The growth industry

You’re darn right, it isn’t easy being green. Not when
you’re standing only kilometers from the Lebanese
border. Not when you’re within spitting distance of a
target as tempting to Hizbullah gunners as the
Northern Command headquarters. Not, in other words,
when you’re a tree in the Biriya forest and Katyusha
rockets are raining down all around you, as they did
in last summer’s war.

Some 800 fires were started by the month-long barrage
of rockets as they came screaming into the North,
destroying 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres) of forest in
the process. Together with the adjacent Naftali Ridge,
this pastoral crest just north of Safed in the Upper
Galilee suffered the most; combined, they accounted
for three- quarters of the damaged area.

Sixty-year-old pines that had adorned these hills,
nestled between the Hula Valley and the infamous
Hizbullah stronghold towns of Maroun a-Ras and Bint
Jbail, were consumed in a matter of hours. Winds
whipping through the canyons during the driest days of
July and August carried fires through brush and woods
in the blink of an eye. The conflagration was
relentless.

‘Hundreds of Katyushas fell here,’ recalls Aviram
Zuck, head of Upper Galilee forests for the JNF. ‘We
just kept running from one fire to the next. It’s a
testament to the relentless efforts of the firemen and
the forestry workers that we didn’t lose more of these
trees than we did.’

Dr. Omri Boneh, the JNF forester in charge of the
entire North, puts it in perspective: During the war,
he says, ‘we dealt with more fires than we did in the
past five years.’

The damage was costly, any way you look at it.
Extinguishing the fires cost some NIS 15 million;
rehabilitating the forests will take an estimated NIS
80 million or more. At Biriya, trees that burned were
some of the oldest planted trees in the country, some
even predating the state. Naturally, there is no way
to replace trees of that age except to plant saplings
and wait another half-century. But there are not yet
enough saplings to plant, even with the stockpiles at
nurseries around the country, and not enough hands to
plant them virtually overnight. Just the first phase
of rehabilitating the Biriya forest, Boneh estimates,
will take three to five years.

Despite the difficulties, though, foresters like Zuck
and Boneh are not depressed. As they play their part
in helping the country recover from the lingering
effects of last summer’s war – and with the planting
frenzy of Tu Bishvat as a backdrop – they are
approaching their task with a sense of purpose in a
time of renewal.

REHABILITATION EFFORTS began immediately after the
cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah took effect
last August. Dead and damaged trees were felled and
sold to the wood industry before they dried out.
Debris was cleared to prevent vermin from being
attracted to the sites. Mulching of unsellable wood
was begun, both to prevent soil erosion and to help
heal the soil by sealing in as much moisture as
possible. More recently, foresters have used
improvised earthen dams to prevent runoff water from
the rainy season from carrying away the mineral-rich
ash and topsoil.

The ground is also being prepared for replanting – by
volunteers who have already begun notching saplings
into furrows and covering them with protective
sleeves, by the little hands of schoolchildren who
will have made trips to this site and many others in
the week before Tu Bishvat, and by the government
ministers and captains of industry who want to show
their commitment to the hard-hit North, whether at
ceremonies sponsored by the JNF, the Jewish Agency,
the Nature and Parks Authority or any number of other
green groups.

But this New Year for the Trees is something more for
the foresters of the North, Boneh says. As corny as it
sounds, it is a time for growth.

‘We didn’t want these fires,’ he says, ‘but the fact
is, they have given us an opportunity to make some
positive changes.’

To start with, the forest is getting a makeover. New
plantings will contribute to the variety of ages and
species of trees at Biriya, which should improve the
overall health and sustainability of the forest.

‘The Katyushas and the fires have also brought to
people’s attention the importance and the beauty of
our country’s green areas,’ Boneh continues. ‘Since
the war, the number of visitors to the parks and
forests in the North has increased tenfold.’

Many of those visitors have come to lend a helping
hand to the rehabilitation effort. Some came to trim
healthy trees’ damaged branches, others to clear the
debris so that visitors could enjoy the many trails
winding through the hills and gorges of the forest.

‘When something as tragic as last summer’s bombardment
happens, naturally people rally behind the cause,’
says the lanky Boneh, blending in among the thin pines
during a walk through the woods.

‘We’ve had thousands of volunteers come up here,
putting in thousands upon thousands of man-hours of
work. They’ve come from hi-tech, from the army, from
industry. They’ve been individuals, and they’ve been
families. They’ve been Jews and they’ve been Arabs.
It’s been an amazing wave of solidarity. And we
thought it would pass, you know, after a month. But it
hasn’t. It has just kept going. We’re still getting
100-150 people a day up here.’

As the foresters climb a dirt trail overlooking the
Dalton vineyard across the valley, a small group,
sweating in the midday sun, helps prepare a patch of
damaged earth for new, young trees. Around a corner,
more volunteers are plunging little flags into the
little piles of ash where old trees once stood, and
where new trees are meant to planted for Tu Bishvat.

‘While we are still licking our wounds from the war,’
Boneh says after waving hello to the volunteers, ‘we
are also taking the opportunity to try to form a
stronger bond with the communities in the area. We are
not just rehabilitating the forests, we are improving
the public’s access to them, with more and better
trails, with picnic sites and lookout points, and the
like. We want people to feel a stronger connection to
nature, and we want to encourage tourism based on the
wonderful resources we have here in these forests.’

Indeed, tourism to the North took a big hit last
summer; hoteliers were so hurt by the fighting that
the government awarded them compensation so they could
stay afloat until business picked up again. This part
of the country lacks the grandeur and majesty of the
Golan Heights, and also lacks the sand and surf of the
coast. It trades in large part on its calming green
hills and valleys, which make it an island of serenity
in an otherwise loud and busy country. The foresters
want to make sure the Upper Galilee retains that
character.

‘After the war, the government has had to answer all
kinds of questions about its preparedness for another
war,’ says Zuck. ‘Well, having healthy green areas is
a major quality of life issue for citizens, and you
shouldn’t need the threat of another war to ensure
that people have quality of life. These forests are
some of Israel’s – and especially northern Israel’s –
greatest resources.’

Protecting and developing that resource requires
investment, though – and since last summer’s scenario
of rocket barrages is entirely repeatable, not
everyone feels it is a safe investment.

‘Some people ask whether it makes sense to replant all
these trees, if they can all just get burned again,’
Boneh says with obvious understatement. ‘Well, we
don’t see it that way.’

Actually, they see rehabilitating the forest as a sign
of the country’s civilian resolve, no less important
than its military resolve. Replanting trees becomes an
act of defiance against Israel’s enemies, an old-time
expression of Zionism.

‘The rockets hit a lot of civilian infrastructure
during the war, and it was deemed vital to risk
people’s lives during the fighting to repair that
infrastructure. And why is that?’ Boneh asks. ‘Because
as Israelis, we found it unacceptable that the train
would not run all the way to Nahariya. We insisted on
maintaining our way of life.’

The same goes for defending the forests.

‘Listen, if you can fix the train lines, the
electrical lines and whatnot while rockets are still
falling, why not also try to save and rehabilitate the
forests?’

Israel, the only country in the world to have more
trees at the end of the 20th century than at the
beginning, is already known for its affinity for trees
– and not just on Tu Bishvat. But with so much of its
forests burned in such a short time, and another
66,000 dunams of open green areas and 71,000 dunams of
pastureland suffering damage as well, it is more
apparent than ever that nature cannot handle the
repair job alone.

‘It used to be that people thought that forests could
take care of themselves,’ Zuck says. ‘But now people
see that even trees need help sometimes.’

(BOX) Where Tu Bishvat was born

The secular celebration of Tu Bishvat that centers on
the festive planting of trees began in the Galilee at
the turn of the 20th century, and took off within a
few years as a quintessential Zionist symbol of
regeneration in the Land of Israel. Just as trees
would set down roots in the soil, so too would legions
of Jews become attached to Palestine.

But the momentum behind the holiday – the force that
pushed Tu Bishvat from a day marked primarily as a
starting point for counting agricultural tithes, as it
is described in the Mishna, into a real ‘New Year of
the Trees’ rich in symbolism – came from the mystics
of 16th-century Safed, who frequented the Biriya
forest to meditate on the divine.

The Tu Bishvat ‘seder’ that many Jews perform today
was intended to be much, much more than the mere
enjoyment of fruits native to Israel. Behind the
bounty of fruits and nuts stands a highly esoteric
ritual of spiritual significance, recorded in a work
written in Turkey but based on the kabbalistic
teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ‘Ari’) and his
disciples. In the same fields outside Safed where the
Friday night service welcoming the Sabbath was
authored came a vision of the cosmos that drew heavily
on the power and symbolism of nature.

In a sense, then, Biriya is where Tu Bishvat was born.
It is fitting, too, as the area was home to many of
Judaism’s early luminaries – evidenced by the fact
that the hills in and around the forest are dotted
with the graves of rabbinic giants dating back 2,000
years. Buried in the quiet groves are the legendary
talmudic rivals Abaya and Rava, as well as the intense
Yonatan ben Uziel, whose tomb in the spot known as
Amuka has drawn visitors throughout the centuries, and
numerous others.

Not far off stands the resting place of Honi the
Circle Maker, who learned a fabled lesson about trees
that completes the ethos of Tu Bishvat. According to
the story in the Talmud, Honi (who was so pious that
he could demand rainfall in times of drought) chanced
upon an old man planting a carob tree. ‘How long will
it take for this tree to bear fruit?’ he asked.

‘Seventy years,’ came the reply.

Incredulous, Honi then asked, ‘And do you think you
will live another 70 years and eat the fruit of this
tree?’

‘Perhaps not,’ replied the man. ‘However, when I was
born into this world, I found many carob trees planted
by my forefathers. Just as they planted trees for me,
I am planting trees for my children and
grandchildren.’

Finally, to drive the point home about the importance
of such practical deeds, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai
added the following dictum: ‘If you have a sapling in
your hand and are told, ‘Look, the Messiah is here,’
you should first plant the sapling and then go out to
welcome the Messiah!’

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