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
Everything seems 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 on.
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
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) from Mexico.
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 their adaptability."
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 larger.
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 practical urgency.
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
"The well-being of the world depends on agricultural stability
and health. No one seems to understand this," she says.
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
* * *
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 highly saline.
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
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
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 than that."
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 appear.
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 insects.
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
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
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
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
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
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 resurrection.
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