Sands, Lupines and the Ecology of the Uncultivable

Today’s blog by Dotan Halevy relates to his article published recently in Environment and History (online first 2022):
Sand and the City: On Colonial Development and its Evasive Enemies in Twentieth-Century Palestine

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) brings together two decades of thinking and writing about land, landscape, flora, fauna, and the system that ties them all, the ecology. Ecological thinking enabled Leopold to shift from the side of utilitarian dealing with nature as a forest ranger and game manager to ethical consideration of nature’s intrinsic value, where every component is entangled with myriad others. For Leopold, thinking of nature as valuable in its own right stemmed from criticising interwar economy, especially in the face of the 1930s great depression. As federal agencies vacated American farmers from lands that had been devastated by the Dust Bowls and become infertile, Leopold took the opposite route. He traveled to eastern Wisconsin to buy a cheap piece of sandy wasteland in Sand County. In one of his meditations about this region’s landscape he writes:

Sometimes in June, when I see unearned dividends of dew hung on every lupine, I have doubts about the real poverty of the sands. On solvent farmlands lupines do not even grow, much less collect a daily rainbow of jewels. If they did, the weed-control officer, who seldom sees a dewy dawn, would doubtless insist that they be cut. Do economists know about lupines? 

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, p. 96

When I first encountered this text, it immediately reminded me of a different place – the sands of Gaza, in Palestine – more or less around the same period. There too, the idea of economic utility was called into question by local farmers who tied together sand with lupines, and nature with cultivability. As I was studying the history of the Gaza borderland in the early twentieth century, I encountered an exceptional number of appeals by local farmers to the British mandate authorities testifying that they were sowing lupine (colloquially – Turmus), on the dunes in the outskirts of Gaza city. Why did they do so?  

The path that would take us there starts with picture no. 1. It is taken from a 1947 application submitted by the British mandate government of Palestine to the Colonial Office in London, asking for funding for tree-planting on the dunes of the Palestinian coastal plain. This afforestation project aimed to stop the sand drift westward that threatened to overwhelm infrastructures and cultivated lands. As part of this application, the Palestine government presented with pride its results in previous afforestation efforts in the Gaza region, alongside photographs demonstrating the planting techniques. Together with the caption that reads ‘one-year-old acacia planted on bare dunes’, the picture tells quite a bit about how the British sand afforestation in Palestine was undertaken.

Picture no. 1 (source: The National Archives: CO 733/492/3)

Deep holes were dug into the sand to reach cold and humid soil and the seedlings, cultivated first in nurseries, were delivered to the planting ground at an already-developed stage. We also learn who the labourers were who actually did the work, native Palestinian Arabs, and we know what they planted – Acacia, or Blue-Leaf Wattle. Here, in a nutshell, is the story of how the Palestinian coastal plain changed in the twentieth century through an imperial-environmental project consisting of: a local labour force, plant species imported from a different imperial territory, and documentation, definition and framing of the project by the colonial power behind the camera (and behind the desk preparing this very document some time later). In other words, this picture and its context enables us to understand the environment as a historical object that changes throughout time due to human activity.  

If we were to take this analysis forward, a natural step would have been laying out the unintended consequences of this British campaign in terms of environmental change. The Acacia that the British, and later the state of Israel, distributed widely throughout the dunes is today known to be an aggressive invasive species that thrives in both disturbed and natural areas, taking over ecological niches and extinguishing endemic species across the southeastern Mediterranean. Acacia is a key example of tying the colonial history of the Middle East with the rapid loss of biodiversity today. Yet, if we think historically, the British in Palestine could not have known this. It was only in 1977 that Charles Elton’s seminal study on The Ecology of Invasion of Animals and Plants was published, based on research done during the 1960s and 1970s. British officialdom who dealt with sand afforestation in Palestine and elsewhere did not even think of the environment they encountered as an ecological system, an idea that emerged on a global scale only around the same time, in the 1930s (pioneered in popular writing, inter alia, by Aldo Leopold). 

The science of afforestation, upon which their knowledge was based, had deep roots in Europe going back to the eighteenth century. But the profession and science of forestry were not necessarily tied to the world of nature – rather to that of economy, agriculture, reclamation of agricultural soil and, of course, timber production. This approach was implemented on the Palestinian coastal plain too, which ties this story to another key question that environmental history asks: how did the human perception of the environment change over time, and what were the political and social implications of this change? 

For the British in Palestine, sand was a ‘natural’ environment that ought to be tamed by afforestation because it was supposedly arid, infertile and, thus, uncultivable – outside and resistant to the realm of agricultural production and economy. This perception is implied in the description of the sands in picture no. 1 as ‘bare dunes’. Yet, as mentioned earlier, in British perception, sand was not only ‘waste’ in and of itself, but also ‘laying waste’ cultivable lands around it. That is why its expansion had to be curbed by tree planting. This perception of sand vs. cultivable land was injected through practice and propaganda into Palestine, as exemplified in pictures  no. 2 and 3.

Pictures no. 2, 3 (Source: Al-Kafila, 30 May 1947)

These advertisements, funded by the government’s ‘Soil Conservation Board’, are taken from the official British government publication Al-Kafila. The captions call on native farmers to ‘guard their soil’ and participate in the afforestation effort. Yet it is not the land shown in the pictures that is to be guarded, but the adjacent lands that might be covered by sand outside the picture. The distinction is made by referring to each of the terrains with a different term in Arabic: the dunes are rimal or sawafi, while the soil to be protected is turba. 

The distinction between cultivable (soil) and uncultivable (sand), and the need to protect the former from the latter, relied on the parallel distinction between culture, the result of human productivity and ingenuity, and nature, the untamed environment that resists human efforts of domestication and aim to destroy it. For the British, sands were a pure ‘menace’ and a ‘natural force’ of destruction like a storm, plague, or locust. Consider, for instance, the following passage, taken from an earlier grant request for sand afforestation from 1945, where British officers explained why native Palestinians would not be willing to pay for sand afforestation, and thus, imperial funding is required. 

Picture no. 4 (source: Israel State Archive, M-22/2)

Indeed, local Palestinian farmers suffered from sand drift upon their cultivated lands. It was not ‘limited foresight’ that made them treat sand drift differently, though, but their native knowledge of this very terrain over many generations.

Contrary to the British dualist understanding of cultivable/waste or culture/nature, farmers of the Gaza area saw sand, and sand-covered lands as significant to their economy. Sands were ground for the cultivation of vines, mulberry, sycamore, almonds and different types of vegetables. Villages used sands as pastureland, shared through traditional usufruct and ownership rights, and sands also were the site of traditional-religious festivals such as the annual pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Nabi Rubin or Mashhad Hussein.

Yet ,for the British, Arab cultivation, grazing and inhabitation of the sands was not a valid way of using them, but, on the contrary, what made sands moveable in the first place and thus had to be stopped. This was done by enclosing the sands and outlawing grazing and cultivation, as preliminary steps for afforestation. Those who continued cultivating or grazing in the sands were categorised as encroachers. Symbolically, ‘encroaching’ was also the verb used often by the British to describe the movement of the dunes themselves, thus making the terrain and the people subsisting upon it a reflection of one another. Picture no. 5 demonstrates this conflict well. 

Picture no. 5 (source: The National Archives: CO 733/492/3)

Presumably, the situation shown here is similar to those in the previous pictures. These are the same landscapes, practices, figures in front of the camera, and probably the same behind it too. Yet here, the same local Palestinians seen earlier planting British-imported seedlings in the sands are ‘encroaching on the dunes’. They became ‘encroachers’ once they planted their own trees by their own methods and not that of the government. 

The British criminalisation of sand cultivation brought dozens of residents of the Gaza region to claim in petitions and appeals to the court for their rights in the sands throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Primarily, local villagers claimed that it was their right to cultivate the sand following the Ottoman practice of ihya, literally – ‘reviving’, and conceptually –land reclamation. According to the Ottoman land law, which predated British legislation, abandoned or uncultivated lands could be claimed as property by reclamation and continuous cultivation. This practice was mostly useful for terrains of rocks, forests or sands where conventional large-scale agriculture did not take place and where there was no solid proof of previous ownership. This is where we come back to lupines.

Lupines, a staple of the local cuisine that flourished in the sands, acquired an important role in Palestinian farmers’ struggle to maintain the practice of ihya, and make sure that their lands would not be enclosed as forests. As planting fruit trees was labour-intensive and time-consuming, locals in the Gaza area performed the practice of ihya by sowing lupines that grew fast and were distinguishable by their white flowers. This way they could mark the land that was their own, or the land they claimed. And thus, British spotting of ‘encroachers’ in the sands, that is, encountering sand claimed by local farmers, was often accompanied by spotting their lupines first, as shown in forest rangers’ reports like that in picture no. 6: 

Picture 6 (Source: Israel State Archive M-661.2)

But the cultivation of lupines didn’t only challenge the British enclosing of the sands, but also the theorem behind it – the distinction between cultivable and uncultivable lands. Throughout agricultural history, human culture made infertile grounds into agricultural soil using refuse or manure. Since the nineteenth century, states started quarrying fertilisers such as phosphates and producing nitrates industrially to improve soil fertility. Yet, the process of turning infertile ground into soil also happens naturally, although at a much slower pace, through crop rotation in agriculture or ecological succession in wild terrains. And here is where species such as lupines become significant. Unlike water, sunlight, carbon dioxide and different nutrients that plants can use freely, plants cannot use nitrogen in its molecular state. Although the air consists of seventy per cent nitrogen, plants need the mediation of Rhizobia, a group of bacteria that invade plants roots and convert free nitrogen into ammonia and nitrate. In the absence of external fertilisation, this process known as nitrogen fixation is what makes sand, volcanic ash and other infertile grounds into soils where plants can subsist. But Rhizobia, for their part, also need a specific host. They live in symbiosis only upon the roots of legumes, making plants such as medick, beans, fava, chickpeas and, of course, lupines into pioneer species to grow upon poor soils. They are crucial agricultural components for natural fertilisation. When the land is not treated with crop rotation that combines legumes, and is being overcropped time after time, it loses its fertility and becomes barren. The exhausted lands where Aldo Leopold established his sand farm experienced such a fate. For him, the lupines that surprisingly sprouted in the land were a symbol of the sands’ natural vitality that economists and agriculturalists overlooked to grow crops. While cognisant of ecology then, he somehow maintained a nature vs. culture dichotomy. In the sands of Gaza, however, lupines were the very ecological agent used by local farmers to turn uncultivable to cultivable. Native Palestinian cultivation in the Gaza sands not only expressed local agricultural culture and knowledge – it also used the very technique and botanic species tying together what seemed to be ‘nature’ and agricultural soil.  

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