I remember my Hebrew school teacher handing me a little blue tin box with JNF printed on the side. “The money you put inside is for planting trees in Israel,” she told us. Every coin I dropped in the box felt mighty to me, capable of building forests on the other side of the world. As Alon Tal writes in All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Present, trees are much more than vegetation. They are more even than foundations of ecosystems. Trees evoke a profound emotional response in us.
In many ways, Tal explains, forests tell the story of human civilization. In Biblical times, deforestation was used as a military tactic, a process exacerbated by the grazing animals of the nomadic tribes that wandered the land between battles. Razing trees continued on and off through the Ottoman rule so that the land was fairly decimated by the 1920s when a massive tree planting effort began with the British takeover. The zealousness with which pines were planted in the mid twentieth century was symbolic of the energy directed at claiming the new state of Israel. While this effort successfully remade the landscape, it was in many ways misguided: pines are flammable and monocultures are unstable ecosystems.
The Jewish National Fund was often at the helm of such planting efforts and I believe my coins might have helped plant some of those misconceived pine trees. In the years that followed, debate raged over whether and how to shift from the staunch forestation efforts to something that makes sense in today’s more nuanced environment. Tal chronicles these mistakes and missteps, as well as later successes. In them we find important lessons for the growing regions that resemble Israel as climate change warms our planet and arid lands expand.
While All the Trees of the Forest is certainly of most interest to those in the forestry industry or involved with land management, Tal’s writing style makes the history of the forests in Israel an accessible read for all. His chapters are peppered with stories of the people who literally changed the landscape of Israel. His explanations expand the Israeli experience to make it relevant on a broad scale.
Ill conceived as the planting practices of the JNF may have been, I don’t regret donating my childhood coins to Israel’s pines because — like all of nature — the forests are full of surprises. Tal tells of stands of planted pines in northern Israel where the iconic Gilboa Iris, which grows nowhere else, has settled in to a new home. “The forests of Israel constitute a grand experiment.” Tal explains. And lucky for us, the experiment continues. Index, notes.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.