Dreaming in Dutch, Accomplishing in Hebrew
You are probably already familiar with Ramat Hanadiv and its work through the countless articles published here each month, but the man who’s been leading the organization for the last 26 years doesn’t usually give interviews or take center stage. In honor of Rosh Hashana we decided to introduce you to Hugo Jan Trago, Director of Ramat Hanadiv, who himself leads the implementation of the organization’s vision and aims. We met up with him for a chat about fulfilling dreams, about man and the environment and about past and future. Along the way we also managed to reveal something about the next project he’s ‘plotting’ for the region
Hugo Jan Trago, born in the Netherlands, spent his childhood family vacations in the Black Forest in nearby Germany. There, amongst the endless green and the flowing mountain streams, he dreamed of working in the forest: “I used to live and breathe the forest, watch the foresters work for hours, mesmerized. With my father I would build small dams in the water from sticks and rocks.” But at the age of 17 his life was turned upside down – the forest was replaced by Mediterranean woodland and the European temperament was diluted by a rough Israeli fragrance. He fulfills his dream here, in Israel, as Director of Ramat Hanadiv. Here, for 26 years, he has been connecting between his great love of gardening and esthetics, together with a love for natural open landscapes.
Hugo Jan Trago is not a man of words, certainly not about himself; neither is he a man of the office; therefore, the interview took place in the most natural territory for him – the open air. We went out for a morning tour of Ramat Hanadiv and the region, and along the way, we discovered that as much as he is a man of nature, land, and open space, he is in essence a researcher. Wherever he goes he will find out who was there first, the history of the place, and how it can be preserved as part of a future plan for that place.
Whenever he is asked to bring up childhood memories, nature is always involved: “In my childhood neighborhood there was an area with a grove of about fifteen large, ancient oak trees. They stood on an archeological site. We built a treehouse in one of the trees. In order to reach it you had to climb up the first tree, then go to the next tree, and so forth to our treehouse. I spent many an hour there.”
Not many years later, he encountered other oak trees that form part of the landscape mosaic of the Ramat Hanadiv region. His first visit to Israel was accidental and he’s been here ever since: “It was in 1984, I was 17 years old, a horticulture student in the Netherlands. There it was accepted practice to do a four-month internship, half in the Netherlands and half abroad. The idea arose to come to Israel and do an internship on a kibbutz.”
How was the connection to Israel made?
During the Holocaust my grandfather and grandmother (who was recognized in 1980 as a righteous gentile) hid a Jewish girl in their house; her name was Rita and she was my father’s age. During the war my father and Rita grew up together like brother and sister. When the war ended she was reunited with her family and they made Aliyah. The connection with Rita was maintained even after she made Aliyah, and during one of our visits she took us to visit Ramat Hanadiv. From the moment I entered the gates I decided that I wanted to do my internship here. During that same visit we approached the director and I began working the next day. I did any job that was needed – gardening, paving; later on I built a hothouse and established a welding workshop there.
From a simple laborer you advanced to the role of director; was this also by chance?
“In 1991, with the outbreak of the first Gulf War, the gardens’ director went abroad. I received responsibility for the gardens, and later on I managed the nursery and finally the entire nature park. Ramat Hanadiv and I grew together. Over the years the park has developed tremendously; we’ve established the Visitors Pavilion and invested greatly in field management and research.”
With time, Ramat Hanadiv has developed, with the support of Yad Hanadiv Foundation, under Hugo’s management. It has become a central body of influence in the fields of nature and environment, and has led many moves to promote sustainability values in the region. The investment by Ramat Hanadiv in these fields within the regional community is explained by Hugo through his own personal development:
“In the beginning, as a new gardener, I viewed the garden and the nursery singularly. Later on, you lift your gaze to the garden and understand that it is not separate from the natural areas surrounding it and that you can’t relate to Ramat Hanadiv as an isolated bubble. And when you broaden your perspective you understand that the regional mosaic comprises nature and agriculture and of course people. And when you examine people and agriculture, you understand that each one has a long-standing regional history and heritage, and it’s important to develop an awareness of everything that took place and takes place all around.”
Why did we begin our tour in the nearby vineyard?
The first point Hugo led us to on our tour was not inside Ramat Hanadiv Park, but rather the Tishbi Vineyard, with which it shares a border. Why here specifically? Enjoy yourselves! “In my opinion this is one of the places that exemplifies the connection between land and people, through nature, agriculture, fruit and produce. A connection to agriculture is a connection to nature. In a place like this you can see the past and future side by side. The place gives expression to the chain that permanently connects nature, agriculture and humans – if you remove one of the links in the chain you create an eternal absence. And when you examine agriculture you must go back in time; the ancient heritage teaches us about agriculture that is connected to nature. A significant part of what has occupied me in recent years is actually the past – trying to understand the thinking of long ago. This is the reason why in recent years we have begun to integrate cultivated plots that imitate traditional agricultural practices in the nature park. Throughout history people grew wheat and herded small ruminants and cows here. Therefore, our role in the present is to preserve the tradition, learn from it and plan the future with it in mind. The archeological sites and ancient agriculture are an integral part of the wonderful esthetics of this area.” Indeed, you don’t need to go too far to understand that he is a man of esthetics.
Where does your love of esthetics come from?
At elementary school I was not the ideal student. My learning always took place outside, in nature. In all of the languages that I speak, I read less, preferring to draw. My desire for esthetics begins with the connection to nature. Nature, first and foremost, is a great esthete. So instead of inventing new designs for the space I prefer to examine the natural and environmental esthetics created here. The places where human intervention succeeded in integrating into the natural mosaic to my mind represent the highest form of esthetics. This is a culture that creates change through integration rather than building itself while destroying what exists. At Ramat Hanadiv we also constantly strive to integrate into the regional existence. And this existence includes the needs of humans, nature and agriculture. We cannot look only at ourselves and inwards. Around the garden stretches the nature park, and around the nature park there are communities that are continually developing. We see ourselves as part of the community and not separate from it.”
And this is reason that you established the Partnership for Regional Sustainability four years ago?
Exactly; we understood that we must join forces with the entire area surrounding us and with its wonderful community. The aim was to work together with the region’s municipalities and residents to preserve the unique character of the region, both for us and for future generations. Part of the connection to the region is also to encourage regional agriculture and sustainable economy. I’ve been riding through the region on my bike for 20 years; I’ve learned to recognize all the agricultural lands, vineyards and wineries around Hanadiv Valley. They are an integral part of the regional mosaic. Riding outdoors connects you to the place. You understand that you are part of something bigger.”
And what’s the greatest achievement of the partnership in your opinion?
“To my mind, the most significant achievement is that through sustainability values we managed to connect between the local and regional municipalities that were used to working alone in the past. Every municipality has its own border but those borders are also artificial. Through the partnership’s activity we broadened the municipalities’ perspectives and created a regional approach and a shared regional identity. Last year all of the five member municipalities of the partnership achieved candidacy at the Ministry of Interior to establish a regional municipal cluster. This move germinated and developed within the framework of the partnership. The process has not yet been completed, but it demonstrates the readiness and understanding of the municipalities that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that we are all partners in the face of regional challenges and that by connecting and collaborating we can achieve more significant achievements.”
If you’re going to mention the region’s municipalities, then you can’t ignore the timing of the upcoming municipal elections. What would you ask today from the future representatives in the member municipalities of the partnership?
“First of all, I would expect each elected representative to internalize regional significance and identity. A blue line around the community is the municipality’s area of jurisdiction, but it is an artificial border. If the representatives internalize this, they will be able to achieve benefits both in preserving open landscapes and in cost-saving for the municipalities – at the end of the day all of these work for the residents. For a long time, I have been asking myself why we need to construct two sewage treatment facilities, one for each council, 500 meters away from each other, when actually we can combine the needs and construct one shared facility and thus preserve the open landscape. Why does each community need its own industrial zone? I understand that money from council rates is important for ensuring a working municipality, but if we collaborate we can create a secure industrial zone that provides employment to the region’s residents and also preserves the regional mosaic. Public representatives need to think how they want to see the region in another 20 years’ time and to ensure that we won’t reach a state of needing to ‘import’ two gazelles from the Golan Heights to Ramat Hanadiv in order to say that we have nature and animals here.”
Therefore, I think that the move to establish the cluster is a wise and courageous move by the municipal heads who managed to understand the advantages it embodies. I call on all candidates in the upcoming elections and of course all of those who will be elected – preserve governmental continuity and advance the process that your predecessors initiated. The cluster is the greatest opportunity that the municipalities have encountered in recent years. Through the cluster the municipalities will be able to recruit greater resources than in the past, that they won’t be able to obtain as separate municipalities. In addition, it is of utmost importance that the future cluster will operate along a sustainable path of partnership and transparency for all they entail, otherwise, its chances of success will be negligible.”
And what is the next Ramat Hanadiv project in the region? What are you dreaming about at the moment?
My next vision has already begun to take shape during the last two years. My aspiration is a rehabilitation project for the quarry that sits on the border of Ramat Hanadiv and Binyamina. In my opinion, if the all the conditions ripen and we are able to achieve productive collaboration with the Binyamina-Givat Ada local council, in another five years from today the quarry will serve as an ecological park and a source of knowledge and active study center that will also facilitate ecotourism. But it’s important that it operates sustainably and won’t be just ‘another place’. I believe with all my heart that we can achieve this, otherwise, it will remain a serious waste of one of the most significant resources in the region.”
To end our tour and interview, we have reached his favorite corner – Horvat Aqev, located at the top of the western cliff of Ramat Hanadiv, opposite the sea. “This place is self-explanatory,” he says. “It is living evidence of ancient wisdom. A place that connects between a spectacular Mediterranean landscape, agricultural lands, heritage and archeology. Here we can learn from the past and look to the future, beyond the horizon.”
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