SILENCE OF THE LANDS

People in Israel/Palestine smoke more than anyone I’ve ever met. They smoke as if the laws of physics don’t apply - as if because, for them, smoking is as essential as breathing, it cannot harm them. Many of these people are my friends and colleagues. I love them and worry about their health. But, what to say that can hold the complexity of what they are holding, face what they are facing, and encourage them to think of themselves when the future is so precarious? I’ve noticed other ways that self-care and care for the planet are eclipsed in the Middle East: in crowded cities, people leave their car engines running while they double park to run errands. And, in this sparsely treed landscape, plastic bags are used as kindling, along with scraps of particleboard saturated with noxious glue and shellac. People who are well-to-do leave lights on even when rooms or whole houses are empty. It is a sign of affluence and leisure, and, therefore, of having no worries – a precious state of being in this tinder box. 

In Gaza, ocean pollution is literally killing those who dare to go swimming. Due to a chronic dispute over electricity and water treatment, the Israeli and Palestinian governments allow over 110 million liters per day of untreated sewage to flow from Gaza into the sea. Fisheries, marine ecosystems, animals and, now, children have sickened and died as a result of swimming at Gaza’s beaches.  

Some Israeli settlers whose homes were built above Palestinian villages have taken to releasing untreated waste water into streams that were, until recently, pristine. They toss their garbage onto their Palestinian neighbors’ homes as a deliberate and unsanitary form of harassment. Bedouins have been forcibly relocated to polluted areas, including landfills. As a Jew, I am ashamed - and fascinated. It’s difficult to imagine the desperation that would inspire these acts. Settlers are my people but they’re not my people. I don’t recognize their behavior and yet we are kin. How to reconcile this? 

I see these acts of garbage-slinging as an expression of self-loathing driven by trauma. How else to explain the thinking that we can protect ourselves by causing harm to others? It is an ancient, global question.

Palestinian friends tell me that young men who throw stones (or worse) have been driven to desperation because they are not being listened to, not feeling heard. Israelis, especially settlers, speak of feeling deeply afraid and unsafe with Palestinians. Safety can be built, but it’s an inside job more than a matter of understanding or changing another. Where does that sense of safety come from when we feel surrounded by danger, real and imagined? On what foundation does it rest when we’ve been traumatized, our families and ancestors, all traumatized? 

I remember my father’s favorite story: a little boy has climbed a tree. “Jump,” says the father. “Don’t worry, I’ll catch you.” When at last the child jumps, his father folds his arms and steps aside. The child crashes to the ground. He cries and cries. “You see,” says the father, “you can’t trust anyone.” History and collective memory become personal and keenly felt. I ask myself if, on my next trip to the Middle East, I might have the courage to visit these communities and listen. Just listen. Am I capable of this level of witnessing? Would it do any good? 

While the fetid connections between untreated sewage and illness are hard to ignore, the effects of car exhaust, energy use, plastic bags and the climate crisis are not an explicit part of daily conversation in Israel/Palestine. The exigencies of living under a state of siege make matters of personal or planetary health seem like an indulgence. As in any closed system – including, sometimes, here in the US, information and context are tossed by the wayside along with the trash. 

I’ve begun to see that ecological restoration and its precursor, gratitude, can be powerful points of intervention for peacemaking. What we love wholeheartedly we are less likely to harm. Gratitude opens our eyes to beauty. Love shows us how to expand the table to feast with all beings. 

Palestinians and Israelis alike throw their trash into ravines, into streams, into the ocean, into fields and along the roads, and, like us, move about their days as if this accumulation of human detritus in the natural world were a form of mute consent. But Earth’s silence can mean many things, including, perhaps, hunger: hunger for respect expressed as awareness. Hint: Pick up yer damn trash, including those cigarette butts! Hunger for relationship expressed by reciprocity. The word culture comes from Middle English, where it meant place tilled. The original root of the word derives from the Latin colere, to inhabit, care for, till, worship. Original cultures were based on Earth worship. 

Perhaps we humans are like forests, after all – where antidote plants grow next to poisonous ones, as if Nature were thinking ahead, planning for our human frailties. Perhaps, beyond being each other’s perceived source of terror, Israelis and Palestinians are each other’s antidote to it. After all, we have grown side by side for millennia, in the same soil.

Veterans, victims of abuse, traumatized children, have sought – and found, solace in the soil, and have received comfort from the natural world when human society proves too bruising. Stepping stones appear as we carefully pick our way from solace to safety to the ability to see beauty again, to feel grateful, and part of the Whole. The distance is short from gratitude to reverence to worship as an appropriate expression of gratitude for Life. And it’s simple to make Earth-gratitude tangible. No need for special training or expertise. Humility is a level playing field. Gratitude can be worshipfully expressed anywhere, in any way, by anyone at any time: some morsels from a meal, a bouquet, an egg, a sprinkling of cornmeal or seeds or ash, placed gently on the ground or in a body of water, to re-sanctify them, or rather, to re-sanctify and thereby restore our relationship with those places and things. 

Tending the land, and making tangible offerings are beautiful practices. But beautiful words can be enough. In Liberia, when Nature is unexpectedly kind, Muslim elders sometimes go into the forest and read particular passages from the Koran out loud to the animals and the trees. I have borrowed from this tradition and personalized it: I like to stop and speak my gratitude out loud several times during the day. It’s a form of prayer that keeps me grounded when grief and worry overwhelm me, especially grief for the natural world. I highly recommend it: Talk to a tree or a bird or an apricot. You will see with fresh eyes how wondrous these things truly are. Let’s use our voices like birdsong. As my daughter used to say when she was little, let us ‘hum or talk or sing’ Earth’s praises, out loud, to the soil and the weather and the sea. And, don’t worry if you can’t carry a tune. Let the tune carry you.

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