DISTANT NATURE
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SUBJECTIVE LANDSCAPES
People walk up the Mount of Temptation every day, visiting the holy site where Christ is said to have been tempted by the devil.

On the banks of the Jordan river, at the Baptismal Site of Christ in Qasar al-Yahud, people reenact the holy moment, dipping their bodies into a small green wetland, stepping off a pine-wood deck into muddy water lined by reeds and rushes. Their faces are confused, ecstatic and delirious.

Tourists—swollen, red, tall—in Bikinis and Speedos, carrying the plastic-wrapped smock printed with Mary and Jesus tightly in their hands. There is a sense of ritual urgency to the whole act—we walk through to a white stone enclosure, like the entrance to a public swimming pool. The shower-stalls are on the left, the baptism site ahead of us, down the flight of stairs on the right. The air smells like sand and coffee from a vending machine. Everywhere, white bodies in white clothes. We walk down the stairs, past two adolescent soldiers in an ugly amount of armour and weapons. The view is spectacular.

Figures crowd in a stream of milky water, making sure to take selfies before getting out to dry and change. The man besides us looks confused. He points across the water—Palestine, he says, that’s Palestine. No, we tell him. This is Palestine, that Jordan. He is bewildered.

Jordan is on the other side, separated from Palestine by this stream. Looking closely, we can see Jordanian flags hidden behind the trees. Cordoned off by a length of nylon rope and floating buoys is a firing zone, where anyone crossing the international border could be shot without warning. I can imagine that between the reeds, there is a wire or grill under the water.

Immersed figures rise out of the water, their shapes—like the dunes—outlined by the clinging, wet fabric. A few photos later, we leave.

As with many parts of Occupied Palestine, the Jordan Valley is bestowed with deep religious significance, albeit within a very specific, carefully defined topographic area. The slopes, canyons and dunes leading up to holy sites are mere transition sites into a representational space of ritual, belief and folklore1—whether the cave, the monastery or the water. Whilst the act of pilgrimage once polished stepping-stones and carved footpaths into the sides of the hills, it now leaves behind stains of sunblock, empty bottles and broken souvenirs. Our perception of these sacred points on the map is symbolic, representational—we see each setting through a religious imagination that clouds our relationship with their tangible physical environment.

Extended to include areas beyond those of religious significance, when one considers how we look at nature now, I believe that we have developed a way of seeing that is subjective without being inclusive. Rather than extending its boundaries to bring in the synthetic and artificial into its sight, our perspective chooses not to see, feel or acknowledge. Not only does this remove our accountability, it also denies us the possibility to face our abuse, neglect and ignorance of the spaces we consider valuable to us.

On my first walk in Jericho—away from the city, towards the fields—I saw a landscape that played on identities. It was nauseating and beautiful. The outer edges of the city are defined by banana plantations, citrus orchards and vegetable farms. Each newly-planted row of vegetables was tightly tucked into the ground with a thick plastic sheet to keep the moisture in, a cheap and effective attempt to simulate the effect fallen leaves have on bare earth2; besides the fields, old knotted rags of plastic gleamed in the afternoon sun, iridescent. Instead of decomposing like old leaves, turning back into a rich humus, the sheets crumble into smaller and smaller pieces, dotting the soft alluvial soil with specks of yellow, black and white.

People talk about the spread of microplastics into our water bodies and the particulate matter suspended in our atmosphere; we test for—and find—high levels of heavy metals in our food and in our blood. With each new result, it becomes increasingly apparent that the two endpoints of our material spectrum—one that defines what we might call or consider Natural, or not—are moving closer together, forming a new synthetic nature, one that is as much made from the earth as it is made by machines and factories.

I am compelled to come back to my earlier point, to re-consider the duality of human-made and Nature. I believe that it is here—in our definitions of Nature and Ecology—that we need to accommodate a contemporary perception of landscape, one that does not only differentiate between what is good and bad, but instead sees that we live within an ecological system not outside of it. We need to understand the effects of one on the other and how these might change our environment, our societies and our bodies.

Do the people who dip themselves into the Jordan river—at the Baptismal Site in Qasar al-Yahud—know that sewage and agricultural effluents ran freely into the water for years? Would the purity of the water make a difference to them or are its biochemical properties sacrosanct? Is the act of buying produce locally from a local farmer more important than knowing supporting them might mean supporting methods that deplete the soil of its fertility with each consecutive harvest?

The complex political control over agriculture has lead to an imbalanced and uneven socioecological web of biopolitical hegemony, resource-grabbing and uneven experiences of nature. Yes, this is a project on Palestine, the Jordan Valley, plants, food and healing; yes, this is also an exploration of botany and the politics of a herbarium. But lastly—and at its core—this is an understanding that without normalizing the violence and inequality present within a landscape, we need to see these aspects as an active part of the ecology. In the same way we forecast weather, measure soil-quality and map topography, we need to acknowledge the geopolitical and economic layers of the landscape within our deeper web of ecological systems.

I met communities and individuals within Palestine that constantly find ways to work against the challenges placed on them through their daily lived experiences of political occupation. A group of women I spoke to in Nablus told me about how they prepared themselves for weeks-long curfews without access to nutrition and medicine by learning emergency medical treatments and going back to traditional food-preservation techniques3, often combining traditional practises with a contemporary knowledge of medicine and nutrition that took into account what is and isn’t available in urban areas. A man in Auja showed me how—once his permission to dig a well was denied by the Civil Administration—built a constructed wetland system to purify and reuse water on his land; most of the families in his town now have their own systems after seeing the success of his. My friend in Hebron told me about how—because he could not travel outside the West Bank without a special permit—met a person he was seeing in a mall by East Jerusalem, getting as far as he could to a private anonymous space of relaxation and pleasure without having to cross a checkpoint.

Each conversation and every passing day in Palestine affirms the complexity of the politics. The occupation stifles cultural and intellectual growth and spontaneous social change because of the control over movement, denied access to resources and poor infrastructure. People find their personal rituals and communal traditions subject to an unpredictable—often contradictory political climate—one that can grow suddenly into a complex maze of blockades and barriers just as easily as it can into tear-gas canisters and the army.

However, this does not mean that life here is without joy, beauty and pleasure; or that individuals victimize themselves. My meetings were never sad or wistful—my friends and the people I met during my research were often angry but positive. We laughed at the absurdity of apartheid and felt sorry for its weak, violent insecurities. We spoke of the occupation as something to work with as much as possible—something to mould, manipulate and form into a resource that could accommodate wishes, dreams, desires, interests, actions and freedom in whatever ways possible.

One of my first conversations was about the olive harvest. It was late October and the roads from Hebron to Jericho—dry, golden rock faces and tall Fennel bushes gone to seed—were lined with small families and large groups of people spreading white sheets on the ground. The sheets are spread beneath the trees once the olives that have already fallen—with the wind, perhaps, or those that are overripe—are picked up, to be used to make soap. After spreading the sheets, the branches are either combed with small plastic rakes—found in the market in a variety of bright colours—or searched through and picked by hand.





Olive groves have a distinct dryness to their ecology; the trees reflect a land that is fertile and sunburned; their windswept, knotted trunks thicken as they age and the smooth leaves are stiff and waxy, glossy even. Olive-picking is seasonal ritual, one that marks the point in the year when winter slowly arrives. The freshly-pressed oil is cloudy in the bottles and each person prefers a different flavour in their kitchen—a wholesome acidic bitterness, or a delicate, oily fragrance. The harvests are a time of working, picnic-lunches during the last sunny days of the year.

In a seasonal enactment of geographical control over cultural heritage, land trapped between—or besides—settlements and fragmented by the apartheid wall or checkpoints might find itself without people to harvest its offerings. There are many ways in which a deeply symbolic practice is stalled and negated—the army might refuse to open a gate leading towards a plantation, leading people to wait for hours without knowing whether or not they can go through to their harvest. Residents of settlements might burn or uproot trees. They might even attack people tending to their fields. Whilst these acts of social apartheid are enacted, the olive trees droop at the points where they are most tender. Their branches curved downwards under a tired burden and their fruits grow darker and darker, stained with a soft mould that rots them. Removing a person from their land is part of an intentional distancing, a carefully planned negation of the cultural aspects of ecology and landscape—ones that are woven together in song, poetry and illustration; the motifs embroidered on fabric and carved into stone; in food, recipes and taste.

Nature then becomes a network of power-relations, and ecological strains are transferred from one person—or community—to another. The effects of depleting water-reserves in the Jordan Valley and the South Hebron Hills are felt by the Bedouin communities that have inhabited these lands for decades, not by the settlements surrounding them that deplete water to irrigate their lawns. Arable land polluted with industrial waste by factories in the north of Occupied Palestine deny the communities living there access to fresh produce but does not burden the people buying cheaply-produced products within metropolitan cities. Within Jericho, tourists, visitors and inhabitants of the neighbourhoods closer to the city-center do not have to smell the heaps of waste generated by them that are routinely dumped next to the stagnant ponds and fields outside the city.

Within this space of ecological hegemony, the act of agriculture can become a way to radically reject fixed notions of territory. Nonhuman actors—springs, trees, fields, herbs—become participating symbols of resistance, along with actions of cultivation, planting and sowing, however symbolic the scale might be. However, whilst this can be liberating and empowering, the symbolism of urban agriculture can also be deeply problematic.

Assuming that urban agriculture comprises of any act of planting—regardless of scale and duration—negates the labour, energy, time, skill and knowledge that goes into the farming. It infantilizes the process and can be alienating, condescending and further deepen the rift between rural and urban communities. Green spaces and gardening within cities can sometimes create a dangerous illusion of radical individual action that negates the toil, the risk and the investment farmers put into their lands, financially and emotionally. Often, those living within urban areas fail to see the complex, exhausting and arduous challenges of working within constraints over soil, seeds and water.

During my project, I found myself asking the people I met if there was a way to enact systemic change through agriculture and ecology without conforming to a neoliberal, Global North understanding of wellbeing and happiness, one that often leads to gentrification and economic segregation. It is not enough, my Palestinian classmate  from college tells me, to blame them. We need to find solutions from within. I wonder if a new ecological, permacultural practice can evolve based on a sharing of knowledge and skills between those living in the bigger cities and those living and working on the land. Many farmers I talked to considered chemically-enhanced agriculture to be a secure way of guaranteeing returns on their investments. This is where an industrial ecology and a contemporary understanding of permaculture could provide new ways of tending the land, informed by the generations of experiential knowledge farmers have of weather-patterns, political challenges they face on a daily basis and the environment they work within. It could accommodate the socioeconomic, financial goals without destroying natural resources.

There are many people living within spaces that would commonly be called poor, temporary, inhumane, uncomfortable and desolate. Within all communities, regardless of politics, culture or religion, hard work is required to reach what are defined as basic needs—the bare minimum required to lead a life of dignity. Whilst social work and development goals focus on lessening the time it takes to reach some manifestation of these needs, I find that their presence often leads to a lack of ownership, fails to acknowledge agency and further reaffirms neoliberal, meritocratic standards of living. One could make the argument that—surrounded by an abundance of resources, infrastructure and a seemingly stable political climate—it is easy for me to denounce what I have. However, whilst I acknowledge my privilege, I do not valorise or agree with the systems in which I live, or believe that they are final states of living. Rather than propagating urban systems that often leave us isolated, disillusioned and exhausted, I wonder if even within such spaces like the ones in which I find myself now, we could rethink our socioeconomic structures. Can we find ways to include the dreams and interests, the passions and pleasures of individuals within social development? What are the bases of dignified lives that are intellectually and emotionally enriching to people and their communities? How do we work towards them in ways that are sensitive of ecology and the natural world?

1It is also a military zone sectioned off into minefields and dotted with abandoned barracks built during the war in 1967. Furthermore, the current occupation is present within the checkpoint leading to the baptism site. Lastly, older historical spaces such as the ethiopian church, the orthodox and the catholic church are visible on the way.

2Plastic sheets are used to prevent water evaporation from the ground, like leaves the fall beneath a tree and trap moisture under them.

3 That are often unused within urban communities.





 





              















































           




               








 


































































 









































































































zdesouza@coa.edu  bio instagram