Avocados and Persimmons. And a Roadbike

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After two weeks abroad, I am back in the orchards.

It is pleasant beneath the Persimmon leaves and the early green furled buds that to my eye look like leaves, but instead are fertilized ova, becoming embryonic beneath the sun.

Moishek always greets me with a broad smile, his bony-muscular grip. His ancient, cracked leather belt barely holds up sagging work trousers. I load my bike into the back of the dieseled trucklet and we’re off. In a different direction: we leave the kibbutz, travel across the road, past the train station; here are orchards also. The kibbutz was transected by the Herzilya road that enters the Coast highway, or continues to the high-tech Herzilya Pituach. “Pituach”, “developing” has an ironic meaning here: it usually applies to the dusty desert towns where immigrants are placed in the hope of both the immigrants’ and the land’s development, often with disappointing results for both people and land. Here, “developing” refers to a narrow rim of land abutting the sea, a rim of high-tech companies, upscale restaurants (including a sensuously delicious chocolate restaurant), and fabulously expensive furniture boutiques, even Roche-Bobois.

But, no mind, I am in the fields, hear the trains starting up like oversized jet planes, the highway traffic rushing to busy places. I, not rushing, will flick sappers off the persimmon trees.

Moishek hesitates before leaving me for work. The Thai workers head elsewhere in the orchard. Moishek teaches me the wisdom of nature. Trying to grasp both the Hebrew and the biology, I search my pockets in vain for pen; Moishek snatches his Bic from his shirt rim, and I scribble in two tongues, scribing first on my fist, until I realize that the heat and my sweat will erase these. Then, I hieroglyph my thigh beneath my shorts’ hem (so as not to look too odd when I stop at stores on the way home).

Persimmons are self-pollinating, needn’t rely on anyone else, self-sufficient characters, these cheeky-fruited trees. Moishek shows me my task. Trim off the sappers to “window” (khilon) the tree, so that the sun enters its interior. I learn to recognize quickly the sappers that come off a tree limb, or where a limb was amputated, a cluster of sappers. (My mind wanders as I flick: does khilon, “windowing” and khiloni, “secular” have a connection? Is there something about being khiloni that one opens windows into the world, one asks fundamental questions?) I inspect carefully to be sure that these sappers do not have buds, these of same green tint as the leaves. The sappers flick off easily. As I work, I work from within, upward and outward. Opening the tree’s “window,” I begin to feel the sun on my face, to feel the warmth I can bring into the tree’s heart. I see sky. I realize later the ruthlessness of nature: these sappers will sap the energy of the tree, which will not bear fruit. Off with them and the fruitful limbs will thrive, the tree “hoping” that its energies to make fruit will perpetuate its existence. We, we humans defeat these trees; eat the fruit and do not deposit their seeds nearby. A ruthlessness I begin to develop: any new branch, new sapper without buds is flicked off. No mercy here for the menopausal limb, the fruitless branch.

And, as I see the young, furled persimmon buds, like the crepe flowers we used to make in grade school, I think back and forwards: back to last fall when I arrived to pick, to sort, with my Bedouin cousins, their acrimonious explosions towards each other that rarely came to blows, their hospitality to me to join them for homemade lebana, olives, pita beneath the shade of the orchards. The toothless matron who frisbee’d a pita towards me; the young fellow who showed me on his phone, the photos of his room up north, with posters of Rastafarian singers; the patient, quiet, stolid Bedouin paterfamilias, who spoke clear Hebrew, proud of his service as a tracker for the Israel army; the Bedouin who asked me to inspect the lump on his neck, his souvenir — his memory — of the shrapnel in Lebanon; the fiery pseudo-leader, who roostered, strutted about, one persimmon in hand after Moshek left, to “supervise,” threaten…and do no work.

And I think forwards: if I work well, if the Hamsin — those sandstorm, heated winds from North Africa or the Saudi deserts — doesn’t fell its fruit, these trees will bear again in the fall. Such orchard work gives me a deeper sense of life’s rhythm.

The heat, dry now, moves me slow. I am paced by the sun, a slower pace than my inner metronome, which urges me to work faster. Instead, I enjoy the sun’s languor. This is not Camus’s Mediterranean sun, glinting off a dagger on an Algerian beach. This sun warms and slows me. Lentement.

Before he leaves, Moishek takes me across the dirt lane to the avocados. Here are two species side-by-side: Fuerte and Hagshamim. The former named after its hardiness against frostbite (and therefore, the last to be harvested), the latter after its origins on Kibbutz Hagshamim. The more robust Fuerte, ironically, has a thinner skin, more squat in conformation. Hagshamim looks more like an oversized pear, with green, toady, warty skin. Avocados must be fertilized, the flower. We look above for hovering bees, those accidental workers, who, intent on sipping nectar, dirty their breasts with pollen (avakah, as in “dust”) and anointing the flower’s ovary (tzalveket, if I read correctly my lap). Too chilly above for the bees to appear. Unlike animals, flowers get others to do the act, perform the dance of two backs, so to speak, their sexing.

But, such sexy matters become more complex. For, avocados are divided into two families: one raises its stamen, unfurls its mast, in the morning, then its ovary in the afternoon; the other shows its femininity in the morning and only after midday does it raise its flag to full mast. The bee, not the wiser, goes about its business without checking on species. Therefore, much cross-pollination: a morning bee gets dusted by one species of avocado pollen and that same morning, fertilizes the second species’ ova; the afternoon bee picks up sex dust in the second species and fertilizes the first species’ ova. Cross-pollination makes for more genetically robust avocados; diminishes inbreeding. The avocados look the same: Haas looks Haasy; Fuertes, Fuerty; Hagshamim, ibid. But, Moishek continues — and I am remembering the 19th century monk’s, Mendel’s, discovery with peas — if you were to plant such avocados, their offspring would show some breeding surprises. Yet, for the tens of thousands of such plantings, few would come up with a robust enough new species for both growing and selling. Moishek came up with such a tasty, handsome new breed — that could not withstand the rigors of shipping: unintentionally became guacamole (without the spices) in the ship’s hold. Moshek is a farmer: if you can’t grow and sell it, it ain’t nothin’.

But, I am a listener of stories. And this “ain’t,” is a good story for me.

As he teaches, he reaches for an unimpregnated ova; peels back its lips (the word in Hebrew is the similar as for “scar”); or points out the miniature cluster of avocados on the tip of a branch: avocados the size of peas, avocados that could be placed on the table of one of the model doll houses in the doll museum at the Chicago Art Institute basement. Long slender stems end in a pea-avocado. He describes how, by season’s end, only one, perhaps two or three of these will remain. The rest will be felled by wind, or the Hamsin, or a drought. A bad water season and an entire crop can be destroyed. He picks up a miniature fallen avocado to show me. I wince at the loss of a life.

If you believed in god, Moishek says, then you would believe how much wisdom this god has to create such matters. And if you don’t believe in god, he continues — referring to himself — then you believe in how much wisdom there is in nature, in the evolution over millennia. He points to his head as he speaks of nature’s wisdom. I find myself thinking of how much knowledge is beneath this closely-cropped, unfashionably shorn gray head. How one could follow him around for seasons and learn much of nature’s wisdom.

Uncharacteristically, Moishek dwells a bit longer. I am a bit overirrigated with Hebrew, not only written on the base of my thumb, the back of my hand, my left thigh, but also crowded into my head.

But it comes time to flick sappers. I recall my learned ruthlessness as a lopidator of limbs after the picking season. I can see where the others have worked, as I spy fallen green speckled branches circling the trees. Quickly, the heat wilts for those fallen. They will not sap these trees any longer, but become dust and feed their parents. For the first time, I find myself checking even where my compatriots have already tread: find more sappers. I pride myself. Want these trees to bear as much fruit as they can; don’t want them sapped.

I am distracted occasionally. I am to head off on a five-day biking trip from Jerusalem to Eilat with a group of some 150 cyclists, including my friend Jon. Three days ago, Ziv, at “Rosen and Meents” — the biker’s bike shop — measures me; adjusts my new Italian Cella seat so that my perineum will not suffer (as) badly. He has a sharp eye: checks me on both pedals as his assistant stands astride the front wheel; shows me how my knee is locked and suggests an adjustment of 1/4 cm. forward, 1/2 cm. downwards. Yesterday, he checks me again and points out that my seat is too far backwards, explaining the perineal numbness I begin to feel after an hour or so. The trip will likely run 6–8 hours daily; for all the adjustments, I will need to remember to rise out of my seat periodically. He advises using much baby powder around my politely unmentionables. He shows me a formula for measuring optimal biking seat height, using my inseam. A road bike is so minimalist, so little is needed and so much needs be just right. It is elegant. Made by man’s hand; not nature’s; not like avocados. But it has its own beauty which transports me from the orchard twice: once in my daydreaming and the second in my trip home, past the railway station, alongside traffic that gives little leeway in Israel.

Before I leave, Moishek is back, bearing Liters of Coke and a few packs of cigarettes for the Thai workers. I feel a touch of sadness each time I leave; I expect Moishek will be there when I return, as if he is a manifestation of nature’s eternal endurance.

Copyright N. Szajnberg 2020

Born in a German Displaced Persons' Camp, I grew up in Rochester and attended the University of Chicago College and Med School.

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