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June 19, 2006

 Dem dry bones


In Sunday's C of E lectionary, Ezekiel sees cedar trees like this in Israel (KJV):

17:22 Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent:
17:23 In the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell.
God's silviculture here is peculiar.

You can't grow a cedar from a cutting, any more than a cut Christmas tree will grow on in your garden. It's just possible that Ezekiel and his auditors knew this (though God can perform miracles); however, the natural reading is that he didn't. Ezekiel was born in Judaea, but went into exile in Babylonia with King Jehoiachin. The trees available in either place were either palms (which only grow from seeds) or fruit trees - olives, apricots - which can reproduce from cuttings, though apparently carob trees can't. Nowadays you can reproduce many conifers by tissue culture , but that's a very recent invention.

It seems likely that Ezekiel (writing from 592 to 570 BCE) and his audience had never seen a forest of cedars; probably any forest.

Deforestation in the Near East started long before the time of Ezekiel. Richard Cowen of UC Davis tells the story here. It's a working draft for a chapter in a promising book, so I'll only lift two standard references from him.

In the world's oldest book, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2000 BCE), the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a destructive logging expedition to Anatolia. Finding the cedars with difficulty - already! - (vs 61), they slay the protective deity/monster Humbaba, fell the best trees, and raft them down the Euphrates. Princes like Gilgamesh and Solomon needed timber for prestige buildings, but the real damage was done by inefficient charcoal smelting on a huge scale.

150 years later, Plato showed a melancholy understanding of the changes in the Critias:

In comparison of what then was, there are remaining [in Attica] only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left. But in the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, as they are termed by us, of Phelleus were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle.
The typical Mediterranean mountain landscape left by Bronze and Iron Age asset-stripping is denuded to Plato's skeleton. This is the Sierra de Alhama, SW from Granada, but it could be anywhere.


Old forests are rare in the region - the Trodos forest in Cyprus was saved by a combination of conservative monkish landowners and a British colonial ban on goats; those of inland Sardinia by remoteness. The cedars of Lebanon are reduced to a few small stands.

Reafforestation in these conditions is painful and expensive; I've seen freshly dynamited terraces in Cyprus.

A word you don't hear much in the climate change debate is hysteresis. Going back on a big environmental change is very hard work; it may be impossible.

Note: the copyright in the cedar photo lies with this tourism promotion site, but I don't suppose they mind the free advertising.

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