Friday, May 20, 2011

Visiting Jerusalem

While traveling in Israel I had the privilege of bypassing hotels to stay in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Guesthouse, open by invitation to visiting scholars, writers, authors and musicians.  Fitting into none of those categories, they still gave me a room because I was attending a meeting.

Garden vignette at Mishkenot
Built in 1860, it was the first area of Jewish settlement built outside the walls of the Old City.  Subject to devastation during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and restoration after the 1967 Six-Day War, by 1973 it had become the cultural center it is today.  The Guesthouse structure is long and low with a veranda stretching the length of the building and facing the Old City.  The rooms are stone, in the tradition of old Jerusalem, punctuated by glass-enclosed gardens, each one different.  The garden vignettes hold plants suited to the region – the equivalent of high desert in America -- and graced with antiquities.   The community has private residences as well, and the streets and alleys are filled with flowering boxes and containers, lush even then in early April. 
Streets near Mishkenot

It is a short walk away from the Old City, where I visited a rooftop garden with gorgeous views and open to the sounds of the city – the chanting of the muezinn from the mosques and the daily ringing of church bells. All the buildings in Jerusalem are built of the same material, a pale limestone, contributing to the extraordinary quality of the light.  Jerusalem is land-poor and building-rich, and in the Old City apartments are stacked in irregular tiers.  The houses usually have one or two domed rooms, which of course surface on the rooftops, becoming either a plus or a minus depending on how you feel about architectural oddities vis-a-vis useful space.

This garden belongs to Tzvi Aryeh Ingber and his wife, Ruth.  Winding stone stairs lead to their entry courtyard; another tier of stairs winds up to a neighboring apartment, now incorporated into the Ingbers’ garden, adding a fourth level to their current three.

Domes of arched rooms below
The lowest level, the courtyard is the most heavily used, the second level less so, the third is the roof of the adjacent apartment offering spectacular views and the fourth the original seating terrace of the adjacent apartment.  To move from the third to the fourth you must navigate the domes of the arched rooms below. 

Tzvi Aryeh is the gardener, sure- footed as he moved from level to level, while I followed gingerly behind him.  “I collect plants that people throw away,” he said.  He claims to have an embarrassing deficiency in that he doesn’t know the names of plants, but picks whatever looks promising among the discarded.  His collecting, he says  “is all providential.” 

Nonetheless, he is a botanist to the core, propagating whenever possible.  One now-towering rubber tree has produced four offspring from cuttings.  “I used a rooting hormone.  I cut from the main branch and treated the wound with ashes mixed with some water, and then covered the wound with plastic until it healed.  On others I did nothing.  The small rubber tree near the Bird of Paradise was just rooted in water.”
Rubber tree, parent of many

“What occupies you most in your garden, “ I asked.  “Plumbing,” he answered.  “I used to water by hand but now I have drippers programmed by a centralized computer than can water the gardens in zones.  Depending on the size of the plants and its water needs, I might put two or three in a pot and adjust the use based on the temperature:  green is twenty litres an hour, black is ten and red is five. I’m adjusting all the time.”

A preoccupation with irrigation systems is usually a predictor of the urge to break new ground.  Sensing that he has bigger dreams ahead now that he has fully colonized all available rooftops, I asked him, “What next?”

“I am tired of pot gardening,” he said. “I want land to farm, a farmhouse and a cabin for each of my children, perhaps at the beginning of the Judean Hills.  I want to plant trees.” 

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