On staying open in conflicted landscapes


In the soft mists of dawn, or among the orchards and eucalyptus groves at dusk, the valley speaks its spatial coordinates in the voices of cranes. On the flat valley floor, the visible world contracts easily to a circle of a few dozen meters, or soars far to the high peak of the Hermon and the ridges and mountains that hem its sunken rift on either side. The clamour of flocking cranes at the feeding point on the Agmon lake, and the calls of individual birds and family groups scattered among the orchards, fields, and ditches, mark out the close and distant spaces of the valley. Their voices are joined by a tumult of other activity – crop-spraying planes quarter the agricultural lands, pumps throb, blackbirds sing, cars hum on the distant highway, raptors mew, radios blare out ‘oriental’ pop music, and in the evenings, jackals call.


The previous weekend, I followed the River Jordan from my temporary base in Yesud HaMa’ala to where it opens out into the Sea of Galilee. By taking my time to walk the river, I hoped to get a clearer sense of where I was, to orientate myself to the flows and spaces of the valley. The river cuts down through rugged hills of basalt – the lip of the Huleh, spilled from the volcanic plateau of the Golan. Between the sunken plain of the Huleh and the Sea of Galilee it falls nearly 300 metres, dropping through the threshold of sea level into the depths of the tectonic rift.


The habitat changes as you leave behind the former lake floor and peat beds of the Huleh and slip between slopes of dry pasture scrub thick with thorn and wildflowers – anemones; lupines; cyclamen. The dessicated soil seems baked hard, but turns quickly to impassable mud in the wet hollows where cattle tread. Wherever water is held back, wetlands reappear – waders pick along waterlogged terraces and harriers glide low over clumps of reed. In places, thickets of thorn and fallen trees make the way impassable. Animal paths zigzag in and out of tributary wadis; straying from the poorly-marked trail into a tangled creek bed, I meet a jackal stepping down to the water.


As always, in this country, the land is punctuated with signs of its military underpinnings. Mobile tank bridges stand sentry along the banks of the canalised Jordan where it flows beneath the rim of the Golan Heights – Syrian territories occupied by Israel in the war of 1967. The river skirts the ruins of an abandoned Palestinian village. It is a Sunday, and Christian Arab families picnic along the river and on the shores of the inland sea.


How is it possible to pick a way among the scars and open wounds of this troubled landscape?  Faced with positions that seem too painful or horrific to engage with, it can be tempting to withdraw and shut down, to take up a defence on ethical grounds. And yet with the odds stacked so heavily against equality and justice, to refuse to engage – to allow yourself to become alienated – is to give up the battle to those who have (always) already won. It is only by finding creative ways to engage, to open up spaces of possibility for different ways of thinking and understanding, that some kind of freedom can be won back from the prevailing hopelessness of the current situation. Only by finding ways to imagine the world differently can we begin to escape the tyranny of the present.


On my way out to Luton airport, I struggled to articulate this sense of what it means to engage creatively in conflict situations. I was battling with the fog of an early morning departure, and anxiety about the forthcoming visit, teasing out half-formed thoughts and fears. My partner Scarlet, listening, pointed out that in some sense this was in fact the focus of my PhD: how might it be possible to open up space for a different kind of politics, a fundamentally relational understanding of landscape? And, on a personal level – how might it be possible to find a way to be present, here, in this situation to which I am intimately bound and profoundly opposed?


Much has been written or said, by feminist and postcolonialist thinkers in particular, about the need to work personal, embodied and situated knowledge back into academic practices of knowledge and knowledge-making. At many levels my reasons for being here are intensely personal. This is the landscape in which I first became attuned to the tangled politics of nature, gender, nationhood and belonging. It is the landscape in which I lived my adolescent adventures, and in which most of my closest family still live. It affects me deeply. The imperative to find a way of being open here is a compelling one – there is perhaps nowhere more difficult or more urgent for me, in which to work out the compound challenges of sustaining a socially- and environmentally- engaged creative practice.


At the northern tip of the inland sea, close to the church of the multiplication, a small pier juts out over the water, amid a tangle of straggly reeds and thorns – a favourite spot of kingfishers and night herons. I came here long ago with my aunt Deborah and our mutual friend Kate – a fellow artist – on our way north for to visit the Huleh, a trip on which I also first met Zev. Later, I stopped here with my parents in the months just before my mother died. It has become a spot to return to, always at the last of the light, to watch the kingfishers – white breasted, common, pied – bright pinpricks disrupting the soft obscurity of dusk.

The pain of conflict scatters lives; charts the surface tensions and impassioned undercurrents that divide families, and pull them together.

An unknown compulsion fetches him back from abroad at an opportune moment. His mother is dying from cancer, though at this stage the diagnosis is not clear; he accompanies both parents to visit a healer in the north. Driving back at dusk, they stop off to watch for kingfishers on the Galilee shore. Just beyond the Church of the Multiplication, a stone promenade leads down to an unremarkable pebble beach fringed with reed. In the deepening dusk, the chocolate brown bulk of the birds bleeds into shadow. Only the iridescence of blue wing feathers is detectable. The electric colour is felt, not seen – it literally catches the eye in passing; a rupture, a scratch on dark glass.

Sage Brice, Excerpt from Everyday Affects of Water and Violence in Israel/Palestine: Prototype for a counter-geographical memento, 2015 [PDF]


Walking the Jordan to this familiar place, I mark out for myself in the movement of my body (the depletion of my water supply, the ache of a twisted knee) the distances which orientate me in a particular space. My own sensory and emotional culpabilities attune me to the affective charge of lives worked out in a contested and changeable landscape. Walking, sensing and thinking in situ helps to calibrate my filters to the resonance of material, cultural and political ecologies entwined in the singular landscape of the Huleh Valley.



2 responses to “On staying open in conflicted landscapes

  1. Pingback: On becoming immersed | crane cultures·

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