Tag Archives: ecology

Rosh Hashana 2014

Bowl of almondsThis week is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The upcoming year is special because it is a shmita year, a sabbatical year, the seventh year of the agricultural cycle where according to the Bible the land in Israel is to be left fallow. So in the next few days we are taking time to work in the small garden beside our house in Jerusalem, pruning the grape-vine and fruit trees, clearing the vegetable bed, harvesting, planting. At other times we can sit under our vine and fig tree as recounted in Micah 4:4.  We discovered and harvested the almonds on our almond tree. Our pomegranates are ripe in time for the holiday.

Maya Pomegranate Sumsum

It wasn’t the easiest year. The fighting between Israel and Hamas caused a sharp drop in tourism, I had some cancellations and only one day of guiding over the summer. We had two sons who were in Gaza with their army units. But now tourists are coming back and I’m guiding.

We wish you dear friends, subscribers, readers of my blog, would-be clients, travelers to Israel, pilgrims, a Shana Tova, a very good year. May your year be as full as a pomegranate with blessings, health and happiness.

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Sinkholes at Dead Sea

Sinkholes have appeared on the Israeli and Jordanian shoreline of the Dead Sea as the water level recedes. The first sinkholes appeared in 1980, there were 40 in 1990 and there are more than 5500 today. Fresh water from runoff dissolves the salt in the newly uncovered salt-laden earth creating an empty cavern. When the top crust of earth collapses a sinkhole is formed. The holes fill up with water and the naturally occurring minerals create pools of different colors, red, orange, yellow, green and indigo with borders of encrusted salt, incredible to see and photograph. I took these photos along the shore of the Dead Sea over a period of months.

Sinkhole driftwood

Aftermath of Carmel Fire

Mount Carmel rises from the Mediterranean Sea to about 500 meters above sea level, wth the city of Haifa built on its western slope. The mountain is rich in biological, geological and geomorphologic diversity with contrasting landscapes, a mixture of agricultural areas and prehistoric and archaeological sites. In the area we were in there was a Roman quarry and part of an olive press.

Mount Carmel is covered mainly with a natural forest of Mediterranean oak shrubland (Quercus calliprinos) and mixed pine (Pinus halepensis). In 1996 UNESCO desgnated Mount Carmel a bio-sphere reserve in recognition of its specialness.

On December 2, 2010 a fire erupted on Mount Carmel burning for 4 days until fire fighters could get the blaze under control and destroyed over 50,000 dunam of forest. The JNF estimates that 1.5 million trees were burnt in the fire, some estimates raise the total figure to 5.5 million trees and the Carmel Hai-Bar nature reserve was damaged. We learned that pine trees, soft woods with a lot of resin, are usually killed by the intense heat; their survival mechanism is that the pine cones open in the heat and hundreds of seeds are  scattered. The oak trees, being a hardwood, often are able  to live, the  branches are burned and die but the roots survive and send up new shoots. According to officials, nearly half of the 150,000 dunams of the Carmel Forest reserve have been destroyed in the fire and it will take at least 20 years for the forests to grow back.

On Friday I went up to the Carmel on a tour organized by Israel’s Green party, where experts from the Technion and Ben Gurion universities taught us about the forest ecology. There were a lot of differences of opinion among the experts – some experts said that authorities had been warned about the situation, Israel had a very long, hot summer and almost no rain this winter and a drought for the last 3 years, that there were not enough resources put to addressing the problem. Other experts said that fires are natures way of clearing old forests and that a fire every 20 years is a good thing, that with the very dense underbrush, once the fire broke out, it was impossible to contain, no matter what resources would have been applied. Unfortunately, it seems clear that climate change and human intervention is accelerating the number and size of fires.

The fire damaged 74 buildings in Kibbutz Beit Oren, Ein Hod, Nir Etzion and Yemin Orde and  forced the evacuation of more than 17,000 people. Tragically, at least 44 people lost their lives – a falling tree trapped a bus carrying police and prison services personnel on their way to evacuating the Damun prison in a fireball. Beit Oren and the youth village of Yemin Orde where our daughter Tiferet had volunteered in 2002 sustained damage, the library was badly damaged and the young people, mostly Ethiopian and Russian students, lost most of their possession and homes when they were forced to evacuate. For more information about Yemin Orde and the work they are doing check their website at http://www.yeminorde.org.

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Olive Park, Ramat Rahel

Concepts of rootedness and disconnection which mark the complex relation of our civilization with the earth are central to the world of oppositions manifested in the sculpture’s plastic form. Olive trees, ancient symbol of strength, fertility and peace, continue their life in a transplanted and disconnected state.

Ran Morin, environmental sculptor

The park lies at an elevated and windy location overlooking Jerusalem and Bethlehem with views over the Judean desert, Herodium and as far as the Dead Sea. In preparing the park, mature olive trees were transplanted in 1987 from the experimental orchard of Prof. Shimon Lavee of the Vulcani Institute in Rehovot. Besides various types of olives that grow in Israel, there are olive trees that originate from Greece, Italy, Spain, France, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Argentina and the USA.

In the center of the park is a structure of 3 steel columns covered with basalt stone aggregate that form a triangle, sitting on a stepped platform of concrete and Jerusalem boulders. On the top of the columns, 11 meters in the air, three 80 year old olive trees are growing, supported by a customized drip irrigation system.

Part of the artistic project deals with the properties and spiritual harmonies of the number three: 3 monotheistic religions, 3 forefathers of the Jewish people, 3 Magi who came to visit Jesus, etc. The location at the edge of the desert and near a blood-stained political border connects the different elements in its surroundings and relates to more ancient periods when olive trees and plowed earth were characteristic of man’s intervention in this arid landscape.

Morin’s projects can be construed to have political undertones, mainly because it can’t be avoided in Jerusalem and the areas where he works. Personally, however, Morin tries to stay away from such sensitive issues. It’s hard though: “I am dealing with earth and olive trees and actual places where there are borders. A Palestinian once told me, ‘Okay we don’t have to fight over the land; we can grow the trees in the sky’.”

Yerushalayim shel maala, heavenly Jerusalem. If we could only bring it down to earth.

Agamon Hula Lake

I just guided a group in the north of Israel and can report that Agamon Lake received rave reviews. Matt, steering the 7-cycle that we rented, said “This is the greatest day in my life”. Aunt Ruth who had just come from the birding festival in Eilat helped us identify the many birds that we saw. Some of the younger at heart rode bicycles, the older people drove in an electric golf cart (all available for rental at the site).

Matt steering the 7-cycle, photo Steven Browns

Agamon Lake is in the Hula Valley (עמק החולה‎, Emek HaHula) an agricultural area in northern Israel in the Syrian-African Rift Valley with abundant fresh water. The Hula is bordered on the east by the Golan Heights and to the west by the Naftali mountains rising 400 to 900 meters above sea level. Basalt hills about 200 meters above sea level formed during late Pleistocene volcanic activity along the southern side of the valley impede the Jordan River flowing into the Sea of Galilee, referred to as the basalt “plug” formed the historic Hula Lake about 20,000 years ago and the surrounding wetlands. It is an important route for birds migrating between Africa, Europe, and Asia.

The Hula Lake existed until the 1950s, a shallow, pear-shaped basin 5.3 kilometers long and 4.4 kilometers wide, extending over 12-14 km². It probably contained the richest diversity of aquatic life in the Middle East (south of Lake Amiq, Turkey which was drained at about the same time as the Hula). Based on research 260 species of insects, 95 crustaceans, 30 snails and clams, 21 fishes, 7 amphibians and reptiles, 131 birds and 3 mammals were noted.

Between 1951 and 1958 draining operations were carried out by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The declared objectives of the Hula draining project were two-fold: the addition of arable land and the eradication of malaria; additional perceived benefits were more water (by reducing evaporation losses) and peat as fertilizer. Hula Lake was drained by deepening and widening of the Jordan River downstream and digging two peripheral canals diverting the Jordan at the north of the valley (to bypass the plug).

In response to environmental concerns a small (3.50 km²) area of recreated papyrus swampland in the southwest of the valley was set aside and in 1963 became Israel’s first nature reserve.

Unfortunately, what originally seemed like a good idea over time created severe agricultural and ecological problems due to peat sediment degradation: uncontrollable underground fires, formation of dangerous caverns within the peat, proliferation of field mice, release of nitrates and sulfates into the Kinneret, 119 animal species were lost to the region, 37 totally lost from Israel, many freshwater plant species became extinct. So from 1980 to 1994 under the auspices of the JNF a program for the Hula’s rehabilitation was inaugurated.

In 1994 a small area in the southern part of the Hula Valley, in the area that once served as the transition between the original Lake Hula and the surrounding swamps was reflooded to create Agamon HaHula (אגמון החולה‎, literally: “Little Hula Lake”).  It has an irregular shape, covering an area of 1 km², several smaller islands were created in the middle of the lake to provide protected nesting sites for birds. At least 120 species of birds have been recorded in or around the lake including large flocks of migratory pelicans, storks, cormorants, cranes, and other birds en route between Europe and Africa that spend days to weeks in the vicinity of Agamon HaHula. Also, new nesting colonies of various species such as herons and plovers have been established. As well, water buffalo and donkeys have been introduced and a small furry rodent called a nutria (also called a coypu), which was brought to Israel from South America for its fur, has made its home here.

You can check out the Agamon website at http://www.agamon-hula.co.il/

7-cycle, photo Steven Browns


The Dead Sea

Driving on highway 90 from Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea takes half an hour as you descend from more than 700 meters above sea level to 400 meters below sea level. The Dead Sea is situated at the lowest point on earth, in the Great Rift valley that runs from Turkey in the north to Mozambique in the south, in the crack in the earth’s crust created when Asia and Africa were torn apart five million years ago. Originally it was an ancient larger sea connected to the Mediterranean when water flowed across the Jezreel valley and Jordan River to fill the rift. Although it has no outlet, evaporation in the hot Judean desert reaches 25 mm per day in the summer so in four days it loses the equivalent of the annual rainfall. When the amount of water flowing into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River was equal to the amount lost to evaporation, 1.2 billion cubic meters, the level stayed in equilibrium. Today the Dead Sea is receding at the alarming rate of one meter a year as Israel and Jordan divert the waters flowing into it. The sea is still 1100 meters deep at the northern end so it isn’t going to disappear tomorrow but it is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Hilton, Dead Sea

At Lido junction at the northern end of the Dead Sea I often stop to show people the replica of a Crusader map painted on the curved walls of what was a fancy Jordanian restaurant on the shores of the Dead Sea. The artwork was done in March 1973 by Kohavi, who served like me as a reserve soldier at the nearby “Hilton” hotel, now an Israeli army base. Here you can see the trickle that is the Jordan River today flowing into the Dead Sea.Jordan River flowing into Dead Sea

Continuing south along highway 90 we’ll pass some private beaches on your left where you can float in the salty water of the Dead Sea and cover yourself in mineral rich mud. The mud contains magnesium, potassium, sodium, bromide and calcium, all beneficial to our skin; in fact, as the mud dries it even draws out toxins from your skin.

On your right we’ll pass Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in the nearby caves. At that time, Qumran was a land terminal, you couldn’t continue southward except by boat. The Dead Sea was an important transportation route because even heavily-laden barges would float easily (the Madaba mosaic map shows 2 such boats carrying salt and grain). On your left is En Feshka (also called Einot Tsukim). Excavations were carried out here in 1958 by de Vaux (when he was excavating Qumran) and in 2001 by Hirshfeld. The concensus is that this was a farm that prepared balsam perfume. Today it is a nature reserve, 1500 dunam of which has restricted access and can only be visited with an authorized guide like me.

Just before we reach En Feshka look up on the cliffs to your right for the PEF markings, 2 black horizontal lines drawn in 1900 and 1927 by members of the Palestine Exploration Fund and the letters PEF in red. To help you understand how much the Dead Sea has receded these lines were painted from a boat floating on the Dead Sea in the 1900s.

East of the main highway (on your left) we’ll see a few sinkholes and more across from Ein Gedi. As the Dead Sea recedes fresh water from runoff dissolves the salt in the newly uncovered salt-laden earth creating an empty cavern. When the top crust of earth collapses a sinkhole is formed. More than a 1000 sinkholes have appeared on the Israeli and Jordanian coasts of the Dead Sea in the past 15 years. The holes fill up with water and the naturally occurring minerals create pools of orange, yellow, green and indigo with borders of encrusted salt, incredible to see. I’ve taken a series of photographs of sinkholes that you can see on my Flickr site http://www.flickr.com/photos/27944012@N06/sets/72157621040678204/

Sinkholes at Dead Sea © Shmuel Browns

Judean palm

The scientific name of the Judean palm Phoenix dactylifera refers to its remarkable ability to grow again and even fruit after near death due to drought.

The Judean palm was endemic to Israel. It is the one referred to when the palm tree is mentioned in the Bible and Koran and appears in Roman writing, referring to its medicinal properties, and is pictured on various coins. This would imply as well that the lulav or palm frond used for the Four Species (Arba’at HaMinim) on the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) would be the branches of the Judean palm. Looking at the barren landscape of the Judean desert it is hard to imagine this area covered by palm forests.

Along Dead Sea

The Judean palm, like the balsam plant that used to grow around Ein Gedi and Jericho, became extinct sometime after the Romans, around 500 CE. Today there are palm groves along the Dead Sea shore but these were all imported from the date groves of California or varieties smuggled to Israel from Iraq, Morocco and Egypt in the 1950s.

In 1973, during the archaeological excavations of King Herod’s palace on Masada, Ehud Netzer who was the architect  working with Yigal Yadin found some dry date pits. He passed them along to botanical archaeologist Mordechai Kislev at Bar Ilan where they sat in a lab drawer for more than 20 years. Then in 2004 the seeds were rediscovered by Sarah Sallon of the Natural Medicine Research Center who passed them to Elaine Solloway at the NMRC cultivation site on Kibbutz Ketura to try to germinate them. A small specimen of pit was checked and independent carbon dating indicated the seeds are 2000 years old.

First Solloway soaked the seeds in hot water to make them once again able to absorb liquids. Then she soaked them in a solution of nutrients followed by an enzymatic fertilizer made from seaweed. On the auspicious date of the 15th of the Jewish month of Shvat, the Jewish new year of trees, the date pits were planted.

Amazingly, one of the seeds sprouted. It is now about 40 months old, 1.2 meters high with a half dozen leaves. The sex of the sapling is still unknown (date palms are either male or female), but the researchers are hoping for a female, which would bear fruit.

Phoenix dactylifera growing after 2000 years.


UPDATE: An article in the Jerusalem Post reports that the Judean palm (grown from the 2000 year old seed from Masada) that has been growing in a greenhouse at Kibbutz Ketura is now 2.5 meters tall and in a ceremony on Thursday, Tu Bishvat (the Jewish New Year of trees) was transplanted to Israeli soil.

The palm bloomed in April 2011, just past it’s 5th birthday – it’s male.

  • Frankincense comes home for Christmas (blogs.timesofisrael.com) – Soloway has successfully grown frankincense from seed at Kibbutz Ketura, another native plant extinct here for over 1500 years.