November 15th, 2016
Their home was a fortress, so they did what residents of a fortress do — prepared for the siege. In time, the siege came and — though the fortress seemed impregnable — the walls were breached. Only seven of the nearly thousand defenders survived and the victors cast a coin to commemorate the defeat of the rebellion. On the front of the coin, they put the visage of their well-fed emperor and on the back, the figure of a woman crying, a symbolic representation of the subjugated colony. To make sure you that no one misunderstood the message, the coin’s maker placed the woman at the foot of a lofty tree that everyone would be sure to recognize.
It was the Judean Date Palm, the honey of the “The Land of Milk and Honey.” The victors were the Romans, of course, and the vanquished were Judean rebels of the First Jewish-Roman War. The fortress was the desert plateau of Masada (a word meaning “fortress” in Hebrew) which fell to Roman attack in the year 73.
I assume the Romans left a garrison in place to keep anyone else from getting ideas about holing up on Masada, but they clearly didn’t worry about putting the place back together because much of the wreckage remained undisturbed until the 1960s, when archaeologists started sifting the rubble.
They didn’t find evidence of the legendary suicide of the defenders, who reputedly killed themselves rather than be captured. But they did find more prosaic things — items which tell us that the defenders were planning a future in this world instead of the next — such as a clay jar of date palm seeds.
The seeds were catalogued and put in storage at Bar-Ilan University where no one gave them much thought because, at nearly 2,000 years old, they were far past the age of viability. That was a shame, because the Judean Date Palm — legendary for its culinary and medicinal qualities, a symbol of grace and elegance, mentioned in the pages of both the Old Testament and travelers tales which marveled at the date palm forests which swayed in the desert breeze — was extinct. Battered by centuries of conflict culminating in the Crusades, the surviving Judean Date Palms finally died in the 14th Century, victims of climate change.
* * *
During the years when the archaeologists were unearthing seeds in one of harshest climates on earth, a teenage girl was growing up in Modesto, California. Modesto is aptly named even though it lies in the middle of the California’s San Joaquin Valley, probably the greatest agricultural landscape ever known.
The girl’s name was Elaine, and her family on both sides were farmers, so she grew up spending weekends picking at their orchards. It wasn’t paradisiacal. Modesto schools were underfunded and tough, and the air was thick with smog and agricultural chemicals descending from daily waves of crop-dusters. So when Elaine got the chance to use her expertise somewhere else, she took it. Working in apple orchards on the northern borderlands of Israel, Elaine, somehow, found that this desert land was home.
Three decades later, she was calling the shots at an agricultural institute in Israel’s brutally arid southern desert. Her mastery had developed into bringing life back to lifeless landscapes, and this was a hell of place to refine her skill. The ground is mineralized clay, and what little rain falls quickly runs off, absorbing salt as it goes. The lands of the eastern Mediterranean, she says, “are the ruins of ecosystems.” Here in this most tortuous testing ground, Elaine now directs a program of sustainable agriculture at a school committed to doing that essential work with students drawn from all sides of the Middle East’s bristling borders.
Elaine is all-too-aware that just as the seas are rising, the deserts are expanding and so she’s focused on finding food plants which will survive no matter what. She views her work as a sort of Second Great Domestication, expanding our understanding of what can form the edible foundation of civilization at a time when quite literally everything depends on a very few overbred crops, an increasing number of which are becoming the intellectual properly of agribusiness corporations.
Elaine’s mostly interested in trees, because they don’t need constant tending and survive conditions that would obliterate the plants which feed us now. Her experimental orchards are filled with the little-known, plants that no one has tried to patent or imprison with trademarked improvements. She’s fearless and rigorous in her approach to making plants live where they shouldn’t be able to, so it’s not surprising that when someone pondered the relic date seeds in storage — forty years after they were discovered — they thought about Elaine.
Would she try to make them grow? She agreed, but didn’t think about it much; with a seed of this age, it was really an exercise in ruling out the possibility. Still, she did what she could, using hot water to soften the outer shells of a few seeds, making them permeable to other liquids. After that, she gave them a nutrient bath and added a kind of enzymatic fertilizer derived from kelp. Then she planted three seeds in potting soil, hooked them up to drip irrigation and basically forgot about them.
Two months later, the potting soil cracked. Something was pushing its way up. The leaves that emerged where white, almost completely without texture and nothing like a date leaf. But as more leaves came, they manifested first the color and then, finally, the actual shape of date leaves. It was a tough birth, but Elaine had midwifed the Judean Date Palm back into the land of the living.
That was in 2005, and the questions were many. Would it survive? Was it male or female? And would it be able to reproduce? A decade later, we know the answers.
In 2011, the date palm, now ten feet tall and inevitably named Methuselah, flowered. He was a boy, producing fully functional pollen. Genetic studies showed that Methuselah is related to ancient Egyptian varieties, which aligns nicely with Biblical stories of how date palms came with the Jews on their flight out of Egypt, unquestionably in the form of seeds. Elaine pollenated a wild female of an Egyptian variety and Methuselah became a father. If Elaine gets her way, groves of Judean Date Palms will once again rustle in the wind and not just in memory.
* * *
I wonder who left those seeds in the jar on the heights of Masada.
Perhaps it was a Roman, for the Romans manned the fortress there before the rebels took control. It’s easy to forget through the historical haze of entertainment, that the Romans were, above all, farmers. Who’s to say that a legionary from Sicily or some other arid clime of Italy did not dream about starting is own date plantation when he retired from the military? Or perhaps they belonged to the rebels, the Sicarii to give them their proper name. They were a fanatic sect, named for the curved knives they carried and widely hated by their own people for the misery they brought down on any whose belief was not as total as their own. But still, someone was planning on surviving, perhaps a wife who knew, regardless of her husband’s personal messages from God, that the children would still be hungry, and find joy in the sweetness of a date.
Whomever it was, the future they planned never arrived, swallowed by the greater disaster. It was but one of many, too many to even recall as the centuries passed, religions rose, and wars came and went like the tide. Through it all, the farmers struggled against nature and history to save their most cherished crop and, in the end, they failed. But on the heights of Masada, a place which only hermits and tyrants could love, the seeds slept undisturbed. They were preserved precisely because the captains of their destiny did not survive the forces they unleashed. It’s a thought which, on some days, is a hopeful one, the understanding that the fruit of cruelty in an unforgiving world can, with enough time, be sweet.