Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Spring Has Sprung in My Garden

Spring has sprung in my garden. It is the afternoon of the official start of spring. The playful near horizontal rays of the setting sun affect a shadow dance with the freshly arrayed mastic, oak and hawthorn trees. It is the stuff for expert nature photographers to capture. But I am committed to writing as an art form and a friend had asked for an encore in the afternoon installment of electronic correspondence. The late hour is chilly and my favorite natural stone ‘stool’ in the rock garden is damp. Still, I dare nature’s wintry challenge and take a seat on one of the two olive press stones that I have mounted as garden tables. From that spot I face the source of the day’s ebbing warmth. The lower boughs of my native Galilee trees toss the sunrays every which way intent on blinding me, it seems. I turn my back to the bright celestial fire to contemplate my gardening handiwork, the neat ground cover of flat rock slabs interspersed with pumice gravel from the Golan, all personally assembled in younger years. It cost me double inguinal hernias that I have since repaired and a diaphragmatic one still pushing into my lung space. A dozen cyclamens, illegally borrowed from the surrounding hills, mine as a child but Israel’s protected loot in adulthood, have multiplied over the years to where hundreds poke their white, pink and violet flower bouquets to provide every rock with a living edge and crowd my garden pathways. What a shame they lack the scent to match their exuberant color display.

Two steps up and I am in the center courtyard of the house. Didi, my wife is busy gathering the ripe kumquats from the three trees intended more for their showy evergreen decorative effect. She promised Laiali, our granddaughter in New York, a fresh supply of the tangy delight Didi will cook the fruit into. The small orange fruit gives the impression of glass beads carefully sprinkled over the evergreen surface of the two vertically stacked spheres into which each tree has been shaped. Years of careful trimming have given the desired shape to the exotic fruit trees, a concession together with two lychees in the orchard below to my wife’s Chinese ancestry on her mother’s side. In summer the photogenic display is supplemented with the two flowery climbers on the fence behind the manicured trees, an Indian red jasmine and an African lily. But that is to come later in a riot of red and orange flower bunches and heavenly odor. For now the narrow strip on the edge of the courtyard has to do with visual appeal alone: The ground of the kumquat border strip is covered with red poppies, one of the commonest and proudest Galilee spring flowers. Another two to three weeks, with the advent of Easter, the Madonna lilies will infuse the air with their perfume. Years back Didi borrowed a couple of the dormant onions from her friend, the botanic artist Lois Nakhli, another American transplant in Galilee, and the beautiful native spring flower has taken over one corner of the yard. Last year I moved a dozen pulps to the shade of my prize olive tree at the entrance to the yard. Come Easter a couple of years from now and that space will be taken over by the pure white lily with the dizzying holy scent. Locally we call it St. Joseph’s lily. It is interesting how much more recognition ‘Joe the Carpenter’ is afforded in his native Galilee than he is in Rome. Is it the local patriarchic tradition, I wonder?

The hawthorn is in full bloom. A faint pleasant scent rewards me as I move closer to the white riot against the soft green of the new foliage. Local herbalists would kill for the permission to harvest the standard asthma remedy. I protect the tree for its tangy yellow fruit, apple-like except for the hard seeds that take up half of the small delicacy. As I get close to the white-clad giant, the pleasant scent of the adjacent citrus trees attracts me. I open the gate and step down the two stairs to the lower grounds of the fruit orchard. My wife and I, admitted amateurs, lucked out with planting the dozen varieties of citrus fruits at the western end of my inherited acre of Canaanite-settled Galilee. (Kanaaneh, Canaanites! Got it?!) That way the heavenly fragrance suffuses the westerly Mediterranean breeze as it buffets our residence in the spring. In summer it is the Indian red jasmine. The scentless figs and the unpleasant autumn carob flowers are in the back area, a potential irritant to neighbors to the east. Now I can’t resist a spin with basket in hand. Three apple trees are bursting with blooms: pink, white and deep red. The pear and plum trees are loaded with blooms as well, completing the rainbow range of colors.

I return, nearly swooning, with a dozen oranges and a sweet variety of grapefruit, an offering to evening visitors. I smile as I recollect a mix-up from a week earlier. I had climbed a navel orange to pick a few fruits for the day’s expected visitors. Over the years the citrus trees have grown into a single overhead canopy laden with a variety of fruit. Among the orange branches that I targeted was one with lemons. I traced it down and sure enough the bough had ascended from the orange tree stock, I thought. I was struck with awe at the botanical miracle. I had never grafted lemon on my favorite orange tree. That afternoon a grand niece of mine came visiting dragging along her husband, parents and few siblings. She is a good pediatric nurse who is proud enough of her village heritage in the traditional nomad-versus-farmer tug of cultural war to have kept her maiden name and kept in close touch after she married her high school Bedouin sweetheart. I figured the couple were good subjects on whom to spring my unique discovery. I took the group down to the orchard and showed them my miracle fruit. The young Bedouin withdrew quietly to his car and came back with a length of red thread. He climbed the tree in an agile circus-like performance, tied the string to the bough at the top and kept twisting it around the branch all the way to the lemon stock, deflating my proud claim without saying a word.

Now, on the way back, absentmindedly, I gather a handful of green almonds to munch with a sprinkling of salt. As I close the gate I pick a few wild onion leaves for the salad. I never looked up the proper name of the sharp-tasting variety. We call it ‘Bedouin garlic,’ both terms infused with a pungent essence and a touch of romance. It always grew among the olives and must have come with the multi-millennial olive I had transplanted into my front yard. Sprinkled with salt and wrapped in olive-oil-soaked fresh wheat bread it still wipes the memory slate of my childhood hunger clean. Now I use it as a condiment for our salad. Low and behold, I arrive to find a niece waylaying me with a dish of greens she had prepared with “Aunt Didi and you in mind.” Im- and Abu-Bashar take care of our home, yard and orchard while we travel. She starts with inquiring about the house and the grounds and if the chickens have started laying.  They do their expected job well, I explain: They keep the orchard clean of pests and weeds and naturally fertilize the trees. I invite her to pick grapefruit for her family and the families of her sisters. And she is welcome to pick all the green loof, the Palestinian arum, that she wants. It is one of thee few ‘weeds’ the chickens avoid and it fills up the sunny spaces between the trees. It is the classic local aphrodisiac leaving one’s tongue burning for hours while working its magic effect. In a while it will explode with the showy white and black funnel-like bloom that slowly turns to an oversized orang candy-tipped lollypop.

Im-Bashar doesn’t hide her ulterior motive for long: She loves us, she declares, and knows that her husband respects our opinion. She wants to use our influence with him to have him agree to her plans for their firstborn’s wedding come summer. He and his fiancĂ© have been engaged for three years and rumors of inappropriate comportment are flying across the social spheres of both their villages. Besides, the girl is pennywise and is sure to help mend the profligate ways of the young barber. And she had finished her secretarial training and has been promised a job at the new chain pharmacy branch due to open soon in Arrabeh. With two incomes they can afford the thousand- shekel-plus apartment rent and save for adding a third story to the family home in due time. The woman is a practiced lobbyist. She smiles knowingly at me as she suggests that I eat the greens she brought me with goat yogurt for added flavor and better health effect. Then she divulges the real reason behind the urgency of her appeal for my interference: Three age-mate cousins of Bashar have reserved banquet halls for their summer weddings and she doesn’t want to be a social dropout. I promise to sound Abu-Bashar out on the matter though she has to do the convincing herself, I insist. She agrees and leaves dangling the promise of more fresh bread and greens. Akkoub, the wild thistle, is in season and she plans a trip to the Golan Heights to pick some “for you.”