All the Trees of the For­est: Israel’s Wood­lands from the Bible to the Present

  • Review
By – February 24, 2014

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.

Relat­ed content:

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.

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