Monthly Archives: July 2011

The 21st century challenge

Gregory Bateson said that the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.

Throughout the 19th and 20th century, people have sought to control the way nature works to fit their needs. And though many challenges have been overcome in this way, the solutions don’t appear to be sustainable in the long run. Indeed, the solutions even appear to be making things worse. And so, it seems like the problems are becoming even bigger, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary.

Our challenge for the 21st century is to give up forcing nature to fit our ways of thinking, and instead change our way of thinking to match how nature works.

Practicing creative ecology

I only stayed in Lotan for two weeks, but in that time I did get to try my hand at some of the creative ecology practiced there.

First of all, I got to join the Green Apprentices for some of their lectures and activities. These included learning how to construct strawbale houses, learning about Earthships and other sustainable building practices, discussing how to apply permaculture design practices in the city and more.

A definite highlight was our excursion to the nearby Kibbutz Ketura to visit their experimental organic orchard, which is part of the Arava Institute of Environmental StudiesCenter for Sustainable Agriculture.

We spent a morning with the director of the Centre, Dr. Elaine Solowey, who is a leading researcher in the field of desert agriculture and sustainable agriculture. She has spent the last 25 years experimenting to adapt various kinds of perennial crops, mainly trees, to the extremely arid climate of the Arava. Here, crops need to be both salt-tolerant, heat-tolerant and be able to manage on relatively little water.

Solowey sees the task of adapting crops to desert climates to be of vital importance in a world where deserts are spreading every year as a result of global climate change. Being able to grow food even in the most inhospitable climates may prove to be vital in the long run. Among Solowey’s current experiments are Mezquite trees, Marula trees, Neem trees, and perhaps most interestingly, Coconut palms, which nobody apparently have tried as a crop in Israel before.

Elaine is committed to her cause, and she is definitely not afraid to answer the typical critical questions of commercial viability and the relevance of trying to grow stuff in one of the driest places on the planet with razor sharp wit. She nearly bit the head of one of the students here for asking why she just didn’t grow olives like everybody else. It was a lot of fun.

A big part of the practical work that I’ve been doing here has involved mud. I have learned that mud is also a verb. And in Lotan, there is a lot of mudding going on. There is a wide array of buildings, walls, benches, sculptures, outdoor ovens, lamps, playgrounds that have been built out of mud (typically, the mud is covering tires and other old rubbish). In the photo above, long-time volunteer Yotam is applying a final coat of mud to a wall.

It was fun to learn to mix and apply the varying consistencies of mud. But I eventually graduated to the more artistic, decorative mudding. This was my little mud masterpiece: the Super Mario Bros. minigolf castle:

The castle was part of a 3-course mud minigolf course at the Centre of Creative Ecology’s playground and ecological experimentarium known as the Eco-Kef (“Kef” is “Fun” in Hebrew).

But two weeks pass quickly, and I have left Lotan to go back to Denmark this Friday. In a way, it feels to soon. Denmark is overcast with a grey continuous drizzle that provides a monotonous backdrop against which the trees and grass appear to be so GREEN. Even so, I’ll miss the desert, especially the times of day when the sun wasn’t blazing down upon us all:


On one of the walls in the Kibbutz Lotan dining hall you’ll see a number of framed marriage certificates. These are marriages between kibbutz members and the kibbutz itself. A way for the reform jews in the kibbutz to indicate their commitment (kibbutzment?) to the community upon becoming full kibbutz members:

Unfortunately, like most other forms of marriage in our modern times, these kibbutz marriages don’t tend to last until death do them part.

Of the 130 kibbutz members whose names hang on the wall, only 55 currently live in Lotan. And only 10 of the members who helped found the kibbutz back in 1983 still live here.

In addition to the 55 permanent members, there are around 60 children, 20 foreign volunteers and around 30 other non-member residents living at Lotan. Around 150 in total. A couple of families are currently engaged in the 2-year long absorption program to become new, permanent members.

Welcome to Kibbutz Lotan

I have now arrived at Kibbutz Lotan where I’ll be volunteering for 2 weeks. Lotan is located only 20 minutes’ drive from Neot Semadar, in the Arava valley, right on the Jordanian border (there’s only 50 metres from the eastern gate of the kibbutz to the border).

Lotan is famous for its Centre for Creative Ecology, with its permaculture garden and alternative low-energy mud buildings. I’m volunteering at the centre, and will hopefully have an opportunity to learn some more about sustainable living along the way.

This is what Kibbutz Lotan looks like. A little green spot in the arid Arava valley right on the border to Jordan with the beautiful mountains of Edom visible in the distance.

A few facts about Kibbutz Lotan:

  • It is one of only two reform judaism kibbutzim in Israel.
  • It is also the only kibbutz affiliated with the Global Eco-village Network, and has even won an award as Eco-village of the year in 2006.
  • Both ecology and reform judaism features heavily in Lotan’s mission statement.

I live in the Bustan neighbourhood of Kibbutz Lotan. The Bustan is a model for sustainable living, consisting of 10 mud domes each housing one or two persons. They look like this:

The Bustan has composting toilets, solar heated water, a variety of mud and solar ovens, as well as a couple of photovoltaic cells that provide electricity for nighttime lighting. And indeed, most of the inhabitants of the Bustan are part of Lotan’s Green Apprenticeship programme – a five-month course in sustainable practices. It is just about as sustainable as you can get (living in the middle of the desert where there is 350 sun days a year and almost no rain, that is).

Also, Bustan is Hebrew for orchard, because the kibbutz orchard used to be located where the mud dome neighbourhood now stands.

The holy land

I returned to Jerusalem more than two months after my first visit. This time I also visited the Mount of Olives, home to tonnes of churches, an immense Jewish graveyard and a brilliant view of the Temple Mount:

According to Jewish tradition, the Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah, is the foundation stone of the world. It is the rock upon which Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, and it is also where King Solomon built his great temple. Coincidentally, in Muslem tradition, the very same rock is said to be the point from which Mohammed ascended into Heaven, leaving behind his footprint in the rock.

That’s why they call it the holy land, I guess.

On the top of the Mount of Olives there’s a small chapel marking the spot where Jesus ascended into Heaven following his resurrection.

Like Mohammed, he is said to have left behind a footprint, pictured here:

Based on the size of the footprint, I’d estimate that JC used size 55 sandals.

The Galilee and the Golan Heights

From Haifa I went to the Galilee and from there to the Golan Heights – a relatively small area with huge political importance – both in terms of military strategic significance as well as in terms of resources. The Golan is a vital water supply for the region, and its many streams and rivers flow into the Kinneret lake, which is the main freshwater reservoir in Israel.

There are a number of national parks in the Golan. I visited the Yehudiah park. As the locals say, the yellow season has already set in, and the scenery is not as lush as in spring. But it is still a very beautiful place.

This is the Zavidan waterfall in the Yehudiah national park. Here the water falls 27 meters down into a deep pool where you can take a very refreshing little swim.

The eastern shore of the Kinneret, as well as the Golan Heights beyond is not really part of Israel. It is occupied territory won from Syria in the six-day war of 1967. But today it’s difficult to tell that a war took place here. Only in a few places when you come across signs like this are you reminded of Israel’s strained relationship with its neighbours.

Since 1974 and the end of the Yom Kippur war, there has been a cease-fire agreement between Syria and Israel. But Syria insists that a peace treaty won’t be possible until Israel hands over control of the Golan Heights. At present it’s doubtful if that will ever happen.

The day following my excursion into the Golan, I went for a very warm and sweaty bike ride around lake Kinneret. It’s a 61 kilometre roundtrip but it takes a whole day with all the sightseeing and swimming breaks along the way.

There’s a lot of Bible-related sights in the Galilee. I passed by the Mount of Beatitudes (where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount) and Capernaum (a sleepy fishing village in Roman times where Jesus recruited his first disciples), and several others. So naturally, there are a lot of biblical tour buses on the road.