The Lemon Tree and a Hunchback Moon

The Israeli film, “The Lemon Tree,” moves sedately and with scarcely any dialogue, but once it ends, the message is unmistakable: a huge concrete wall has slid into place, separating the Israeli Defense Minister’s fancy modern house from a West Bank lemon grove which has been cut down to stumps. Fear of terrorism cannot coexist beside a dense, much-loved grove.

What the Defense Minister has perpetrated, of course, is also a form of terrorism on the widow (quite beautiful, stately and determined to save her grove) who with an ancient helper tends the trees and picks the lemons. First the Defense Minister has the grove fenced, padlocked and the widow’s care of it prohibited. Then he has a huge tower erected where a stupidly amusing guard tries to learn some sort of logic from a tape-player which drones on while he sleeps. When the minister and his increasingly disturbed wife throw a party and forget the lemons, he sends soldiers into the grove to steal some fruit. The widow, outraged, comes after them with a stick (she’s easily climbed the fence). They start mauling her, until the Defense Minister’s wife cries out in horror for them to stop.

All this time the widow and a charming young West Bank lawyer have been pursuing the case all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. During this effort, they start a sweet, subdued love-affair, which never really goes anywhere, just as, in the end, the Supreme Court composed of three women judges (so as not to make the gender-divide too stark) rules that, though the grove should not be uprooted, it must be pruned to allow any terrorist to be immediately visible.

If the film contained nothing else, we would be thoroughly outraged against Israel, but the Defense Minister’s wife, whom he neglects and rather obviously cheats on, gradually comes to hate this attack on the lone woman and her beautiful grove. Though at first the wife mouths agreement with her husband, toward the end of the film she gives a friend, a newspaper journalist, an interview. There she quietly objects to the treatment of the lemon grower, to the huge fence which both women can now scale, to the ridiculous notion that cutting down a grove will prevent terrorism, which of course rains down from the sky.

When the wife leaves the Defense Minister, we understand that she represents the heart of the film. She is appalled by Israel’s bellicose attitude toward its neighbors because it duplicates the way her husband treats her and because she can see that the widow who grows lemons is herself a good neighbor. Conversation, sympathy, accord are far better protection against hatred and attack than building a wall and cutting off a beautiful grove at its knees.

Seeing this film set me to thinking about what damage modernism in all its vices has perpetrated against land, water, trees, animals, sky. Outsiders, who haven’t lived for centuries and centuries on a particular stretch of land, find it easier to wreck what we call “natural resources” than do very ancient states. Outsiders, especially if they come to settle from distant areas and must uproot peoples long-suited to working the land and gathering its bounty, are quite vulnerable. They’re ignorant, to begin with; they don’t know the seasons, climate, soils; they also have to battle the current inhabitants for supremacy.

This warlike, defensive behavior continues even after the battle is won–I’m thinking of the United States. We still extract our “natural resources,” as if we lived somewhere else and weren’t hurting our very own air and water, etc. The conservation movement, which began with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” has educated us that such behavior harms ultimately ourselves. Not only does pollution and degrading of forests, grasslands, rivers, air kill off wild creatures, but such damage ultimately deprives us of rich soil and timber as well as clean air and water, leading to respiratory illness and cancer, etc.

We reap what we sow, or in the case of fisheries, if we reap and reap and reap, eventually nothing remains. There’s an excellent case study of recovery from such excess in the Environment Defense Fund’s work with Atlantic fishermen on a “catch share” program. Here “fishermen are given secure shares of a total catch limit, set by science, to which they are held strictly accountable”(Turning the Tide: Fishermen Embrace a New Approach to End Overfishing” special report 2010).

Why am I reminded of the recent construction craze in the United States when I read about the collapse of Atlantic fisheries? Because during the craze, hundreds of thousands of houses were built on unsecured loans, gobbling up farmland, and spreading suburbanism even further from city centers. Columnist Bonnie Blodgett wrote recently in the StarTribune, that so many houses were built, each American family would have to acquire four to make use of them all. Of course this was nuts, and once the unsecured loans collapsed, first homeowners who saw their “adjustable rate” mortgages go up so high they couldn’t make the monthly payments, then developers themselves went belly up, leaving in their wake, what is surely a blight: empty boxes dotting acres of farmland, where nothing lives, but wind blows. A scene that deserves to be set beside Dust Bowl fields billowing away.

Let’s argue that ancient civilizations guard the land and its amazing plenty with the most passion and knowledge. Italian fields today look like those in the background of Renaissance princely cavalcades. Italians, even those who live in cities, love to get dirt under the fingernails. Two Florentine friends come immediately to mind as examples: Grazia has run a “collectibles” shop in the heart of FLorence for years, yet every Saturday she tends land in the country, with apple and plum trees, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, as well as roses and perennials. She also is a mushroom hound, heading off to collect with her friend Antonio, and returning to cook me five dishes with “funghi” which she names over and over until I can repeat them.

Antonio, though working as a tailor or “sarto” in FLorence all his life, was born in Puglia in the boot. One evening he and Grazia drove me through the Cascine, the huge park on the western edge of FLorence, under a beautiful three-quarter moon. They began reciting a saying they both learned as kids from their parents who were farmers. I listened from the backseat, not quite understanding:

Gobba a levante, luna calante
Gobba a ponente, luna crescente.

Gobba means hunchback. I study the moon: yes, its hunch changes as it waxes and wanes. In English the saying goes
Hunchback to the east, moon is waning,
Hunchback to the west, moon is growing.

Of course, to decipher this, you must be able to know east from west. Finally I learned to do this in Florence. The Arno flows west, toward Pisa and the sea, away from the mountains which you can see through the arch of the Ponte Vecchio.

Telling east from west here in Saint Paul isn’t all that difficult either because I can see the sun rise in the east and set in the west from my upstairs windows. Still, I have a much harder time telling the waxing and waning moon here in the US than I do in Florence. It must be that the moon responds to local dialects and we don’t have an English saying to help us.

Postscript: lest someone accuse me of excessive fondness, Italians have a horrible environmental history vis-a-vis tuna which Italian fishermen are rapidly depleting. Not to mention the practice of snaring songbirds in huge nets, a practice which continues to decimate songbird populations along the Mediterranean. It makes me very sad.

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