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  • The desert

    Posted on February 6th, 2010 Sheila Yair 9 comments

    desert Have you ever noticed how you shrink to a tenth of your size as you enter the desert? Out of all the fascinating things the desert holds this is perhaps the most amazing. Now some cynics will say I am crazy, I see the look on their face combined with the un-uttered “what?”. But it is true. It won’t help you to run out to the desert with a measuring tape for the desert shrinks everything that enters it, you and what ever measuring equipment you happen to carry with you. upon exiting , it brings you back to full size. That is why modern science has never really discovered this phenomenon. The desert leaves no evidence of its tricks. But those who have observant eyes can see it in the size of the mountains and valleys and in the vast spaces. Those with sensitive ears can hear it in the wind, how it blows much more hollow, like the difference between the same note played on a tiny fiddle and a giant contra-base.

    The desert exists between the edges. It exists in the limits. In its vastness it absorbs and unifies extremes leaving the rest of the world in the middle. The colors we see in the desert are from both ends of the visible spectrum. The warm reds, yellows and oranges from the top merged with the blues and purples from the bottom. The rest of the planet snuggles in the middle of the spectrum, in green and blue. The desert lies within the extremes of temperature striking the hottest temperatures on the face of this planet at day and some of the coldest at night. Again leaving the rest of the earth in the middle of the thermometer. It also has always been at the limits of our societies. North would lay one kingdom south another empire and east and west still different countries. It is the shoreline where man’s world ends. Till this day if anyone wants to escape humanity they will head down to the desert as David and Jesus did.

    In ancient Hebrew there were two words for desert, midbar which meant the livable desert, and miktza which was the unlivable one. The difference between the two was extremely significant in those times. The midbar had just enough precipitation for shrubs and weeds to grow, for wells to be dug and rivers to be dammed on the few days of the year when it did rain. It was just enough for the roughest crops and husbandry of the toughest animals, usually goats and camels. Today we only use one word, the livable one. Maybe it is because we think we have conquered nature and tamed the desert or maybe because it is not important any more and only a very few want to live in the desert these days.

    No matter what we call it, the desert is a fascinating tale of survival. Every dune, hill and ravine is an amazing chapter of struggle and endurance. To walk the desert is to flip through the pages of this incredible story. Anything that manages to live in these harsh conditions is a success story of life defying all odds, an astonishing monument of durability and adaptability. For both in the miktza and the midbar you need to utilize your limited resources in a very smart and efficient way and although the desert is huge there is no room in it for error.

    But let’s leave the desert for a second, let’s resume our normal size for a moment and go to the middle, let’s go to the jungles of the tropics, to Mexico of the Aztecs. The Aztecs, as their descendants till this day, had a great affinity for flavorful food. Far from the modesty of the desert they lived in a plentiful land with an abundance of plants and spices. They would crush seeds, flowers, chilies and fruits to get their distinct flavors. The molcajetes, the Aztec mortar and pestle, had to be very stable supporting all this grinding. To endure such beatings without spilling a drop, before the invention of tables or marble counters, the Aztecs had to give the molcajetes three legs, for they found that three legs will never wobble. Modern furniture manufacturers know this too and will utilize this principle in stools and tables. Now some cultures will claim they have discovered this useful technique, but the desert of course has known about the stability of three, long before the existence of the human race.

    acaciaHere are a couple of three point desert stories of balance. Both have to do with the acacia tree. The acacia tree has totally adapted itself to the desert, it thrives even in the driest regions. It is a little island of green in a sea of aridness and as such attracts many other life forms. One of these life forms is a certain bug that likes to lay its eggs in the tree’s seeds. It will lay an egg in each seed. The egg will hatch and the larva will then grow eating up all the seed’s inside, using the nutrients that were meant for the new tree to propel its own growth, totally free room and board. It then leaves the seed empty and dry. As an adult, when the time comes to lay the eggs of the next generation, the cycle starts over again as the mature bug seeks another acacia tree. Researchers have found that a new acacia tree is extremely rare to spot and that under the older trees all the seeds are hollow with a tiny little hole where the bug laid its egg. Since the bug is not an invasive species and has lived with the acacia for thousands of years there must be something else upsetting the balance. There must be a third point. After more research they have found that the only new acacia trees spotted, the seeds who actually made it, were always in a pile of hyrax excrement. The hyrax eats the tree’s fruits but does not digest its seeds. The digestive acids in its stomach however kill the eggs and leave the seed fertile and able to sprout. Since there are much less hyraxes due to hunting and use of desert land for industry and agriculture the three points were compromised and we see much less new trees. The balance of centuries is disrupted. Nevertheless on a smaller scale you still find this amazing story of coexistence in the desert continue.

    The other story has to do with the acacia and its unique parasite plant the acacia strap flower. It is uncannily similar to some of what is happening today and might have a few lessons for us to learn. The acacia has two sets of roots, one set of deep ones that go as far down as 50 meters seeking the aquifer waters that run deep below the dry surface. The other set is of wide spread shallow roots that absorb the flood waters when the pass by. Knowing how scarce water is and how difficult it is to gather this precious liquid the acacia has very small leaves to bring evaporation and water loss to a minimum. The strap flower on the other hand only digs a couple centimeters into the acacias branches and easily finds an abundant source of water and nutrients. Disrespectful of the effort and preciousness of water it possesses big leaves and shows off extravagant bright red flowers. This is much like some professions and lifestyles in our modern economy. Hard working people with little leaves to show for it while some others barely do anything and have bright red flowers. Now I do not want to make any enemies so I will just say, anybody creating anything is the tree, any farmer, baker, factory worker, builder etc. You can interpret the etc. your own way. The rest, myself included unfortunately, are the strap flower. In the nature reserves of the south they started seeing an unprecedented occurrence. The strap flower would get so big it would actually break the branch it was sitting on. The branch collapsed. Sounds familiar? There was a lack of a third point, a lack of something big enough to control the lavish strap flower. In nature there was no such thing as too big to fall. The people in charge of the parks have left wild camels out of the protected areas, thinking that will enable the protected flora to recuperate quickly. They have fenced huge areas to try and create camel free zones where the flora will flourish and come back to its natural pre-human extent. Unknowingly they have tempered with the third point creating an imbalance. They found that outside of the parks the branches were fine and the strap flower under control. Like markets the strap flower did not correct itself. So call it market regulation or environmental laws the camel was reintroduced to the parks restoring the balance of three. This is a story not only of balance but of coexistence. The acacias branches are well, the strap flower’s red flowers are decorating the desert and the camel is well nourished and roaming the plains it was meant to roam. In Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha, the two men stare and listen to the river to obtain immense wisdom from it. But at the end Siddhartha has an epiphany realizing that everything in nature obtains this wisdom and we can look at the river, sky or desert to learn our lessons. Our society can benefit greatly if we observe the acacia and its friends and put some of their principles into our daily conduct.

    Dedicated to my grandfather Saadia. Although he was not a great nature lover and rarely made it to the desert, he was an enthusiastic promoter of coexistence and unselfish balance in society, throughout his 96 years of life.

    click here to see photos

  • Bravery

    Posted on February 1st, 2010 Sheila Yair 1 comment

    cliffHow do we define bravery? What makes us admire a certain action and call it bravery? Everybody is telling me how brave my mom is. She is lying on her death bed, her body filled with cancer. She is staring death right in the eye without even flinching. Death is all around her and within her, snooping about watching her every move, waiting to claim her and she totally disregards it brushing it off, for now, with a few good books, marijuana cookies and some movies.

    So let’s see if we can make some sense of bravery.

    It is said that there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness. We tend to associate bravery with success and failure with inanity. So bravery has an element of chance to it. It is something we define retrospectively. It can not be judged alone without looking at the consequences. Military history is filled with stories of commanders who defied all odds with risky maneuvers. The successful ones are considered heroes and the ones who failed are usually forgotten or some times shamefully disgraced by history. Many times it was weather or a mistake on the enemy’s side or any other uncontrollable event that sealed the fate of the maneuver and with it the bravery or failure of the commander. But it is not only in the military where we judge bravery this way. Let’s say we have a start-up company and a certain fellow who invests all his money in this risky company, is that brave? Well if the company succeeds and the investment grows a tenfold no one will say there walks a dumb man but if it collapses very few will say this is one brave investor. Albeit being the same man who took the same action, consequences beyond his control will determine his bravery. The only time we are willing to accept lack of success and associate it with bravery is when one sacrifices himself for a greater cause. A fireman jumping in to a burning house is brave no matter what the outcome is. Aid workers who travel to war torn hazardous places are brave whether they succeed or fail in helping the people. But if a person walked a tightrope, without any greater cause, and fell would we still call him brave? It is just as dangerous as a fire or a war torn country. So we have another element to the equation, we judge bravery by outcome and whether there is some greater cause or sacrifice involved.

    Speaking of tightropes I have recently seen “Man on Wire”, the incredible story of Philippe Petit walking a tightrope between the twin towers of the world trade center. All the images of the twin towers bring back memories, like watching photos of a dear one that is no longer with us, but there is one photo that shows the roof of one of the towers, a tiny Philippe standing above it and the 450 meter abyss below him. That one shot sent shivers down my one meter spine, all of a sudden I realized the proportions, the height, the scale of these buildings, the size of his challenge. He was going to cross this unfathomable depth on a narrow rope. He had to hide from authorities, lug up a lot of heavy equipment, coordinate two teams and finally walk across the abyss. He succeeded and won world fame. And of course is considered a very brave man. So this is what we have so far to define bravery, you have to go against something illogical, to dare do something that seems impossible. You need to succeed in it or have some greater cause involved. But logic is a very general term. Each of us has what he or she defines as logical or illogical. And many times our logic is not very “logical”. Staying on the tightrope, if someone was to attempt walking across a tightrope between two buildings that are 50 meters high that would not be considered as brave as Mr. Petit’s World Trade Center walk. Even though a fall from either endeavor would most likely have the exact same result, one less tightrope walker. That is because our logic is not binary, we do not operate on ones and zeros alone like all the handy computerized devices that we surround ourselves with. What we call logic a lot of times has a great deal of emotion in it. For a claustrophobic person it is probably very illogical to walk in to an office. And it is very brave to spend day after day there with only the fear of being fired and forced to leave that small confined space. Now before all you office workers start fanaticizing about having a documentary done about you, shedding light on your courageous life, how you walked time and time again in to that cramped office space defying no open windows, circulated air and artificial light, remember that you are the majority. Since there is no “logical” logic, we have to go by numbers. Most people fear heights, especially ones that rise up to 450 meters, but Philippe Petit doesn’t, so that is bravery, on the other hand most people are not claustrophobic, so walking in to an office, that is ordinary. I guess my 3 year brush with corporate America will never be documented. We also don’t really pay heed to probability in our logic. For example there are about 3000 automobile accident related deaths a day. That is about a million a year. So I guess we can say we have less than one sixtieth of a percent chance to die in a car. But actually I calculate that based on 6.8 billion people, if we calculate based on the people who actually have and use cars, around 600 million, it is a sixth of a percent each year, 1 out of 160. That is fairly dangerous yet hardly anyone thinks twice before stepping in a car and heading towards the highway. So now the office workers who were denied their documentary for being in an office are saying lets roll the cameras because here is a real danger, statistically proven, that they endure and face each day. But again disappointment, for there is no bravery without fear and fear has little to do with probability. We are dealing with a collective notion, if all society was alliumphobic eating garlic bread would be courageous but there are so very few who fear garlic or even use that word. On the other hand if we would not fear anything in this world than Philippe Petit would only be a commuter, walking between two office buildings he would probably even have to stand in line to get on the tightrope. Since not many people fear automobiles getting into a car is not brave. So we are progressing, to be brave you have to defy something that is feared by most people, you have to succeed in it or at least have a greater cause involved. But documentary films aside bravery like logic and fear should be individual. It is brave to walk into an office if you are claustrophobic, it is brave to eat a garlic knot if you are alliumphobic. To talk to your boss, to take a vacation, to admit your wrong, to run a marathon all these things involve overcoming anxiety therefore they are brave. Bravery is the ability to disconnect yourself from your surroundings, the determination to go ahead and achieve something even when in dire circumstances when danger is lurking and fear is in you.

    So back to my mom who is lying in her room. With cancer the logic above is abolished since it is brave to fight the disease but also brave to accept it and deny treatment. Are we so generous with bravery because we give respect to the sick or because fatal illness is so tightly integrated with our greatest fear of all, the fear of death? I don’t know. Is my mom brave? I also can’t say. I know she made a choice long ago to never get old, to never live without the ability to run and swim and hike. And now she is following this decision adamantly even in harsh circumstances and on the edge of death. And I also know she is acting in a way very few people could bring themselves to act.