Growing the world’s most expensive lemons
In a region where most land is desert and droughts commonplace, the issue of how water is used and shared is hugely important. Even individual gardeners face ethical questions in Israel.
There is a quiet satisfaction in the patient husbandry of traditional gardening – that gentle and miraculous coaxing of new life from the unpromising earth. But there is a rapid and more convenient satisfaction to buying your shrubs and trees already fully grown.
The joy we felt in watching our lemon tree being manoeuvred off the back of a flatbed truck by two burly delivery men was surely very similar to the joy you would feel in growing it from seed.
It just took half an hour, rather than half a lifetime.
There is an economic issue admittedly. So far I have harvested only four of my lemons and I think they have cost about £100 ($155) each, but I am obviously hoping that the average price will fall over time.
For all the fragile grace with which it dances in the chilly winter winds, the tree conceals an astonishing number of thorns beneath its gentle leaves – although at the moment it is pricking my conscience more than my fingers.
The problem is, that like most balcony gardeners in Israel, we have installed a miniature irrigation system to keep the lemon tree alive in the brutal heat of summer.
It does not amount to much more than a couple of metres of brown plastic piping and a timer attached to a tap. But every time I hear the muted sloshing of another carefully calibrated dose, the desert around us feels a little drier.
Lack of fairness
Often the water issue here is reported as part of the broader tension between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
A French parliamentary report, for example, recently concluded that the 450,000 Israeli settlers who live on the West Bank of the River Jordan, in defiance of international opinion, use more water than the 2.3 million Palestinians whose home it is.
The fairness – or lack of fairness – with which resources are shared is important, of course.
But there is a larger issue which may in the end be more important still. That is the alarming way in which the amount of water in the lakes and rivers which support life for everyone here is dwindling.
The River Jordan carries water south from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, passing as it does through Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli land.
These days the Jordan in many places is hardly more than a listless and polluted dribble, but there is plenty of evidence that it was once very different.
Half way along the valley for example there is a hydro-electric power plant, long since abandoned.
It is a sobering thought that once the river waters turned its mighty turbines, when these days they are hardly potent enough to moisten a handkerchief.
And we have the writings of the 19th Century American naval officer William Lynch, who in the 1840s rather surprisingly persuaded the government of the United States to fund an expedition down the Jordan Valley.
He spoke of rapids, frequent and most fearful, and of waves like the hammers of the Titans.
Even allowing for the need to persuade his fellow Americans that they were getting full value for their tax dollars, it’s clear that there was a lot more to the Jordan back then.
That is partly because these days Israel pumps water out of the Sea of Galilee to feed its national supply system and partly because neighbouring Arab countries use water from the rivers that feed the Galilee.
The effect on the River Jordan is measured best by watching what is happening to the level of the Dead Sea, into which it flows.
It is shrinking by a metre a year. It is only about two-thirds of the size it was in the 1930s.
The ancients once believed it was certain death to try to sail across the Dead Sea – give it another 100 years or so and you’ll be able to step over it.
So something has to be done – and attitudes to water in the Middle East are not always rational.
There is the whole debate about how much sense it makes to grow non-native plants like bananas and oranges for a start. And I wince when the lawn-sprinkler system at my apartment complex switches itself on.
Then there are the televised golf tournaments from elsewhere in the desert played on lushest of grass – it is bunkers and sand traps, not putting greens, which are native to the Middle East. And God knows how much that defiance of natural circumstance must cost.
And of course, in its modest way our lemon tree is not helping. Every time I hear the gurgle of the irrigation pipe I imagine the Dead Sea shrinking a little further.
By the time we come to leave Israel, I am told the tree will be too big to fit in our building’s lift so a crane will have to be hired to winch it over the edge of the balcony – thus probably raising the average price of the lemons again by quite a bit.
Instead of selling it, I am tempted to take it down to the shores of the Dead Sea and replant it there.
Deprived of its artificial life support system it might not thrive – but it’ll do it good to learn to fend for itself.