The young man driving the tractor explains that the cranes won't panic when they see this vehicle, as they've grown accustomed to farm equipment. But he does ask us to turn off our cell phones and refrain from using flashes on our cameras.
When we first entered the valley, rocking gently over the rutted, close-cropped terrain, we heard the sound of the cranes, like some distant, plaintive cry. As we begin inching closer, and are, at last, swung effortlessly into place by our guide, we're not only faced with a mass of large, grayish-white birds but with their trumpeting — persistent, near-deafening, magical.
The Golan Heights stand before us, darkening in the sunset. Every few minutes, off in the distance to our right, large swaths of birds bound up and, like black streamers, blanket the sky. These newcomers then set themselves down before us, one after another, with a grace that seems unimaginable for their size and the speed at which they've flown.
We had been informed of some of what to expect, once we'd reached this vast sea of cranes. Before we took our places in this customized conveyance, Dr. Omri Boneh, director of the northern region for Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund — the sponsor of our ecologically focused press mission — had briefed the group on the region and its inhabitants.
The Hula Valley, which includes Lake Agmon, was covered by marshland when Israel was founded 60 years ago. The idea back then, said Boneh, was to tame nature.
"Wetlands were considered a negative," he said, "nothing you would want to preserve." Reclaiming the Jewish homeland, he added, meant getting rid of these troublesome marshy spots, filled as they were with disease-carrying pests. So they were drained and cleared for farming.
"We think differently about wetland preservation today," he continued. "Ten or 15 years ago, we reflooded the area, and it's become one of the most important bird-watching regions in the world, along with Eilat in the south. The Hula Valley is part of the route of migration, part of the great rift valley from Turkey to Southern Africa, and 500 million birds pass over this area in the fall and spring. Hula is the last site before the birds begin the Sahara desert portion of their flight, a grazing area for what are called common white cranes, which come here from their home in southern Ukraine."
The Hula Valley Restoration Project does ongoing research, he went on to explain. "Many of the cranes continue on their journey. But some, over the years, have realized that they can graze here fairly easily. So they stay for the winter, and they can damage the Galilee farmers' peat fields considerably. We want to keep them moving, so we are looking into all sorts of methods to do that without harming them and keeping the farmers happy, too."
Conservation is especially important in the valley, said Boneh, since all of the sources of the Jordan River are here, and they feed into Lake Kinneret, Israel's main source of drinking water.
Some 200,000 people visited the area last year, and Boneh is working with UNESCO to have the spot designated a World Heritage Site. And that seems completely plausible to all of us surrounded by a spectacular show of white motion and sound. The cranes preen, displaying their plumbish bodies; long, tapered, flexible necks; sharp beaks; and stick-thin legs.
Our tractor driver informed us early in our ride that these birds are monogamous. Right now, they are accompanied by their offspring, about whom they are exceedingly vigilant.
We watch as the elders move about with their young close at hand and how they assume threatening positions — rearing up and flaring their impressive wing spread — if unknown cranes venture too close. And there are curious behaviors: Some birds seem to be doing a kind of joyous dance, ending by scooping up a feather in their beaks and offering it up as a gift.
Boneh explains that these trinket-bearers are the males, who never take anything for granted and court their wives continually with little tokens of love and displays of affection.
We begin to move again, the tractor pulling us in an almost lazy figure-eight until the Ramat Naftali range, seen only in outline, appears before us again. Our guide tells us simply to sit and wait. As the last bits of color fade from the sky, leaving only thin steaks of gray behind, there comes another powerful rush of sound as the cranes take off in thick packs, moving to the wet places a short distance behind us, where, we are told, they'll bed down for the night. The crack of their wings makes the air reverberate.
For a time, we can see the cranes make pinpoint landings off in the distance, barely rippling the surface of the chill-looking water. We're told they'll stand in the shallows all night, huddled around their children. They feel safer there, more able to ward off threats.
The tractor starts up again, leading us back to where we began, rocking from side to side to the continued accompaniment of the high, sharp snap of wings and the ever-fading call of the cranes.
'Creating Sustainable Development'
The next day finds our group flying up the Ramat Naftali Mountain Range in a fleet of cable cars. On this cold, crystal-clear morning in late January, the Hula Valley and the Golan Heights are off in the distance, growing smaller as we hurtle upwards, with snow-capped Mount Hermon standing watch in the far north.
The forest we see whizzing by beneath us on the mountainside was planted by new immigrants in the 1950s, we are told. It was their first work when they came to Eretz Yisrael.
But at one point in our upward climb, the deep green of the forest turns jaggedly black. These are the trees scarred by Hezbollah rockets that rained down on the area during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006.
When we reach the end of the cable-car line and disembark, we gather around Paul Ginsberg, KKL-JNF director of the forest region in the north, who speaks of the devastation wrought by the more than 30 days of war two summers ago.
"One kilometer from here — a little more than half a mile away," Ginsberg says, turning to point off into the distance behind him, "is the border with Lebanon. Kiryat Shemonah, just below us, received thousands of rockets, and 77 percent of this forest burned.
"Even after the north was evacuated, KKL-JNF workers volunteered to come here; they did it of their own volition. They knew, if anyone did, that this forest was not a gift of God. These trees were part of our cultural heritage."
Ginsberg was the person who co-ordinated the firefighting effort. He tells us that they worked in two 12-hour shifts utilizing a dozen fire trucks; aerial firefighters also assisted in the effort.
"We would try to fight the fires, then more Katyusha rockets would fall, starting new fires. It was very stressful."
KKL-JNF has begun to rehabilitate the forest here and throughout the entire region, and we are driven to nearby Biryia Forest to see more clearly what's been done in terms of reclamation.
Standing high above a wide stretch of valley, we're told by area officials that the terrain was cleared of damaged trees soon after the war's end. Native broadleaf trees were planted rather than pines, as was first done here and at Ramat Naftali. Cedar trees were then added on the slope above the broadleaf trees. It was also decided to leave portions of the land as is, to wait for natural regeneration.
In this way, they hope to create what they call "a diverse forest," different from what was here before. The original forest, made up mostly of pine, was a simple ecological environment. But KKL-JNF has learned that simple is not necessarily good. Now they wish to create a forest with "a higher ecological integrity."
"This is the golden lining to the gray cloud of Hezbollah bombing," Paul Ginsberg tells us. "We lost forest area here, but instead of waiting for it to go fallow naturally and then take action, we've learned that we can improve and diversify the forest, and thereby strengthen the ecological infrastructure."
In these two examples — the Hula Valley and the Biryia Forest — we had the two major strands of KKL-JNF work displayed for us: conservation to assist nature and wildlife — its new green approach — and the continuing effort to plant trees as the organization has done in the past, though these days, this, too, is being executed with green awareness in mind.
This was not always the organizational mission. KKL-JNF was founded 107 years ago specifically to buy land to allow the Jewish people to settle in pre-state Palestine. And, according to Zeev Kedem, KKL-JNF director of development, "Until 1948, this is how it was done. Then there was the War of Independence. After that, the group bought land from the State of Israel. We wanted to reclaim and develop the land. That was the goal then.
"But we've moved even beyond that. We've moved from developing the land to creating sustainable development — and all that this term means" — that is, to nurture and maintain the environment with an eye to future generations.
This new emphasis may not have yet penetrated the American Jewish consciousness, which seems to still conceive of the Jewish National Fund (the American side of the KKL-JNF equation) as the group that plants trees to mark special occasions — births, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings. JNF undoubtedly remains Israel's national foresters, but the work is executed with an added twist.
According to Kedem, not everyone's happy about how this new emphasis is administered, especially some of Israel's other green organizations. "We're called too cautious. We aren't aggressive enough in our green projects. But we've learned from the past.
"Before, KKL-JNF would come into an area and bulldoze everything, then build a road or plant trees. These days, the organization does its research," always with an eye to sustainability.
There are numerous, very green endeavors that JNF-KKL supports throughout Israel, among them, Ramat Menashe Biosphere Park, a lush preserve in the center of Israel, open to the public at no charge; Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev, which is run on ecological and Reform Jewish principles; and the Eilat Ornithological Park, which is a major flyway for those 500 million birds each spring and fall, as well as a significant research center.
All of these are pieces in the KKL-JNF mosaic, but perhaps the most pressing national problems the organization tackles, especially in light of global warming, are lack of water and the threat of desertification — that is, the desert's slow creep northward. True to form, KKL-JNF is resorting to an old standby to counter this effect: planting trees, since they absorb carbon emissions.
Our group hears from Dr. Uri Shani, director general of the Israel Water Commission, on the first of these crises. He says that water scarcity in Israel is an age-old dilemma, but today the situation stems from three sources: increased demand; a decrease in supply; and the contamination of surface and ground water.
But Shani says that Israel, on the state level, if not among the citizenry, has become very efficient in water use.
"We recycle all our waste water to higher levels," he says in a Jerusalem meeting. "We'd like to get it to an even higher point so that people could possibly drink it. For now, it goes to agriculture.
"But because we haven't enough natural water to keep up our standard of living, we are focusing on desalination. We desalinate 150 million cubic meters of water per year, and we're trying to get to 500 million cubic meters per year. Lake Kinneret, our main source of drinking water, is getting brackish, so we would like to have one-third of our drinking water from desalination by 2012.
"Water is the country's most basic resource. You can stop electricity for days, and I'd argue everyone would survive. Stop water and you have another story."
To witness what is being done to combat desertification, we head south, to the Yattir Forest in the Northern Negev, a 40-year-old, man-made forest planted in a semi-arid area. We're told by officials there that no one expected a single tree to survive. It's become Israel's largest forest. Drought-resistant species of trees — Aleppo pine, Acacia, Eucalyptus, Carob — are used here because the shallow soil common to the area is where they thrive.
As we drive through this hilly, parched-looking region — covered with rolling outcroppings of yellowish, unappealing-looking sand — it does seem miraculous that anything could take root, let alone sprout so greenly and head so determinedly for the light.
It's not for nothing, Kedem told us, that Israel is one of the few countries in the world that had more trees at the end of the 20th century than it had at its start.
This ideal will continue in the new millennium. This year, KKL-JNF wants to plant 7 million trees, in the cities especially, to help cool them naturally so the demand for air-conditioning might lessen.
And officials also told us that in the fight to combat global warming, a combination of money, land and knowledge will have to be applied. Israel is the country with the know-how, especially about what trees can accomplish, and it plans to export this expertise as often as it can.
'Best Produce in the World'
But perhaps even more astonishing is what we see on the way farther south, when we stumble upon the Yair Research and Development Center, which is that day sponsoring its annual R&D event. The center is owned by the region, though 50 percent of its funding comes from KKL-JNF. Once a year, the center has this open house to show local farmers what they've discovered.
Ronit Ratner, who's lived and worked for 30 years in this, the Arava region, running a pepper farm as part of Moshav Paran, addresses the group in an open-air space on this cloudy, soggy day.
"Most of the time — 360 days of the year — it's sunny here, even in winter," she says. "I can't believe it's cloudy. But things have changed. Recently, we had 9 millimeters of rain in one day. On average, we have 20 millimeters a year. And we had a terrible frost that did lots of damage to our crops. But we'll start again next year.
"Generally, in the last week in July, we plant the seedlings, we irrigate, and then by November we have the best produce in the world. In fact, 60 percent of the fresh vegetables and flowers exported from Israel came from this region.
"And here, there's a lack of arable land. We have a good sandy soil, but it's limited. So we're doing research with what's called soil-less culture — perlite — and we use drippers to irrigate. The soil only provides the base for the roots. All else has to be provided.
"We have to use our soil very smartly since this is the emptiest place in Israel. Soil-less is very efficient. It can be irrigated frequently without causing problems. And it has brought us to market with a cleaner product."
She escorts us around the fairgrounds, which is packed with people and has a festive, carnival air. As we walk, we marvel at the size and color of the vegetables and flowers grown in row after row of long, narrow soil-less containers, all shielded from the sun by yards of white tenting stretched high above them.
We soon head south toward Eilat.
In a matter of miles, we pass row upon row of the kind of white tenting we'd seen at the fair, filled with vegetation of all sorts. The tents stand in the middle of nowhere, the only thing to be seen for miles. In such dry, open spaces, you won't survive, Ratner had said, if you're not a dreamer. It's not an easy place, she'd added with a wry smile.
Farmers are at the mercy of the elements, especially the strange quirks that global warming appears to be having on the environment. But perhaps it's here, in these inhospitable stretches — deep in the Negev, as Israeli founding father and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had hoped — that the new Zionism is being carefully tilled, and has even begun bearing some of its finest fruit.
This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Federation Endowments Corporation.