What do Puritans, Shakers, Food, Beer, and Running Shoes Have in Common? Eden, of Course!

Art Remillard

“There was this idea that we are the new Adam and the new Eve,” remarks Stephen Prothero in the opening scenes of PBS’s God in America. For Puritans, Eden served as a narrative anchor, a place defined by God's law, which if followed to the letter offered untold heavenly promises. And so the story goes...and goes, and goes. I haven't finished watching the documentary, so I will take Paul's word for it that there wasn't enough attention given to the “brutal” underbelly of this mythology.

Indeed, the voices of power have used Eden to coerce, exclude, and alienate. But from the margins, Eden has also emerged in contests with conventional wisdom. For example, Mother Anne Lee theorized that the real sin of Adam and Eve was sexual intercourse. Lust was the root of all evil, she insisted, and human purity required celibacy. So celibacy it was. Shakers didn't have much luck replenishing their ranks, but they did develop a countercultural way of life from an assumption that God's sexless plan appeared first in Eden.

Jump ahead to today's countercultural movements, and where might we find Eden? Documentaries like Food, Inc. and Beer Wars take aim at corporate giants and cheer the local farmer and brewpub owner. But it's a tough road for the little guy. The machine will manipulate the laws, pressure politicians, exploit workers and vendors, and create an illusion that their cheap food is safe and that their tasteless beer will make baseball interesting. To protest, I might buy my food from Eden Organic, “a principled natural food company.” Or maybe I would join a co-op run by someone like the libertarian food prophet Joel Salatin, who one admirer paraphrased as saying, “if [the United States] had invested the same resources we used to transform the plains into corn and soybeans into building thousands of ponds, we would have Eden.” And if I was in Middletown, Connecticut, I'd enjoy a microbrew in the "beer garden of Eden," at Eli Cannon’s Tap Room Restaurant.

After all of this eating and drinking, I would need to burn off some calories. I'd leave my shoes at home, though, since in Eden, everyone runs barefoot. Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run has become the bible of barefoot running. While telling of the superhuman running abilities of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, McDougall also investigates the promises of running shoe companies. He concludes that their products aimed at preventing injuries have done the exact opposite. Cushioned heels, arch supports, springs, and the like. All of it weakens muscles in the feet, ankles, knees, and hips. Moreover, the downward slope of shoes forces the heel to strike first rather than the forefoot, thereby creating a heavier impact.

So, says McDougall, toss your shoes aside! And if your feet aren’t tough enough to handle the roads and rocks, you can fork over $90-$120 for a pair of Vibram FiveFingers. Sure these glorified aqua socks will garner quizzical looks from non-runners. But the payoff, according to the Vibram website, is “a more natural forefoot strike during running.” To make this whole "natural running" thing really evident, Vibram pulled the Eden card.

Open the microsite, http://www.youarethetechnology.com/ and you will see the names of various shoe technologies, all mashed together. Slowly the names disappear, behind a ghostly, echoing beat. Then two bodies appear, a man and a women, Adam and Eve, naked except for a pair of Vibrams. Printed about their bodies are slogans, “we’ll never out-engineer the human body,” “the natural running movement grows stronger by the day,” “you know how to run just like you know how to sneeze."

The website represents something of an embodied protest, a "country boy salute" waved at the major shoe companies. Of course, it also invites runners back to an injury-free Eden. Sounds good, right? Last spring my knee began bothering me and I thought surgery was inevitable. Luckily, a physical therapist recommended running barefoot in the grass. So I did, slowly at first. Eventually my knee pain went away. Then I became a Vibram convert. In November, I ran a marathon in them. I didn’t run particularly well, but my training had been interrupted three months earlier when I broke my toe. I tripped on a rock, while running in my Vibrams.

I might be "born to run," but I'm also accident prone. Yet here I am, still wearing the Vibrams (when it isn't 14 degrees and snowing), aware that the Eden mythology can't negate the rocky, uneven realities of life. That seems to be the trend. When Eden goes from imagination to the real world, things get messy.


Paul Harvey said…
Art: That's a great post. "When Eden goes from imagination to the real world, things get messy," reminds me of the Eden-like quality of a course syllabus versus what actually happens through the semester in class. By the end of the semester, I usually have a broken toe or two.
Chas Clifton said…
One small, sort of off-topic comment: In the mid-19th century, when there was no government welfare, the Shakers did well enough attracting, for instance, single women with children, orphans, and so on. The orphans often moved out on reaching their mid-teens, however.