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When the Apples Turn to Dust

Gemiş Köyü is the kind of village where you would usually find no reason to stop.

Sitting in the region of Denizli, on the border junction of Afyon and Burdur, the road leading to the village dissects a huge plateau. Uncultivated meadows sit in varying tones of brown creating a patchwork over the flatness. A sharp white line, salt, separates the foreground and Maymun Dağı (Monkey Mountain), which sits central to the view, forming a protective presence over this seemingly vulnerable land. Two huge mounds of salt, more specifically sodium sulfate, sit next to the extraction plants, which were set up here in the 1960s. Aside from these mini-mountains of snow white, the only rhythm to the immediate landscape comes from the texture of old plough lines, a few green fields glowing like emeralds in the stark surroundings, and the occasional herd of livestock kicking up clouds of dust as it roams in search of places to graze.

Though places to graze are becoming harder to find.

The area is running out of water.

When you enter the village the theme of dryness continues. The streets are dusty. Most of the village dwellings are authentically rustic, many featuring mud brick or more modern red brick, that have been left unrendered. A total lack of signage means it’s hard to spot the local grocery stores. The only touches of colour come from parked farm machinery, a plastic children’s playground, strings of red peppers hanging to dry, and the few houses that haven't upgraded their blue wooden windows to white pimapen (UPVC). The jewel of the village is the large, pastel painted school which bids you a cheery farewell as you exit the village to the east.

If you find no reason to stop in the village, then a couple of kilometres on, as the road takes a pleasant dip into the edge of a pine forest, you’ll notice a tall wooden structure on the right-hand side. An observation tower was built by the municipality a few years ago, so locals and visitors could marvel at the area's much-anticipated annual visitors. Every year flamingos stop here to bring a dash more colour to the village. To be specific, the flamingos don’t visit the village itself, they flock to the lake, Acıgöl, a bitter alkali lake, which sits across from the observation tower at the easterly end of the plateau.

Though the number of flamingos visiting each year is decreasing.

The area is running out of water.

Soon the observation tower will most likely become redundant. The land is drying, the lake is dying, and the birds visit less and less each year. Acıgöl is an endorheic lake, meaning nothing naturally flows in, nor out of it, and so, with every winter of less rainfall, every summer of hotter temperatures and every year of attempted agriculture in surrounding villages, the lake is shrinking. In the height of the summer groundwater is now almost non-existent, this summer the lake shrank more than ever before, the depth fell below one metre, and the village’s irrigation canals sat empty for over a month.

The area is running out of water.

You hear it. You see it. You feel it within every moment.

People here are very concerned.

My initial reason for stopping in a village where I would usually find no reason to stop, is that it’s the place my friend was born and raised. Ironically, he left the village two decades ago to nurture a business in tourism, providing boat tours for people who want to experience Turkey from the water. Three hours’ drive away his village is turning to dust.

A few years ago agriculture was a much more productive occupation, but increasing water shortages have seen many landowners abandon their fields, with many taking on employment at the sodium sulfate production plants on the salt lake bed, some leaving the area to seek work in other sectors, and those who continue to farm here increasingly focusing on cattle rearing for guaranteed income. Though cows need water and sustenance too.

My hosts for three days and three nights are Melek hanım and Isa bey, the elderly parents of my friend, who sit at the top of a key bloodline within the village, a settlement with a population of over 900. Isa bey, whose 80+ years have had little effect on his grand stature, regularly comes and goes on his motorbike, mostly trips to buy groceries or to visit the kahvehane (coffee shop). His wife Melek spends most of the day sitting on the floor of her terrace greeting a steady stream of guests whilst working away preserving recent harvests. Their house is across the road from the pastel painted school, its prime location further contributing to the flow of guests. Some of her children, of which she has eight, combine school drop offs with quick visits, and the younger grandkids burst into the yard during lunch breaks. Her immaculate house is not only a place where visitors weave in and out, but home to an archive of her carpet making, from days when her hands and eyes were capable of more intricate crafts.

Melek and Isa’s fortress is guarded by a thick bed of roses, hollyhocks and a few fig trees with ripe fruit ready to burst open. Beyond that, like a tapestry, a gradient of drought rolls out towards the horizon. Behind the cherished flowers, her vegetable patch hasn’t had the water it needs this year, skinny leeks being one indication of a tough summer. To the rear of the vegetables sits a small meadow, bare of crops and dry as powder. Then comes the lake. Or what used to be the lake. Decades ago Acıgöl stretched out over much more of the plateau. Now the lake bed is home to reeds, rushes, then further away more dust and salt, with grazing cows and goats kicking up dust in the afternoon winds. Melek is very proud of her flowers. It’s possibly the most naturally colourful corner of the vıllage, and to be honest I find this relative luxury a welcome smokescreen to the reality beyond the borders of the house.

I decide to venture out beyond the false-reality of Melek’s flowerbeds, into the stark dryness of the plateau, to spend time observing authentic Anatolian village life, and so, on the second morning at 7:40am, I clamber up and into a tractor-pulled trailer to join a gaggle of villagers, mostly women, in picking this year’s tomato crop in one of the family member’s fields. The tomatoes, which grow low on the ground, are intended for salça (tomato purée) and turşu (pickle) production at a nearby factory. I’m the entertainment for the day. Most are questioning why this yabanci (foreign) woman has chosen to spend the day in the field picking tomatoes. I should add here that I’m not 100% foreign, my paternal grandfather was born in the neighbouring region of Afyon, and it’s partly this connection which drives my desire to get my hands dirty doing a task that many generations before me have undertaken. I also want to get more of an understanding of life in a drought-stricken village.

After fifteen minutes of tomato picking, I give up on my foolish desire to try and blend in with my fellow pickers, of which there are around thirty, and reluctantly put on my sunglasses to try and protect myself from the dust that has been battering my eyes and is fast permeating my sinuses. It’s back-breaking work. It also quickly becomes a task so monotonous that my concentration begins to flow in waves, from focused and productive, to meditative, to having no idea where I am or what I’m doing. The torture of the dust remains a constant. It’s in my eyes, it’s in my mouth, it’s in my hair, it’s in my wrinkles. Before arriving in the field I was worried about the heat. I quickly realised it was the dust that would be the day’s enemy.

I work in the field alongside my friend’s sister, ‘Eddy’, as I affectionately call her (truthfully, I can’t figure out the Turkish pronunciation of her name). Eddy had a pacemaker fitted several years ago. She’s in her fifties and works like a machine. I decide I cannot slack, I’m almost a generation younger and my heart is fine. I pick like a pro I’m told, and I give the impression that nothing is bothering me. Though after a few hours, I’m truly suffering, both mentally and physically.

It occurs to me, on that Tuesday morning in September in a dusty field in Denizli, that vegans are only spreading half of the message. Why are we not concerned about the human suffering that goes into commercial food operations? How many elderly Mediterranean villagers are walking around with backs that are hunched, hips that are destroyed, due to decades of slaving away in fields? We take so much for granted. I don’t think I’ll ever open a jar of salça (tomato purée) again without thinking of my day in that dusty tomato field in Denizli!

On the last morning, as we sit eating breakfast on the floor in the hallway of the house, I listen to Melek reminiscing about the crops they used to grow when life was greener. Cumin, sugar beets, çörek otu (nigella seeds), carrots and peppers are now all fond memories of the gifts their lands once provided. They also owned the best apple orchard in the area. But four years ago, after a succession of poor apple harvests, they cut down all the trees and abandoned the orchard. Now the family is mostly limited to growing corn, tomatoes and cucumbers for pickling. They have a herd of goats too, which Melek keeps a close eye on from the terrace, as they graze and kick up dust on the lake bed.

The family owns hundreds of acres of land, but what use is land in an area that no longer has the right conditions for agriculture?

During that final breakfast we crunched on pickled cucumbers, tomatoes from the current harvest, yogurt from the family’s cows, fresh figs from the garden, and garlic-laden salça produced on an open fire in the backyard. This is how I’d expected the trip to look and taste, but I wasn’t expecting to be leaving with a gut full of concern for the future of the village. I realise it’s a recurring theme now, that each time I visit a new place, my prior feelings of anticipation of upcoming adventure and discovery soon turn to worry and guilt when I’m met with tales of woe about increasing environmental threats. What happens when an entire village can no longer utilise the only land it owns, and the only skills it knows, to make a living and provide security for the next generation? When the cows can no longer find places to graze and the apples turn to dust? When the lakes disappear and the flamingos stop visiting? When its entire root system dries up and it appears there is hardly any way to evolve, to survive?

I find the real reason why life has brought me to Gemiş Köyü, to spread a story that is occurring in hundreds of thousands of villages around the world. We are running out of water, and soon our children will have no memories of green, just the artificial colours painted on the school walls.


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