Yesterday, spent in upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, left me feeling blue. The day itself was grey and heavy, always threatening rain but never delivering. The air was full of moisture, but the temperature was cold, so it felt like the atmosphere lay on the skin like a clammy veil. And it seemed to get colder and greyer as we went up the mountains. The green of the nature reserve at Tel Dan gave way to the brown and grey of the stony cliffs at Caesarea Philippi, and I listened with increasing glumness to tales of ancient battles and cycles of destruction. By the time we got to Caesarea Philippi I was dully listening with only half an ear as the guide carried on, leaving me with the dim impression of children being thrown of cliffs and virgins being sacrificed to Pan in a prolonged era of Roman debauchery. And I always thought that Pan was such a laid-back hippie god. Sigh.
The layer of ennui that seemed to have settled on the morning congealed during the drive to lunch, as we drove through the Golan Heights, past abandoned Syrian churches and characterless, run-down towns, past barbed-wire fences and yellow signs warning about landmines. Our guide explained we were stopping in a Druze town, a place that was no longer Syrian but refused to be Israeli, full of people who, finding themselves on the fringes, decided to dig in there.
The place that served us lunch was run down and patched together, with the matriarch on the floor in the front cooking flatbead and photographs of Druze leaders framed and hung on the wall. Behind the salad bar was a lurid poster of Hagar, portrayed as a Middle Eastern hottie that could have stepped from the covers of a cheesy romance novel, cradling a baby Ishmael that she evidently borrowed from a Pampers commercial. Baby Ishmael looks vaguely concerned about being cast out into the wilderness (though it could be a full diaper), while Hagar looks desperate but determined, her hair dramatically blowing in the wind. It seemed like such a strange and fantastical thing to find in a place of such grim reality.
I finished lunch early and went out to look at the leggy herb garden, where I was carefully observed by a collarless dog who wouldn’t approach me. The back of the restaurant overlooked a flat grey lake, which our guide told us was a volcanic crater from vulcan activity millions of years ago. It seemed like an apropos reflection of the incendiary conflicts that have plagued this region for what seems like time out of mind.
Growing by the herb garden, overlooking the unrelenting grey of the lake and the hills and the sky, was a tree. I don’t know what kind of tree it is, aside from evergreen. But , I thought it was very pretty, with smooth, silver-brown bark and flat, scaled evergeen leaves. But what particularly struck me about this tree is that someone had chopped off all the lower branches. I’m not skilled enough to read whether is happened all at once , or whether they were chopped off one at time, but the really striking bit was that a single shoot was still growing out from the lower trunk. Insistently proclaiming its right to be there through its very presence.
I don’t know exactly why that little branch made me feel better, but it did. There was something about its resilience to the reality around it. That the scars of its neighbors’ absence didn’t stop it from growing. That is was a green thing in a view of steely grey and shades of geology. That against all practical advice, it still grew, and thrived.
In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet tells the people who have been exiled to Babylon that God has told them, despite their pain, to settle down. To dwell in the city, and plant gardens, and marry, and bear children, and seek the welfare of the city. I always thought that was a really sucky thing to say to people who have lost everything, including their options. But it occurred to me as I thought about this tree that it’s also the only thing to say to people who have lost everything. When all else fails, thrive.