What did the landscape of Eretz Israel look like before human beings had power tools and the ability to literally move the earth? Were there forests here? Were all the plants scrubby and low to the ground? Or something else entirely? These are some of the questions that concern the professionals who deal with the native landscape of Israel, helped along by a lot of hints in our land's rich recorded history.
The Bible is replete with descriptions of the landscape as it would have looked millennia ago. The Book of Joshua, for instance, describes how the land was divided among the tribes of Israel, noting that the mountain area was created to become fruitful and overflowing with produce. 'And Joshua spoke unto the house of Joseph, to Ephraim and to Menashe, saying: You are a great people, and have great power: you shall not have one fate only: but the mountain shall be yours, for it is a forest...' (Book of Joshua, 17-18)
Now let's skip a few thousand years or so to the 19th century, when travellers and researchers made their way to the land of Israel, leaving us their written testimonies and research reports. With the invention of photography in the 1860's, the Holy Land became the destination of choice for European and American photographers and researchers, who left us a great deal of visual documentation. In 1867, the well-known American writer and adventurer Mark Twain joined the curiosity-seekers who came to 'the East'. His travel notes, along with photographs taken by his contemporaries, provide evidence that there were many open spaces here at the time, and few urban settlements. Small villages were located near sources of water. But it was the wildness of the land that most impressed - and sometimes dismayed - those early tourists. There was almost no shade anywhere. The few trees they saw had been preserved as mute witnesses to history, usually around holy sites. Mark Twain made no effort to conceal his disappointment in this biting description from his book, Innocents Abroad: '...A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…a desolation… hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country...'
How did this once-forested land become so bleak? The reasonable explanation is that the land's native residents, particularly the denizens of the forests, went through a period of over-exploiting these valuable natural resources. They gave not a thought to how the trees and forests would recover, and eventually the combined effects of grazing, forest fires, and lumbering decimated the native trees.
When the first Jewish pioneers arrived here in the 19th century, they took it upon themselves to 'make the wilderness bloom' and, among other things, to plant it with trees. Their minds doubtlessly filled with images of the vast forests in their lands of origin, they made it their mission to create similar forests in the land of Israel. The Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet in Hebrew, or JNF/KKL) was established to acquire lands and plant forests. Some of our readers may still remember the JNF 'blue boxes' that were at one time found in Jewish homes throughout the world; many of the pennies, pounds and zloty that were dropped into them paid for trees that are still growing throughout Israel.
With the establishment of the State of Israel, it became necessary to protect the country's land and borders and to provide work for its hundreds of thousands of new immigrants. That was the impetus for planting large expanses of land, mostly with fast-growing pine and cypress trees. Today those are our forests and the 'green lungs' of the settlements ‒ now villages, towns and cities ‒ that developed nearby. Some of the trees, of course, did not survive, generally because of unsuitable climate or soil. The fact that most of those plantings consisted of single species also made it easy for disease and fire to ravage them.
The lessons learned from those first efforts have served us well. Some weeks ago, Ramat Hanadiv hosted a multi-disciplinary conference for professionals, among them representatives of the Nature and Parks Authority, the JNF, researchers from the Ministry of Agriculture (Volcani Institute), and foresters. The main theme of the conference was the presentation of the new 'Principles of Forest Management in Israel', which for years had engaged the time and thought of JNF foresters and forest experts from the Ministry of Agriculture. Composed with due respect for the veteran foresters who operated for decades according to the best information and resources available to them, the Principles incorporated their accumulated wisdom along with the main points of the national Master Plan for Forests, which was implemented a few years ago.
Which brings us to the question: What exactly is a forest? It is an area comprising at least five dunams (approximately 1.25 acres) and characterized by trees at least 5 meters (16 ft.) high, with their green canopy covering at least 11% of the total area.
Forests serve a multitude of purposes. They provide facilities for recreation; they shape the landscape and add to its diversity; they constitute habitats for Israel's unique biodiversity, conserve water and land (especially open spaces), prevent erosion, and increase permeation of the soil by rainwater; they also protect native trees and reintroduce them to nature, conserve and rehabilitate cultural landscapes. The Principles of Forest Management further defined the concept of a 'Targeted Forest' as one with a specific purpose, e.g., as the venue for hikes and other leisure activities or for conservation.
At the recent conference, Prof. Gaby Schiller presented a fascinating lecture on Ramat Hanadiv's tree planting efforts since the 1970's. A pine forest still exists in the Nature Park (on the Manor Trail, marked in red) that was planted years ago for research purposes: to investigate the origins and genetic adaptations of the pine trees in our area. Other studies conducted at Ramat Hanadiv taught researchers about transpiration (the evaporation of water) in trees and about their resistance to diseases.
The concluding lecture was presented by Albert Kaminer, Director of the Nature Park, who studied how the JNF and the Volcani Institute collaborated to find remedies for the ills of the planted forests, and to formulate a vision for the protection and care of Ramat Hanadiv's forests in the future.
Visitors are invited to ramble the trails of Ramat Hanadiv, to enjoy the varied landscapes - planted and natural - but to refrain, particularly at this time of year, from lighting any matches or fires in those areas where fire is absolutely forbidden.
For more information about the Nature Park or Ramat Hanadiv's research, contact the InfoShop: 04-629 8111 or check our website: www.ramathanadiv.org.il