November 23, 2004: It began with ads, little
pieces of paper taped to arbitrary walls and streetlamps of
They were obscure, inviting questions investigating the human
life as it is -- that raw, essential force, not tied to race,
religion, or age, which forms our being and actions. Those
interested gravitated to one another and began years of intimate
communications. This is what it all came down to -- there
are no evil peoples or good peoples, only stupid ones.
This was the foundation which allowed growth to begin.
"The lesson that we realized was the fallacy of ideas.
In our days, ideas are restricting and cheap. And they are
simply ideas, empty of actualization," I was told by
the well-traveled Yorum.
I entertain questions about America's food standards --
cheese in a tube?
They needed a vessel, a place where they could work it all
out. The government was contacted regarding the availability
of land, then gladly awarded them the abandoned site that
was once Kibbutz Shizafun. They arrived, 80 members of this
community, to a few mobile homes, a dining hall, an infirmary,
and what looked like complete desolation.
Fourteen years later, it all seems a hallucination in an
otherwise empty part of the High Arava desert. Neot Smadar
is a growing and vibrant community, attempting self-sufficiency
in a sustainable manner. The few trees that originally came
with the package are now surrounded by organic olive groves
and grape vineyards; orchards of peaches, cherries, almonds,
apricots, apples, and nectarines; 8 acres of vegetable gardens;
a date plantation; and a herd of goats along with an on-site
But I only perceive what I selfishly look for as I search
for honest organic farms. "The agriculture is just a
partial component, a by-product of everything else. The people
and the process, this is really what makes us organic,"
I am told one night after dinner. Yoram speaks in a barely
audible whisper, as if the words contained the hidden elements
of creation. His voice reaches me in slow waves; gaps of silence
settle as he sips his herb tea.
is nothing on its own,
just a toy for grown-ups,”
Agriculture is more than farming
"Farming is nothing on its own, just a toy for grown-ups,”
Yoram says. “It has repeatedly proven itself a failed
system." He speaks from experiences in his search for
the ideal community
."While I was traveling in America, I heard about a
macrobiotic community in Missouri. All I found was a bunch
of angry people. There was an organic farming community in
Arkansas. Any failed crop or stressful monetary situation
unmasked power struggles and ego dominations.
“I also lived with two other families in a beautifully
secluded corner of New York. It felt desperate and isolated,
just an extension of the self. The kibbutz movement was more
of the same, hindered from doing anything new because it was
based on the European commune system."
The Zion ideal
still intrigues, though. Zion is utopia, and the one that
is longed for here will not be based on healthy foods but
on human development and relations. To call Neot Smadar a
farm would be one-dimensional, even insulting. Rather, this
community sees itself as a school, still grappling with the
same questions that originally brought them together. They
are content with the search.
"We were a bunch of urban dwellers placed in the desert.
We needed an education badly," shares Uval, the goat
shepherd. So he and some others traveled the country and checked
out many different farming systems. To spray (to manage pests)
seemed an enchantment with a simple solution, one that required
Organic learning never-ending
"This one old man with an organic farm made it all seem
like a puzzle to us, the connections he was trying to make
between plant and earth, plant and plant, human and earth,”
Uval said. “This was his lifework, never-ending."
Healthy farming fit perfectly into the dimensions they were
trying to create for themselves -- a challenge, changing with
the seasons, which required many heads and hands together,
to investigate and contemplate a solution which would be based
on interdependent relationships. So it began.
At 6 a.m., after hot cereals and teas and homemade breads,
a collective effort unfolds in the fields. The work of the
day is dictated by a list, taped fresh to the dining room
wall every morning. The categories and names under them are
all in Hebrew, a language with which I am just barely comfortable.
I stand before it, my finger passing every name until I find
the one which belongs to me. Some days I work with the trees,
some days with the vegetables. Other days with the goats.
Or building. Or irrigation. Or kitchen. Wherever. My morning
is tapped of expectations. The assignments change daily. There
can be no ownership of a project, it belongs to all.
Avodah Ne'eimah. Pleasant workings. The
I grow comfortable with assignments in the vegetable gardens.
The summer planting season has just begun. The drip irrigation
piping has been laid. "When we first arrived, the soil
looked like a construction site. A bit of sand and lots of rocks.
It was mostly air." But the potential was attractive.
The High Arava Desert allows access to sweet water and a
cooler climate than farther south. So the ground is going
through a transition period. A layer of humus is building
up. Lady bugs are laying eggs under the leaves; earthworms
are crawling through the soil. "I even found a bunch
of nettles growing," Tesa tells me, full of pride for
Compost is heavily relied on. Food and yard wastes, as well
as goat manure are supplied by the kibbutz. Chicken and cow
manures are added. The compost field covers an acre and a
half. It must be watered on a consistent basis to maintain
moisture. The ground is sloped, leading to a basin where the
used waters are collected and applied on the veggies as compost
tea. The pile is turned by the means of a tractor. The entire
kibbutz is enveloped in the heady smell when this happens.
We plant tomatoes -- 15 varieties of them -- the likes of
Yellow Pear, Beefsteak, Cherry Chadwick, Purple de Milpa,
Rome, Merimond, Brandy Wine, Burbank, and Cherokee Purple.
Basil, marigolds, parsley, and calendula are interplanted.
Beans are next. Along with the regular bush and pole bean
varieties are Golden Tempari, Jacobs Cattle, Lubia, Anasazi,
Lizard. I have never heard of the last one. Seeds come as
donations from Genesis (an Israeli organic seed company),
from the hands of local seed collectors, and in the backpacks
of the volunteers.
Although the rectangles and straight lines seem absolutely
conventional, it is all planned as an interdependent system.
Thick flowering bushes of sage, rosemary, lavender, mints,
and artemisia act as boundaries every few rows. Nutritious
weeds such as chubeza (mallow) hug the edges and grow between
the crops. During the season, they act as an excellent groundcover,
as well as an addition to soups and salads. After the crop
harvest, the weeds are tilled into the ground as green manure.
"Last year it came out all jungle-like. The pest problem
was nonexistent but some of the crops never fully developed,"
Tesa remembers. The system in the garden is not a system at
all. Some basics are followed, but every season brings new
it doesn’t work we can always
return to our old pasture fields
and replant this one."
Tesa refers to what is happening in Neot Smadar as home agriculture.
They are feeding themselves, planting for the satisfaction
of their own personal tastes. The community is the first priority.
Whatever is extra goes to the market. They move at their own
pace, without pressure. "This is our own backyard we
are playing in." Communal participation leads to communal
knowledge. And new people bring new energy, new creativity
to each project. The lack of attachment to an expected end-result
makes the work freeing, more centered on observation and experimentation
than speed or ego.
Each day brings new insight. The goat shepherds are rolling
seed pellets in preparation for a new pasture field, inspired
by Masanobu Fukuoka's idea in his classic book One Straw Revolution.
Seeds of grains, greens, and legumes are mixed with clay and
compost. Gardens have already been planted in this manner.
Randomness is the only expectation. And everything comes up
in its own time.
Even more courageous, Uval plans on watering strictly during
the winter months. He is not sure at all if the forage will
survive a desert summer without watering. "If it doesn’t
work we can always return to our old pasture fields and replant
Carp and lotus in the desert
The entire irrigation system is absurd in its brilliance.
To save on pumping expenses, the water company agreed to help
them create a lake. So Neot Smadar has its own 50,000 cubic
meter watering hole, along with an island and a few canoes.
Water is pumped to a pool sitting on a hilltop overlooking
Neot Smadar and, through gravity, irrigates the orchards and
sunken gardens. "Water is lost to evaporation but so
much is gained." Reeds, water lilies, lotuses purify
the water. Carp feed on algae and plankton. "They taste
like dirty water but we'll figure it out." Vegetable
and herb gardens line the shore. Another hallucination.
Just like any other kibbutz, Neot Smadar is suffering from
debt. Outside money is coming in. There is an on-site processing
center where homemade jams, honeys, juices, oils, and wines
are prepared for health-food stores around the country. There
is also their pundak, at an intersection near the kibbutz,
selling everything homemade and home-grown. But their intentions
are not dedicated to the market or its economy. "When
you live only with what you have there is no conflict."
Their needs are simple. The general consensus does not include
ownership of wealth or goods beyond any necessity. "If
I need a new pair of shoes, I ask the kibbutz. And they say
yes. Or they say no. Either way, you won't see anyone here
walking around without a pair of shoes on their feet."
Except of course for the plenty that choose to go barefoot.
It is this sort of faith that makes the community so solid.
It is argued that a permanent agriculture, not permaculture
per se but a general sound and healthy cultivation, will only
survive by the efforts of a permanent community. This is not
a permanent community they tell me. Many of the people living
here are transients, volunteers from around the world. The
word has reached them through random exchanges on the subways
of New York City, on the beaches of the Sinai Peninsula, over
a beer in Berlin, but it comes in a blunt and clear manner.
So they come, some for a few weeks time, others for years.
Ideals survives transience
The flow of new faces is constant. What is permanent is the
ideal behind it all. This will never change. It belongs to
the community, an entity greater than any of the individuals
that make it up. There is a selfless dedication and belief
on their part that seems almost religious, fueling a momentum
which allows continuous creation to unfold every day. Some
components are thriving, others have failed. But it all balances
out in the abundance of their own plates, in the enjoyment
of their own stomachs.
I will remember always the days spent in their date plantation.
By six in the morning, eight or nine of us are packed into a
minivan heading down into the valley. We arrive to towering
palms, all in straight rows making a perfect grid formation.
The heady aroma of fresh compost, hugging the base of every
tree, saturates the air. This is their main commercial crop.
Harvest is coming soon; the fruits need to be thinned.
We begin to climb. Old branches are cut as the tree grows,
becoming the trunk over time. They are our footholds as we
make our way up. The ladder only goes so far; some of these
are 30 feet high. Adi is scared of ladders; she climbs from
the ground up without one. Toby jets from tree to tree, attacking
each one gracefully. By the end of the day his hands are swollen
with the poison of the thorns.
I get comfortable in the branches; set properly I feel as
if I'm in an armchair. I break open the deep brown husks,
and a sweet aroma rushes out. The fruits are crowded together,
little gems of yellowish green. Water beads drip down their
heads. I go from husk to husk. Separate them, cut them back,
tie them up and move on.
hang our hammocks between the trees, the full moon rises
red. The night is warm and the breeze is gentle."
A gong, an oasis and cheese in a tube
I forget myself in the moment, as the winds swell up, making
the tree bend and arch like as if was rubber. Held in the
branches, my movements are theirs. I move slowly, too absorbed
in the smells and weightless sensations. The desert spreads
out below me. Human monkey cries fill the air. There is a
gong in the distance. Tea break. I scramble down the tree.
There is an oasis awaiting me. The tea is heated by a campfire.
We sit on cushions, thoughts dissolve with sugar. I entertain
questions about America's food standards -- cheese in a tube?
A penguin-sized owl squirts water from his ceramic beak
into a pool. We jump in, becoming one with the trees' irrigation
system. Flocks of birds, making their way from Africa to Europe
descend on the greenery; the bold share the waters with us.
"The harvest season is the best,” Toby says. “Two
always sleep out here to protect the fruits. We hang our hammocks
between the trees, the full moon rises red. The night is warm
and the breeze is gentle." He dreams of August.
7 p.m. is dinner. I have begun to appreciate the dining hall
as a sanctuary. The food served is the produce of our own
labor. The meals are communal but the custom is silence. All
day we are working with one another, so eating is dedicated
to privacy. In the western world, meal times are generally
forced social interactions, whether in the office, restaurant,
and home. Friends and lovers and even strangers unite at the
table. You talk and listen, anything but focus on the enjoyments
of the food or give thanks to the life forces that went into
its creation. A respect for the process of eating can only
come from a respect for the foods, though. So while the silence
may have been awkward anywhere else, it is comforting here.
After the meal, I fill my glass with garden tea herbs and
lounge with the others outside. We talk about music and home
memories, travels, enjoyments of the day. The moon is full
and the desert glows blue. Children are running all round
me, their laughter vibrates in the air. Fathers and mothers
ride their bicycles, with children sharing the seat. I return
to myself, separate and aware, in awe of the reminder. This
is not a farm nor a school but a home, a home for many loving,
sharing happy families, a home that they have managed to create
for themselves, through themselves.
I wade back again, accepting their invitation to join for
as long as I am around.