[Writing-in-progress about working at Kibbutz Shamir.]

After my stint behind the dishwashing machine, I graduated to the avocado fields. The harvest of Kibbutz Shamir’s orchards had been nearly completed by the time I got assigned to this detail, so there was only another week or two of work left. Our job was simple enough: ascend the broad-branching trees, pluck the last of the ripe fruit, and deposit the avocados into plastic buckets to be carted away to waiting tractors. …

To be scaling these trees, clambering from the top rungs of the ladder ever deeper into the nest of branches and leaves, was a new experience. I’d always been a clumsy, nervous, fearful climber as a child—not one of those kids who shimmies up flag poles and garage sidings and the tallest trees on the block, just for kicks. Gravity was not to be trusted, so I tended to keep my running shoes on firm ground. But here, in this new land, I took to the novelty of avocado picking, like I’d be born to the job. The kibbutznik in charge of the harvest nicknamed me “Monkey Man”, for my willingness (I hope—perhaps he had other reasons) to pull myself to the topmost reaches of the trunk, for my new arrival’s urge to impress, to leave no fruit unplucked, no collective profits squandered and left to rot on a distant branch.

Working the orchards, circa 1988
There was a satisfaction in seeing, the next morning, sliced fresh avocados in the buffet trays of the dining hall for breakfast or lunch. This was 20 years before the “locavore” movement, before eating lightly on the earth—consuming organically grown, untravelled food, cultivated by the farmers in the neighbouring area code—became the mantra of the middle-class mainstream, even fashionably urbane, not simply hippy-headed back-to-the-landism. Here, on the kibbutz, the community had developed economies of scale to do much of that on its own. It raised cash crops for export: cotton and kiwis and apples and avocados. But like any farm, it could skim the excess for its own kitchen, and add to that bounty vegetables grown in the kibbutz gardens, meat from the cattle operations, honey from its apiaries, eggs from the chicken sheds. Even the table cloths and dish rags came from the kibbutz’s “Shalag” factory, which spat out reams of the non-woven fabric for a variety of uses. Our meals shrunk the radius of the 100-Mile Diet down to 10 miles, often closer. We pulled our own food from the orchards beyond the barbed wire perimeter and the tilled acreage in the valley below. I felt like a farmer at last.

The fieldwork, no matter how sweaty and arduous, held a romantic appeal to international volunteers, who were largely city kids like myself. It fit the vague, sepia-tinted image we had of kibbutz life. It allowed us to PhotoShop our faces into the collective portrait of pioneer life, to assume the role of hardy turf-breaker, even if our “pioneering” consisted of boozy three-month stopovers on the Mediterranean backpacking circuit. It was harder to sustain that image when you were scrubbing pots or cleaning toilets or a cog in a noisy factory. Manual labour, on the other hand, as long as we had a return ticket—that we could romanticize.

My keenest work memories are pulled from morning shifts in the lower fields. My autumn arrival meant that I’d missed most of the harvest season: the apple picking, the cotton plucking, the kiwi selection. Instead, as the number of volunteers dwindled, I was assigned to the post-season trimming and upkeep of the orchards. I hacked out shallow irrigation trenches between the rows of apple trees to channel the coming rains. After a brief lesson in horticulture, I trimmed the low canopy of kiwi branches and fixed their ends, with plastic ties, to parallel lines of steel wire, to shape their growth for next season. I often worked in tandem with Grant, a former volunteer from Scotland and the boyfriend of Zeva, a kibbutznik who also taught us Hebrew every week. Grant had a sly, deadpan wit, and fed me insider gossip of how the kibbutz really worked behind the scenes. In exchange, I detailed for him the sexual escapades and soap-operatic dramas of the Volunteer Ghetto, freely embellishing and turning casual speculation into hard truth for his vicarious enjoyment….
Rarely did I worry about how long my shift had run or watch the clock for its end, like I did in the kitchen or the factory. Instead, the 24 daily slices of clock time were replaced with the more subtle, four-beat rhythm of the seasonal round, a kind of slowed-down square dance or hora, in which spring planting led into summer growth and fall harvest and the “dead time” of winter in the valley, when all was prepared for the renewal to come. My stints in the field were the closest I had ever been, and ever would be, to the seasonal cycles of farm work. Even my own circadian rhythms had to adjust to waking before dawn, to the sun coming up over the valley, to the chores that seemed repetitive and without end and that would not produce results until another nine months from now, when I would likely be long departed from the fields. 
Kibbutzniks from Shamir in the cotton fields, circa 1958
It is harder, perhaps, to feel nostalgic about my shifts in the cotton fields. The cotton itself had been fully harvested before I arrived, so I still have little sense, other than from photos, of what a field of ripe cotton looks or smells or feels like. I can’t really brag that I “picked cotton”. All I remember are the decimated stalks of the plant, like bony claws erupting from the broken soil. And the need to burn away this stubble for fallow. And the tang of gasoline from a trailer-borne tank attached to a tractor, and its hose and nozzle, and how the petroleum reek itched the nostrils and sheened the skin. And the waves of heat as the doused stalks of the depleted plants erupted into flames, a burning bush along the Jordan River, and how we sprinted from this wall of fire to spray and ignite the next row of cotton plants. And how, on the ride back home, sitting in the trailer, we watched a dribble of fuel trace a line from the still-smoking fields and leave a trail all the way home to the kibbutz.

On other days, we were assigned to “harvest” rocks from the cotton fields. In the early years, when kibbutzniks first settled the valley, this was the land’s most fertile crop—a perpetual growth of rocks out of land that had once been swamp and marsh, as though the earth’s mantle were sending its own hard seeds to the surface. More than 40 years later, the Huleh Valley still produced a bounty of stones that needed to be removed before spring planting. Stripped to our shorts, we would trudge behind an idling tractor and hurl skull-sized builders onto the trailer it pulled. Occasionally, we would stop and try to lever a heavier, more deeply embedded rock out of the soil and carry it away. It was dirty, ankle-twisting, mind-fogging work. Rarely did a kibbutznik join us to do anything other than drive the tractor—and even then it wasn’t worth his time, as our slow progress down the length of the fields meant the vehicle only needed to turn around every hour or two. Even a volunteer could do that. It felt like prison work, like we should have been joined at the ankles by iron shackles and crooning soulful spirituals as the sun beat against our bare shoulders. We would curse when we couldn’t dislodge a boulder and curse again when we missed the trailer with a pitched rock and curse once more when someone else’s errant toss struck the toe of our boot.

Yet, for all our complaining, we relished those moments together, taking a break at the end of each row, smoking and laughing and mopping gritty sweat from our brows and necks. We knew that these labours were not as endless as they seemed, that because we were the first to rise and beat the sun to the valley bottom, we would also be the first to quit our shift, the first to raise raw red faces into the stream of the shower, the first to lounge in the shade of the Ghetto porches with cold bottles of Goldstar in our half-rigid hands. 

We didn’t know it at the time, but
years later we would run this rock-picking duty through the blender of our nostalgia, too, when these hands of ours had grown soft from massaging computer keyboards instead, and our long days in those burning fields of stone would acquire a patina of pseudo-heroism, like we had been wrestling with the land itself, pitting all that simple strength of youth to tame the earth, rolling one boulder at a time. True pioneers, every last one of us.

Nor could we guess that even this lowly volunteer assignment, like so much of the kibbutz’s fieldwork, would end, too. Soon enough, as the 80s gave way to the 90s and the new millennium, kibbutz farms from Dan to Be’er Sheva hired low-paid guest workers from Thailand to replace the largely free labour of international volunteers or even hired Arab hands. The Thai workers worked harder, complained less, didn’t get drunk and rowdy every other night, and didn’t require the same constant cycle of retraining as our clan of itinerant and often unreliable backpackers. Even as rock pickers, we were about to become obsolete.