We are now almost two weeks into the Omer – the 49 plus one days that are counted between Passover and Shavuoth. In a region that has basically two seasons – winter and summer, the Omer, which bridges between them, has always been a period of tremendous climatic uncertainty, with drastic implications for agriculture.
So far this has been a textbook Omer – Sweltering days followed by drastic drops in temperature. Thunderstorms, lightning and pounding rain, then dust storms that leave a yellow scrim over every surface.
Yesterday we joined Balkees and went to visit our friends who still practice traditional agriculture outside of Nazareth. They had told her that, although they wouldn’t be out in the fields, we could go on our own and pick the peas that are now in season. The matriarch of the family, Um S., whose domain is these fields, was home recovering from a torn cartilage, and her absence was obvious when we searched for the rows of peas.
Amidst the undergrowth, all of the pea plants were dried up and dead, the result, Balkees explained, of the heat, followed by rain, followed by more heat – and of course, no greenhouse protection. We salvaged a small pile of pods, but the peas inside of them, while still green, were bitter.
Nearby, rows of chickpeas seemed to have withstood the climatic onslaught unscathed. Heartiest were the thick-skinned fava beans (ful), and we each filled our bags with them.
Following a plume of smoke, we drove across the rutted dirt roads to the wheat field where a man and woman were in the midst of preparing farike. As I understood it, they had leased the field from our friends and were making their way through the green wheat, harvesting, drying and roasting the green ears at their own pace.
What had all this late rain signified for them, I asked. For the wheat that’s still in the ground, no problem, they answered. But for what was cut and laying on the ground waiting to be roasted, getting wet meant disaster. They had had to spend 1000 Shekels on plastic sheeting to cover the wheat, just to protect their investment. “I knew the rain was coming. I look at the 3-day forecast,” the man explained.
We left the farike-roasters and continued to where our friends keep their cattle and goats out on the rocky open hillside. Abu S. was milking the goats, by hand, taking over for his wife who usually does this work. I was struck with wonder at the primacy of this way of life, based on unmediated interaction between indigenous animals and foods and intensive human effort, with only the barest traces of technology. It was absolutely clear to me that this symbiotic and fraught relationship between humans and the land, maintained for thousands of years on these same hillsides, will not endure much longer.
We followed Abu S. back to their family home, where we sat in the living room, Um S.’s foot wrapped in bandages. Besides the damage to the peas, what did the rains signify for the rest of her crops, I asked. They are good for the tomatoes, she told me. This profound soaking of the earth, I could imagine, boded well for summer vegetables that would rely entirely on groundwater for their growth.