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    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.

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