The Council and JNF began the project by asking local residents to collect seeds from trees already growing on and around their properties. The seeds were germinated and raised in a nursery, then returned to the areas where they had been collected.
Indigenous trees are hardier, more disease-resistant, and less reliant on irrigation. They’re also an important food source for native species, from tiny insects munching on the leaves to larger animals that eat smaller species and make their homes in the branches or trunks.
The older residents were right: there were fewer and fewer acacias each year. Some were being removed to make room for agriculture, but others were dying off for reasons that are still unknown.
A team of local researchers are investigating how the acacias survive—it was long believed, for instance, that their roots were very shallow, but their ability to tough it out through long dry spells suggests that they may have a delicate network of roots that run far deeper than researchers were previously aware of.
The kids on the field trip aren’t the only ones learning about the importance of trees in their region. The community has embraced trees, not only for the landscape, but to support the rich and complex web of desert life. Yael Haviv, head of the Environmental Unit with the Central Arava Regional Council, said, “In the last seven to 10 years, there’s been a real revolution in the way people think about the trees.”
And , for Jews the world over, the holiday of Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year for trees, is an opportunity to celebrate trees in general. In Israel, trees have played an essential role in bringing the country to life over the past century, with JNF paving the way by planting over 250 million trees throughout the country.
Now, some farmers are embracing trees so much so that they are leaving them in their fields rather than dig them up, accepting the inconvenience as a small price to pay towards restoring indigenous species.
Other trees are planting in sandy patches at the edge of farms, using their own limited water ration to irrigate the young saplings. (The Central Arava is not connected to the Israeli water supply system, but instead is reliant on limited water from aquifers and flood waters washed in from the nearby Sinai Peninsula.)
So far, families, individuals, and school groups, like Shir’s, have joined in the Adopt-an-Acacia program to plant over 4,000 trees in the region.
While the Central Arava can be a difficult place to live, for the 3,600 residents who call its seven rural communities home, it’s bursting with natural beauty.
But there’s still work to be done. With shovels and seeds in hand, Shir and her community in the Central Arava are busy reclaiming and preserving every inch of the Jewish homeland.
Adam H. Brill,
Director of Communications