“The taste of chrysanthemum leaves reminds me of parsley and carrots combined,” says Heela Harel to a group of beginning gatherers, participants in an urban tour she led recently in Tel Aviv. Through Harel’s eyes, the city space looks like a productive source of food. After a rain, the wadi at the edge of the Neve Tzedek neighborhood is covered with a green carpet of hubeiza shoots and chrysanthemums, and citrus trees bow under a burden of juicy fruit in shades of orange and yellow. At the fringes of an abandoned field in the Shapira neighborhood, among pea shoots and ox tongue, there’s a hidden treasure – the first asparagus stalks of the season, lifting their heads within tangled thorny bushes. The nutlike taste of wild asparagus is always pleasant, and even more so when it can be found in the streets of one of Israel’s largest cities.
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“Gathering edible plants is an intimate way of getting to know the city,” says Harel. “When what guides you is a search for edibles, everything becomes interesting: a hedge of ornamental plants put in by the municipality or weeds in the backyard of a gas station.”
The routes chosen by the urban gatherer are not limited to the last remaining uncultivated fields in a world dominated by residential towers and concrete parking lots. “I want to feel and taste everything I come across,” she says. “You’re walking on an urban street, not in a forest, but you feel you’re surrounded by edible raw ingredients. I open every gate I see and enter through it, even if I’ll never pick anything without permission in a private space. The worst they’ll do is chase me out, but there’s always something to discover and people are usually happy to cooperate and to share.”
Harel was born in Jerusalem in 1973 to a religious family. “Between the ages of 15 to 18 I left the religious life, and mainly I caused a lot of trouble,” she says. Upon her discharge from the army she started to study Italian and carpentry, hoping to specialize in furniture restoration, but didn’t complete her studies. Afterward she roamed the world, lived in New York and Copenhagen, and in 1997 moved to Tel Aviv to work in TV production. She moved to graphic design for television and studied fashion design at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Ramat Gan.
“As a student I was very poor, and often I used remnants of materials that others left behind. I always collected things and mended and renovated them with my own hands. My paternal grandmother, who was Iraqi, was a self-denying woman who had a hard life. She didn’t waste anything. She was really poor and had to feed eight people on her own.
“My mother came from a farm in the United States, and there too they grew everything they needed by themselves, and nothing was wasted. My father’s mother was born in a home where you weren’t allowed to throw away a sock. I assume that something of that was etched into me from a very young age. Not rigidly or by force, but out of an understanding that that’s what we should do. It’s better for a person and his environment, and finding solutions for using various materials is a creative process that requires a lot of imagination.”
Harel completed her fashion studies “by the skin of my teeth,” as she puts it. “It was clear that I didn’t want to design collections and the fashion industry can be wasteful and often superfluous. But the field continued to interest me. I did an internship in London, in a company that specialized in predicting trends, and I wrote about fashion for two Israeli magazines, Rating and City Mouse.” In 2006 she returned to graphic design for television (“I wanted to get my financial problems off my mind”), and since then, for 10 seasons, she has been the graphic designer of the satirical television program “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”).
Place of refuge and comfort
She came to urban gathering via her activity in the community vegetable garden in Florentin, the south Tel Aviv neighborhood where she has been living for 20 years. “A neighbor simply took me there one day – the garden was then located on Druyanov Street – and I was amazed. The neighborhood activists, young and old, work together in the garden once a week, on Shabbat afternoon, and working the land is a refreshing shower for the soul.
“It’s delightful, and the garden is a place of refuge and comfort even after the work. We have shared meals and lectures there, and I find myself coming to sit and relax there for no special reason.” Over the years Harel has become one of the steadiest and most prominent activists in the garden, which today is located on Harabi Mibachrach Street. She is involved in neighborhood and municipal battles to expand green public areas.
“One day another activist told me you can eat chrysanthemums, and in fact almost everything that grows in the community garden, including the weeds. That’s how my tasting journey among all the plants in the city began. I’m not a botanist, although over time I’ve taken courses on the subject of local flora. I’m more interested in what’s edible and in the practical uses of plants, and trial and error was part of the learning process. That’s why I occasionally ate poisonous plants; once I ended up in the hospital.”
In the past two years Harel has also been teaching sustainability at an elementary school in Florentin. “In my opinion this includes an attempt to understand what and who exist around us, how we can make proper and intelligent use of existing resources, and how we can create new things with a minimum of waste.
“The studies are divided into several subjects: urban nature, with an emphasis on pollinators and how to increase their number in the city, for example through planting certain flowers and herbs; materials – we’re building a library of materials in the classroom and encourage the children to bring remnants from home, from which we create things; and getting to know the environment, which means the community garden and [people who work in] the neighborhood, from garage workers and upholsterers to bicycle fixers and gallery owners. Mainly it’s important to me to teach them that every person and every act, even the smallest, can have an influence.”
Designer, social activist, urban gatherer or teacher of sustainability – whatever the definition, Harel has a rare feeling for beauty and an ability to find it and to reveal it to others, even in unexpected places and in trivial everyday items. In addition to the urban gathering tours she conducts (too infrequently), Harel is responsible for a charming project she calls “Wild Weeds.” In various places and during different seasons, she tries to show wild plants that are usually called weeds in a different light. “As far as I’m concerned, it means taking something that’s considered ordinary and mundane, even inferior in certain connotations, and make it surprising, beautiful and desirable,” she says.
The building blocks, or raw ingredients, are weeds and edible plants she gathers only within the radius of the event, and shortly before it is held. The edible plants serve first of all as a basis for a series of concentrates, syrups and salts (like celery or quince peel salt) that she prepares.
At the most recent event, when the season was turning from late summer to early winter, participants made tonics and concentrates of lemon geranium, myrtle fruits and leaves, lavender flowers, quince, sabras (prickly pear), dwarf clementines, black elderberry flowers and more. The syrups are the basis for various cocktails and a jelly Harel prepares before her audience: transparent bubbles of jelly in small containers that hold various leaves, stalks, fruits and other plant parts collected in the course of the urban gathering. From the piles of leaves, branches and flowers placed on the table of what she calls an “installation” – shoots of milk thistle and hubeiza, sow thistle, garden cress, wild fennel and other types of seasonal leaves, many of them unfamiliar to most of the spectators-diners – Harel prepares an unforgettable green salad.
Heela Harel, urban gathering tours and “Wild Weeds” events. For more information, call 054-743-3357; firstname.lastname@example.org