Thursday, March 4, 2010

Overnight in the Hula Valley Part 1: ISLAGIATT

Even from an exceptionally out-of-the-box person like me, this may seem a bit odd, but I remember those days so many years ago standing for an hour or more in front of a large enclosure where the deer and the antelope played, part of the African Plains exhibit at the ‘Bronx Zoo,’ and beginning to think about animal behavior and the subtlety of Divine intervention. One may wonder about the thought processes of people, but take it a step further, how and what do animals think? And how does that relate to a universal intelligence? I remembered those conversations with myself as we were watching flocks of common cranes (that’s what they’re called) in the Hula Valley last week. But how we even got up there is a story in itself.
Instead of being up north on Wednesday, we were supposed to be in the Negev from Thursday until Monday, but our friend Richard, who had planned that trip, did something nasty to his ankle, so the Sunday before we had to call off our trip. Fortunately for us, we were all able to cancel our reservations at the local tzimmer (guest house) without any penalty. It just happened that on Monday (are you following this?), Barbara called our friends Jeff and June to arrange for us to meet for lunch some day, and June mentioned that they were planning an overnight trip to the Hula Valley. When Barbara responded, “That sounds wonderful,” June invited us to come along. We were able to make a reservation for a room at the same tzimmer where they were staying, so we were good to go. Wednesday at eight in the morning, they picked us up in their rented car, and off we went.
There is a burgeoning cottage industry here in The Land to train tour guides, and part of that is to train English-speaking guides for the Anglos here, as well as those of you from abroad who visit us from time to time. Jeff decided to take the course, even though he does not expect to make his livelihood as a guide. But it’s a great way to learn about the history, geography, and archeology of the region which he can then pass on to his family, local friends, and visitors. The course is not cheap and it’s time-consuming, but you get a lot out of it. Certainly it was worth it for us to have Jeff around!
We have taken this route before: east on route 1 from Jerusalem until the road ends near Jericho, and you either go north on route 90 to Tiberias and from there up to Kiryat Shemona, or you can go south on the same road to the Dead Sea and down to Eilat. But each time we have traveled this way, we get to see different things – depending on the guide. In all the times we have been this way, nobody thought to stop at The Lido, an abandoned hotel built by the British, which is smack dab at the crossroads. However, Jeff had learned about this place in his course and was eager to show it to us. Talk about a modern archaeological site! There are quite a few abandoned buildings, in varying degrees of decay, along this road, ignored except by graffitists, but nothing quite like The Lido. This must have been a swell place in its day, with a mural going all around the ballroom. I am convinced that if one came here at the right time, say a summer evening when it was quiet and there was no one else there, and one listened very carefully, one could still hear the clink of glasses and possibly the faint conversation of British officers and their wives stationed in the area. Oh yes, and the muffled music coming from the bandstand. But when we where there it was morning, and there was a full tour group there, as well as two armored cars worth of soldiers looking out into the desert beyond. Actually, one could look at the mural and, from the gaping holes in the wall, see the countryside at the same time.
Going on, we found the gas station with the huge model of the Jordan valley which we had seen with Ezra Rosenfeld on an earlier tiyul. Jeff had heard about this place and wanted to check it out. Now if one is discussing the Jordan Valley – from a geological point of view, that is – one is talking about the Syrian-African rift (which could be, but isn’t, a metaphor for the politics of the region). Let me explain this to you graphically: find yourself a map of the Hudson Valley (or something similar for those few of you who don’t live in New York or New Jersey. Cut the map in half so that the each state is on a different piece. Reassemble the two pieces and, slowly, slowly, move one side up and the other side down, and keep doing that so that Washington Heights and Fort Lee stop being opposite each other but are now miles apart. In fact, Fort Lee is now opposite Ossining. Your new map might seem peculiar, but there are no consequences otherwise – to your two dimensional model. In real life when this happens, as it did here, shifts in the tectonic plates cause all sorts of movement, so that – I can’t say suddenly because we are dealing with huge numbers of geological years – the earth has buckled and there are now are mountains and plateaus – like the Golan Heights – where there had been flat land before. Plus we are dealing with other interesting phenomena, like most of the northern area being under water so that the Kinneret was once connected to the Mediterranean. You learn about good stuff like that in a tour guide school.
I also realized along the way that you get a different perspective sitting next to the driver in a car from what you notice on a bus. Obviously you’re closer to the ground, but you are more likely to be paying close attention to what is passing by. For one thing, you’re less likely to take a nap when you’re the one who has to make certain that the driver isn’t taking one. Anyway, we kept going, past certain landmarks that are starting to look familiar, stopping for lunch at Beit Shean (we still haven’t been given the time to explore the ancient ruins there), and for pit stops, until, sof sof (finally) we arrived at the Hula Valley and the bird sanctuary there.
Now there’s all kinds of information you need to know, both geological and zoological to appreciate what was in store for us.. First of all, there’s the matter of bird migrations because five hundred million of our feathered friends make their way back and forth from Europe to Africa every years and cross over Israel along the way (that’s part of the charm of The Land). Why? You ask. Because Israel is in a way the narrowest part of a two way funnel; it is a convenient and hospitable bit of land right in between the vast areas of these two continents, a perfect landing place for the weary avian traveler. And what would be the equivalent of The Lido for these visitors, where there are plenty of fish, insects, and plant life to eat? The Hula Valley, the low-lying area between the Galil and the Golan Heights. Much of the area was a shallow lake never more than ten feet deep which, even though the birds loved it, was considered a large malaria-rife swamp; until the early 1950’s, when the newly formed Zionist state undertook an enormous ‘reclamation’ project, draining the area to eliminate malaria, and turning a lot of land in a small country into extremely fertile fields for farming, to grow food for an ever-increasing population.
Not so fast. As the saying goes, “You can’t fool ‘Mother Nature.’” There’s also, ISLAGIATT, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’ The world is filled with similar examples of ecological hubris. For example, the headlines to an article in a recent Wall Street Journal says in most succinctly, “Green Revolution in India withers as subsidies backfire.” Then “Overuse of one type of fertilizer degrades the soil, causing crop yields to fall and import levels, food prices to rise.” At first everything seems great, but slowly, year by year, ‘nature’ starts to get even. Once the Hula Valley was drained, it began year by year to lose its fertility (don’t ask me to explain the process; this is not one of my areas of expertise.) The point is that we can consider ‘Mother Nature’ as an ally or an implacable foe. After almost fifty years of essentially battling with the Hula Valley, recently the Israeli government began a strategic retreat and re-flooded a small part of what had been the lake and the swamp. With the prompting of some people or groups who knew what they were doing, an agreement was reached between the nature preserve and the neighboring farmers, so that the preserve would feed the birds and the farmers would stop using toxic chemical pesticides. The birds continue to feast on the rodent population but leave the crops alone. Everyone is happy, especially the birds.
If you have seen the Hitchcock movie, The Birds, you may think that you have seen a lot of these winged creatures, silly person, you. As Al Jolson (and if you don’t whom I’m talking about, we have a serious communications problem) was wont to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” We arrived at the bird sanctuary in time to take a leisurely stroll around part of the premises. Then the real fun began. We joined a large group of people for the 4:30 ‘show.’ We went aboard what I can only describe as several rows of stadium seats on wheels, enclosed on several sides, pulled by a tractor, and we set out to meet and greet the birds. At this time of the year, the place is overrun with Grus Grus, known to friend and foe as the Common Crane. When I say overrun, what I mean by that is that if you assigned each of these creatures its own seat in a large stadium (and you found a way for them to take their assigned seats), you wouldn’t have many empties. There were tens of thousands of them hanging out in or near the shallow water, each flock in its own area, all making a considerable racket. And it was feeding time, which meant that another tractor, pulling a combine, was passing in their midst, scattering tons and tons of corn seeds. The birds were used to the tractors and ignored our presence, fairly close to where they were hanging out. We were fortunate enough to be on the best trip of the day because it would soon be time for the birds to abandon their day time areas and fly where they spent the nights. Sure enough, one group of cranes took off; and then another; and then another, each flock waiting its turn, not going until the sky was clear of the previous group. Soon it was dusk, and soon it began to get darker and the sky began to change colors; and the birds kept taking off, flying low to the ground, until every bird was gone and the whole area was eerily silent. In another two weeks, we were told, every last crane would leave for their summer habitats in I-don’t-know-where. If you took the time to notice and think about it, you might come to realize that you were looking at perfect flying machines. No human engineer could develop a more ergonomically sound craft than these birds.
There’s a lot to think about. Having seen a film documentary entitled “Winged Migration” several years before, I had some basic knowledge of the extraordinary flying habits of these migratory creatures, traversing a predestined route of thousands of miles twice a year, leaving from the same place and returning without fail (assuming they survived the journey) to the same place. The obvious question which any thinking person would ask is, how do they do that: how do they know just when to go, where to go, how to return, what route to take? There are some standard answers: genetic programming, for one; or the ability to detect magnetic fields; hormonal changes; the ability to recognize habitats and form mental maps. Having been told all that, have you learned anything? Seriously. When you are told that a bird with a brain the size of the top half of your thumb forms mental maps, might you want to inquire how that is possible? When you observe dozens of flocks of cranes figuring when to take off for their nighttime resting place one flock at a time – which is essentially what controllers are paid to do at airports, using sophisticated equipment – and someone tells you that birds are genetically programmed to do that, maybe, just maybe, you’d want to know how that works. Was Shakespeare genetically programmed to write plays? When we talk about something being programmed, that sort of implies the existence of a programmer, doesn’t it? I’m not writing this to prove a point, any point, because there are some things you can’t really prove. But let me quote from parts the opening paragraph of the prologue to a book entitled “The Hidden Face of God,” by the scientist and author Gerald L. Schroeder, which I believe is relevant to this discussion:
“A single consciousness, an all-encompassing wisdom, pervades the universe. The discoveries of science, those that search the quantum nature of subatomic matter, those that explore the molecular complexity of biology, and those that probe the brain/mind interface, have moved us to the brink of a startling realization: all existence is the expression of this wisdom…. Every particle, every being, from atom to human, appears to have within it a level of information, of conscious wisdom….. There is no hint of it in the laws of nature that govern the interactions among the basic particles that compose all matter. The information just appears as a given, with no causal agent evident, as if it were an intrinsic facet of nature.”
Consider that and form your own conclusions. On that tantalizing thought, I will join the birds and conclude part one of this article.

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