There are trees that are not simply natural wonders, but also an integral part of local folklore, identity, and legacy. Special things happen around their huge trunks, in the shade beneath their canopies. Before the days of air-conditioning, a tall tree provided a welcome spot for relaxing and escaping the heat of summer. Romantic rendezvous and official meetings took place in the shade of old trees, which eventually took their place in the history of the area. We don't have to look far for examples: the sycamore trees in Little Tel Aviv, the ficus in Mikve Israel, the Washington palms in the Baron's settlements, or various trees throughout the land of Israel that were preserved, sometimes for centuries, because of the holiness attributed to them.
One of these, a venerable giant of a Tabor oak, stands on the outskirts of Givat Ada. This tree has played a significant role in the village's history, and from its perch on a hill north of the village seems to look out at it, faithfully keeping it company. Over the years, Givat Ada has spread out and the hill, along with its well-known tree, have been absorbed into the village itself.
According to Ziv Rachilevsky and Dr. Ayal Tepperberg, of the Givat Ada Preservation Society, this specific oak tree has served as a local symbol ever since the disturbances of 1936, when the tree was dubbed the 'Shomrim's Oak'. In the pre-State era, the Shomrim, the Jewish guardsmen, would go out on their patrols, usually on horseback, to the fields surrounding the village. With no communication devices at their disposal (and of course no mobile phones!), the oak tree became their designated meeting point after every round of duty. If one of the guards did not turn up at the appointed time, a search party set out to find him.
The beautiful and impressive Shomrim's Oak had a romantic past, as well. During more tranquil times, many a romantic young couple pledged their love here and forged the bonds that eventually became the basis of marriage and families.
Today the Shomrim's Oak is recognized and honoured as part of Givat Ada's historic legacy. In 2013, the town marked its 110th anniversary, and on Tu B'shvat that year, a special ceremony was held beneath the tree. Throughout every year, pupils from the Geva School in Givat Ada often meet there to discover the tree's connection to local history, culture, and nature.
A few months ago, some residents noticed worrying signs on the tree: dry leaves and branches, symptoms of rot, and general deterioration. Members of the Givat Ada Preservation Society quickly turned for help to the municipal council of Binyamina-Givat Ada. The head of the council and its engineer set up a meeting with Ramat Hanadiv's director, Hugo Jan Trago, where they described the tree's dire condition. Within a few days, Ramat Hanadiv's staff began a rescue-and-rehabilation operation in Givat Ada directed by arbourist Aharon Gabbai, an expert in the care and pruning of trees. We asked Aharon to tell us about old oak trees, how they are tended, and what he found on his first visit to the Shomrim's Oak.
'Most of the large old oak trees that have been preserved in this region are Tabor oaks', he said. 'At a rough guess, a tree of this size is probably about 150-250 years old. If nothing disturbs it, it can live for centuries. Generally, a tree's troubles begin as a result of human interference in nature -- most often seen as air, ground or water pollution, or drought. In such cases, the tree becomes sensitized. Its root system and its internal feeding systems (for water and nutrients) will be damaged; dehydration and decay will set in along with fungal diseases and pests. That's when its catastrophic condition will demand intervention to save it. A professional eye can always spot a tree in distress before it gets to such a bad state.
'The Israeli song Because a Person Is a Tree in the Field expresses very precisely the reality of the trees. Like medical doctors, we arbourists can improve the condition of a tree as long as its major internal systems have not been damaged. When they are badly injured or on the verge of collapse, our ability to give them long-term help is limited. Though sometimes we do manage to save a tree in critical condition, sometimes we can't -- which leaves us feeling extremely sad.
'When we got to the tree in Givat Ada, I immediately saw many deep wounds on it, which had caused rot to spread on the trunk and major branches. Pests and their burrows were also visible. The primary damage, though, was caused by human beings. It was apparent that a major branch had been sawed off decades ago, creating a large wound that the tree itself was not able to heal. That was when the process of decay began, spreading and resulting in the tree's present condition.
'In order to save the Shomrim's Oak, we cleaned out the rot in the trunk and the major branches as much as possible, taking care not to hurt the healthy parts. Where water had collected, we drilled openings for drainage. We located and got rid of pests and sprayed with anti-fungal agents. We carefully thinned out some of the smaller branches in order to lessen the weight on the four main ones, to which we attached supporting stakes. We added fertilizer to the soil around the tree and spread out wood chip mulch to prevent compaction of the soil around the roots, especially on the dirt road that passes beneath the tree. Wood chips prevent damage to the surface roots and decrease water evaporation by some 20%'.
Aharon is optimistic about the future of the Shomrim's Oak, estimating that it will continue to live and develop for at least another decade. 'From what we can see', he concludes, 'the tree's condition has improved although it will need diligent follow-up'.
The arbourists' work took four days to complete, with a team of five people working on it. In an area that is particularly beautiful at this time of year, the Shomrim's Oak may be the lone survivor of a forest of Tabor oaks that might still exist -- if they hadn't been subjected to massive razing. A visit to the nearby Alonei Yitzhak forest gives us a graphic idea of how that long-gone oak forest might have looked.
For now, we send best wishes to the Shomrim's Oak for a long life. And to all the walkers and lovers who've spent time beneath its canopy and shade, we send our thanks for having preserved the tree and contributing to its survival.