I stood at the top of the hillside, my breath caught sickeningly in my throat, not quite wanting to believe the vision sprawled before me, below me. Naked, russet earth. Ground- torn, violated, shamed. Strange- it seemed that my absence of a few years had lifted the blessing of my guardianship, as if they had come, behind my back, maliciously, knowing I was not there to cry out, and ripped away my precious few acres of rock garden.

Building development- that was all. New houses for more people- a need. No cruel, malicious intent in the machines of destruction. I scanned the whole abysmal scene several times, in shock, as if the stark nightmare would evaporate and I would see again that rock garden which was a natural hillside of Jerusalem.

Just three years before, I would roam on these slopes, in solitude, wonder and contemplation. Here, I used to gather my being within me, strengthened, my fragile sense of self received solace, warmth, refreshment - I would leave my rock garden with a renewed sense of purpose- my inner being solid as a precious stone, and reflecting all the wonders around me.

So much, so much here to see, to sense, exquisite details at my fingertips, delicacy, subtlety, nothing too obvious. Each wonder was partly hidden by its modesty, many there were beside the winding trails for sheep and goats. Each tiny bush, with its tracery of spines as if woven from miniature barbed wire, each rock- pastels of rose and peach, and bright in the sun, was a universe. I dropped on the ground many times to observe each small world.

The flowers were small stars, but brilliant- diminutive in size but bewildering in variety- in rich staring blues, scarlets, oranges- hues strong as sapphires. Cyclamens in a little shade, and red anemones in all their boldness, and miniature indigo irises. Rock roses, sweet, tender petals in a home of thorns- and a steady breeze of so many mingled fragrances one sadly fails to notice them after a while.

Here in winter, stonechats called from the scrub, and then dived into the cover of hard, tiny leaves, brilliant as polished stones. Later, when the white wagtails had returned north and turtle doves returned to purr in the cypresses and pines, many of the bright flowers had passed, and bees and butterflies and many other fascinating insects occupied themselves in the clover. At this time I might gaze skyward at the blue, so bright my eyes would water, and see white storks on migration- so many and so awesome that I felt my flesh tingle in response to their pure white grandeur.

Summer, the slopes were arid, and inhospitable to the casual visitor. I relished the "chamsin", the days of hot Sahara winds and dry dust. I felt invigorated by the blasting heat, though sensible folk, and most birds kept a low profile. The pashosh warblers, undeterred, chimed from dried talks, extravagent and unabashed. In winter again, sheets of cold rain lashed the slopes, and the snipe lay low till the last second. Here, some eight hundred metres above sea level, the cloud base was never far away on such days, and the damp blew through the bones. And so the seasons turned.

Now, when the most dangerous creatures are the scorpions under the rocks, which I did not desturb, and most of the snakes are harmless, it is a wonder to think that not so many centuries ago, lions would probably roam these slopes. That was back when the gazelles and ibex were probably much more numerous, and their range, more extensive- and the land far less disturbed and fragmented. A lion, here! I could almost smell their great, tawny forms, sure footed on the rocks, their grunts and booms in the dusk. I would sit and contemplate that reality- of the past. I would gaze over at Jerusalem, sunlight flashing from a host of solar panels and windows, and drenching the pale apricot stones, and wonder about the future of the fair city.

I would wander down in the valley below and between my most favourite slopes, where chukar partridges could usually be found. There, amongst the most luxuriant growth,all the aromatic scents, all the wonder of design, and encompassed by the soft, olive of the continuous rock garden, and the warblers and calls of bulbuls on forays from the houses, my soul would dream and fly and leave the world of particulars behind. My soul could drift inward towards a true light. For in truth, she does not desire a fragmented world. Still, only a place of harmonious fragmentation would give me the peace I need to leave it.

And now that harmony is shattered, discordant, noisy, polluted in a simple natural sense. No longer whole. That is my personal loss. Now I would have to find a new place to launch my soul.

This is a description, as close as I can remember, of my experiences on a hillside outside Bayit Vegan, a neighbourhood in south west Jerusalem, in '84. I have been a resident of Jerusalem since then, in different neighbourhoods, though I was born in England.

Copyright © 1999 Gila Atwood

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