Last week, I was given a tour of the site of the Oman Botanic Garden.Located in Al Khoud, about 20 kilometers west of Muscat, the Garden is being developed on 423 hectares (1,045 acres). It is one of the largest botanical enterprises in the world and will feature plants found in all of the plant geographical regions of Oman.
While touring the site, I met Abdulrahman Al Hinai. As an ethnobotanist, he has been gathering plants and stories from around Oman. Stories about plants used for food, medicine and culture. Stories that are being lost as the old wisdom, held in the minds of old men and women, fade under the onslaught of time and modern culture.
We arranged to go into the mountains the next day. To the mountains, the Western Hajar, and to one village in particular, Wakan, in search of a rare variety of lentil.
It rained that night, torrential rain washing the streets of Muscat and filling the wadis with water. Wadis are ravines or dry creeks except in the rainy season. One moment they can be dry gravel beds, the next, with dark clouds in the mountains, they can be a torrent.
The next morning, meeting Abdulrahman, he told me that some of the mountain passes had been washed away and he wasn’t sure if we could reach Wakan. There was a momentary pause and we both said at the same time, “Let’s go anyway”.
We stopped to look at the rushing water in a wadi. Around us, locals were taking photographs of the water. In the desert, water is an event. Along the margins of the water, Saccharum kajkaiense , a relative of Ravenna grass, with giant cane (Arundo donax), and a rush, Juncus rigidus began to turn green.
Onto Wakan we went, passing through gravel desert and dark hills and cliffs of ophiolite, an igneous rock thrust up from the oceanic crust. Oman is a geologist’s dream.
Wakan is 2,000 metres above sea level and is a small village winding on top of a crest of rock and looking down to Wadi Mistal below. It exists because of year-round mountain springs that provide drinking water and irrigation for many small terraces of subsistence crops. Like many habitations in Oman, you see the green clusters of date palms (Phoenix dactylifera ) before you see the houses.
The terraces are small and defined by raised soil “walls”. Each has a gate of a rock that can be removed to direct water that comes from a central water channel – falaj in Arabic. Walking past terraces of garlic, wheat, a kind of fava bean, and spring leaf crops, we came upon three elderly men sitting in the shade. A fast and loud conversation took place between them and Abdulrahman. I just smiled. We all shook hands. Such soft and respectful handshakes. One of the elders was carrying a bag of male date palm pollen. Hand pollination of female date palms is one of the oldest agricultural techniques in the world and it was time for the palms of Wakan to be pollinated.
Abdulrahman and I climbed 700 steps through the village talking about ancient techniques of subsistence farming, varieties of crops that are drought tolerant and the need to preserve and protect botanical knowledge as a cultural necessity. The steps were shaded by fig, pomegranate, apricot, almond and peach trees. A few flowering herbaceous plants grew in the terraces. They were of more interest to us than the village inhabitants. They rarely name a plant that does not have agricultural or medicinal value. We found Gladiolus italicus and the rare orchid, Epipactis veratrifolia growing at a base of a wall.
Walking down the steps, we encountered the three old men. We were invited to enter the village men’s meeting room, the majilis : مجلس, where we sat on cushions and conversed. Bowls of dates were brought and sweet oranges quartered and offered. Once again, the conversation was loud and vibrant. I smiled a lot. At one point, one of the men, hand shaking with age, pulled out a very old cell phone and slowly dialed a number. Words were spoken and the phone was given to Abdulrahman. What appeared to be a very detailed conversation ensued and I was told later that this was a conversation about lentils (!) The farmer and Abdulrahman were discussing the old variety of lentil that was in the farmer’s possession. The farmer, being half way up the mountain with his goats and not near his farm, offered to show the ethnobotanist the lentil next time he came to visit. This appeared to cause great excitement amongst my hosts. Once again we shook hands. They are beautiful, tough, sweet, hard men.
The confluence of time struck me as funny. Visitors arriving in a modern 4-wheel drive car to an ancient village to see farming techniques that are at least 2,000 years old and discussing lentils on a ten year-old Nokia mobile phone so that the lentil can be grown at a modern botanic garden.
It was a perfect day.
“How many a desert plain, wind-swept, like the surface of a shield, empty,impenetrable,have I cut through on foot ?
Joining the near end to the far, then looking out from a summit, crouching sometimes, then standing, while mountain goats, flint-yellow, graze around me, meandering like maidens draped in flowing shawls.”