Vine and fig tree: Restoring agriculture in the Holy Land
Seeking life in the desert, on the desert’s terms

As the global climate becomes more harsh, Elaine Solowey is a botanical pioneer trying to develop ultra-low water crops before it’s too late.

By Yigal Deutscher

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.

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 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) 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."

California refugee

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 Earth.

"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 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 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 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 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 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.

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 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 at Keroassady2@aol.com