2004: It began with ads, little pieces of paper taped to
arbitrary walls and streetlamps of Jerusalem.
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.
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 dairy.
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.
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
“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 no involvement.
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 morning
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 the weeds.
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
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 innovations.
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 this
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
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.
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.