Years ago whilst living in the north of England I bought a dream 300-year-old cottage in Eastgate, a tiny village some 40 miles from the Lake District.
Perched on a hillside with wonderful views it was totally isolated and idyllically peaceful. Whenever I arrived I immediately went into relaxation mode. It was a perfect place for reflection and unwinding. (no mindfulness in those days) However, when striding across the hills I would sometimes ask myself whether, if there was a nuclear attack, could I become self-sufficient and survive. It was much more likely that I would be marooned as, for six months of the year, the cottage was inaccessible because deep snow made the lane leading up to the house impassable.
There would obviously be no lack of water – streams cascaded down the mountainside – and in late autumn they teemed with salmon leaping to reach their spawning grounds.
So I was assured of water and protein – there were also plenty of wild blackberries, mulberries and elderberries as well as hazel nuts and walnuts, in addition to wild garlic, chickweed and nettles. But I drew the line at mushrooms – certain that I would pick poisonous ones by mistake.
Fortunately I was never put to the test. This happened 40 years ago and in retrospect was prescient on my part since these same hills are today ‘alive with the sound of foragers’.
Five years ago I began travelling in Israel with Alon Galili, my guide and mentor on everything in the natural world. He has the capacity to create magic from the smallest pebble, explaining endless facts about plants, animals, archaeology, geology and especially their connection to the Bible. He is hugely knowledgeable about the desert regions of Israel. As a city dweller I was completely unused to this terrain.
My immediate reaction to what I perceived as a ‘barren’ landscape was to ask how on earth anyone could survive here. Alon patiently explained that it is simply a matter of using all your senses – of learning to identify what is around you and ‘seeing’ rather than just ‘looking’. He reminded me that for thousands of years people have lived here, and indeed our own relatives survived for 40 years in the wilderness. I asked him to show me how they did it.
We began our journey north of Jericho. Dotted across the hillside was a plant with bright green leaves, not unlike a daffodil but thicker and shorter. Named Asphodel, (Irit in Hebrew), it has multiple tuberous roots penetrating deep into the ground seeking any moisture available which it retains from year to year.
“Would you like a drink?” asked Alon, unearthing a tuber, and peeling it to reveal a brown interior. This, he assured me, is a natural substitute for coffee – (probably more the colour than the taste!)
‘irit’ an irit tuber.
So we had ‘coffee’ but what about water? “No problem” said Alon. We drove a short distance, stopped the car and out he leapt next to a roadside bush – a variety of Broom ( Rotem in Hebrew). “This is our water source – we tie a plastic bag onto its branches, leave it here for half an hour and when we return the bag will be full of pure drinking water”
Alon collecting water from broom plant.
An hour later we returned and, true enough, there was a bag of water waiting for us. It just needed to be heated. This, I knew, was no problem for Alon whose regular party trick is to create sparks from the piece of flint he always carries, like a senior boy scout. “You see we can now make fire, we just need suitable wood to burn.”
Alon creating sparks
Trying to be useful, I started to gather wood. “No”, says Alon, “we must be very selective about which wood we choose. Some burns too rapidly, we need a slow burning variety”.
Sira Cotsanit.( 1 metre across.)
He points to a low bush. Sira Cotsanit ( prickly burnet) that looked like a springy cushion.For centuries, it was used as a mattress. Alon had used this during his army service, covered by a sleeping bag to protect against the thorns. In years gone by this bush was also used to light beacons throughout the country. It burned very brightly and rapidly, enabling messages to be passed from one hilltop beacon to the next, just like American Indian smoke signals.
This plant however, is not suitable for cooking as it burns too quickly. It is mentioned in Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) 7 : ‘The crackling of thorns under a pot is as the laughter of the fool’ – in other words, useless.
To create a fire that lasts and provides heat, slow burning wood is required such as kelech( giant fennel), which grows prolifically in Israel. Alon hacked down and trimmed some tall branches.
Kelech – common giant fennel Alon cutting kelech stalks
Its yellow blossom is familiar, but it is the stalks that carry the story. They can reach two metres in height and the inside of each stem is spongy like foam. Consequently, there is not enough air within the stalks to produce flames, so the plant burns very slowly. It was used by nomadic tribes as fire could be retained inside the stalks for a day or more whilst they were travelling.
The biblical story of Gideon tells of the use of kelech. God instructed Gideon to fight the Midianites who had been persistently attacking Israelite farmers. Gideon assembled 32,000 men, but God said this was too many and that anyone afraid, sick or just married should return home. 22,000 departed, 10,000 remained. God repeated that this was still too many and instructed the remaining men to go down to the river to drink. 300 men who cupped their hand with water and lapped it like a dog were accepted but the others who had knelt and taken water directly from the river, were rejected.
The chosen group of 300 then attacked then their enemy from three sides simultaneously. Each warrior held a burning kelech stick on top of which was a ceramic jar. At a given signal all the jars were cracked and Gideon’s fighters stormed into the enemy camp with flaming torches and loud trumpets to add to the confusion. Gideon was victorious.
Back in the desert it was now approaching 4pm -tea time in England – an appropriate juncture to partake of our repast. However, as I explained to Alon, ‘afternoon tea’ is incomplete without something sweet’. So we drove on to a copse of Doum date palms – unusual as this location is the furthest point north where such palms can be found. We had our ‘tea’.
Doum date palms.
Soon the light began to fade. I had no idea in which direction our camp lay, but this time it was the ‘compass plant’ (Khatsat Hamatspen’) that came to our rescue. Ancient travellers could always navigate by observing its leaves which always point in the direction of north/south – and so we were able to retrace our steps.
Checking Alon’s compass with the compass plant.
I had enjoyed a wonderful and unusual day, learning many new things about the desert – but in reality only beginning to touch the tip of the iceberg ( some may say an unsuitable metaphor given our location). The experience has left me wanting to learn more.