September 28, 2021

Elephant, Snake, and the Garden


A Not Just So Story
by Tobias Stanislas Haller

When God made the earth there was a special place called the Garden that was full of beautiful plants — flowers, fruit trees, vines, and shrubs. Four rivers flowed into it, providing ample irrigation; and a hedge surrounded it. And God said, “I will make a creature to live in the Garden to tend it; this will provide something for the creature to do and at the same time be good for the health of the Garden.”

And so God went to one of the four rivers flowing into the Garden, and from the riverbank gathered a supply of clay and took it to the workshop that stood just outside the hedge. And God took some of that clay and formed it into a creature with a head and two arms and two legs, and breathed into its nostrils and it came to life. And God named it Man.

Then God lifted Man up over the hedge into the Garden, and said, “You shall tend the Garden, and in return the Garden shall provide you food from the fruit trees and the vines and the shrubs, and the flowers shall delight your eyes with their beauty. But you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — the large tree with the beautiful, bright red fruit that grows in the middle of the Garden — for the day you eat of its fruit you will die.”

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And so it was that Man took up the work that God had assigned. All was well for a time and then it seemed to God that Man had become morose and unhappy in the work of tending the Garden, and even began to be less pleased with the beauty of the flowers, and the taste of the many fruits. And God said, “Loneliness; that’s the problem. Man needs a companion. I will make other creatures to keep Man company, and they can work together to tend the Garden.”

So God returned to the workshop and began to make other creatures from the same clay from which Man was made. And as each was made God brought it to Man to introduce it, and Man would give it its name. Among the last to be introduced was a very large, imposing creature. Man asked it to say a bit about itself, and it said, “I have a broad forehead, which shows that I am wise and have an excellent memory; I have two enormous ears, and am very good at hearing sounds, even from a great distance; I have a long nose that is sensitive and flexible and I can use as a tool to lift things both heavy and light; and I have large white teeth that I can also use to dig and thresh, which will be very helpful in tending the Garden. You may also be interested to know that though my feet appear to be flat pads, I am actually walking on my toes, for God has given me soft cushions under my high heels!”

Man said, “Most wonderful creature! You shall be called Elephant, because your face looks like a capital E turned with its fork-side down, with your marvelous nose in the center and your two phant-astic ears on either side.”

Then God said, “I regret there has been a slight problem. I was working on one last creature, but had used up so much of the clay for Elephant, that I left the creature unfinished on my workbench when I went to get more clay from the riverbank; and when I returned the creature was gone!”

Suddenly, a thin raspy voice spoke up from the ground, “Hhhhhere I am! Down hhhhhere!” God said, “How did you get into the Garden?” and the creature responded, “When you did not return, I rolled offff the bench in the workshhhhhop and wriggled through a ssssmall hole at the bassssse of the doorjamb, and then on the through a ssssspace between the rootsss of the hedge around the Garden.”

Man said, “Tell me more about yourself.”

“I am clearly very clever,” said the creature. “I took my own initttttiative to get into the Garden; I am long and thin, and I shed my skin, and can passssss through narrow ssssspotssss and difficult channels. I can tie mysssselffff in knotsssss, or sssstretch out sssstraight like a sssstafffff. Becaussssse God ran out of clay, you ssssee I have no legsss, ssso I cannot sssstand; I have no butt, sssso I cannot sssssit — and sssso, I lie — and that’sssss the truth!”

Man said, “What a curious creature! You shall be called Snake because you snake into the Garden — or is it ‘snuck’ or perhaps ‘sneaked?’ In any case you have your name, and you may be useful in finding roots and tubers and things that need tending low to the ground.”

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All was well for a while, but once again Man seemed to be growing morose and not happy with the beauty of the flowers, or the taste of the fruits, or the company of the creatures. God asked, “What seems to be the problem? Are the flowers not beautiful? Are the fruits not various and delicious? Are the creatures not helpful companions?” Man replied, “The flowers have beauty, but there is something else I long to see that I do not understand. The fruits are various and delicious, but their taste leaves some unknown deep hunger unsatisfied. The creatures are very helpful, some more than others. But I long for a companion who is more like myself in form and manner.” And God said, “I will see to it. But to ensure that this new creature is like you in form and manner, I will not make it from the clay as the other creatures were made; but I will take a little from you and build it up into a new creature, sure to be like you, as made from you.”

God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Man, and then took a portion of Man’s body, and carrying it carefully to the workshop, set to work to build it up; and when it was ready, brought this new creature to Man who woke to the sight.

Man was astonished, and said, “This is the greatest marvel yet; I dare say the best I have ever seen! This is the beauty I have longed for! This is the one who can satisfy the longing I have felt. O new creature, new companion, tell me about yourself so that I may give you a name.” And the creature replied, “What is there to tell? I am yours and you are mine, made from you and made for you. I am your beauty, and I am your joy.” And Man said, “Thus you shall be called Woman, for when I saw you I was like, ‘Whoa — Man!’ And you shall be mine and I shall be yours, beauty and satisfaction to each other.”

And God was pleased that it had all worked out so well at last.

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Some time went by and Snake began to grow more and more angry about lacking legs. Yes, Snake could squeeze through small spaces and coil into a lump underground. Yes, Snake, by shedding skin, would always have a fresh and lovely complexion. But Snake’s perspective was always so low, and the wriggling grew tiresome as a means of locomotion! When regarding all of the other creatures, Snake envied the Walkers, the Swimmers, and the Fliers — oh, to be able to fly; Snake dreamt of it sometimes, only to awaken in the dust, legless and tied in a knot. But it was Man and Woman he hated most of all, for standing tall and erect on their hind legs — not even using their forelegs as legs. An almost complete waste of legs — and here Snake had none at all.

And so Snake decided to spoil the Garden for Man and Woman. 

One day Snake’s chance appeared. Woman was in the middle of the Garden near the tree from which God had told Man not to eat. Snake asked Woman, “You eat of the fruit of all of the trees and vines; but you do not eat of the fruit of this tree. Why? It is very beautiful and attractive to the eyes.” Woman said, “Man told me that God forbids eating of this tree, for eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will bring death.” 

“Oh, that’sssss thissss tree?! O my, God issss having you on. Not only is thissss tree edible, but it is God’s own favorite, and God wantssss to have it all, with none left for you. It is a sssource of God’s wissssdom, and it will make you wissse as well. Just think: to know good and evil! You will know when Man or any of the other creatures has done ssssomething wrong, and will be able to correct them and punishhh them. Thissss will give you power to control them.” 

Woman took all this in, and looked once more at the beautiful fruit, and was about to reach out for it, when all of a sudden Elephant came storming into the middle of the Garden and trumpeted loudly, “Stop! Even though I was far away working at the edge of the hedge, with my excellent ears I have heard all that has been said here in the middle of the Garden. You, Snake, are true to your lying nature, for you spoke true when you said that you lie all the time. You shall not destroy this Garden which God has made for joy and delight and peace, for God has given me my high-heeled feet with cushioned soles just for this purpose.” And with that, Elephant rose up on those high heels and came down to crush the head of Snake, then grasped the body with that flexible nose, and with a mighty heave threw it over the distant hedge and out of the Garden.

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God, of course, heard about all of this at once, and called Man to meet with Woman and Elephant near the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said, “I always knew Snake would be trouble.”

Man asked, “Is it true that the fruit of this tree will bring death? How is it that you eat of it and do not die? And why would we die if we ate of it?”

God replied, “I have eaten only once of the fruit of this tree, before you or any of the other creatures were made. It is beautiful to look upon, but the taste is bitter, and I recognized its deadly properties at once and spat it out. Snake spoke in partial truth — that was always Snake’s way, to give a lie some hook into belief — when saying the fruit made one wise to judge. But judgment was and is mine already, and no other creature has any need of it. Were you to eat of it, the poison of judgment would cloud your minds, and the need to have power and control would destroy this Garden, and death would come with judgment. This is not what I want for People — I think I shall call you ‘People.’” 

Man asked, “Why have the tree at all if it is so deadly, and its fruit is not to be eaten.”

God replied, “It is what I call ‘an Ornamental.’ I value it for its beautiful foliage and fruit; and you may do the same and enjoy its appearance; but you now know how poisonous it is, and will not be tempted any longer to eat of it. For you are my People, and I want you to prosper in peace and joy, without judging one another; and that is the greatest wisdom — to love and not to judge. Then love will do its work. There will be more of you soon, made from your own bodies, by yourselves, without needing a trip to my workshop, or any more clay from the riverbank. And I promise you, you will enjoy the work!”

And so it was that People began to populate the Garden, and there were so many that the hedge had to be removed and the Garden extended to cover the whole earth. The forbidden tree remained in the middle of the Garden, one of the most beautiful trees, surrounded by a stout fence with a plaque that said, “M. sapientiae, Ornamental. Fatally poisonous and potentially invasive.” And God looked upon this Garden earth, and saw that it was very good indeed.

And up to our own day People find that all work is a pleasure, and no one is ever hungry, nor does anyone judge another, or seek to control or dominate them, but all live in peace and harmony with all other creatures and with the earth itself. And Elephant — well, Elephant remembers, and is the one who tells this tale.

Or not.

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Note: This little fable is based on an almost “throwaway” line in C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra. “Did Maleldil suggest that our own world might have been saved if the elephant had accidentally trodden on the serpent a moment before Eve was about to yield?” It came to me as I lay in bed for two days, napping in recovery from some surgery of the week before. Soli Deo Gloria.

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