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Last Tree Standing

There's something impressive about the sight of trees clinging to a mound amid an empty expanse, but the trees themselves are dying.

A few weeks ago Sivan Shiknagy was on her way to visit family near Eilat. Around Nahal Shehoret, not far from Eilat, she noticed some acacia trees clinging to a large dirt mound in the middle of a broad plain. She was impressed by the sight and photographed it, but she was left with a troubled feeling, seeing the trees cut off from their environment. It turns out she was right to feel troubled.

Nahal Shehoret acacias
Sivan Shiknagy

The trees in Nahal Shehoret are drying out and dying. Shiknagy, who is studying photography, says that as part of her studies, the students were instructed to photograph a series of pictures on a topic that disturbs them and that they want to bring to the public's attention. "I chose this area, which used to be a quarry, and took pictures there for several days. I called the series, 'And the Tree Was Happy.'" The title comes from Shel Silverstein's book "The Giving Tree," she says.

The trees, umbrella thorn acacias (Acacia tortilis ) and twisted acacias (Acacia radiana ), had been in an area that became a quarry. By the time Shiknagy came upon them, the entire area around them had been excavated and mined.

"Ten years ago a decision was made to leave the trees in something of a planter within the quarry area," says Eilat district Nature and Parks Authority ecologist Dr. Benny Shalmon. "Eventually they dried up and died." Trees were also left standing near another quarry in the area, although the soil surrounding them disappeared.

The experiment proved acacia trees need to be left in such a way that their roots are surrounded by an area of at least 20 meters in diameter to reach water. When quarry workers excavated deep into the earth, they cut off the trees from the groundwater that had been sustaining them.

Since then, nature preservation bodies have been attempting to preserve specimens endangered by quarrying or construction by relocating them to sites where they won't be disturbed. At Holon junction, for example, a sycamore tree that had become a city symbol was replanted at great expense at a site nearby, in order to clear the area for a new road. The tree appears to have taken to the new location undamaged.

However, some species, including acacias, cannot survive a transplant. "There was an attempt to transfer two acacias to one of the hotels in Eilat. Great effort was invested in trying to preserve the trees, but it didn't work," says Shalmon.

Now the Nature and Parks Authority prefers to use a method of "environmental compensation" when nature is harmed by construction, mining or quarrying: A developer who uproots a tree has to plant two more in its place.