Ribs of Stone

The dried seafloor is peeled back to reveal the road. It runs away from me like the pith of a split banana. The creamy ruts of farm vehicles are baked hard and pie-crust frilly on the edges. They issue commentary on a day prior to my own. I’m guessing it was a sweltering one, a humid afternoon of work in the hayfields.

A view to the road less traveled. It runs south from my position in the upper reaches of the Suffuriyyah drainage basin. On the horizon, Nazareth spills over the ridge.

The road is separated from these fields by weeds. Their prickly stems do not necessarily determine my way, but they do encourage me to comply with the road’s trajectory. I pause and adjust the weight of the pack against my shoulders (downsizing is needed!). A short season ago, these weeds stood tall, green and limber. They waved in concert with the puffing of the sea. Today, there is not even a whisper. The thistles have gone rigid, brittle brown under July’s rising sun.

Short cool winters and long hot summers are the essence of a Mediterranean biome. This alternating pattern, common from the Pillars of Hercules in the West to the shoulders of Lebanon in the east, is gentle in some ways, yet challenging and unforgiving in others. It ripples across Galilee. As the line between thick and thin food systems is narrow here, even small changes can have large effects. Rain, temperature, humidity, wind, ground cover, and other variables are intimately laced together. If just one gets out of whack, the balance is lost, and the carrying capacity of the land diminishes, sometimes significantly (think about how often famine plays a role in biblical narratives). As any close observer of the state of affairs will tell you: Israel/Palestine hovers at the cusp of an environmental crisis. It is a fragile landscape that cannot heal itself.

View to harvested fields beside the road. Note the large bales in the distance. The valley floor is covered with colluvial sediments washed down from the hillsides.

Ironically, the crisis has been brought on, in part, by the land’s own attractiveness. People have been drawn to settle here for millennia. Good soil, adequate moisture, a strategic location, wooded hills, ideology, and more . . .  these factors have rendered this corner of the world a busy place. Like the magic slate from childhood (do you remember those little grey drawing boards with the plastic stylus and lift-off sheet?), human history has been written and rewritten repeatedly on Galilee’s folded hills. Yet with each new install, the ground is never fully erased. Residues are etched deeply into its surface. Abuses leave scars. The ground is a scribbled, uneven, and complex accumulation of cultural memories Often one memory is scratched right into the top of another. Sometimes those memories are deliberately rubbed off (this idea of attempted erasure must be pursued here on some future day).

Archaeologists are charged to sort out these puzzles. Environmental scientists and geographers work on the problem with a different tool set. The same is true of anthropologists and historians. But one conclusion is shared by all: humanity conditions the environment even as humanity is conditioned by it. Underneath the system is a throbbing, reciprocating hum.

I traverse the drainage basin between Nazareth (inside the red circle) and old Suffuriyyah (inside the yellow circle). This image is a composite of two plates found in the work of the British explorers Kitchener and Conder (published in the 1880s). Old maps like these strip away some of the veneer of modernity. Check out the wonderful tool at the Digital Archaeological Atlas of the Holy Land here.

As a graduate student, I stumbled upon Fernand Braudel’s three-tiered approach to the past (try googling the Annales school). Call me “old fashioned” but I find his sensitivity to the geographical play to be fascinating. It creeps into my classroom and into my vocabulary (and forces me to muddle through phrases like la longue durée orl’histoire événementielle). It opens my eyes to the landscape before me.

While not directed at the Galilee, Braudel’s observations about Mediterranean hills are appropriate. Here, he writes, is “an exceptionally stable and well-ordered civilization, unused to movement, or at any rate to the massive migration and wild flights of the mountain region, a closely knit rural civilization, patiently constructed by hacking out terraced gardens, orchards, vineyards, and fields where the hillside was not too steep. A series of urbanized villages and small towns with narrow streets and tall, closely packed houses was installed in the hollows, the draga, the promontories, the isthmuses of the coast. Here the people were hard-working and level-headed, comfortable, if not rich” (from his The Mediterranean1972:57).

Of course, I try to squeeze a first century landscape out of a contemporary view. It is difficult. While some conditions are unchanged, many are quite different. It is difficult to escape the flat-spin of mismanagement.

Farm hands at work in the cool of the morning.

For example, I know that the mix of soil in the valley I now walk, largely rendzina in character, is smeared over basement rock like frosting, thick and muddy. This soil once coated the hillsides as well. However, when the forests were stripped away, winter rains washed these sediments downslope. As a result, naked ridges arc around me like the sides of some starved animal. Stoney ribs protrude. It is beyond reclamation.

I also know that prior to the expulsion of the Arab population from Suffuriyyah (1949), this valley was a place of pomegranates, chickpeas, olives, wheat, and vegetables. These are traditional Mediterranean crops, patch planted, and grown from heirloom seeds. They, and the traditional strategies for growing them, are rapidly becoming artifacts. The scratch plow has been replaced by the row cultivator, the donkey by the Deere. The pomegranates have been traded for for sugar beets, fodder, and cotton.

Galilee is undoubtedly the land that Jesus walked, but deforestation, erosion, mechanization and urbanization have profoundly reshaped its draping cover.

Sugar beets (I believe) in the foreground; an olive grove is more distant. On the horizon the road climbs toward Suffuriyyah.