SUN-SPANGLED CORAL REEFS and stark desert canyons. Luxuriant green hillsides and cascading rivers. Hyenas and wolves, otters and ostriches, parrotfish and turtledoves. Pistacias, acacias, date palms, orchids... Israel boasts a natural diversity that rivals most places on Earth.
In Discovering Natural Israel
, award-winning nature writer Michal Strutin takes us on a journey through a land where three continents meet, where natural and human history intertwine in often surprising ways. With our spirited guide, we embark on a four-day camel expedition into the heart of the Eilat Mountains, to the ancient copper mines of Timna. We stand enchanted before the shimmering waterfalls of Ein Gedi, where King David once wrote psalms and where visitors now gather to watch ibex and hyrax leap among the cliffs. Together, we climb Israel's northern hills, quilted in spring with the pinks, purples, and blues of anemones, iris, and cyclamen. And at the base of the dazzling chalk-white cliffs of Rosh ha-Niqrah, we explore exquisite grottoes carved by the crashing waves of the azure Mediterranean.
Artfully weaving together ancient history and lore with tales of modern adventure, Michal reveals how the land and people of Israel have changed over the millennia. As we pass gnarled oaks clinging to the sides of forested slopes, giant papyri swaying over cool waters, and brittle artemisias blooming in the desert, she sheds light on the natural wonders of the land where Abraham dwelled among broad pistacia groves and where Elijah, fleeing Queen Jezebel, sought succor under a broom bush. Today, white-blossomed broom anchors canyon floors where hikers wind past pools and caves used by the ancients.
Brimming with passion, intelligence, humor, and grace, Discovering Natural Israel
is Michal Strutin's testament to a land where nature and people have interacted since the dawn of civilization. It is an eloquent tribute to a beauteous land whose geography is inscribed upon her heart.
Chosen as a Book of the Month Club/Traditions main selection.
Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 2001, hardcover, 352 pages, four-color photographs, maps. ISBN 0-8246-0413-X.
“If there ever is an indispensable guide to take on your next trip to Israel, it is this book.”
—The Jewish Week
“Great reading, with a true naturalist’s sensitivity.”
—Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel
“A beautiful, thoughtful companion for anyone traveling to the Holy Land.”
—Terry Tempest, author of Leap and Refuge
“A wonderful reminder that this remains the place whose landscape moved the hearts of the ancient poets and prophets.”
—Carl Pope, Sierra Club
"Discovering Natural Israel is a unique and wonderful natural science book on the flora and fauna of Israel."
IN ISRAEL IT IS BEST TO AVOID long bus rides on Sunday. On this first day of the work week, every eighteen- to twenty-year-old is returning to a military base after a Shabbat spent with family and friends. The Negev, where I was going, is dotted with military installations.
I was jammed onto a public bus filled with teenage soldiers in tan uniforms traveling south from Beersheba: tall girls with freckled noses, dark-blond hair twisted in casual loops atop their heads; boys with olive complexions jostling against big-boned redheads; almond-eyed girls whose luxuriant dark curls made clear why Orthodox Jewish wives modestly cover their heads; and youths of both sexes who already looked tough enough to stand for the Knesset.
Squeezed against the window, I shared a seat with a young woman and her friend, who were comparing nail polish, their Uzis slung over their shoulders like handbags. The friend sat half on, half off the two-person seat. The expressions on the faces of the young people crowding the aisle flashed from innocent youth to national defender as fast as cloud shadows racing across the land, and their shouted conversations ricocheted around the bus.
Some of the teens were plugged into music headsets. More were connected to the ubiquitous third ear of Israel—the cellular phone—undoubtedly talking to friends on other buses returning to other bases.
We had all pushed aboard in Beersheba, which lies at the northern border of the Negev, that huge dry triangle of land sculpted by abyssal craters, stark red mountains, sinuous white canyons, rock towers, and pinnacles. In biblical Hebrew the word for “south” and “dry” is the same: negev. The great desert of Israel accounts for more than 50 percent of Israel’s area and less than 1 percent of its water.
Northern Negev from Avdat National Park.
It was spring, and wildflowers glowed across the broad flat highlands. Rotem’s delicate white flowers perfumed the basins of the wadis. In this season, rain can flood dry sandy riverbeds with such force that cars are swept away like toys. A few of the unwary or unlucky lose their lives every year in flash floods.
Only a month or so later, the khamsin begins to roam the Negev. When this hot, dry wind that makes people crazy ceases, overwhelming heat remains. In the breathlessness of summer, waves of hot air blister up from the desert floor. Most wildlife waits for night to tame the day’s heat, emerging only when the long shadows of evening appear.
Since the time when Abraham lived there nearly four thousand years ago, Beersheba had always been the last town, perched on the edge of the vast desert. Yet a sprinkling of Hebrews and others had always—if sparsely—occupied the Negev between Beersheba and the Red Sea. To ancient Israelites who had given up the nomadic life and saw Israel from the relative civility of Jerusalem or other of the walled cities, Beersheba seemed the last outpost.
Today Beersheba is the gateway to the Negev and a fast-growing development city full of new immigrants. On the bus they were represented by young people with the light hair and broad cheekbones of Russian Jews and those with the fine-boned faces and carob-brown skin of Ethiopian Jews.
As the bus sped south past the outskirts of Beersheba, farms disappeared and a parched, tan land emerged, set off by the ramshackle dwellings of Bedouin and their herds of black goats. This is the dividing line between the sown and the wild, where a sweet-water well can still mean the difference between life and death.
Although a fast car can span the one-hundred-fifteen-mile length of the Negev in a few hours, vacationers might miss the desert’s three distinct sections as they hurry south to the Red Sea resorts of Eilat. A dry riverbed—called a nahal or wadi—marks the boundaries of each section.
The canyon of Nahal Zin divides the plateau of the northern Negev from the broken country of the central Negev. The broad swale of Nahal Paran separates the central Negev and the giant crater of Makhtesh Ramon from the southern Negev, which centers on the wild Eilat Mountains.
At its eastern edge, the Negev is defined by the Syrian-African Rift, Earth’s largest visible scar. A broad trough rimmed by mountains, the Great Rift Valley runs from Syria into Africa and forms Israel’s border with Jordan. This colossal rent between continental plates explains much of Israel’s geography.
The section of the rift that runs through the Negev is known as the Aravah, a trenchlike desert valley that catches flash floodwaters of Nahal Paran and other riverbeds. When it reaches the Aravah, the precious rainwater seems to disappear, draining into natural underground aquifers away from the hot eye of the sun.
On its western side, the Negev is not so well defined. Painstakingly drawn political boundaries now separate the Sinai Desert from the Negev, Egypt from Israel. But ecologists consider the two deserts together. Beginning with Negev’s Eilat Mountains, a line of red sandstone peaks marches south along the Sinai coastline, only one of the obvious connections between the two deserts.
What I saw from the bus in the northern Negev was a broad plateau plated with a crust of sand-and-gravel soils, etched by riverbeds. These northern Negev highlands slope down from the Judean Hills and are well watered compared to the southern Negev: precipitation drops from an average eight inches per year in the northern desert to a bare inch per year near Eilat.
As we neared Nahal Zin, the southern boundary of the plateau, I saw the sign for Kibbutz Sedeh Boqer, home of modern Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. A few miles beyond another sign announced the entrance to Avdat National Park, which protects the ruined splendor of Avdat, the city that was the brilliant centerpiece of the Negev during Nabatean and Byzantine times. Some two thousand years ago, Avdat rose from a simple desert caravansary to a town studded with the fine homes of wealthy merchants and churches whose graceful arches overlooked the surrounding desert.
The bus crossed Mishor ha-Ruhot (Plain of the Winds) at the head of the central Negev. We passed the town of Mitspeh Ramon, then seemed to plunge off a precipice. A tightly wound descent of hairpin turns carried us into the dominant feature of the central Negev: Makhtesh Ramon, often called the Grand Canyon of Israel. The bus traversed the floor of this immense oval cavity (makhtesh means “crater” or “mortar”) then, after a few miles, climbed the road on the other side. From the window, the choppy country south of Makhtesh Ramon looks full of plains and hills, and finally, the broad bed of Nahal Paran came into view, signaling the start of the southern Negev.
Sweeping in from the Sinai, Nahal Paran stretches nearly one hundred miles, the longest, largest riverbed in the Negev. Alongside the nahal lies the Wilderness of Paran, the largest, most desolate stretch of desert in the Negev. It was to this parched region that, at his wife Sarah’s behest, Abraham, the patriarch, banished his concubine Hagar. There Hagar wept for her young son Ishmael, fearing the fierce aridity would devour him. A place no ancient traveler approached without concern, the Wilderness of Paran now rates little more than a casual glance from a passing bus.
By the time the bus crossed the Nahal Paran Bridge, we had been traveling more than two hours and I anxiously began looking for signs of Uvdah Airport, where I was to meet the Camel Riders. Hagar, the Queen of Sheba, King Uzziah and his generals, and the countless, now nameless traders, miners, soldiers, and slaves who toiled across these deserts were surely on journeys more hazardous than mine.
Nonetheless, evening approached, this was the last bus south, and I was worried about where to get off. Most bus stops seemed to be merely a bench and a sun covering in open vastness, miles from the nearest kibbutz or army post. The bus that had been standing-room only, now held only a half-dozen passengers.
Fortunately, Uvdah was obvious: a small airport surrounded by desert. It consisted of a departure lounge flanked by a small cafe and some offices and a large arrival room where I waited for the car coming to pick me up.
I watched planeloads of pale Europeans empty onto buses bound for the sun-soaked resort hotels of Eilat that line the Red Sea and busloads of tanned Europeans file into planes bound for Copenhagen and Frankfurt. I waited and read that Uvdah Valley is the largest water-catchment basin in the southern desert, a fact hardly obvious to a casual observer. It seems a valley in name alone, considered fertile only by the flinty standards of the mountains around it.
I waited until the sun set, the lights on the once-busy arrival and departure board had stopped blinking, and airport employees were leaving. I kept checking my watch. The pickup time came and went; the airport in the middle of nowhere became quieter and quieter. A certain concern began bubbling up.
Exploring the ways in which geography, plants, and animals fit together requires a fair amount of travel. In order to devote my attention to, say, an Appalachian witch hazel or a salamander hiding along the stream at the witch hazel’s feet, I plan my itinerary beforehand with compulsive detail. The hope is that the more complete the plan, the less scrabbling I’ll have to do en route, and the more I can experience witch hazel and salamander.
But at a few points on every trip, I hit the panic button. Had I gotten off at the wrong airport? How many airports could there be in the middle of the Negev? Itinerary and maps scattered frantically around me, I was rechecking my position when a pleasant-faced young woman with a backpack and bouncy dark hair approached and asked if I was waiting for the camel trip.
We waited together. Becky, who had taken the bus north from Eilat, was not long out of college. She began telling me about her recent experiences with the Peace Corps in Turkmenistan. As she talked, the empty, echoing airport seemed much less ominous. Finally, a car roared up and a fellow hopped out. After an abrupt exchange of information, he piled our gear into the car, and we were off to the Camel Riders.
This is a quality of Israeli organization I had noticed a number of years before. Everything is a big mixed-up balagan until the last possible second. Then, in a rush, everything gets done and all is fine—ha-kal beseder—or pretty close to it. Perhaps the eight hundred thousand Russians that have migrated to Israel since the late 1980s are onto something. These are people who know irony. At the time, two journals for Russian émigrés were entitled Balagan and Kal Beseder.
We bounced off into the night, headed for the heart of the Eilat Mountains.