Birds Bees Milk Honey
As Israel descended into another one of its drifting chaggim (holidays) for the weeklong pesach observance, I packed my bags for an experience wholly unrelated to my other activities here: three days of bird-watching and bee-collecting with two scientists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the beautiful north of Israel.
For starters, I should make it clear that I was mainly an observer (and navigator of questionable utility), as we criss-crossed the north, binoculars around the neck and nets and little jars of cyanide in the back seat. I was entirely content in this role – taking in the bemused dual realization that
1.) this was a totally different way of using one’s eyes. I felt positively blind as Ansel and John easily scanned the horizon, calling out the species of names of distant specks that I only was able to locate several minutes later with their assistance. Whereas I look for the shape of land or a structure, for the angle and reflection of light, for the elements that make a strong composition, they look for a telltale flicker of motion, hospitable tree tops and water in valleys, circling columns of birds catching an upwards draft before hopping on a northward bound current.
At the time I wrote,
“I am sitting in our little room in Kibbutz Sheluchot just south of Beit She’an as Ansel and John dine at the kibbutz breakfast. Outside I can hear the chatter of birds and so with a new interest — there’s the laughing dove (rather than the mourning dove I’ve known all my life) – and the peahen’s cry is unmistakable – but the rest is just a blur. So much to observe! So much to identify! Bird song, flight patterns, beak lengths, wing span, tail orientation, mating rituals, habitats, migration. It’s a very beautiful pursuit & I see it has much in common with what I do — all that observation, categorization, recording – & yet – though it interests me, it doesn’t turn me on & I mean this in the machine sense – I don’t feel the gears start whirring and churning, spinning axels, & engaging other gears, & we’re off! – as the hand & thoughts jog to keep up with that inner propulsion. It illuminates for me again the specificity of each vision.”
2.) I was looking at Israel through a totally different but very real lens from the social / political / historical framework I’ve used this year. The sheer number of perspectives that must be considered in this small land is exhausting: and I don’t just mean the Israel / Palestinian conflict, but all of the political, religious, and ethnic groups that often tell directly conflicting – or worse – entirely unrelated stories about how the world has been and should be. When my eyes sweep across the landscape, I see shifting borders, checkpoints, biblical stories, kibbutzim, settlements, mosques [and on this note, check out the latest blog post from fellow Swarthmorean Phil Issa, working on microfinance in the west bank].
Here? It’s about the birds and the bees.
For instance, we started out looking for birds at the Kibbutz Ma’agen Michael – my roommate’s father’s kibbutz, which I visited last September. My thoughts were running along the lines of “this is the biggest kibbutz in Israel, right? But not one of the earliest. Has a famous ulpan. Contentious relations with neighboring Arab town. Palestinian militants came from the sea here in the 70s and made their way south, killing several Israelis. Maybe we’ll want to drive around and see the architecture.” Meanwhile, John had taken out his telescope and was scanning the fishponds in hope of spotting a crane (no look, though we saw egrets and storks and herons and ducks). Architecture was not discussed — not because it’s not interesting, but, you know, because I don’t talk about birds all the time. Different lens.
Finally, there was the gorgeous landscape, and the chance to appreciate through this natural lens. Observing the land rise as we went further north, the grass intensify as we went east, the tremendous diversity of rock and soil. The Hula Valley, Wadi Ammud, the 12th century crusader fortress Belvoir, the Sea of Galilee (overrun with pesach revelers), Mt. Meron, Mt. Hermon, the mined fields at the borders of Syria and Jordan, cliff dwellings over 2,000 years old. A small but cherished moment to appreciate the earth in all her glory, independent of who we are and the trouble we make.