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Thursday, 4 November 2010

Of fish and Faidherbia......

Impelled by enthusiasm brought by Phil and Lorena rejoining the project in July after their epic bike ride to Palestine from the UK, we mounted an expedition to bring tilapia fish to the wadi cistern to kick-start our new fish-farming project.

A friendly fish farmer on the River Jordan, volunteered several hundred fingerlings, which posed us with the challenge of transporting the fish the length of the Jordan Valley, by then a forbidding inferno of sun cracked rock, without baking them alive. Having no vehicle of our own, we usually hitchhike, but with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees every day of August and being wise to the complications presented by hitchhiking with live fish (this would not be my first time), we resolved we would need help to safely deliver the perishable cargo. Persuaded by the promise of swimming in the freshwater of the lake, Magda and Andrea (friends living in Beit Sahour) agreed to drive their little Renault van. As the military checkpoints on the road prevented us from squeezing more people in to van than its two seats allowed, Phil, Lorena, and I would hitch. We planned to meet after the last checkpoint at a Crusader fortress called the Star of the Winds, where it is rumoured the rarest tree in Palestine, Faidherbia albidia, can still be found on the mountain slopes beneath the castle. I hoped to collect seeds. From there we would travel north together to camp on the bank of the River Jordan close to the fish farm to collect the fish early in the morning and drive them back to the farm before the day hit boiling point. As we set out that early summer morning, we were expecting heat, but I don’t think any one of us could imagine just what lay in store for us.

Setting out at dawn, we quickly descended the mountain slopes in a series of rides (Fellaheen, Bedouin, Settlers) down through the shabby Arab towns, across the steeply sloping desert whose pink and white rock shone in the bright morning light, down, down under sea level to the deep blue Dead Sea, laid still as a corpse on the floor of the Rift Valley surrounded by a plane of blinding white salt. Outside Jericho, huddled in a shrinking pool of shade cast by a road sign eventually we flagged down a driver. Winding down the window a little the driver a young man squinted at the bright reflected light “I’m bound to Bet She’an!” he shouted in Hebrew, confusing heat with noise and added in pre-emption of any panic once we were in the car, “You understand I am Arab?” Replying in broken Arabic I assured him that was not a problem for us and we gratefully jumped into the car. The thermometer on the dashboard informed us the temperature was 47 degrees. The time was only nine O’clock. At some point in the conversation we spun along the long valley road he admitted that he was afraid we were settlers with a plan to kill him. He would not have stopped had we not looked so desperate. Perhaps he felt guilty for having not trusted us because he drove us 10 km beyond his junction, leaving us under the mountain crowned by the Fortress of the Star of the Winds. The thermometer read 51 degrees. The time was one O’clock.

Our forlorn trio stood sinking into the tarmac of the road as we gazed up at the mountain, its broad tan swell, the castle only just discernable, stood infinitely remote on the summit. A single road, a ribbon of tarmac, wound up the pleated flanks and disappeared over the horizon to the right of the peak. Blinking, my eyelids folded rather than slid over my dried eyeballs. No wind stirred the brittle golden thistles of the verge. We set out through a grove of Christ-thorn Jujube trees (Zizyphus spina –christi), their tangled white trunks naked but for the last vestiges of dry foliage. Seen through the heat bent the air, the trees appeared to melt then crystallise into fierce spines. In a futile attempt to head-off feelings of despair I extolled the virtues of the elusive Faidherbia tree and, attempting to rally the spirit of adventure, tried “nothing worth having comes easy” and “A man's worth is no greater than his ambitions”. Not even I was convinced.

There was no time for dissent. Lorena made it 100m meters until complaining that her earrings where burning in her ears, took refuge under the first bush and, quite sensibly, refused to go on. After all, Magda and Andrea would follow this way in the little van. But van or no van it was clear to me the lure of copious fresh water would overwhelm my urgings so I resolved to use all the remaining time until their arrival to find my trees. Phil conceded to accompany me but almost immediately began to regret his decision. After the grove of Jujube trees the track climbed steeply up the treeless slopes. We were walking fast in the knowledge that we needed to get out of the sun and that we must find these trees before our rescue party could save us from ourselves. After half an hour of climbing and still no sign of a Faidherbia we began to feel a bit queer. Nothing serious, just a tingling in the arms and legs and a sense of wellbeing incongruous with our situation. I attributed the tingling to the fact that I was not getting enough oxygen into my body to maintain our rapid pace. It seemed reasonable to me that upon sensing the atmosphere to be moustache-stingingly hot, one’s physiological response is to protect the lungs by not sucking the stuff in. Deliberately, I breathed more deeply. Sharing my observations with Phil he confirmed my symptoms and added with detachment, between gasps, that he was experiencing a euphoric delirium akin to the nitrogen narcosis experienced by divers who go too deep for too long. Now analogous to a fatal condition, our state gave us cause for mild concern. We reviewed our situation: Having drunk almost continuously since setting off half an hour ago we reasoned we could not yet be dehydrated. Our heads where well covered but nevertheless concluded that hastening up a mountain with no shade, at midday, in August, in the Jordan Valley was a sure way of inducing hyperthermia. Predicting a cool breeze on the mountain top and the welcoming shade of the fortress we resolved to go on.

Our folly was soon rewarded when nearing the crest of the ridge, there silhouetted above us on the horizon, a file of twisted-trunked trees with thin crowns. Upon closer inspection the trees were even stranger with short thick gnarled trunks, contorted branches bent down under their own weight and liberally scattered with small but incredibly sharp spines (Although careful to avoid the spines I picked my finger the moment I reached out to touch a leaf). The leaves, shaped like those of a mimosa, were delicate, tiny and few. The trees were small and spaced apart but numbered several hundred. The shade they offered, though sparse, was welcome. As we walked on the searching for a tree in fruit in the hope of collecting the seed, we saw a big old tree whose branches came down to the ground. “I’m waiting here for the van,” declared Phil. I walked on to the summit in the vain hope of collecting seeds.

The stand of Faidherbia trees ended as abruptly as it began, numbering only a few hundred trees. I saw neither flowers nor fruit. My dead-end, burning path climbed gently along the bare ridge to the castle whose approach was lined with old carob trees each oddly dense in this lofty world dissipating into the bright heat. The castle stood abandoned on the peak. Alone I bridged the deep moat entering the gate of a symmetrical temple of massive stones neatly placed on vertical walls arranged in concentric rings. Griffon vultures hopped and hunched on the battlement from where the land fell away. Far below in the depths of the Jordan Valley, like pooled mercury, lay the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, and, far off in the haze, a sliver of silver which could only be the Mediterranean Sea. A triangulation of hope, infinitely remote in this cruel theatre of war. The Star of the Winds: a temple to Futility.

Gazing on the great stones of the crumbling walls stacked on the brink, I fancied I knew how Sisyphus feels as he begins his descent. I’ll be back in another season in the hope of collecting Faidherbia seeds and maybe many times after that. Maybe the trees have lost their pollinator species. Maybe they stopped fruiting decades ago (I observed no young trees). But if the task be futile and hope absurd, then I must be content I reached the top of the mountain and found my trees. As Camus puts it, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Returning to the bridge over the moat I encountered the others small and quiet wandering scattered between the great walls of the ruin. Packed like tined sardines in the back of the scorching Renault van we descended the mountain track back into the Jordan Valley Highway and there turned North to where the River flows out of the lake. Panting in a pool of our mingling sweat we silently tolerated conditions illegal since the passing of animal welfare legislation for the transport of livestock.

Tumbling to the dust from the back of the van we dashed for the glassy green water without even removing our clothes. We bathed in the flow for hours watching the kingfishers perched in the over-arching green of tall eucalyptus trees until dusk. The Jordan under Israel has morphed into a billabong. Exhausted we slept there on bank between the water of the Jordan and a canal of sewage. It was a foul spot but we hadn’t the energy to search for another. As we rested the coypu emerged from their burrows frolicked around our sleeping forms plunging noisily into the river.

At dawn we returned to the van and after breakfast in a bland kibbutz we drove south to the meet Roy, our friendly fish farmer. He drove us around the artificial rectangular lakes where for 18 years he has been raising fish. We smelt the fish before we saw them. The surface of the water boiled as the fish slid over one another. The seagulls picked at the pale bloated corpses lining the shore. The survivors gaped in water hot to touch. “We used to treat for fresh water diseases but now the water has become so saline we treat for marine diseases” he informed us. Hot and boring fast we were shown lake after lake full of desperate fish. “There are 2000 to 3000 fish per meter cubed.” From the shallows of one lagoon he netted hundreds of tiny tilapia fish – our precious cargo. Fistfulls of their silvery forms were cast into a cardboard box lined with a plastic bag. The temperature of the water was cooled by the addition of chilled water and an atmosphere of oxygen pumped in before the bag was sealed. Now the race was on. After a hasty farewell we waved the goodbye to the Renault heading South on Route 90. They would stop at each service station on the road to add ice to the fishes’ water.

Reluctantly we began to hitch home. A haze of blasé surrounds my memories of a series of rides with soldiers, uniforms and guns checkpoints etc… Occupation lite. Hitching with a Palestinian (Jerusalem ID but living illegally in Hebron), the road was so hot one of the car’s tyres bust as he was buying us iced grapefruit juice. His shaved head and fat neck looked like melting wax as he struggled to align the bolt holes on the hub. Thankfully he drove us to into Beit Sahour from where we could walk home and release the fish found already floating in their bag in the cistern as they had been left by Magda and Andrea.
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