Sunday, 13 November 2016

Making the Desert Bloom

In the last few weeks we've celebrated Rosh Hashanah, then Yom Kippur, closely followed by the festival of Sukkot. Sukkot commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. The six days between the festivals of Sukkot and Simchat Torah are referred to as Chol Hamoed, or "weekdays [of] the festival". My Dad came over from the UK for a long visit and together we explored more of this wonderful little country, mostly without the kids who had their own plans. First we headed south into the Negev desert.
The first lookout point established in the Negev in modern times, Mitzpe Gvulot (the Gvulot Observation Point), was founded in May 1943. It was built entirely of mud and straw bricks by twelve young people who intended to watch over and guard the land purchased by the Jewish National Fund, and also to study the climate and conditions on the ground before future settlement and agricultural development. The settlers in fact found the soil was very suitable, but the lack of water was a major difficulty, as it is today. In contrast to other such reconstructions, which are usually in the heart of flourishing agricultural areas, the first buildings of Mitzpe Gvulot are still surrounded by desert. Trees planted over the years by the JNF are visible in the distance, but one can still feel the loneliness that must have surrounded those first settlers.
Among the various exhibits displayed at Mitzpe Gvulot (meaning "Borders") is a reconstruction of a unique water collecting system which was built to supply water for agriculture and for the settlers' daily needs, Mekorot’s first water pipe, and a bakery which was built during the War of Independence which served as a regional bakery during the siege. Yeast supplies were dropped onto the outpost grounds by a light plane each day.
We walked through the JNF (Jewish National Fund) Room which served as the living quarters of JNF officials involved in purchasing lands in the Negev, and looked at the dusty remains of the diamond polishing plant that formerly operated at the site. Another thing to see is the room in which residents hosted local Bedouin. This room served also as a clinic, where the local physician, Dr. Diamant, who lived among the settlers, would treat the local Bedouin. They would seek his services and even summon him to their tents to treat urgent cases. To this day there is a peg where a skirt would hang, so the women living at Mitzpe Gvulot, who normally wore shorts, could greet the Bedouin in more modest clothing. The largest building at Mitzpe Gvulot, built of solid bricks, was the security headquarters and watch tower.
In 1949 Kibbutz Gvulot moved 1 km north of its present location, and the buildings of the post were abandoned until their reconstruction in 1996 as part of an initiative by the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, the JNF and the Eshkol Regional Council. A visitor centre was set up and the site was declared a national heritage site.
Thanks to the JNF and Jewish Agency leaders who foresaw the importance of the Negev desert for the future of the State of Israel, three mitzpim (observation points) were established in 1943: Mitzpe Gvulot, Revivim and Beit Eshel. A dense network of settlements in the northwestern Negev was subsequently established and their extensive agriculture contributes greatly to Israel's economy today.
After visiting Mitzpe Gvulot we moved onto nearby Moshav Talmei Yosef, a remote moshav close to the Egyptian border, to visit the Salad Trail, an organic farm where you can see how it is possible to take a desert and make it bloom.
Shvil HaSalat, or the Salad Trail, was set up by Uri Alon, a farmer and adviser to those looking for farming knowledge on how to grow produce in difficult terrain, both in Israel and abroad. Uri ran a commercial farm at Talmei Yosef before converting it into an educational facility where you can roam the fields, pick, touch, taste and learn about the crops you eat. We stopped by the greenhouse where 15 varieties of cherry tomatoes are grown, pulled three different colours of carrots from a field (did you know carrots weren't always orange?), tasted cucumbers, edible flowers and herbs, and observed some of the most up to date agricultural technologies. At every stop of our tour we received an explanation - why the tomatoes grow upwards and why there were enormous bees in the greenhouse - followed by some picking and eating. Yum!
We baked pitot on the saj (a saj is a cooking grill used in the Middle East made of metal and shaped like a dome, with a heat source underneath it) and dipped them in za'atar and olive oil. Afterwards we visited the herbal greenhouse where we learnt about medicinal herbs. We touched, we smelt and we learnt about their essential oils.
A flock of homing pigeons ("the e-mail of the ancient world") is also a fixture on the trail. The Israel Defence Forces (and the Haganah before Israel was founded in 1948) used homing pigeons in the defence of Israel when it was first founded, and in the defence of the Jewish community before Israeli independence. On our tour each family released a pigeon and watched it fly. Aside from expertise in agriculture, Uri Alon is one of Israel's champion racing pigeon trainers. It was his aunt who brought a flock of homing pigeons from Tel Aviv to the Negev during the 1948 war to help the fighters down south communicate with their commanders. This aunt was the inspiration for the female character in author Meir Shalev's well-known novel, "A Pigeon and a Boy."
The Salad Trail was much more than a pick-your-own produce farm. Being in the middle of the desert and then discovering fields of vegetables and greenhouses full of juicy red, yellow and even striped tomatoes was a fascinating and delicious experience. Uri Alon is most certainly living his - and Ben Gurion's - dream of making the desert bloom.
Our final stop of the day was at the San Pedro Cactus Farm, also on Moshav Talmei Yosef. The farm supplies cactus and succulent plants to many of the nurseries in Israel, from Nahariya in the north, to Eilat in the south. Collectors, nursery owners, garden landscapers, and cactus lovers come from all over Israel to find rare plants that are not sold in regular nurseries. The farm sells thousands of species of cacti and succulents in all sizes, shapes and colours; they even sell the 'magic' Hoodia plant used by the San (formerly Bushmen) of the Kalahari. They also have their own private collection for viewing which we unfortunately did not see on the day we visited.
San Pedro also offers accommodation in a "Khan" (the Turkish word for travellers lodge) which is suitable for couples and for a family or group of friends seeking the quiet and relaxation of the desert. It is equipped with mattresses and pillows, and there are showers and bathrooms for your convenience, as well as a spacious lawn and of course a garden of giant cacti.
The beautiful cacti and succulents of all colours and sizes at San Pedro were truly a sight to see. Far from the noise of the city, surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the desert, a visit to the nursery was the perfect way to end a great day out.


Debbie Huffaker said...

I was so happy to see your comment on my blog! All the way from Israel. I'm so hinored! These pictures are awesome. Those cacti and! I love succulents! Please visit our FFF each week.....or visit every day. Hope you have an awesomely blessed SONday!

Bear and Cardigan said...

This was so interesting and beautiful photos too #MySundayPhoto

Forest Dream Weaver said...

Thanks for this interesting post. Great photos....I love the light quality where you are!
Enjoy your week!

TexWisGirl said...

beautiful blooming cactus, and the greenhouse in the desert is wonderful. how nice that you got to spend time with your father, showing him your marvels.

Miss Val's Creations said...

How awesome that your dad could enjoy this trip with you! The salad trail is such a great concept. It must inspire visitors to eat healthy and maybe start their own garden. We have the multi color carrots here however you have to go to an overpriced, fancy grocer for the non-oranges ones!

Mersad said...

Thank you for linking in with "Through My Lens"

Mersad Donko Photography

Photo(Geo)grapher said...

Nice set of photos

Jedidja said...

This sort of blogpost I really love! Thank you so much for sharing this ALL. It is nice and educatief. O and I tell you: I love cacti :)

Anonymous said...

Sooo interesting! Had to smile that exactly in this week's post of ALL SEASONS I mentioned the 40 years in the desert:):) Where people become creative in finding, collecting, and preserving water. Can't thank you enough for compiling all the info for this post!
To answer your question, yes, I will show the painting, but probably after (the American) Thanksgiving.

Powell River Books said...

Blooming cacti in the desert are such a welcome sight. We have a hydroponic farm in Powell River, BC. We have an opposite problem in the winter, not enough sun and warmth. They are now supplying many of the local restaurants and you can go there to purchase produce as well. - Margy

Sharon said...

The greenery and produce growing in the desert are an amazing contrast to the first scenes that are all sandy and barren. It's great to connect with you, my Israel blogging friend!

bettyl-NZ said...

What a fantastic post! I learned a lot about your corner of the world! Your photos are amazing.

Nicholas V said...

An amazing endeavour in what is widely regarded as a hostile and infertile place. Hard work, human ingenuity and perseverance do indeed make deserts bloom!
Thank you for taking part in the Travel Tuesday meme, I look forward to seeing more of your entries in the weeks ahead.

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