Book Review: The First Eden

I cannot stress enough how exciting and interesting this book is.

first eden

Written as a tie-in for the BBC’s First Eden TV series, everyone’s favourite nature commentator David Attenborough takes us on a journey through about 7 million years in the region that is the cradle of civilisation.

the book

The book is divided up into four parts that nicely describe the geography of the region. It’s just mindblowly amazing because it’s 200 pages of a well written discussion that explicitly states how the natural environment shaped the civilisations that occur(ed) there, and how they in turn shaped the natural environment. Nothing says geography is *awesome* like examining these relationships because as we know that is what geography is all about.

Typically of such books, it’s not a happy story and the four parts of it can be summed up thus: there is a beautiful, highly biodiverse place; people come along and live bountifully; people overstep the limits of the natural environment; the natural environment collapses.

There are lots of  photos, maps, and diagrams, which were very nice/helpful.

Although the book is a bit old (first published in 1987) it only feels old in the final few chapters, and it doesn’t detract significantly from the educational value or the pleasure of reading it.

I haven’t seen the TV series but I’d really, really love to because David Attenborough.

the book and geography

The first part is called The Making of the Garden and talks about the physical processes that formed the area and the biodiversity of it and how all that came about. It presents a different picture to what you might get when you hear ‘Mediterranean’ (olives, crowded Spanish beaches) and in doing so really gives the reader a feel for what the region was like before people came along and why it is called the Fertile Crescent and the Cradle of Civilisation.

“…at the (eastern) end of the Mediterranean, other human communities were developing a different way of life. They were building permanent homes and settling together in villages. And they were devising ways of exploiting the animals and plants around them that would eventually transform the whole world.” pg 53.

The Mediterranean. I didn't realise that there's such a big bight along the top of Libya!
The Mediterranean. I didn’t realise that there’s such a big bight along the top of Libya.

The second part, The Gods Enslaved, talks about how the old goddesses and gods could do things on their own, like a bull that is the font of fertility. By around the first century CE things changed from that old style animism to beliefs that placed humans at the centre; the bull was still the symbol of fertility but needed someone to stab it to release it’s power. This is a big change in the relationship between society and the environment and sort of spelled the beginning of the end for the Romans,  who as we know expanded their empire until they just ran out of food/farmland.

Classic mistake (pun!) and one we’re busily repeating today.

It used to be said that such cities collapse because nature fails to support man. The truth is the reverse. … The bull, the all-powerful god of fertility who had been worshipped since long before man began to build cities, was now dethroned. The last debased relics of his cult were the ritualized slaughter of the Spanish bull-ring.” pg 101

Yes, they are nice pants but truly the man is mad.
Yes, he has nice pants/socks, but truly the man is mad.

Things really start getting glum in part three, The Wastes of War, when it talks about how people’s strange need to attack each other really took it out of the Mediterranean. It goes from when the horse was domesticated in what is now Ukraine/Hungray/Poland (doesn’t say when) to the Crusades in the Middle Ages. In terms of geography, it again demonstrates that a bad relationship between a society and the environment it is in/relies on is only going to end in tears.

This really hits home in the final part, Strangers in the Garden, which discusses ‘modern’ times (i.e. up to the late 80s when the book was written.) I can’t say much, except this: can we try and get along with our environment please?

“The processes that started here ten thousand years ago and brought the Mediterranean to its present condition are now at work all over the earth. Now it is not just a small sea, and the lands that surround it, that nations must come together to save. It is the planet.” pg 207

This picture is fantastic because not only does it scream ‘global warming!’, it also reminds us that we are poised on the brink of the sixth mass extinction. Hint: they’re both our fault.


Name: The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man

Authors: David Attenborough

Date: (first ed.) 1987

Publishers: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd.

Rating: I give it ten out of ten ancient civilisations



Geographer of the Week: Disney’s Pocahontas

Disney’s Pocahontas is a fictionalised person.

So necklace. Such leaves. Many hair. Wow.

There was a real Pocahontas who met the English when they came to north America, who then moved to England and married a bloke named John Rolfe and who died at 22, never to see her homeland again. It’s a slightly sad story, full of lost promise.

The version most of us know is the highly fictionalised account in Disney’s 1995 film “Pocahontas”. For it’s depiction of Native Americans, Pocahontas herself and the actual facts of her life, and the historical context it has been called disrespectful, dehumanising and just plain inaccurate in the decades since it’s release, and these things are obvious upon a critical viewing. (Also, there is no way she’d have the full set of internal organs/ribs with a waist that tiny.)

It’s my favourite hat. – Pocahontas.

However, we can all agree (surely) that there is one outstanding part of the film: Colors (sic) of the Wind is a beautiful song with a great clip/story and it is just lovely.

For her understanding of environmental science and how society should have a healthy relationship with it’s environment, Disney’s Pocahontas gets Geographer of the Week.

Check out the  song here and then let’s go through the song as geographers (song, lyrics & etc. are all copyright Disney).

You think I’m an ignorant savage
And you’ve been so many places
I guess it must be so
But still I cannot see
If the savage one is me
How can there be so much that you don’t know?
You don’t know …

In this first verse she is reminding us that even if you’re “civilised” you might have a rubbish relationship with the natural environment. Her use of the word “savage” reminds us that indigenous peoples all over the world are still treated with racism, disrespect, and are seen as subhuman. This is an enormous problem here in Australia; we treat First Australians so, so awfully then wonder why the land has gone to shit under 200 years of white mismanagement.

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name

You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew

When the British landed in Botany Bay in 1770 they decided that the land was ‘terra nullius‘; a land belonging to no-one despite that fact that First Australians were living there very happily, and had been for up to 60 000 years. Pocahontas reminds us that we should respect every part of the environment  and that we need to listen to the knowledge of those connected to the land if we’re going to manage it properly, rather than being bigoted fools.

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon
Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?
Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest
Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth
Come roll in all the riches all around you
And for once, never wonder what they’re worth

Here she sings about experiencing and enjoying the natural world, thinking about it and connecting with it, without trying to make it a commodity.

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends


How high will the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down, then you’ll never know
And you’ll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon

For whether we are white or copper skinned
We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains
We need to paint with all the colors of the wind

You can own the Earth and still
All you’ll own is earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind

She’s so, so right.

You need to paint with all the colours of the wind.