  That is, their view of life was not the least anthropocentric, human-centered.  Their view of the world and of life, rather, was earth-centered, or Gaiacentric (again adopting the Greek word for "earth" and the earth goddess). 


Goodison and Morris, again, on Neolithic seal stones in Minoan culture: "Females are important, but the focus of attention seems to be the natural world: sun, animals and plants. Ritual activities apparently included dance, animal and bird disguise, touching parts of dead animals, carrying vegetation, concern with bones and possible sun worship." Examining objects in the temple repositories of the great palace at Knossos, they observe that the culture "is strongly involved in the domains which make up the 'natural world', as expressed through the snakes, animals, flowers and the sea." The earth and its creatures are central, not humans above all others.


Yin-yang dualism. Thirdly, these people saw that the world and its creatures exhibited distinct dualisms everywhere, and that reality emerged from the complementary (rather than antagonistic) interaction of these dualisms.  Heat and cold waxed and waned with the seasons, as did light and dark, and wet and dry.  Both interacting poles were necessary, with neither being "good" or "bad"; they complemented each other. Creatures generally came in male and female, though surely they noticed that these, too, could be mixed and combined in varying proportions.  Strength and weakness, joy and grief, life and death all played their varying roles in the world; all were part of the proper functioning of reality.  This view of life, described so well by the ancient Chinese, as chronicled by the brilliant Joseph Needham, may be called the yin-yang dualism aspect of reality.


"Know the strength of man / But keep a woman's care…Know the white / But keep the black…Know honor / But keep humility…The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang / They achieve harmony by combining these forces" proclaims the Tao Te Ching, the ancient collection of aphorisms which survive a Neolithic origin to pass into the realm of written history in China.


The First Age of Humans. The three-pillared Immanent worldview of late Paleolithic and Neolithic humans, then, was utterly and fundamentally different than the worldview of humans throughout most of their subsequent history.  This original worldview defines the early 10,000 years of hunting/gathering/gardening human culture on both extremes of the great Eurasian continent (Europe and China).  We may call this, then, the First Age of Humans: the Age of the Immanent, with its accompanying Gaiacentricm and yin-yang dualism. Though it lasted for some ten millennia, the First Age of Humans ended, at about 2,500 years BCE (somewhat earlier in Europe, later in China), and its defining worldview was thereafter persecuted and largely forgotten. The ensuing second age was based on a completely contrasting worldview:  transcendent, anthropocentric, patriarchal misogyny. 


The Transcendent Worldview. People in the next age of humans now put emphasis on another, transcendent realm of existence rather than the this-worldly, here-and-now immanent realm, as described by Joseph Campbell.  This newly paramount realm was inhabited by an all-powerful "God" or "gods" in Europe, and Shangdi (Ultimate ancestor) and Tian (Heaven) in China.  People were now focused on an anticipated afterlife in the future, in a realm usually located above or otherwise removed from the earth—transcendent.  The early religions of Judaism and Hinduism, and their offshoots Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are examples of the transcendent worldview.


Anthropocentrism. Now humans were considered separate from their fellow creatures and the natural world—and vastly superior.  The natural world, in fact, existed to be brutally subjugated and exploited for the benefit of its human masters. As the book of Genesis describes it: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him…And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth'". The nonhuman creatures of the world were not kin, with no important features in common with humans, so they could be arbitrarily killed and manipulated to the benefit of humans, with no rights or recourse. 


Patriarchal Misogyny. Lastly, and very important in these new cultures, human males were superior to females, and were granted by the transcendent "gods" with the right to rule over female humans, to buy, sell, and treat them however they wished, just as humans could treat nonhuman animals (as emphasized by Campbell).  While the existing accounts of Jesus suggest he accepted females, the Christian religion was molded by Saul of Tarsus, later known as St. Paul, who in 1 Timothy 2 set forth what would guide the early church and up to a mere century ago, and casts a long shadow over the religion to this day (particularly the Catholic realm): "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty."


This misogyny is not a Western phenomenon; the place of women in Asia is in many ways even more subjugated than in the West, as reflected in the long historical practice in China and elsewhere during this second age of selling daughters to serve rich families or brothels during droughts or famines. Misogyny is a worldwide feature of the age of transcendence.


The Second Age of Humans. The age of humans characterized by the worldview of transcendence, with its accompanying anthropocentrism and patriarchal misogyny, is the Second Age of Humans, and might be called the Age of Transcendence (or, with James Joyce in Ulysses, simply "the nightmare").  An additional trait of this age, setting it apart from the Age of Immanence, is the startling frequency and savagery of violence, directed by the new institution of patriarchal states supporting a weapon-wielding class of warriors (as documented by John Keegan). This age occupies virtually all of what we call "history," beginning in most formulations with the advent of states and writing, at about 2,500 BCE.  While the Age of Immanence lasted ten thousand years, the Age of Transcendence has, thus far, lasted only some 4,500 years—less than half the duration of the Age of Immanence. 


What has happened to the old worldview of immanence, Gaiacentrism, and yin-yang dualism during this Second Age of Humans?  Have the Gardeners of Gaia ceased to exist? Certainly the old worldview has retreated far on the world stage; but it has not disappeared.  It has continued to exist through the Second Age, though as a marginalized, underground component of society in contrast to the urban elite's new worldview, certainly inferior in power and prevalence to the new worldview of transcendence, anthropocentrism, and patriarchal misogyny.  We shall in later chapters trace its continued existence during the Second Age, relying heavily on Mark Elvin's research on the phenomenon in China, and recognizing the resurgence of organic gardening in Farmers Markets across the West.  But certainly the immanent worldview has been displaced as the acknowledged dominant approach to living in the world, particularly by the elites ruling the institutions of the state and society.


Until recently.  Beginning in the late decades of the nineteenth century CE (formerly designated as AD), the immanent worldview has returned to the public stage.  Largely forgotten though never absent, it has become more prominent in the affairs of nations, and even become a public force to be reckoned with.  The ancient worldview found new life in the paintings of Claude Monet in Europe and Georgia O'Keeffe in America, and in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Wendell Berry, and AJ Dickinson. It gained growing power in two new movements emphasizing the immanent world:  environmentalism and science, which find themselves working together.  Practitioners of the scientific method found, to their initial surprise, that the evidence they gathered on the forces and processes shaping the world sharply contradicted the transcendent, anthropocentric, patriarchal misogyny worldview, and to the contrary supported an immanent, Gaiacentric, yin-yang dualism view of reality—though they generally had no inkling that such a worldview had long ago been the prevalent human worldview (the exception being Joseph Needham).


The Return of the Immanent. The logical and inexorable consequences of the transcendent, anthropocentric, patriarchal misogyny worldview—the degradation of the natural world, and the subsequent existential threat to not just human "civilization" but indeed human survival itself—has manifested itself in the phenomena of climate change, pollution, and plummeting biodiversity (chronicled recently by many, most tellingly Bill McKibben and David Orr).  In response, the newly-returned Age of Immanence and its accompanying Gaiacentrism and yin-yang dualism, proclaimed by science and environmentalism, has risen to prominence and begun an epic battle against the governing Second Age of transcendence (again chronicled by many, most recently David Wallace-Wells).  With the return of the immanent worldview, a Third Age of Humans has come into being, an age of violence and conflict rooted in the stark differences of the two competing worldviews.  The issue of which will prevail is very much in doubt, though the incredible power and dominance of the Age of Transcendence surely must be considered the more likely victor. 


The Third Age of Humans. We shall see in subsequent chapters that this Third Age of Humans will be the last age of humans on earth.  Either the transcendent worldview will prevail, leading within a century or two to the destruction of the earth's biological and geological foundations, and thus the likely extinction of humans along with many other plant and animal species.  Or the immanent worldview will prevail, led by women, children, and the occasional male scientists and environmentalists.  This outcome would usher in the Return of the Immanent as the culmination of the Third Age, permitting continued human existence on the planet.  E.O. Wilson envisions a smaller population of humans once again living in companionship with their fellow creatures, sharing the earth and its bounty as they did for ten millennia before the ascent of the Age of Transcendence four thousand five hundred years ago. 


Can we, today, influence the outcome of this great struggle?  Certainly.  As a first step, to find the clarity of conviction requisite to any possible victory, by learning our species' story—the whole story.  (As Socrates inquired in 370 BCE: "Where have you been, Phaedrus, and where are you going?").  This evidence-based story tells us that humans have, in the past, lived in harmony with the earth in prosperous, peaceful, human cultures characterized by the immanent, Gaiacentric, yin-yang dualism worldview—the Gardeners of Gaia.  This story, rooted in archeological findings, establishes that such a human culture and worldview is realistic and feasible. 


The immanent worldview of the Gardeners of Gaia is not only realistic and feasible, but is also the normative human story.  The First Age of Humans lasted 10,000 years, two-thirds of the span that humans have assembled in villages and towns with a culture.  The subsequent Second Age of Humans has only lasted 4,500 years—less than a third of the time on earth of humans with a culture.  The Age of Transcendence is rightly seen as an aberration, an unfortunate detour in the story of humans.  But no—the Age of Transcendence is more rightly considered a dead-end in the human story, leading as it has to the present destruction of the biological and cultural underpinnings of the earth and humans, with a massive, sixth wave of extinctions already rippling across the planet.


So understanding the human story means we must also understand how the Second Age of Humans replaced the early worldview, and how its transcendence, anthropocentrism, and patriarchal misogyny must inevitably lead to the current destruction of the biological and geologic systems on which life depends—the climate crisis unfolding before us.


Once this whole story of the Three Ages of Humans is well-known and understood, then the issue can be joined with a full understanding of its origins, its consequences, and its urgency.  More humans can be persuaded of the importance of the Immanent worldview, of the pernicious consequences of the Transcendent worldview.  And led by powerful women, children, and male allies from science and environmentalism, perhaps the probable victory of transcendence, anthropocentrism, and patriarchal misogyny might be challenged, even overturned.


Restoring the immanent worldview, Gaiacentrism, and yin-yang duality to the earth's human culture will be a true homecoming for humanity.  Though the details of the culture and its infrastructure will of course be modern, the basic approach to humans living their lives will be that of the First Age.  People will be comfortable "in their skin." Cities will have large expanses of green space, in which their inhabitants play and rest.  City centers will be for pedestrians, with shuttles bringing visitors in from peripheral areas where electric vehicles are parked. Children will grow up learning and loving the local plants and animals of their region, filled with wonder at the color and diversity of life around them—of which they are an integral, related part.


And there will be lots of organic gardening, of course, vegetable and flower gardens around most homes, and gardens set aside next to apartment buildings. The vast hundred- and thousand-acre monoculture fields of the old industrial, pesticide- and oil-fueled agriculture will be carved up and much of it given back to woodland and prairie, for our kin to return and thrive.  What remains in rural areas will be smaller organic garden plots, multicultured mixtures of vegetables and ornamentals, part of whose bounty will be used to feed the chickens and pigs, or composted to enrich the soil. 

Once again, finally, humans will thrive on a thriving earth, coexisting with our kin so long into the future as the universe gives us.  The Gardeners of Gaia.


So let us begin the story.  We start by examining the Paleolithic and Neolithic evidence that establishes our knowledge of the great First Age of Humans and its characteristics, in south-central Europe and central China.  We then explore how that Age was destroyed and replaced by the Second Age of Humans, including evidence indicating that the process may have happened differently in Europe (as explored by Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey) than in China (as established by Elvin).  We then trace the continued, improbable underground existence of The Gardeners of Gaia with their immanence, Gaiacentrism, and yin-yang dualism during the 4,500 years of the Second Age, discovering that despite continual persecution, their persistence was more pronounced in China than in Europe.


We end the story with a look at the fruits of the Second Age's worldview, how unbridled human exploitation of the earth, abetted in modern times by fossil fuels, market capitalism, and the servants of those interests, must inevitably lead to the degradation of the earth and the extinction of much of life before a balance is able to re-establish itself. 


Can we save the habitable earth, and humanity's rightful place on it? 


Can we restore the Gardeners of Gaia and bring back the first Age of Humans, in a modern form? 


Let us begin the story. 



Introduction Sources:

M. Kat Anderson, 2005, Tending the Wild

Joseph Campbell, 2013, Goddesses: mysteries of the feminine divine

Jared Diamond, 2005, Guns, Germs, and Steel; also 2004, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Riane Eisler, 1987, The Chalice and the Blade

Mark Elvin, 2004, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China

R. Gabriel and A.Metz, 1991, From Sumer to Rome: the Military Capabilities of Ancient Armies

Marija Gimbutas, 1991, Civilization of the Goddess: the World of Old Europe

Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, 1998, Beyond the Great Mother

Yuval Noah Harari, 2011, Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind

Tianlong Jiao, 1995, Gender Relations in Prehistoric Chinese Society: Archaeological Discoveries

James Joyce, 1914, Ulysses

John Keegan, 1993, A History of Warfare

Li Liu, 2005, The Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to Early States

Bill McKibbon, 1989, The End of Nature; also 2019, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself  Out?

Joseph Needham, 1956, Science and Civilisation in China, v. II

David Orr, 2016, Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward

Plato, 370 BCE, The Socratic Dialogue Phaedrus

James Scott, 2017, Against the Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States

Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey, 1998, Rethinking Figurines: a Critical View from Archaeology of Gimbutas

David Wallace-Wells, 2019, The Uninhabitable Earth

Edward O. Wilson, 2016, Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life

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