My friends, loved ones, and adventurers,
In summer camp for a short time at the age of 16 my companions called me Bilbo and for the past two months I have been living up that name. I now live in a mud dome in the middle of the desert. We grow a portion of our own food, learn how to make everything ourselves, and how to live comfortably, sustainably, and efficiently. It’s a program called the Green Apprenticeship (GA) and is a 5-month intensive in the practices of Permaculture, sustainable living techniques, and community building. Once again, I’m on a kibbutz just 2 kilometers (yes, the metric system!) from where I lived last, but while my last experience was an academic institution and in the books, this time I’m knee deep in mud half the day and showering in a solar heated greywater system (take a look at the eco-neighborhood!).
It’s the real deal, the doing it, not just looking at the pretty pictures. It’s an opportunity to practice and learn about what it means and what it takes to actually live in and build a community, one that seeks to live on the wisdom of the ages and not on the over-stretched fat of the Earth. With that comes lessons about compromise, about understanding that it cannot be done all at once but most certainly it can be done a little bit everyday, and a little bit better on the following day, and maybe to our vision of a happy life where we give more than we take on the next.
Following is a picture of some of what I’ve been up to in the Desert Shire (I’ve been listening to Tolkien audio books and they make me happy). At the end of the recounting, indeed because it only happened yesterday, is the retelling of a nigh Misty Mountain adventure where the Shire was saved by the Hobbits in the wee hours on the eve of our redemption! (Oh boy, I hope the story is as good as that trailer ).
*Mooooooooooooooooooooo! and Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm yummy!* ———————————————————————————————————————– So, I milked cows. I used suction pumps and attached them to the udders of big, milk filled dairy factories. I used a fire hose to clean up after the filth left behind. And really, it wasn’t so bad, nor were to the animal terribly mistreated… but when it comes down to it, the job wasn’t for me. Each week as part of the GA we take part in one of the kibbutz community work branches which unfortunately are more traditional and industrial (my program is part of the mission and aim and we’re doing our best to live it, but the rest of the kibbutz, though they try, are not there yet). For a time, I worked in the cow refit (place where cows or kept in such operations). The job was smelly and tiring and I have a good bit of respect for the people who get up at 4am to run around on their feet for 4 to 5 hours straight so that Israel can drink a cheap gallon; they work hard.
The the short time I was there though I learned a great lesson Initially the job was difficult and putting the machine on the sometimes agitated cows took some practice, but then after I got pissed at one animal for knocking the suckers off repeatedly the hesitation left me and I hit my Zen. Everything flowed more easily and I took well to the job. Sometimes, if you’re going to do something, you have to ‘just do it’; sometimes you have to turn off the hesitation, sometimes doing these things is easier said than done. The cows were the last straw in my learning this lesson, in turning off all of the ‘shit’ around you and doing something because you decided you would do it. For some this is easy, natural, for me it’s been hard. I was good at doing math in my head as a kid, that makes it hard to not try and calculate everything as an adult. Well, now, sometimes, when I need to though it still needs work, I can turn off the calculator and just hit the peddle on the engine.
Buuuuuuuut, indeed, it was not the right fit for me. At first I was in the cheese house making, yes, cheese (and yogurt) from the goats milk also produced here, then the cows, then I was put in the date fields, another interesting experience, and recently I have been working in the kitchen. Well, indeed, that is the place for me. It’s a job everyone seems to hate but I love, and I think I know why. It’s an OCD job for someone with ADD. It’s generally a series of short lived, menial tasks that require efficiency, speed, and a quick shift to the next task. It’s social and practical at the same time and of course, for a good bit of it you’re either working with food or making people happy by giving them food. I like this very much . Lifting things, setting things out, cleaning up, and serving all come naturally to me and I like the hustle with the big ‘ahhhhh’ at the end. It’s likely that such work is in my karma, I don’t mind at all. If when I have my bakery / coffee / poetry house one of you comes in and reminds me of this e-mail you can have a Fairtrade coffee and chocolate granola muffin on the house (mud house of course)!
Story PS – I entered a baking contest during Purim and made a lovely cheesecake which people enjoyed very much
*The Sustainable Hobbit* —————————————–
But of course there is more than the work in the dates / kitchen / milking, that’s only a small part of what I’m doing here. The main focus is Permaculture http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture, gardening, building structures with mud, and building communities. Well, what does that mean? Permaculture is a brilliant system that was developed about 35 years ago in Australia (of all places) that aims to look at the wisdom of the ages and the expertise of ecology to develop sustainable food production and living systems. The aim is efficiency, for example making the place you work and play the most near the places that you live (no 2 hour commutes to work!), using companion planting to keep pests away and enrich the soils from year to year, and learning how to “make things pay” by making sure that each element of your system serves multiple functions.
Wow, lots of words. The simple of it is humble observation and smart action to create a sustainable life – it’s a way of thought and mind and action. That’s the area of it that I’m most interested in as well, the way to take all of my interests (which I have been told are sometimes too all over the place) and combine and connect them most efficiently. So, of course, to do so I’m here getting more skills and interests to throw into the bag!
Oh boy, well, it’s not so bad. I’m also using the GA as an internship towards my graduate degree in environmental education, learning these great skills, slaking my “wanderlust”, learning about Israel and Judaism (and a little Hebrew!), and meeting some interesting people. That’s the essence of Permaculture right there – just sitting here in our little GA library surrounded by the finest collection of “green” knowledge that I’ve ever seen I’m killing about 10 birds with a single mud brick (darn destructive metaphors, see where our culture is heading!).
In addition we’re taking classes on green design, social justice, and the Gaia Education Curriculumfor sustainable community design. This is the most robust education curriculum that I’ve ever seen towards building a sustainable world. I think the major lesson in it (and in Permaculture) is this: To build a sustainable future for humanity it’s not necessary to give up our lives as we know them, but to reassess what wealth is, and what is truly valuable.
Here’s a look at a basic day during the week (non-date fields day): * Wake at 6:45am * visit the composting facilities and as the founder of Permaculture says “make a deposit” on future plant growth * have a juice in our communal mud-made field kitchen and maybe put something into the solar oven for the afternoon * go to “morning circle” for some stretching, dancing, and “tuning in” to the day with my group * go to the kibbutz dining hall for breakfast (which for me is usually eggs and salad and a stupid amount of tachina, or yogurt / cottage, or if I’m feeling happy, both) * then it’s off to practical work in the garden, or building with mud, a lesson is usually put in there as well * then perhaps there’s a class about green building, Permaculture, or community design, working on our design projects * lunch! * Then usually another class as above * from there it’s already about 4 or 5pm and we’re beat, go have a fruit and do our own “projects” like yoga or internet or shower or walk or sleep or make pickles for me, maybe eat what was in the solar oven from earlier on * somewhere before 7:30 it’s dinner or preparing for potluck in our bustan (neighborhood) when there’s no dinning hall dinner * on many evenings there’s eco-cinema or a personal presentation that each of us will be doing (one a week) until we’re done * some nights there’s a fire in the giant geodesic chilling area in our community, or me sleeping early, or reading, or munching, or doing something random like looking at the stars or having tea with my kibbutz family or wasting time in some Hobbit like way
Indeed there’s some variation there, but you get the idea. Overall, there’s plenty of work, tea time, business, and chilling in my mud dome. I think my favorite time is at about 5pm, when the desert air is settling along with my energy and the air gets cooler. I’m usually practicing Tai Chi in the main area around the center of the kibbutz between the dining hall and the community center… there’s good energy there. It’s these moments, after a lot of mental and physical running about all day, that I appreciate most where I am and what I’m doing… the desert, the mountains, the path. This time of day no matter where I am in the world seems to be where I find myself – a lone introspection and reflection with forward looking joy at the evening and repose at recounting the accomplishments of the day. The stillness and the shift from active to passive, from yang to yin is where I like to live. It only lasts a few moments, but as I’m learning, it’s this moment and what we do with it that truly matters most.
* There and back again… but the battle rises on the return…* —————————————————————————————-
My Mom is in Israel! On the cusp of the Passover break, the equivalent of Christmas break in Israel my Mom came here on a tour and to visit me. Well, I went up to see her in Jerusalem. It honestly made me very nervous. I had not seen her in 8 months and I had no clue what would come of our reunion… well, after a nice bus ride, a hike through the city to the King David Hotel (with a stop for wheatgrass and etrog juice first!) I arrived. My greeting was a powerful, teary hug filled with the might of Samson. I was told I gained a lil’ weight and “filled out”, looked healthy and great, was given a gift of chocolate matzos (my passover favorite) and some sneakers, and after about 20 minutes it was just… Lee and Mom. It’s amazing how months and many miles ultimately changes very little in the closest of relationships (although for me, inside, as an individual, everything is different).
And ohhh, did coming to this 5-star hotel feel like an escape to Rivendale (not Riverdale, but the Elven, not eleven, but Elf stronghold from Tolkien’s world). Forget not, I’d been eating the same salad every day for many months with little respite and laboring in the hot sun only to come to a High Temple of global consumption with a rich Lordess as a benefactor (one who loves me very much) to entreat me. Food and wine overflowed to a higher level than I have seen many times before (and trust me if you’ve read anything I’ve ever sent before you know I’ve seen my share). It was a good change of pace and I spent my time mulling (not wine, but thoughts unfortunately) about what I’m doing and my place in all things. I exercised a bit in the nice hotel facilities, walked around a bit, read, ate, talked with my Mom a good bit and had some very interesting conversations.
A highlight of my minimal sight seeing was to the spire tower (just one tower, not The Two but very cool none-the-less) of the International Jerusalem YMCA and the amazing Muslim art exhibit there. It was a series of “drawings” rather, word art mandalas with Qur’anic, Arabic text weaved into the work. Arabic script can having a living quality to it and these images brought them from living to mind-piercingly beautiful. The translation of the texts were below each were touching especially one which I will do my best to here recount. It’s a little bit awful, but the lesson and point is amazing:
*A young man is told by a wicked man that if he presents him with his mother’s heart then he will give him a great treasure. So the young man sharpens his knife, goes to his mother and cuts out her heart. On the way to present the wicked man with the heart, he drops it and the heart rolls in the dirt. At that, seeing his own wickedness, he in shame and disgust takes out his knife and and aims to kill himself. Just before the blow, he hears his mother’s heart talking to him: “My son, you have already cut out my heart once, why would you do so a second time?”*
Wow. Sure, we don’t usually kill our parents and loved ones literally (though sometimes we think we’d like to), but how often are we cruel to them? How often are we cruel to ourselves? How often to we realize that this self-cruelty is an equal cruelty to those that love us so?
After my time in the 5-star Rivendale came to a close and while my Mom, whom I had a nice time with, went to fly down south to meet me on my Kibbutz for the holidays, I took the bus back (and as I told her I would) beat her there by a few hours. This was on Erev-Pesach (the evening before Passover), and as the Hobbits were far from done in their adventures at the end of the Ring trilogy, the battle was yet to be met on my Return.
*Fire and Water: A Pesach Tale is Told (and Relived!)* —————————————————————————————-
*A Pillar of Fire to Guide Them…*
It always sees to amaze me, as a get off of the bus returning to the Arava Valley in the Southern deserts of Israel there’s a stillness, a settling in the air as I step off of the bus. After I grab my back from the undercarriage and the bus pulls off I’m left staring at the brown, red, golden expanse of the sands. My whole body settles as though every cell had been on edge without my noticing and then suddenly sat in rest. My vision seems to brighten and my ears sharpen, my breath becomes calmer and deeper. It’s like coming home, but not home in a place, home in the heart – to a state of being that I belong in.
Walking the kilometer from the road to the kibbutz I see a family of Ibex, small, golden, 4-legged, herbivores. A few males with splendidly large and curving horns and a female nursing a foal. It was an invitation to the desert. When the creatures are there (or I’m able to see them) I know that the connection is there, the divide between me and ‘the spirit’ is very small and I can absorb the sun and the sand, the dry air and the Gaia energy fully. That one kilometer took me about 45 minutes between stopping at the remains of the stone fort that I discovered, lying in the sun with an apple, and watching the ibex some more, just taking in the quiet and solitude and my luck before returning through the gates of Kibbutz Lotan.
On the way my Mom called and said her flight was just taking off (yes, I beat her by that much) and that she’d call me when she got in. The mud dome, Bustan neighborhood was nearly empty with people traveling over the holidays and I took a few minutes to clean my dome and rest. I hand not eaten much that day and was going to the field kitchen to eat something at about 3:30pm with one friend that was still here when over to my right I saw billowing black smoke in the distance. I was confused, my friend was confused, but in our hearts though we tried to find a reason knew that something was wrong. We ran to the scene.
There indeed was a massive fire. The children’s after-school building was burning in a 30-foot high pillar of smoke and flames. The kibbutz members were on it, running to and about with fire hoses and tending the area. We were scared for people’s lives, but with the grace of all things, the children had left only 30-minutes before the blaze began. There were 3 other fires around the kibbutz that day from moments earlier and a lot of confusion and questions being asked. As it seems it was a freak weather condition that caused it. The day was very, very hot and the dried date palm fronds used as roofing in some areas combusted. The odd thing is that they have been using this material for many years in this region without trouble and this was far from the hottest and driest part of the year. So why now? Was if foul play or a freak accident? I lean toward the latter, some odd, odd weather pattern that created just the right conditions but who knows, and ominous the day before the holidays.
I offered my help, as I’d had wildland firefighting training in the past, but it was under control in all areas. As it turns out when I walked back down the road, I saw my Mom standing in the car lot waiting around with her bags and looking a bit perplexed at all of the confusion. I told her what had happened and as we later found out, her tardiness was serendipitous. One of the areas where there was a fire was in tourism, some trees near some of the rooms caught flame and in the dousing out process some of the rooms were made “unavailable”. Well, as it turns out, her room was to have been one of those rooms, which she likely would have been in at the time had she been on time. So, I suppose, as my teacher says, maybe “there are no coincidences”. Tourism found her another room, I showed her around, and from there all was well, lots of talk and confusion, but all’s well… so I thought.
*Water and Haste in the Night…*
My last night at the King David Hotel was disturbed by poor sleep and poor dreams. I got little more than 3-hours and didn’t sleep at all on the bus, yet through the day I felt well. With the excitement of the fire you might think I went to bed early but some evening juice and sweets saw to it that I did not. It was about 11:30pm that I stretched out under the covers, ready to listen to music and get some rest when from outside I heard a faint commotion.
“What should we do… I don’t know… go… someone…”
I pulled myself out of bed, tossed on some clothes and went to check calling out, “Is everything OK?” A firm “Noooo!” Was the answer and I soon saw why. There was a stream of water making its way down the center of the Bustan. I ran over to see what was going on and found that the road behind the neighborhood and between us and the goats area was flooding over. I went to see the source and as it was, a major water main had burst shooting out high pressure water at an alarming rate. I had my phone on me and called one of our supervisors, Mike, who had just spend half the day running about taking care of fires. In his characteristic way he was calm, but the tiredness was clear in his voice. I described the situation and he quickly realized that this was more than a minor leak. He said he’d send somebody over and be over himself shortly.
Just near the water main and behind the Bustan is an area with bathtubs of clay, a big sand pile, straw and a small industrial cement mixer. It’s these supplies that we use to mix large batches of mud for building projects. It gave me an idea. Before hanging up with Mike I asked, “Mike, should we take the sand and start building a dam to divert the water from the neighborhood?”
“That’s a good idea,” was his reply. I hung up, ran and changed into work clothes, and we got to it. The group of GA’s and eco-volunteers fell into place like we had done it before, maybe somewhere in our genetic memory from long ago. Some filled buckets with sand, others carried them to the wall, we communicated and identified areas of greatest need. Shortly, Mike arrived and without words, became the de-facto architect. Our efforts were augmented by the spare tires all around the mud making area. These are usually used as the “good shoes” base and understructure of many of the mud building projects, but were now appropriated for saving the Bustan.
And we were to learn that our efforts were doing just that. These mud domes are hardy indeed, and while they can be designed for high moisture areas, these were not. We’re in the desert after all and the rains are not heavy enough to cause great concern. Had the water logged into the foundations of the domes, which are concrete sitting on sand, it could have caused major problems.
I gave up on staying clean early in the process, getting at least knee high in muddy, sandy mush as I ran about with buckets and tires trying to shore up holes in the wall. Faces were, might I say, grizzled with determination to get the job done and done right. Sweat was dripping, sand flying, but the ant army that we were pushed on with a joyous fortitude. It was amazing to see, the leadership, the role sharing, the communication, the giving as some went to fetch water for the thirsty, the power of a shared goal, urgency, and exertion. These buckets were heavy, there were many to carry, it was late, but, and I know this is true for me, I had a big smile on the inside just about the whole time.
It was not until 2am that we gathered in the field kitchen for hardy gulps of water, midnight snacks, and a final settling of energy. We were joyous and excited. The water finally was turned off about an hour after we finished and much it had been diverted away from the neighborhood.
The irony was not lost on us, the Biblical irony. Here was a group, mostly Jewish, toiling into the night to build walls without straw on the eve of Passover, the holiday of redemption from suffering in Egypt where Pharaoh forced the Hebrews to do almost the same. When it is said that you must retell the story as part of your Jewish duty this is not likely what was in mind.
Pillars of fire, torrents of the elements, labor with sand and mud, there were even a lot of mosquitoes (plagues?), and I am a first born male… but I suppose, as I am alive to make the recounting, the angles “passed over” me that night.
The Shire, was saved.
As you can see, I’ve been up to a lot. My Seder was… interesting. I missed my Aunt’s event in NY very much but it was great to have my Mom here with me. I’ve been teaching Tai Chi on the kibbutz and she was able to join me which is a great, great blessing. Today I will see her off to the airplane in Eilat and soon continue my learning here for three more months, finishing my grad degree, and hopefully enjoying myself a bit.
Thanks for reading, Until next time, May you find joy in each of your own Shire! -Lee
PS – Happy Earth Day! Go save something, go hug something, smell a flower!