The Perfect Timing—and Perfect Vision—of Meir Shalev’s "My Wild Garden"

The Israeli garden, like Israel, is tamer than its immediate surroundings, but wilder in spirit than places that are actually tame.

June 9 2020
About the author

Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

The past few months have found most of us cut off from our modest sources of adventures and drama—trips to other cities, meetings with people from far away, airplanes. My reading response to the pandemic shutdown has been to look for escape to broad vistas and foreign locales, the more exotic the better. Why read about people shut in their houses? I want movement and exploration. Give me Lawrence of Arabia, Benjamin of Tudela, Neil Armstrong.

And yet there’s something perfect about the timing of Meir Shalev’s book My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden, in which the author explores nature, human nature, Israeli history, and the landscape of the Bible without ever leaving his yard. The book, with lovely illustrations by the author’s sister Refaella Shir, was a bestseller here in Israel when it was published in 2017, and now arrives in an English translation by Joanna Chen. Its characters include ants, a stubborn mole, a beloved and dying lemon tree, an uncooperative fig, a snake in the compost, and Kramer, a cat of blessed memory who is known to Israeli children (including mine) as a character in Shalev’s books for kids.

My Wild Garden has much to teach readers about the flora of the land of Israel, and about the way the local plants are woven into the history, language, and religion of the country. But more than anything, it has something to say about finding wonder at home, and about the countercultural benefits of commitment and immobility—about the layers of emotion and intellect that can reveal themselves if you stay put and tend to one thing for many years.


“This book is not a manual or a textbook, either of botany or of gardening,” Shalev informs us at the start. “It is simply a collection of impressions of a modest wild garden and a gardener who tends it and looks after it, someone who, at a relatively late age, found himself a hobby, and perhaps even a new love.”

The word “simply” belies how hard it is to turn a book like this into something worth reading; for proof, see the interminable genre of writers discovering the rejuvenating joys of restoring old houses, raising buffalo, or canning organic jams. Shalev can pull it off because of his sharp style, and also because his garden is clearly a lifetime enterprise, not a project dreamt up for a book proposal.

Shalev, one of Israel’s most popular writers, comes from an old, vanishing breed of Israelis who are skeptics of religion but nevertheless harbor deep admiration for and knowledge of the Bible. His father was a Bible teacher, and in addition to his novels and children’s books, Shalev has written two books about Biblical stories and language, Bible Now (1985) and Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts (2011). He brings that to his book about his garden, along with his easy familiarity with the way both words and plants figure into the history of the Jews in their land, from the rabbis of the Talmud to the war songs of the generation of 1948.

Even if all you want is some pretty flowers, gardening in Israel is laden with a heavy literary resonance that’s hard to escape. Shalev doesn’t try. The Bible, he notes, is full of trees and plants, as well metaphors like Jeremiah’s description of a person of true faith: “He is like a tree planted by water sending out roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not worried in a year of drought, and never ceases to bear fruit” (17:8).

Shalev likes those passages, rooted as they are in the climate and landscape of Israel, but he has little patience for the tradition’s fixation on plants that are “useful.” He bemoans an injunction that forbids a besieging army from cutting down fruit trees outside the city walls—but allows the killing of any other kind of tree. Shalev thinks all trees are created equal. He also points out something strange about the Bible that I’ve never noticed before: there are no flowers in it (with the notable exception of the Song of Songs). In our texts, it seems, plants were worth mentioning if they could be used for food or incense in Temple sacrifice. But unlike the Greeks, who loved to write about flowers and based entire myths on their appearance, our rabbis had little to say about them.

Shalev has a different approach, one that comes from another tradition: the Zionist religion of labor and agriculture, as practiced by the founding generation. These were people like Shalev’s grandfather, a member of Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, famously the first modern agricultural settlements known as a moshav. He hailed from a family of Ḥasidim in the Ukraine but later “underwent a religious conversion from the work of God to the work of the land.” That was the story of a whole generation of pioneers. His grandfather might have abandoned tradition, Shalev notes, but the first things he planted on his land were olives, pomegranates, figs, and grapes, all of them from the “seven species” traditionally associated with the Land of Israel.

When Shalev was a fourth-grader on the moshav, he didn’t have to learn Torah passages or talmudic tractates. In keeping with the new religion, he had to identify, from memory, 150 kinds of local plants and flowers. This was one of the most important tests for moshav kids because it demonstrated proof not just of knowledge but of their Israeliness. (He identified 42, coming in last in his class.)


Because the plants of Israel are wrapped up with Zionism and Hebrew, and so is Shalev’s book, I didn’t envy the translator. Take, for example, the elegant Hebrew name for an elegant plant, ḥatsav—a tall stalk whose white flowers grow in ascending rows and announce the coming of fall (or stav, in Hebrew, creating a rhyme beloved of Israeli songwriters). In English it’s a “sea squill,” which isn’t very elegant, and doesn’t make much sense for Israelis, who don’t associate the plant with the sea.

The word t’enah, Shalev informs us, is linked to an ancient word for passion, ta’anah, and this seems to have something to do with the specific choice of leaves of t’enah to cover up the nakedness of the first two humans. Faced with all that sexual resonance, how is the word “fig” supposed to compete? There’s even a Hebrew word specifically for the act of picking figs, le’erot, which is linked to the word for light, or, because figs are best picked in the coolness of dawn.

The word for summer, kayits, when plants dry up and the agricultural cycle is renewed, is linked to the word kets, for “end.” The word for earth, adamah, is linked to the words for blood (dam), the color red (adom), and the human being formed from earth in Genesis (adam). When describing plants, or anything else, Shalev reminds us, Hebrew is a language with roots.

The book is packed not only with names but with fascinating details. I had no idea, for example that the noble ḥatsav—which I just can’t bring myself to call a “sea squill”—is said to have been used by Joshua son of Nun as a marker to delineate the boundaries between one tribe of Israel and another. It remains a useful marker between farmers’ fields, Shalev points out, because it flowers “precisely in the season when the borders of fields need to be clearly seen,” the ploughing season at the end of the summer and before the rains. We also learn that another flower with a funny English name, the “spiny broom” (in Hebrew it’s simply l’vanah, the “white one”), contains a poison once beloved of fishermen in the Sea of Galilee, who used to grind up the flowers and scatter the powder to stun their prey. A shepherd who sees one in Shalev’s garden warns him that if goats eat it, they lose their minds.

We don’t learn, unfortunately, if an adventurous goat actually tried a nibble, but we do hear of another run-in with local wildlife—specifically a mole rat who eats Shalev’s flower bulbs, and with whom he conducts a prolonged guerrilla war. Shalev tries flooding the mole’s tunnels with water and scaring it with dog poop. He briefly weighs using an improvised “mole cannon,” a kind of gardener’s IED, and then the tactic of pumping exhaust fumes from his car into the tunnels (“in spite of the temptation I decided there are things that Jews should not do”). In the end he simply moves his bulbs into flower pots where they can’t be eaten from underground. “Since then,” he writes, “the mole rat and I are not longer at war but rather manage a conflict.”

A reader will recognize “managing a conflict” as a term drawn not from gardening but from the everyday political life of the country, hinting that the garden of this book isn’t simply “wild,” as the title suggests, but might in some way reflect the nature and culture of its country.

Some observers, for example, see aspects of the national character reflected in the orderly gardens of France: in the carefully manicured hedgerows at Versailles, according to this view, it’s possible to see reason overcome nature in the imposing style of the French Revolution. Or you might see an expression of certain national characteristics in the untidy beauty of the English garden, where the gardener’s job is not to boss nature around, but to prune and protect, to provide conditions allowing her to be the best version of herself. Is the garden of this charming book an “Israeli garden” in the same way?

One doesn’t want to overdo it, and Shalev certainly doesn’t, but the gardener here does fertilize his soil with historical significance and precedent. The garden has plants with names in Arabic and Hebrew; Mediterranean trees that grow stronger with the benefit of advice from a Romanian neighbor; and fruits and leaves that could be used for Temple incense or for limoncello. The Israeli garden, like Israel, is tamer than its immediate surroundings, but wilder in spirit than places that are actually tame.


Shalev gives us a chapter on the superb qualities of the cat Kramer, now buried in his favorite sunning spot in the garden. He gives us a limoncello recipe and a pasta recipe, and weighs in on the debate about the best all-in-one gardener’s tool: “As for the Leatherman, I prefer my Swiss Army knife because it has a corkscrew—that is to say, its inventor recognized that man was born not only to toil.” We get some 1,600-year-old wisdom about weeding from Rabbi Ḥaninah ben Pazi, and an 1,100-year old observation from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer: “When a tree that bears fruit is cut down, its moan goes from one end of the world to the other, yet no sound is heard.” He explores why Israeli males are so confident, and so invested, in the superiority of their homemade olives, and why they’re all wrong (except for him).

My Wild Garden is an exploration of the world at our feet, and an homage to plants who, unlike us animals, must live their lives rooted in the ground without moving. Like us during these coronavirus days, plants have to find other ways to get around. “[W]hen dandelion seeds fly above my garden, melting into the distance,” he writes, “they awaken within me a yearning and excitement coupled with anxiety for their fate. They make me think of great travelers and discoverers of new worlds . . .”

Even among lowly plants, Shalev writes, in an apt lesson for these constricted times, “there are both nomads and house dwellers, and you do not need to sail the seven seas in order to see them. It is enough to go out into this wild garden and to walk through it with open eyes.”

More about: Gardens, Israel & Zionism