Posed September 28,
2004: From the bus window I read the words: kaved
et eema admah. Honor Mother Earth. The large black letters
are graffiti scrawl on the wall of an ancient, crumbling stone
home, standing solitary where the outskirts of Jerusalem meets
the country’s Negev desert.
to me a dreamscape in the oppressive heat.
There is a 15-minute break at the Dead Sea. Bathroom and
lunch at the lowest point on Earth. The scent of sulfur from
the green body of water becomes a taste, finding its way into
my water and avocado/veggie sandwich, residing in my lungs,
in my stomach, as my body tries to digest it. The bus moves
The ground is full of crevices, falling out in places and
rising up again, randomly and unexpectedly, at extreme degrees.
The desert wears the face of a glacier, resplendent beige
replacing icy blue. At other times, the ground is flat, speckled,
as if it were the hide of an enormous animal, with blotches
of dull dusty green.
The bus descends into the Arava Valley. To the east is Jordan,
marked by the rugged, towering peaks of the Edom Mountains.
To the west, the Israeli desert, rising up to a high plateau.
No shoes – no work
My first stop is the orchard of Elaine Solowey. I arrive
in sandals, ready to thrust them aside and sink my bare feet
into the sandy earth. This foolishness is quickly apparent.
"Where are your working boots and gloves?" is the
immediate greeting received after hello.
My first morning with Elaine was spent transplanting a variety
of cactuses from one bed to another, making room for a significant
enlargement of the compost pile, now that her community, Kibbutz
Ketura, is separating food wastes, sending them her way.
We used a tractor to pull out the plants, with a thick rope
tied around the base of the stalks. It took four people to
carry each one. We had some problems with a spiny, 300-pound,
5-foot tall stenocereus thurberi (Organ pipe cactus)
As we struggled, Elaine explained. "The plant produces
fruit with intense medicinal properties, dilating the blood
vessels and cooling off body temperature at a rapid speed.
No one wants to experiment with this stuff. The fruit is closely
related to peyote, just without the hallucinogenic side effects."
I asked if the plant's native region was similar to the Negev
Desert. She glared at me as if I were a complete idiot. "Their
climates have nothing in common. That's the point -- to test
By this time the marks on my hands resembled the stigmata.
My eyes darted everywhere at once like a child lost in a supermarket.
Everything about this orchard is intimidating: the fact that
Elaine refers to every plant by its Latin name; the fact that
her land is 100 dunam (25 acres) but seems impossibly
Or maybe it's just Elaine herself, and her glares, like the
one I got -- like a smack in the face -- for not knowing about
the stenocereus thurberi. Admittedly, she classifies
herself as an acquired taste, "like whiskey and oysters."
Elaine grew up in Modesto, California, a granddaughter and
niece to farmers on every side of the family. She thinks back
to her school years and cringes. "In those days everyone
was shooting up in the bathroom and the worst insult you could
give anyone was to call them a farmer." No one around
her grew organic; "the spray planes dominated the air,
as many as there were birds."
Her weekends were spent at her family's orchards, where she
picked cherries, almonds, and peaches. When she came to Israel,
it was to help with apple orchards in the north. "We were
constantly getting shelled by the Syrians." Sleeping in
damp bomb shelters every night did two things to here -- gave
her pneumonia and turned her into a Zionist. "I headed
south looking for a drier climate and a place to work with trees."
The desert became her home.
Each day spent with Elaine brought new curiosities. "Why
do you ask such shallow questions?" she asks me. That
glare again, every time I inquired about her past. What I
came to realize in my week with Elaine is that this woman
is a scientist with a mission, not just a farmer. Her work
is driven not by fluffy romantic notions but by a sense of
We talked about modern agriculture and her words were glazed
with bitter animosity. Farming lacks needed respect, skills,
and resources; it is an art that has been co-opted by a corrupt
science. Rural communities are disintegrating; urban centers
swell while advertising a false sense of security and abundance.
The poor of the world are left with even poorer soil quality
or no land at all. Top soils are being blown away. The desert
is slowly spreading across the Earth.
"The well-being of the world depends on agricultural
stability and health. No one seems to understand this,"
Her main worry concerns biodiversity – or, rather,
the lack of it -- in industrialized farming. What initiated
the original shift from collection to cultivation were the
foods that were easy to harvest, easy to process.
"Today, we are dealing with the same small food possibilities,
confined to a menu designed in the Stone Age. Crops are being
lost all the time as the general consensus is to plant the
same megacrops, all with genetic uniformity." And the
simpler we get, the more vulnerable we are. She refers to
the epidemic that hit the corn fields of the United States
in the 1970s. "Modern man is the most helpless creature
on the planet." And it all sounds quite depressing.
* * *
Conditions in Israel's desert do not support conventional
agriculture. The climate brings extreme heat in the summer
months, from April until September. The ground is rich in
minerals and, therefore, is a salty planting base. It is completely
dry except for the short winter months. When the heavens do
occasionally break and rains fall, the waters run along a
landscape with hardly any vegetation, supported by a soil
that is not very porous. Before percolating into the ground,
the waters have absorbed all available minerals and have become
Most of the communities living here have decided to challenge
the situation given them by establishing an alternative climate.
Rows and rows of hoop houses, perfect in their vertical and
horizontal components, stand like self-contained plastic cities.
Salt-tolerant date palms have been embraced as the overwhelming
cash crop; plantations sprawl across the desert, green anomalies
against beige undulations.
Elaine is not interested in any of this. Her orchard is grounds
for experimentation, where her prophesy of The Second Domestication
is slowly playing itself out. There are 500 types of trees (20
of which are endangered), five ancient grains, and 50 cactus
species. They are all indigenous to the wilds of Asia, Africa,
Australia, and the Americas. The plants arrive by mail or by
hand delivery from collectors, exchangers, traders, and other
like-minded folks from around the globe.
Seeking desert compatibles
crops have all been ignored by agribusiness, because they
are not considered important enough to 'own.' No corporate
giant has 'improved' them. No research organization has
claimed them. There is no fee for their use." They
are poor man's gold in Elaine's eyes.
What they all have in common in the capability to be compatible
with desert conditions. If they are to adapt successfully,
they all must become drought resistant and salt tolerant.
In particular, Elaine is interested in perennials that are
non-invasive, require low tillage to establish or maintain,
and have high overall value as food, medicine, or timber.
"These crops have all been ignored by agribusiness,
because they are not considered important enough to 'own.'
No corporate giant has 'improved' them. No research organization
has claimed them. There is no fee for their use." They
are poor man's gold in Elaine's eyes.
Her goal is not to produce them for commercial means but
for local consumption. They will serve as a source of livelihood
for those left on the periphery by the development of modern
agriculture. They will be traded through grassroots community
efforts, passed along from one family member to the next.
They will be grown in backyards and front yards as a homegrown
source of empowerment and nourishment.
But before all this, the successful crops fit Israel perfectly
well. A prediction believed by many is that the continuous
over-pumping and wasteful usage of freshwater resources will
wipe out the Israeli people sooner than any Palestinian conflict.
For example, the citrus tree, popular in Israeli agriculture,
demands 60 to 65 cubic meters of water per year. The pitaya,
a sweet cactus fruit of deep purple or brilliant pink, native
to Central America but adapted by Elaine, only requires half
a cubic meter all year. "There are cats that drink more
Monitors track plant functions
The process is orderly and exact. Germplasms arrive and
are grown in a quarantine site, mutually protecting the plant
and host region from exotic insects. After one year, the trees
of the same species are transplanted into the orchard with
varying amounts of compost and mulch, a test of fertilizer
needs and damage susceptibility. Faster-growing species are
planted to shade slower-growing species. A windmill generates
enough electricity to run a PhyTech monitoring system. Leaf
temperature, sap flow, stem diameter, soil moisture, soil
temperature, total radiation, wind speed, air temperature,
and evaporation rate is measured for each tree until fruits
Drip irrigation piping snake along the base of the trees, meeting
and overlapping in geometric patterns. In the heat of the desert,
evaporation is faster than absorption; watering by sprinkler
would leave mineral residue on the leaves. Rows of thickly planted
tamarisk trees act as windbreaks, a crucial component due to
the powerful winds and sandstorms that come with each change
of season. These trees aid in pest management as well. The tamarisks
absorb salt into its leaves, which fall to create a protective
barrier against pests. The tree is also a host for many beneficial
The Mediterranean fruit fly is the main pest of the area,
attacking all fruits in the region except those with a hard
shell. "We just have to take necessary precautions. Compost
correctly so the flies aren’t attracted. Don’t
allow fallen fruits to rot on the ground. We have traps with
pheromones that lead them to poison. Sterile males are released."
The insect is taken so seriously by farmers in the area that
the regional agricultural counsel mails out a scorecard every
week sharing the numbers caught and killed.
I have gotten lost in this orchard many times. In these wanderings,
I have been introduced to a heady mixture of plants that I
have never before seen. The neem has been used for
thousands of years in India, its bark, seeds, and leaves collected
for medicinal and pest repellant usages; the marula of
South Africa produces a sweet fruit that can be fermented
into wine, liquor and beer; the argania, native to
Morocco, has been respected for its high quality oil since
the 12th century; the fruit of the mustard caper
is collected by Egyptian Bedouins and processed into jelly.
There are grains, as well. Quinoa, finger millet,
and kiwicha, of the amaranth family, are highly nutritious
and rich in protein. The exotic landscape before me spreads
out like an agricultural dreamscape; this listing is so incomplete
I consider wiping it out.
Riding with an ancient warrior
Every morning I find space in the wagon of a tractor, amongst
irrigation piping, hoes, clippers, and a mess of other miscellaneous
objects, for the short ride to the orchard. Sardar, Elaine's
assistant, originally from Turkey, drives the tractor. Sitting
with me is Chana, a regular volunteer who must be at least
80 years old. She looks like an ancient warrior with her pruning
shears and Buddy Holly glasses. We arrive. They vanish, absorbed
in their own responsibilities. Alone and in need of direction,
I wait for Elaine, who is walking.
Today, we are busy with a part of the orchard I have not
yet seen. Besides cacti, grains, and trees, there are also
100 medicinal species. They are native to Israel's Negev,
grown for the Natural Medicines Unit of Hadassah Hospital
in Jerusalem. "There was this doctor working with skin
cancers. He would come by, fill up his VW beetle with my aloe
vera plants and drive off."
Elaine is not sure what ever came of it but her name must
have stuck with the hospital personnel. She was contacted
again to work on their Tibetan medicine research team. Tibetan
Medicine is an ancient system of medical preparations based
on plant substances. Her gripe with Western medicine reminds
me of the Phish song, “Sand.” "You can heal
the symptoms and not affect the cause; it's kind of like trying
to heal a gunshot wound with gauze."
Elaine receives specific orders from the hospital; her job
is to locate and cultivate them. Many of the plants are found
in the wild, in one wadi or another. These are the
main water channels in the desert, where the flashfloods flow
and the only vegetation is found.
A tree for the Dalai Lama
She tells me a story. "One day a car drove up to the
orchard and asked me to get in, the Dalai Lama wants to see
me. I was shocked. He had come to Israel to inaugurate the
project. I grabbed a pitaya from the tree and ended up giving
it to him as a present." Her features soften and she
savors the moment. She has nothing against the Dalai Lama.
We walk through the garden armed with plastic baggies for
collecting seeds. Before we descend like monkeys picking off
ticks from their companions, she points out the plants. I
can recall a few. There is pulicaria, an herb that
she says will be the prime treatment for asthma one day. Artemisia,
a plant that has the potential to replace antibiotics. Achillea,
which might be applicable in the treatment of skin cancer.
Elaine has high confidence in her predictions. The salty
condition of the desert does wonders to the plants. As a defense
mechanism, essential oils are concentrated and the plant becomes
more potent than any of the same species growing elsewhere.
The teas prove it.
We separate and collect. The domestication process cannot focus
specifically on the nicest looking plants. The goal is not an
end product uniform in size, taste, texture, and color. Rather,
it is to retain the wild qualities of the plant- its hardiness
and disease resistance. "They are still so genetically
diverse and flexible," she says, and it begins to sink
even further what potential I am surrounded by.
didn’t go sour yesterday. This has been a process
that began years ago and is just recently starting to
snowball. We spray until we need to spray double until
we must create plants that can absorb what would otherwise
be lethal doses of chemicals."
As we label and add to her seed bank, I realize how the logic
behind Western medicine seems to fit perfectly with the way
modern agriculture is developing. Farming didn’t go
sour yesterday. This has been a process that began years ago
and is just recently starting to snowball. We spray until
we need to spray double until we must create plants that can
absorb what would otherwise be lethal doses of chemicals.
We are creating supposed solutions without ever addressing
the problem. Elaine refers to the science of genetic modification
as genetic imperialism, "playing God without Godly wisdom."
Scientists are stubborn
"I am scared to think of the new symptoms which are
soon to descend upon us,” she admits. “The scientists
behind GM know it's all a load of bulls--t. But scientists
are the most stubborn people in the world. They will never
admit to their mistakes." She speaks as a scientist herself.
Her basic research on desert plants is "harder than
it has to be." Her main funding right now comes from
a US-supported Middle East Regional Cooperation Program. It
involves working simultaneously with a sister site in Morocco,
testing and trading 10 tree species. "Everyone expects
results immediately. In the natural, answers come more slowly.
It can take three generations, twenty years to see if a tree
can be properly domesticated."
The American grant comes as an enormous money bag, divided
over three years. "What I really need is little moneys
over a long period of time."
The orchard must grow; its space cannot contain this woman's
energy, overflowing into her lunch and dinner, into her writing
and teaching and dreaming. I drown in it, a raw and contagious
force, the brutal honesty and creative powers of an agricultural
Beyond the orchard, past Elaine's home and the kibbutz, is
a trail that climbs up the plateau. I have never reached the
top. Long before that, my senses are overwhelmed by the view
surrounding me. The mountains of Jordan have become red and
purple. Israel is lost in shadow. The air is sandy and the
sun seems one-dimensional, taped to the sky by a loving child.
Everything below seems solitary, silent, in awe of grand
surroundings. The land below is far from desolate. The desert
is full of life. There is a clear language contained in it
all, the earth whispering to those sensitive enough to discern
it. It makes the desert a livable, even comfortable place.
It is something Elaine understands very well.
Yigal Deutscher is a freelance writer. He is also a Permaculture
activist and a religious Jew exploring time and space for
connections between the earth and Jewish spirituality. Readers
may contact him at Keroassady2@aol.com