Commentary Magazine


Holy Land

Shortly after the end of the October war, my wife, I, and our six-month-old daughter moved into the house we had built on nearly an acre of land in the hilltop village of Z. “What will you do with so much land?” my Israeli friends asked me concernedly, whereas I was worried about how to get along with so little: at the very least I wanted flower beds, a rock garden, a vegetable garden, fruit trees, a chicken run, room for a donkey, and space enough left over to set aside as a nature reserve. I had been land hungry ever since I could remember, which is to say, even as a small city boy whose practical knowledge of the green world beyond New York consisted largely of the ability to recognize, if not consistently to avoid, poison ivy, and it had grieved me to have to sell the one-hundred-fifty acres that I owned in the state of Maine in order to help pay for our acre in Z.—all the more so, because they didn't even cover the full cost of it. Proportionally, it might be argued that I wasn't striking a bad bargain, since by exchanging one-twelve-millionth of the land area of the United States for one-five-millionth of that of Israel I was trading fewer shares for more, but I found such statistics cold comfort. I had remained the same size; so had the world; and it was less mine than before.

I bought the land in Maine in the summer of 1966, when I borrowed a car from friends and headed northeast, armed with an Esso map of New England, a Strout Realty catalogue, and fifteen hundred dollars, with which I intended to purchase as much territory as it could possibly fetch. I had crossed the Maine line from New Hampshire and gotten as far as Waldo County, midway between Bangor and the state capital of Augusta, when I found what I was looking for: one-hundred-fifty acres of abandoned farmland and woodland, with a small brook flowing through them, selling at ten dollars an acre, a cut rate attributable perhaps to the fact that the county idiot, to whose family the land once belonged, had attempted several times to set fire to it, not without a measure of success. At the time, if I remember correctly what was an essentially confused period of my life, I wanted to build a log cabin and live in it as a hermit, an end to which the property was admirably suited, being located half a mile in from the nearest paved road and many times that distance from the nearest cluster of houses that cared to call itself a town. Several months later, however, I married instead, and was forced to cancel my plans. Nevertheless, as a concession to the frustrated solitary in me, my wife agreed to spend the following summer camping out on the land in a tent. This arrangement left much to be desired as a belated honeymoon, but I did like the feeling of getting up every morning and going off to roam in my woods. One could dedicate a lifetime, I thought—I would dedicate part of mine—to getting to know every tree, rock, and bog of this acreage with no less profit than to exploring the museums of Europe or the libraries of the world. One day, I recall, I chased a fox through the broad meadow on which we had pitched our tent, following at top speed the brown appearances of his tail in the high grass. I had no illusions about catching him, and before long he was lost to sight, but I didn't stop running until, exuberant and out of breath, I had reached my property line. It wasn't the fox I'd been chasing—it was the physical sensation of what was mine.

There are no foxes on our present acre in Israel (though I did spot a mongoose slinking across it not long ago), and while our hilltop location allows us to see for tens of miles over the better part of the compass dial, one can practically throw a stone from our house to any of our borders. Still, while I've done precious little gardening to date, it's already quite clear that my work is cut out for me. One can spend as many years on a few yards of earth as in a square mile of woods—the expenditure of energy is ultimately the same, though not the way it is expended. If there is a difference in their demands on one, it is that the woods can take care of themselves, while the garden needs constant attending, for it represents a stage in man's interference with nature from which there is no easy return. Bring in some topsoil for better growth, and you had better plant on it fast, or the winter rains will wash it away, cut gullies in the old soil beneath it, and leave you worse off than before. Inherit half a dozen trees which bore oranges the size of grapefruits when you first saw them, and suddenly they are bearing fruit the size of cherries, because you have neglected to prune them properly. Let the wildflowers grow high in the back, where you had thought to leave the ground fallow, and you'll have snakes when the dry weather starts, one of which, vipera xanthina, the Palestinian viper, you wouldn't want to get bitten by. Indeed, several townsmen have already warned me that it's time I took a sickle to our land, though the fact of the matter is that the flowers are so pretty that I haven't been able to bring myself to cut them.

I haven't seen a viper on our property, but I did once find the skin of one, discarded under a bush on a hot, dusty day. We have other tenants, too, of whom I so far know only by inference, such as the porcupine who leaves his gray-white quill by our house as a calling card, or the underground burrower, a hedgehog perhaps or a mole-rat, who periodically puts out a pile of fresh dirt by the entrance to his tunnel, presumably for the dustman to collect. I have seen snails, spiders, scorpions, earthworms, tortoises, ants, mosquitoes, butterflies, field mice, and over a dozen species of birds, including two brilliantly blue-winged kingfishers who are currently nesting in the earthen embankment at the lower end of our property, in an abandoned condominium of holes that formerly belonged to some geckos. These lizards are curious beasts, who like nothing better than to run up and down the walls of human dwellings on their suction-padded feet; the rough stucco of ours is perfect terrain for them, and I suspect that they moved to new quarters in order to be closer to it. Equally strange are the tortoises. Once I came upon two of them copulating behind a stone, the male precariously atilt the female, who kept cautiously advancing beneath him as though determined to be about her business, their shells clicking and clacking like billiard balls. I modestly averted my gaze for a moment to regard something else, and when I turned back they were gone—into thin air, it must be, for it's common knowledge that a tortoise can't run.

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To a tortoise, no doubt, our acre is a woods, big enough to roam in all he pleases. One might learn something from him about living within cramped borders. Below us, downhill, is an unpaved town road, beyond which stretches a vista of olive groves, vineyards, the gentle hills of the Carmel, and the distant lights of Haifa at night, all occasionally disfigured by a carelessly smoking limeworks located behind the first ridge. Across an empty lot to our left is a country cottage inhabited by the Schubs, a middle-aged, vegetarian, Scotch-drinking couple, both artists by trade. They are splendid artists, splendid gardeners, splendid people; beneath their British exterior, which is somewhat proper and colonial, they are as daft as a pair of mad monks. Uphill from us, in a house that fronts on one of the town's main streets, lives toothless old Yerachmiel Mizrachi. Yerachmiel and the house have been sold to a couple from Haifa, but Yerachmiel hasn't been told so as to spare him the distress. The house was owned by his younger brother, who sold it on the condition that Yerachmiel remain in it for as long as he lives: it is a kind of insurance policy in reverse, whereby the family gets paid in the insured man's lifetime and the company wins by his death. The couple from Haifa occasionally come to inspect their property and let their children, who are meanwhile growing up, romp on their future lawn; as Yerachmiel Mizrachi is stone deaf, he does not hear the children or come to the window to look out, thus raising false hopes in the visitors.

The land on our right belongs to Mr. Zehavi, who cut down the plum trees.

Zehavi is the man who sold us our property, keeping an adjacent strip of land that he also owned for himself. Both plots, he informed us, had been in his family since the year Z. was founded, when his grandparents bought them from the Arabs (Z. is one of the oldest Zionist settlements in Palestine, and will soon be celebrating its centenary); it was only because he was hard-pressed for money that he was selling one of them now. Zehavi was unpopular in town, where he had a reputation for being a miser. “He's a crafty old peasant,” we were warned by the Schubs, “you'd better watch out for him.” We did; yet we had no cause for complaint about his keeping his share of the contract. When we had the land surveyed, however, we discovered that the border between us ran directly through the trunks of two plum trees, which had already won my admiration by their profusion of blossoms and their promise of sumptuous fruit. Since Zehavi lived in a house in town some distance away, I suggested that in return for a reasonable sum he might agree to move the border at that point a foot to his side so that the trees might be all on ours.

I was unprepared for the vehemence of his response. The trees, he declared, had been planted by his father when he himself was a child; he had watered and tended them since; and he could not possibly part with them now. Instead, he proposed, he would pay me, and we would move the border the other way.

This time it was I who refused. I had no intention of surrendering my claim. If the plum trees couldn't be all mine, I would at least keep my half. Let the border run where it was, right through the middle of them.

And there the matter rested—or at least I thought it did, until returning a week later to the property I experienced the curious sensation of looking at a picture from which something familiar—but what?—is missing. The plum trees! I ran with a sinking stomach to where they had stood: all that was left of them were two pathetic stumps that barely came up to my knees. They had been mangled with an axe, not even cut cleanly, their still green branches scattered about like clothing after an orgy, hacked and splintered to pieces with a maniacal fury. Zehavi! Despite the fact that he was no longer young, and hardly seemed capable of committing so passionate a crime, it couldn't have been anyone else. I ran to his house—he was out. That evening I got him on the phone.

“Zehavi!” I shouted into the receiver. “How could you have done it?”

“Halkin?”

“Zehavi!”

“Halkin! I had to do it. You made me.” His voice was touchy, aggrieved, as though he were the injured party. “You gave me no choice. They were my trees. I helped my father plant them. I watered them as a boy. I offered to pay you for them.”

“For God's sake,” I said. It was as though the true mother in the biblical story about Solomon had torn her baby into shreds with her own hands and accused the false mother of murder. “I would have let you have them if I knew you would chop them down. Why didn't you tell me first?”

“It wouldn't have made any difference, Halkin. I had to do it. I wanted us to be good neighbors.”

“You wanted us to be what?”

“Good neighbors. It would never have worked half and half. Believe me, I'm a farmer. I know about land. Sooner or later we'd have quarreled. I did it for your sake.”

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And perhaps he did, though if so his intentions misfired, since the two of us avoid each other now when we meet in the street and look the other way. No doubt it irked him beyond endurance to have to share his plums with me, whose grandfather was a melamed in Nayebichov when his was dirtying his fingers in the soil of the Land. Not long after this incident, however, I was pleased to discover that our property had a more ancient Jewish patrimony than that of Mr. Zehavi's grandfather. Poking around one day in an overgrown area toward the bottom of our acre, I suddenly lost my footing and fell several feet through the tangled branches of a wild pistachio tree to land on my knees in a hidden depression that sloped counter to the grade of the hill. Directly in front of me was a small opening leading into what seemed to be a cave, the limestone ledge above which had been crudely but unmistakably worked to form a rough lintel. After clearing away some of the dirt at the entrance, I was able to crawl inside. A subterranean must filled the space I was in, a rectangular chamber that measured some ten feet by fifteen, and had barely enough clearance at the center to enable me to stand straight. Where the ceiling sloped down to meet the three walls—the fourth was taken up by the entranceway—a number of niches had been cut: two in the shorter rear wall, three in each of the side ones. Black beetles scurried fretfully at my feet, roused by my sudden intrusion from their graveyard vigil, for it was perfectly clear that I was in a burial cave.

But whose? The country is full of such caves, Christian) Roman, Hellenistic, Jewish, Canaanite, prehistoric, antediluvian. An archaeologist could have told me at one glance; as it turned out, however, a Talmudist told me at none. Without waiting for me to finish my description, he pulled a volume off his shelf, opened to the sixth chapter of the Mishnah of Bava Batra, and read aloud:

He who sells a burial place to another, or who comes to possess one, shall make the interior of the cave four amoth by six, and shall hollow out eight niches, three on one side, three on the other, and two on the remaining one. . . . Rabbi Shim'on ben Gamliel says, one goes according to the rock.

The cave was a Jewish one, then, of that there was no doubt; and since a Jewish family was unlikely to have lived and buried its dead in so isolated an area of the Carmel before the Hasmonean expansion of the second and first centuries B.C.E., or much after the Moslem conquest, by which time burial customs had probably in any case changed, it was possible to date it to a period ranging roughly from fifteen hundred to two thousand years ago.

I nursed no dreams of buried treasure, since to judge by the cave's crudeness its owners were not well-to-do; besides which, it had clearly been ransacked by graverobbers, and in all likelihood by the department of antiquities too, as was evidenced by the fact that several of its niches were exposed completely, the surface earth having been dug away to the underlying rock, and the others very nearly so. Nevertheless, I descended to it one day with several companions, equipped with a lantern and spades, to see what we could unearth. The results were unremarkable: little fragments of red pottery, the bones of a sheep or goat that had probably been roasted by shepherds, an ostracon of a phonograph record with the partial inscription umba tumba on the obverse side and the letters rael on the reverse. “Middle Ben-Gurion dynasty,” grumbled the companion who found it and went on digging. It was he who later came up with the one real discovery of the day: half of a human jawbone, yellowed like old parchment but otherwise in good condition, with two of its rear molars still intact in their sockets. The rest of its body, like those of its fellow cavemates, had vanished, leaving only it behind like the grin of the Cheshire cat. It was, it seemed safe to assume, the last surviving member of a member of the family whose property we owned.

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I took the jawbone home and put it in the drawer of my desk, from which I occasionally removed it for a silent tête-à-tête. I wondered about it. Had its master lived on our property, or had the cave simply been purchased by him or his family as the Mishnah suggests, the way one nowadays buys a plot in a cemetery that may be far from one's home? Indeed, we have a record of such a transaction in the Book of Genesis:

And Sarah died in Kiriatharba—the same is Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you; give me possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” . . . Now Ephron was sitting in the midst of the children of Heth. . . . And Ephron answered Abraham, saying unto him: “My Lord, hearken unto me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that betwixt me and thee? bury therefore thy dead.”. . . And Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant. So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the border thereof round about, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children of Heth. . . . And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre—the same is Hebron—in the land of Canaan.

In either case, the owner of the jawbone was familiar with our land; what of it might he recognize today? Not the red-tiled roofs on the hilltop, or the smoke from the limeworks, or the foundation of our own house that was being churned out by the cement mixer; but the wild almonds and figs, the wild olives and pomegranates, the wild mustard and garlic that shoot up every spring in such a reckless green rush, as though aware that life were but a brief season—“all the trees that were in the field”—these he would surely remember. He? But perhaps it wasn't a man's jaw at all, for it was so petite that when I tried fitting it around my own it was several sizes too small and came barely halfway to my ear. Had it belonged to a woman, then? A small child? This question was unexpectedly answered one evening soon after while dining out at the house of some friends. Midway through the soup the conversation I was conducting with the guest seated opposite me revealed that he was a dentist. Could he tell me, I wanted to know, leaning forward abruptly, something about a jaw? He imagined he could. The apartment in which we were living at the time was not far away; I was there and back again with the jaw before the main course was served. There was a hush at the table while I handed it to the dentist. He examined it by candlelight, turning it this way and that like a new bridge prepared for a fitting, before passing judgment. “She was a middle-aged woman, I'd say. About forty years old. The molars are ground flat; they must have chewed a lot of bread. No cavities, though. I can't tell you much more. Oh, yes: she had gum trouble. Here, you can see these irregularities in the alveolar ridge.” And indeed, a close look disclosed a definite sag in the set of the bone where it had met the membrane around it.

_____________

Since the discovery of the cave our property has seemed larger to me than before, in an Einsteinian if not a Euclidean sense, for surely the sum of an acre times fifteen-hundred years must come close to equalling that of one-hundred-fifty acres times nearly yesterday. How many of these years, I wondered, was the cave used for burial, and how many more thereafter did it continue to be known and watched over by the descendants of those lying within it before being finally abandoned by them to the shepherds and the graverobbers? The dead may bind us to places even more than the living, whom we can at least correspond with if we can't take them with us. I once knew of a widow in New York who refused to go away on vacation because she did not want to leave her husband alone in the cemetery, and even Abraham, though his son Isaac was a sabra, calls himself “a stranger and a sojourner” in the Land until he has buried Sarah in it. The pious Jews, too, I suspect, who came to the Land of Israel to die and be buried in it over the centuries, did so in part so that their mortal remains would not embog their children any deeper in the slime of Exile than they already were, as was the case with the Israelites in Egypt, who were unable to depart, the Midrash informs us, before they had raised the bones of the patriarch Joseph from the bottom of the Nile. Here, however, another practical consideration was at work too, for it was well known that on Judgment Day those who were already buried in the Land would be spared the ordeal of gilgul mechilot, “the migration of the caverns,” whereby the bones of the Jewish dead would make their arduous passage underground from the four corners of the earth to be resurrected in Israel, groping and tumbling for days on end through the dark bowels of the world. As a young boy who imagined this subterranean crush in all its claustrophobic detail, I asked myself whether it wouldn't have been advisable of God to have resurrected the dead where they were and allowed them to reach their destination by more conventional means. Doubtless, however, He had His reasons, chief among them perhaps being that even He was powerless to work such a miracle on other than His own chosen soil. Wasn't this what the Holy Land was all about?

There is nothing overtly holy about the soil of our acre, a yellowish-brown loam of stubborn though not intractable character, beneath which the limestone bedrock juts closer to the surface at times than a gardener might wish. Yet a pickaxe can crumble it easily enough, whereupon it breaks into numerous pebbles of a chalk so pure one could write with them on a blackboard. When rolled hard between the fingers, they become a white powder; when licked, they taste somewhat sweet, though not to the point that they might tempt one to bite into them more deeply. They are best savored perhaps with a brush of the lips, a kind of pilgrim's kiss . . . a mode of contact with the earth, if one may digress for a moment, that is not much in fashion these days, whether because tourism has replaced pilgrimage as an attitude of travel, or because the concrete seas by which the modern traveler is surrounded upon arrival are in any case unconducive to the custom. And yet to the true pilgrim this difficulty is more apparent than real, as I had occasion to witness several years ago when arriving in Israel on a Greek ship from Venice that had anchored in Limassol to pick up a consignment of Cypriot Christians on their way to spend Easter week in Jerusalem. These gnarled little men and women in black, so short and stumpy of stature that they seemed to belong to another, pygmified race, passed the night on deck eating and praying beneath the stars and were in a state of rare spirits when we docked in Haifa Bay the next morning. For a while they were content to stand excitedly on deck and point their fingers toward shore; but growing more and more impatient as the disembarkation proceedings dragged on, they soon flung themselves on the deck of the ship and began kissing it, as though the same wooden planks that had creaked crankily beneath them all through the night had been magically transformed into sacred ground by mere virtue of their proximity to Palestinian soil. The rest of the passengers, mostly chartered vacationers on a Middle Eastern tour, looked on with discomfort at this display of faith's powers, regaining their composure only when, as though on a signal from their guide, they began all at once to pull out their cameras and record their perspective on the event.

Already at the start of their trip, in effect, both the vacationers and the Cypriots were getting what they had paid for. The tourist travels to see something different, the pilgrim to see differently—and for this the deck of a ship is as good a place as any to begin. Jewish sources, particularly Hasidic ones, abound in this perception of what ascending to the Holy Land involves. If the Baal Shem Tov, as is known, put off his pilgrimage there time and again and died without ever having made it, this was not, we may be sure, because he questioned the Land's special holiness, but because he doubted his ability to perceive it; while that most enigmatic of all tsaddikim, the riddlesome Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, was ready to depart from the Land the day after his arrival, for he had, so he told his traveling companion, seen all there was to see. What Rabbi Nachman did in the course of that day is unknown, though it may have been no more than kiss a single clod of dirt.

_____________

For of course all land is holy to the eyes that know how to look, being that from which we come, and to which we must return, and which alone can sustain us in the interim—which makes it paradoxical of the Jews, it would seem, to have always insisted that their land was holier than others. As far back as antiquity, such implausible, if not self-serving, hierarchies of holiness, the bread and butter of Judaism, infuriated the Gentiles, who naturally resented such insolent absurdities as the claim that God loved all His creatures but loved the Jews more, or that He valued the seventh day of His week above the preceding six. Christianity, though not without some backsliding, subsequently took up the banner; and there was a time of my life in which it seemed to me not only the more rigorously logical, but also the more humanly profound, of the two religions. Everything is holy! I cried out with Blake, with that youthful passion for equality that is as determined to level differences in the realm of ontology as in that of authority or economics. If infinity could be found in a grain of sand, why not everywhere else? As I have grown older, I have become less of a spiritual sans-culotte in this respect, having come to the regrettable conclusion that it is but a short and oft-taken step from believing that everything is holy to living as though nothing were, the totality being a slippery category to embrace, but I still do not believe my woods in Maine to be a whit further from divinity than our hilltop in Z. simply because the weeds it produces aren't mentioned in the Bible. Both smell equally good after a rain; and the mosquitoes in summer are surely as annoying on either.

Not the holy land then, just one of many; and I hope it will not seem excessively xenophobic on my part if I confess to the occasional wish as a Jew that the rest of the world would take its shrines elsewhere, to equally suitable grounds, and leave us here by ourselves to putter around with the bones of our dead. Not that I think it likely that we can do a better job than others with this particular patch of the globe; on the contrary, I am reasonably convinced that we will make a mess of it in the end, thereby proving no exception to the proverbial rule that familiarity, that dulling condition of the spirit from which tourists and pilgrims are in flight, breeds contempt. We Jews returned to Palestine in order to get back to the land, but now seem more interested in what we can get out of it. Those lime-works over there, for example, smoking up the vineyards when the wind blows the wrong way, blotting out the fields where Elijah smote the priests of the Baal, disemboweling the hidden part of the hill until one day there will be nothing left but a paper-thin carapace, as brittle as an empty snail shell: are they not a profanation? To be sure, there must be lime, which is an ingredient in our own house, but I refuse to concede that it needs to be gotten by spoiling my air and my view. The great white storks who fly overhead every autumn on their way to changing hemispheres, and make the return trip again in the spring, must look down and wonder what benighted species of gardener would put such a stinking gray hole in the middle of his greenery. I could tell them about Zehavi and the plum trees.

_____________

So we are back to gardens again, this time to the kind that grow metaphors. They are already to be found in the Bible. “And He shall make her wasteland an Eden and her wilderness a garden of God,” prophesied Isaiah, who was not, unlike some contemporary social critics, partial to wilderness. In part, no doubt, this prejudice stems from the peculiarities of the Palestinian landscape, in which untamed nature means not the cool and verdant forests of the north with their brooks, fish, and berries on which the woodsman can survive for many months, but a harsh and ungenerous environment, if not desert then a thistly maquis, difficult to walk in, exposed to fierce wind and rain for half of the year, and to even fiercer sun for the other, and almost totally lacking in fresh or potable water, a commodity that was already in short supply in Neolithic times. Equally, however, Isaiah was speaking in the name of a biblical tradition to which he subscribed, and which held that it was impracticable to keep men out of nature's hair. “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it,” says God in His maiden speech to mankind, one which has been recently interpreted in some circles as an incitement to population explosion, and in others as a call for mass zoocide, though I submit that in fact it is neither. It is simply a plea for good gardening.

For what is the ideal garden? It is a state of interdependence between nature and man, a sort of Hobbesian contract, as it were, by which the one agrees to be pliant and domestic, and the other to be benevolent, responsible, and just. It is not a forest or jungle in which nature is allowed to run free; but neither is it a farm on which nature is enslaved, exploited for what it is worth, and abandoned or obliterated in the end if it fails to pay its way. It may be used to raise food, and so be planned for utility; but variety is no less its goal, and it must have flowers, and shrubs, and trees that bear only green leaves, and places to walk in and play, and wild areas here and there that blend into the cultivated ones, corners of self-expression, as it were, in which nature is left to improvise on its own or give refuge to an escapee from the hoe. Since it is not, strictly speaking, an economic enterprise, it cannot be judged in strictly economic terms; yet it must not be wasteful either, whether in money or in time, and should strive to be self-sufficient, using the resources that are most available and closest to hand. In size it may vary from a backyard to a country; if it encounters an obstacle, like an anthill, limeworks, or city, it needn't or may be unable to eliminate it, but neither can it just go around it, and it must incorporate it into its structure as artfully as it can. For above all, a garden is an art, and must concentrate on the relations of things as much as on the things themselves, being always mindful of the whole in dealing with each of the parts.

To the wilderness lover all this is tame stuff indeed, about as exciting as a pet lamb to a hunter. And yet with every year it is becoming apparent that if the wilderness and its contents are to survive at all in our world, they will do so only as part of a larger system of gardens to which they belong. (Such is already the case, for instance, with the great national parks of East Africa, where the elephants and lions have to be watched as carefully as cabbages that are cropped or manured as the occasion demands.) We have multiplied and filled the earth, quite without the help of the Bible—and there will be hell to pay if we do not now fruitfully subdue it. The real choice facing mankind is not the wilderness or the garden; it is the garden or the garbage dump, Isaiah or the rusty tin can. We of the affluent world have already embarked upon a revolution of falling expectations whose end is nowhere in sight. If we were presently to divide up the habitable globe among all its inhabitants, even an acre apiece is probably more than could go around; one-hundred-fifty is a dizzy extravagance, and while I could probably have lived on them had I wished with no worse harassment than snowmobiles and climbing taxes, my children, or theirs, would in all likelihood have seen them expropriated by the state to be broken into smaller holdings, much as is done today to the nabobs of India and Iran. I did well, then, to sell them—though to be strictly honest with myself, something in me wishes that I hadn't. I never did get to know a woods very well the summer we tented in Maine, and it is useless to pretend now that I ever shall. In my more elegiac moments of mourning for a freedom I never really had, I regret that I did not build my cabin there after all, so that I might be chasing foxes today, a vanishing breed in pursuit of a vanishing breed, instead of planting geraniums. Which isn't to say that the latter is an open book. The first batch we put in was on a slope, and because I didn't make the proper potholes around them, being lazy and wanting to save work, the water flowed right by them when it rained, so that several of them withered and died on the stem before I knew what was happening. One learns. The important thing is to keep your two feet on the ground.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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