The Work of Our Feet
During lockdown I went 79 days without getting into a vehicle. I walked to the grocery store, I walked through the park, and I really got to know the ground around me.
One of my favourite things about lockdown is walking where my feet take me. I used to walk to the shops, to work, to the cafe, to the train station. There was always a purpose, and a pace meant to accomplish something. During lockdown in Glasgow I explored amazing places. There’s a beautiful old cemetery down the lane, full of stories and flowers and crumbling gravestones, and I would spend hours wandering and reading epitaphs. I explored every inch of Rouken Glen Park, and found my favourite trees in the Eastwood Forest. I followed the curving lanes of Thornliebank and took in my surroundings.
Then I went up to the farm. To get to Dalmally I took a taxi to Queen Street Station, and then a train up into the Highlands. It was my first time in a moving vehicle in nearly three months, and it signalled a sort of change for me.
Dalmally is surrounded by forestry tracks - dirt roads used for maintaining electrical pylons and carting out wood. I spend many afternoons strolling along the tracks, exploring them as they branch out. They all feel quite different - depending on which direction you’re facing, you see different mountains and different landscapes. Most of them are open and windswept, but one track leads deep into the forest, a narrow pathway surrounded by evenly planted spruce forests. You can hear the air changing as you go deeper into the trees, it quietens until all you can hear is your breath amidst the surroundings.
We have a deep relationship to the ground. The Hebrew word for ground is adama אֲדָמָה, only one letter away from adam אָדָם, which means human. Our connection to the ground and the earth around us is imbued in our mythology, whether you believe that we were sculpted from the earth, or evolved out of tiny microbes. I’ve had an amazing time learning and doing, working with my hands - spinning wool, harvesting plants, making bread - but equally meaningful is the listening and observing, the understanding of these connections - the work of our feet.
One afternoon we went for a walk up Ben Cruachan, one of the nearby mountains. Deep inside Ben Cruachan lies the Cruachan Dam, the world’s first reversible hydroelectric station. It was such a big accomplishment that in the 1960s the Queen herself made her way to Dalmally for the opening. The inside of the mountain has been carved out, and water is drawn up in a continuous cycle from Loch Awe below. It's then cascaded down over the Cruachan dam, where it falls back into Loch Awe. It’s called the ‘Hollow Mountain’, in reference to the massive turbine tunnel lying at its core.
We took the track halfway up before Liz led us off the path, through a ditch, and across a mossy patch to an open space near a large oak tree. Liz says the spirits of the mountain have been disturbed - hollowing out a mountain and filling it with turbines isn’t the natural way of the world. As we explored our little clearing on the side of Ben Cruachan, we took in our surroundings. Liz burnt sage and we scattered birdseed as an offering to the mountain. She had brought Tibetan singing bowls, which we tried to play. As I traced the bowl - made of a combination of five metals - with the mallet, I could feel the air around me echoing its vibrations, pulsing through my palms.
Lockdown has been a lot about learning to listen. In a way, it’s been a very self-centred time. When my whole world takes place in my living room, it’s hard to focus on the experiences beyond those four walls. Here on the farm I constantly come face to face with nature and the physicalities of things so much bigger than myself. Being on the farm is pausing to look and listen, to go where my feet take me and to constantly explore the intricacies of creation.
My family were dairy farmers back in the Shtetl. My great-grandfather Mendel’s family owned a dairy in Nowe Miasta nad Pilica, in the Radom district of central Poland. His wife Rivka came from the neighbouring village of Drzewica. I visited both those villages in 2016, where hardly anything remains of their lives there, save the graves of their ancestors which are now buried deep below the towns football pitch / farmers market.
My other great-grandparents also worked with the natural world. Grandpa Art was a butcher, Zaida Gershon was a dairy farmer, and Zaida Harry was a furrier. When Baba Rivka left Poland to come to Calgary, she plucked chickens bare and made chicken soup on Friday nights, just like she did in Poland, except the land she had previously inhabited was so far away.
The hill above Dalmally was once the village of Barr a' Chasteilean. In the 1400s it was home to the McNabs, ironmakers who crafted swords for the local lairds. Later it was home to cottars, poor peasants who lived in simple stone huts. Today nothing remains of Barr a' Chasteilean save a few scattered stone walls completely overgrown with bracken and moss. In the afternoons I like to climb up the hill and sit amongst the stones, looking out over the Cruachan Range. It feels nice to sit amongst the ruins of people long forgotten, something I can’t do with the ruins of my own ancestors.
But what does it mean to inhabit the space of ‘somebody else’? The early Zionists dreamt of building up their own land. Many saw physical labour, and a real and tangible connection to the land, as key to self-realization. It’s a mitzvah just to walk in Eretz Yisrael. That means that every step we take on our home soil, we’re literally deepening our connection to our heritage.
Yet here I am exploring the ground in Scotland. Everyday I walk on Scottish earth, I harvest Scottish produce, I spin Scottish wool, I breath Scottish air. Where does that connection fall?
I believe that everything we encounter shapes our path. The people we meet, the experiences we share, the obstacles we encounter, these all shape our journeys. My people come from the Land of Israel, but since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE have lived in Poland and Canada and probably a few other places. In my 26 years I’ve been to 33 countries and lived in five, and each one of those countries has helped shape who I am. While at times I feel definitively Canadian, India and Scotland and Israel also run through my blood.
Yesterday I returned to the farm after a week away with a new friend, a week filled with learning new skills and having important conversations; A week filled with a lot of listening. Coming back into the curve of mountain surrounding Dalmally felt surreal, like I was coming home to a place so familiar which I had been away from for so long. The rippling emerald hills, the misty grey skies, the cool mountain air, it was all like a dream. I stood, making tea in the same kitchen I’ve stood in every day for the past two months, but it felt a whole new experience.
Last night and today is the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av. It’s my first year in a long while not spending Tisha B’Av in a Jewish community. The past two years I sat on the cool tile floors of the Tiphereth Israel Synagogue in Mumbai. The year before that I was at Chabad of Venice, before that in Jerusalem, and the two years before that in Tzfat. I enjoy sitting on the ground with everyone, listening to the tragic poetry of the book of Lamentations. This year I sat alone at the spinning wheel, twisting wool into a long continuous strand, like the continuous strand of our people.
This is my home for now. I love the earth I walk on, the wool I spin, the people I surround myself with. Home seems to be so many different places, and who knows where I’ll find myself in the future. On Tisha B'Av we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the end of the era when Israel served as the singular home of the Jewish people. And while I wander through Scotland, over the Highlands and across the Himalaya, it's a source of strength and guidance to be rooted to an ancient tradition and to generations of people who have come before me, walked this earth, and listened to its sounds.