Parable of A Paradise Lost

Once there was a man who lived on the island of Pangea. The man owned two head of cattle, one bull and one cow. But he owned no land on which to pasture them.

But as fortune would have it, through no merit of his own, he was approached by a vastly rich landowner and given charge over a pasture of immense size–so seemingly limitless that the man would never worry over the boundaries of it.

He was allowed to use this fertile and well-watered land for his own purposes, with these two requirements from the one to whom the land belonged: that the meat and milk that would come from the growing herd should sustain the well-being of the people in the village; and that the health of the soil and water not be diminished by the growing herd.

And so the man lived well and grew his herd, and grew and grew, because he saw no limit to the grass and clear streams and lakes and pleasant forest for his cattle. The people of the village were content at first, but soon insisted that the man must bring them twice as much meat for their tables.

But lo, the years passed and herd’s numbers swelled beyond counting. And one day, the man noticed a single cow whose eyes were sunken and yellow, the skin taut across the bones of her shoulders and hips. He thought little of it, and instructed his herdsmen to breed his stock faster because the rotund people could not be satisfied.

One day, as the man surveyed the rolling hills dotted with black and white, tan and red cattle, a great amber cloud rose in the west above the land he thought of as his own. The great river that flowed down from his cattle on a thousand hills that day was not clear as it had always been, and it rose on its banks far lower than he had ever seen it in all his days.

But he thought little of it as he grew richer each day. After all, there was no end to the demand for more and more of his cattle to provide more milk and meat for the bellies of the village folk.

Until a time came when vultures swirled here and there on the distant horizon, dozens at first, then hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. Amber clouds of dust blotted out the sun. The river ran red–if it ran at all. And the great herd that fed the people of the village had no grass to eat. They had no water to drink. And their carcasses littered the land as far as the eye could see.

Word reached the owner, who demanded a reckoning with the man to whom he had entrusted the immense and fertile pasture.

“What have you done to this land I gave you to use for your own comfort and to feed the people in my village?”

“Master, I could not see the boundaries, so vast a land is this. I did not know that there could be an end of the grass and the water and the pleasant forest on a thousand hills.”

And the master said: “Foolish man. You live on an island, so you knew the grass must end at the shore. Your cared only about the numbers of the cattle, for they fed your belly and made you rich. You saw the amber cloud rising. The lean and feeble cow stood before you, but these signs did not change your stewardship of the herd. You were not a wise servant, counting only your cattle, taking no account of the destruction of the fertile land that sustained them as they sustained you.

“The gift of soil and water I allowed you to use has been brought to nothing by the greed of the one to whom I gave so much, by the gluttony of those who ate long after they had had sufficient to sustain them from the bounty of this land.

The vultures will soon find much to fill them off the bones in the village. And the island will no longer be a pleasant and fertile home for your children, or for any children ever again. I gave you Paradise and you have given me back a desert.”

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Wish I could say it was a beautiful story that should become a children’s book. As a grade school teacher, I know that children would enjoy it, but I’d hesitate to read it to them for fear it would give them nightmares! Too raw, and close to the bone for children, but everyone else should take note!

  2. It deserves a comment, but I cannot think of anything to say which is not already said in the parable. I think everyone should read it.