My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Down on the Kibbutz

So, if you’ve been following along you must be wondering just what I’ve been doing in the five days I’ve been on the Kibbutz (aside from drinking and dancing with the volunteers and the Garin). Let me give you a little run-down of how things have been working around here. The Kibbutz is called Kibbutz Ketura, and it’s about fifty miles north of Eilat, which is right on the Gulf of Aqaba. We went on a hike up a steep trail just outside the Kibbutz the other evening, and as the lights came on down the coast you could see Eilat blending into the Jordanian city of Aqaba, which is about twice as big. The Jordanian border is extremely close to the Kibbutz – so close that a few days ago my friend Adi and I walked out of the Kibbutz, across the highway, through the date orchard, along the windbreak of the experimental orchard, and in about ten minutes we hit a sign saying STOP! BORDER AHEAD! Though Jordan and Israel have a peace, Israel is incredibly strict about wandering through the border. People say that they have seen Israeli soldiers come to the Kibbutz looking for the person who left their size 11 New Balance footprint on the other side! It was funny to hear the student life coordinator, on hearing that we were going for a walk outside the Kibbutz, say not “have fun!” but “Don’t go to Jordan!” In an earlier post I wrote about how small Israel seemed. Now I can feel it firsthand.

There are a number of different groups of people living together on the Kibbutz, which leads to some interesting dynamics. Firstly, there are the Kibbutznicks themselves, largely American Jews who have made aliyah. From what I have heard, many of the Kibbutz children don’t stay on the kibbutz for their adult life, and so much of the new population is new American blood rather than legacies. Ketura is one of the few Kibbutzim to have stuck with the real socialist ideology of the original Kibbutz movement, and so all income and all work is shared. However, one interesting deviation from the original ideology is that at some point, the Kibbutz decided that to make a profit on the date orchard, they needed to actually hire laborers rather than relying purely on Kibbutz labor and volunteers. So another contingent of the Kibbutz is about ten or fifteen Thai workers who come over for a year or two to work for relatively cheap, and then return to Thailand rich. Apparently they speak Thai, a little Hebrew, and almost no English. There are a few different means of income for Ketura, mainly dairy, dates, a really cool algae operation, and a few small businesses including a small cake company. They’re looking to expand and diversify though, getting into solar as well. Siemens has funded about 40 percent of a small solar project that’s hopefully a first step into a solar economy, so we can see firsthand how the Kibbutzim have to keep evolving to get by and thrive. I haven’t gotten to speak with many of the Kibbutzniks yet, but life on Ketura seems pretty relaxed and low key (for Israel anyway!), with few pretensions.

Secondly, there are the volunteers, mostly Jews but also some non-Jews, who come from around the world and take free room and board in exchange for doing work around the Kibbutz. For the most part these are kids taking a gap year either after high school or somewhere in their undergrad, out and about in the world “finding themselves” or just having a good time. There’s a group of eight Australian guys who are travelling together after high school, a number of Aussie girls, a few Americans, a couple Brits, one Scottish girl, a South African guy, and even a girl who lives at…Bathurst and Sheppard! Into this category I’m going to slip the people who are just here to visit the Kibbutz, which makes a little income on tourism as well.

Thirdly, there are the Garin, Israelis just out of high school who are doing a year of community service work before entering the army. I haven’t spent a lot of time with them, but from the interactions I have had, they seem like really solid, joyful kids a few years younger than me. They’ve got the Israeli energy and slight cheekiness I’ve been noticing all around Israel thus far.

Lastly, there’s the Machon, or Arava Institute. While the Institute finds its home on Ketura, and some faculty are also Kibbutzniks (about 13 out of 140 members work at the Machon), there is a slight uneasiness in the relationship. This is only natural when you think of a group of about 150 Kibbutzniks and their families living on a small patch of green in the middle of the Desert. The place is pretty enclosed and isolated and Kibbutz life is good and simple, but also hard. When you’re on the Kibbutz, everything is taken care of, from three meals a day to laundry service to child care, swimming pool, playgrounds and playing fields. But as one of the founding members said tonight, after all of this is paid for by the Kibbutz, the division of funds to members according to their needs leaves everyone feeling a little cash poor. So if you’re going to be a real member, and commit to the socialism, you’re going to feel pretty territorial about your stuff. Now throw into the mix about 20 volunteers, a bunch of Garin, and then about 50 undergrad and masters students from around the region and the world! I haven’t seen it first hand, but it should be interesting.

So far life here has been pretty smooth and relaxed. We’ve been swimming in the pool, hiking in the desert, playing football with the Aussies and Garin, playing music at night, and basically finding our footing and getting adjusted to life here have been our main activities. Now that the holidays are over and the Kibbutz schedule is back to normal we’re doing an Ulpan for most of the mornings. The students who’ve arrived so far are mostly American, with a token appearance from the commonwealth in my person and an Aussie named Philip. We come from diverse backgrounds, from California to Omaha to New York to North Carolina, from Day School to totally secular, and from right out of high school to beginning a masters degree. The diversity will only increase from here.

So there’s the set-up so far, in brief. I’ll keep you posted as things heat up!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Night 2 / Re-run

It is very late, even though the time change gave us an extra hour tonight.  We used it to keep the Kibbutz pub open an extra hour and dance.  The Machon (Arava students), the volunteers, and the Garin (pre-army civil service Israelis) all danced together until we were forced to shut down around 1:30, and, still awake, I come writing to you.  But I am tired, so as a cop out, though a fitting one, I am going to post one of my letters from the farm from last summer.  The stars are gorgeous here, and they made me feel like I did one night on the farm:

Out here on the farm, you can really see the stars. Not one or two of the most persistent ones, breaking through the glowing haze of the human hive, but pretty much the whole deal, milky way and all. And yes, they do make you feel small. It’s not for nothing that God promised Abraham that his descendants would be like the sand and the stars. Long ago it was clear to most people that the stars, the planets, the sun and the moon were god-like. They encircled the earth on which people lived and which was the center of the universe, cared dearly about and greatly affected world affairs, could be placated with gifts and pleas. For most ancient people the passing of the sun, moon, and planets through different constellations of the “fixed” stars bore portentous information about the ages and epochs of the world and what they would bring. Many viewed the drama of earth as a very brief sequence, a flash of five or six thousand years which would end in apocalypse, and possibly rebirth.

Today the stars are largely silent. They do not speak our language, but the language of radio telescopes, pulsing electromagnetic radiation by which we can, across the gulf of light years and ages, decipher their chemical make-up, their stage of “life,” and much more. The drama of the stars is breathtaking – gigantic supernovas, multiple star systems in intricate dances, black holes ripping space-time – but is the same sort of drama as the moving of continents, the buckling up of mountains, and the advance of glaciers. There is less tragedy in the death of a star that in that of a butterfly. I look at the stars and long so much for there to be something else out there capable of speaking to us in our language. Maybe someone out there can help us, give us some wisdom. Things would be so much easier if we could, like those ancients, read the answers to our questions in the stars. But maybe the vastness of space, that great physical emptiness of things like us, can serve as the same sort of abyss as the one that I talked about last week. If The Answer cannot be divinely inspired or sent from outer space, that leaves things to us. On the one hand, this is quite a responsibility. On the other hand, it is incredibly liberating.

But where to start? We have access today to the great works of almost every tradition on earth, from the Upanishads to the Tanach to Plato to Lao Tzu to the Tibetan Book of the dead. There must have been more books written in the last fifty years than in the whole rest of the 5,000 years since the written word and maybe 50,000 since the art of storytelling emerged. I love wandering in used book stores. Some people need dope fixes, I need my browsing fix. My latest read, by Ryscard Kapuscinski, is called Travels with Herodotus, and is an autobiography of a man who spent time covering events all over the world for 50 years. He describes the conundrum of feeling incredibly small in the face of this expanse of humanity, yet somehow wanting to understand it: “It was a kind of malady, a dangerous weakness, because I also realized that these civilizations are so enormous, so rich, complex and varied, that getting to know even a fragment of one of them would require devoting one’s whole life to the enterprise.” I would add that the same goes for any single person, present or past. In fact, the longer I spend on this planet the more I realize that getting to know even myself feels like standing before the stars.

I used to feel as though if I read enough, learned enough, gathered all the relevant information, then I could really make a final decision on things, then I would know who I was and what I wanted. I would have it all figured out. But like that old hydra, you bite into one question and two grow back in its place. Read one book and three more seem necessary. Wouldn’t it be great to know the story of everyone on the subway car with you? One instinct at this junction is to throw in the towel and say that since we can’t know everything we shouldn’t bother trying. But instead of wanting to understand it all like I did before, I think I've slowly shifted towards wanting to be a part of it all. It's better to be happy with the one book that I'm reading, the one person I'm talking to, the one course I'm taking in life, than to be sad about the millions of books I'm not reading, the billions of people I'm not talking to, and the infinite courses I'm not taking in life. I think I’m growing to love my smallness more and more.
So, there it is.  This experience is pretty overwhelming, but I'm loving it.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I’m on my way to Jerusalem, and the sun is setting over the parched hills on the horizon. The flight wasn’t nearly as long as I had imagined – only 10 hours. Most people would be frankly relieved by this, but I was actually disappointed. I love being in transit, having a good chunk of time between places where I can step back from my life and think about it from a new perspective. This is also why I really do love taking the train rather than flying (it’s for the environment too, but I suppose I could be doing it grudgingly). I was telling the woman next to me on the plane why I was disappointed to only have ten hours, six of them asleep, and went on to tell her about how wonderful my two and a half day train ride from Toronto to Green River , Utah was. She said: You don’t have children. I have six. I don’t like my trips to be longer than they have to be. Touché.

And now the sun has set over the hills, and the Orthodox man sitting in the seat next to me is moving effortlessly back and forth between his prayer book and his cell-phone. I’ve received help from no fewer than three smiling faces in the hour I’ve been on the ground: A gentle elderly man who chased me down because I dropped my swim goggles from my bag, the Russian about my age who held my hand through getting a bus ticket and getting on the right bus, the 14 year old girl who let me use her cell phone (which had a topless picture of Eminem as the background). I’m getting excited to start learning Hebrew through immersion rather than just my Rosetta Stone, though I’m happy to see that I can pick words and phrases up here and there already. Since I picked up the Arabic alphabet before I left, I can now at least sound out all three versions of the messages at the airport. Meaning is the tricky part.

And now it is dark, and I’m on my way to one of the oldest cities on Earth, where people weep in the streets for what they believe happened there thousands of years ago. I’m glad that after my travels I’ll be met at the station by a friendly face. I struck a deal with the people at the Arava that since nothing was really going to happen in the ten hours between 1:00 am and 11:00 am, I could meet up with my friend Daniel in Jerusalem and stay with him for the night, taking the early bus out of Jerusalem in the morning. Then, at 11:00, I start my new life here. But until then, it’s kind of nice to still be in transit for a while.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On a Jet Plane

Well my bags are packed and I’m ready to go….

I managed to fit all of my stuff into one backpacking pack, one MEC rolly bag, and one little backpack. This includes a fine selection from my personal library – trimmed down about 12 times. Those of you who know me well know that I can’t go to the corner store without bringing ample reading material (just in case!), so choosing what to pack with a weight limit required some discipline. I mean, how can I know that I won’t wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat reaching for...oh I don’t know…Camus’ The Fall or Biomimicry by Janine Benyus or Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolf?

But I digress

For the past month I’ve been just enjoying the lovely Indian Summer that’s blessed Toronto – for a city as big and built up as it is, you’d be surprised how easy it is to bike anywhere without even going on a road. Using the free bike map provided by the city, you can literally spend all day every day exploring new routes and areas, discovering treasures you’d never find in a car. But be that as it may, I’m just about finished floating down the lazy river. A person can only take so much vacation. Give me my paddle; I’m ready for the rapids!

It’s blowing my mind a little bit that in about 24 hours I will be touching down in Tel Aviv, hopping on a bus, and arriving at the Arava Institute about 1:00 a.m. on Friday morning. I’ll be met by the student life coordinator, shuttle my stuff up to my room, and hopefully catch some shut-eye before a big bike ride at 6:30 a.m. I hope I don’t get whole-self whiplash.

0 to 100 in 24 hours – I can’t wait!

Friday, September 18, 2009

From Generation to Generation

Do we have a moral responsibility to ensure that the people who will be living in five, fifty, and five hundred years have the same richness of opportunities, richness and diversity of life, and richness of natural environment that we currently enjoy? In a discussion I once had with a moral philosophy student, she argued that environmentalists are guilty of an ethical lapse since they put the well-being of future generations ahead of the well-being of many people currently living on the planet. After all, who is this abstract future generation, and how can we tell, say, people starving in a developing country that they cannot exploit resources for their own survival, all for the benefit of potential people of the future? There is a real dilemma here, and it is absolutely clear that environmental and social inequity are tied together, but our ultimate goal has to be sustainability above all. As hard as it is for social equality to flourish now, if environmental degradation continues on its present course then it will be much harder for future generations, especially the supposedly 9 billion people who will populate the globe by 2050.

I feel this now deep down in my gut, because a very short time ago I became an uncle. My beautiful darling niece is now 19 days old, and anything but abstract. I saw her minutes after she was born, and I just wasn’t prepared for how new she was. The wonderful thing about people is that every single person is thrown into the world totally fresh, and each person gets to discover it for themselves. She was as fresh as a person can get, and the pure joy and hope involved in such a moment can knock you off your feet. She will be the age I am now in 2032, just about the time that the British Science Advisor has predicted a perfect storm of food, water, and energy shortages, throwing the world into political, social, and environmental disarray. Those two thoughts, one the face of my niece as I held her moments after her birth, and the other the potential future that lies in store for her and her generation, react with each other to make my resolve to do something about it stronger than ever.

Tonight is the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year in the Jewish calendar. While history is inexorably creeping forward, our personal lives are largely organized by cycles – the daily cycle, weekly cycle, the monthly cycle, the yearly cycle, and the cycle of birth and death. We are constantly returning to the beginning, able to start a new day, a new week, a new year, a new life. No matter how old you are, each day is a rebirth, a chance to once again discover the world all over again, and an opportunity to create the world all over again. It is an endless flow of opportunity, but an endless cycle of responsibility. This new year, take an opportunity to think of the new life being brought into the world, and do what you can to ensure that their opportunity for joy doesn’t diminish one bit.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Arava Institute

I thought it would be good to link anyone following this to a couple of videos about the Arava Institute.

First, here's the institute website if you want to browse around:

Here's the official video made by the institute:

Here's a collection of videos made by Alexandra Coustaeu (yes, Jaques Coustaeu's granddaughter) interviewing some students and professors from the institute as part of her project to document water stories from around the world. Also there's a clip of some Arava students on CNN:

You can imagine how excited I am to be part of this project!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Where I Will Be - The Desert

I don’t know exactly when it was that I fell in love with deserts. In the last five years there were a few books I read that really turned me on to their amazing biology and ecology (Voice of the Desert, Desert Solitaire), but I think that there must be something about me as I’ve gotten older that’s drawn me to these places. Allow me to meditate a little bit on the life of the desert and maybe I can help you understand why they excite me so much.
Life began in the oceans 3.8 billion years ago and until about 400 million years ago, almost nothing even attempted to colonize the harsh, dry land. The story of life on land is not the story of gradually leaving the oceans, but the story of how to ever more cleverly bring the oceans with you. At first, only brackish water close to the ocean could be colonized, then farther and farther away as adaptations like roots, vascular systems, and waxy coatings in plants enabled even those organisms that can’t move to gather, store, and hold on to their precious water supply. Deserts represent the absolute pinnacle of this achievement of evolution.

The true signature of life on earth is its perpetual battle against entropy, or disorder. When James Lovelock was looking for ways to detect life on other planets, he wondered at how an alien might detect life on ours – his answer was disequilibrium. Entropy would dictate that all disequilibrium naturally goes toward equilibrium states – all ordered things dissipate into randomness. And yet on earth we find a huge amount of disequilibrium, even in the constitution of our atmosphere; oxygen and methane don’t last long together, but in Earth’s atmosphere they’re both perpetually present due to living processes. Dump water into the sand and it will slowly dissipate, spreading out and evaporating. All that water together in such a dry place is a disequilibrium that would naturally go towards randomness. And yet look at all those plants and animals living in such places! I see thousands of ants scurry across the sand – little tiny packets full of water! Trees and cacti, bushes and scrub have all evolved ways to thrive here, gathering the trifle of water that falls so seldom and turning themselves into little oceans protected from the agents of entropy - heat and the dry, sucking wind. One animal, the kangaroo rat of the US southwest, has even evolved the ability to make its own water from the dry food it eats. You may remember from high school biology that the products of animal respiration are water and carbon dioxide; well this rat eats dry food and can use that metabolic water to hydrate.

All of the solutions that these animals have developed over hundreds of millions of years are wonderfully elegant, all very well adapted to the local conditions, and all tried and true. They require no mass reconstruction of the landscape, diversion of massive amounts of water, or infusions of vast amounts of energy (except of course, for sunlight). On all these fronts the most recent inhabitants of the dry lands could use a little work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Where I will live - The Big Picture

I will be spending my next two years in Israel. Why, you might ask, would I choose to fly halfway across the world, leaving family and friends behind, to pursue something that I could very well pursue right here in Canada? Aren’t there Universities here? Don’t they have ecology and environmental science programs? Don’t we have environmental problems to deal with in our own backyard? Yes, on all accounts.

But there’s just something about Israel.

When I was in the Israeli Consulate today getting my student visa stamped, there were a couple of maps that showed the shape of Israel super-imposed onto Canada. The entire nation barely covers the distance from Windsor to Orillia, and that’s its length! At its narrowest point, Israel is probably as wide as the traffic congestion bubble on the 401 created by Toronto. And yet, there it stands, the most vibrant, successful, complex, dysfunctional, beautiful, diverse, and controversial nation on earth, illogically constructed on a little sliver of land with little water, few natural resources, and hostile neighbors. I mean, the place would seem like a desert mirage if it wasn’t real. And yet it is just this illogical nature of Israel that draws me to it as a crucible of how the world might deal with the most important issues facing humanity at the moment.
Here is how Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes Israel’s water situation:

“Israel currently faces the most serious water crisis in its history. Several
years of insufficient rainfall and increased demands due to population growth
and expanding industry have led to a situation where drastic measures to reduce
water consumption are necessary.
“Israel has also ceded millions of cubic litres annually as a part of the peace agreements with Jordan and it is no secret that there is just not enough water in the long run, nor will there be unless other sources such as desalination operated by cheap, sustainable energy become available. For this reason, large budgets are devoted to the development of solar energy for desalination and recently an agreement was reached with the World Bank to fund an experimental power plant that derives its energy from ocean waves.
“In the private sector less attention is paid to water conservation and it is only when the level of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest surface water source, begins to drop below the danger point, and when people see this on their television sets, that anyone seems to be concerned. But vast efforts are underway to find agricultural and industrial uses for water that is too saline to be potable and many other, smaller projects are devoted to this.”

The water level of the sea of Galilee is dropping rapidly, the mighty Jordan River that originates there is often but a trickle, and thus the Dead Sea, which receives the river’s waters, is rapidly drying up. Not only that, but water is a very key political issue, as alluded to in the MFA’s statement. Jeff Halper, an Israeli peacenik and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize often points out that the borders that Israel intends to draw for a final two-state solution have a lot to do with water infrastructure. So here we have a basic problem – Israel is currently drawing water at unsustainable rates, and that’s whilst serving the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories some major environmental injustice (many Palestinians have seriously rationed access to water while neighboring Israeli settlers water their lawns and swim in their pools). Having largely integrated the West Bank into its own infrastructure due to the network of settlements erected since 1967, the feat of managing the region’s water resources in a cooperative and just manner is a staggering political, technological, and environmental challenge.
But it must be done, and done soon. If it can be done in Israel, it can be done anywhere. And if it can be done anywhere, it can be done in Israel.

Maestro, if you please...

Yesterday morning I got an e-mail from Ben Gurion University giving me full acceptance into their masters program. By this time in 2011 I will have an MSc. in Desert Studies, with a specialization in Environmental Studies! This means that the Blog is on!

Welcome family, friends, and interested onlookers to Milk and Honey, where I will be documenting my experience at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Ben Gurion University, both located in the Negev Desert in the south of Israel. While the focus of my masters research will be fairly specific and the nitty gritty details of interest to only a few, the scope of this particular masters program encompasses far more than just soil biology and its relationship to the physiological ecology of the Argan tree (pictured in the blog title). Here is a quote from the Arava Institute’s website:

Here, the idea that nature knows no political borders is more than a belief. It is a fact, a curriculum, and a way of life.

The explicit mission of the Institute is to bring people together from all over the region and all over the world, people who all have a stake in the natural resources that are endangered by environmental degradation and climate destabilization. There are two paths – one in which increasingly scarce resources become a source of conflict, and one in which they become a source of cooperation. There is hope: already, there are people who have graduated from the Institute working in the environment ministries of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan. It may not seem that monumental in the face of such a monumental conflict, but it’s a start.

I get on a plane to Tel Aviv on the 23rd of September, and until then I will try to periodically fill you in on some more details – where I’ll be living, what I’ll be doing, and why I’ll be doing it. Then once I get there the fun will really begin!