Isawiyah - Yuval Ben-Ami - December 2011
Scorched earth with Isawiyah in the background. Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami
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"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul," said John Muir (1838-1914 ), who founded the first national park in the United States. On my way to Jerusalem I reflect on Muir and on an American friend of mine, who pasted a page of Muir's quotes on the wall of her room. "You can't resist someone who is truly capable of being moved by a tree," she told me.

Today I am traveling in the wake of Israelis who are also capable of being moved by trees - and even by a place where there are apparently not many trees. Earlier this month the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee approved the establishment of a national park on the eastern slopes of Mount Scopus. As far as the Internet is concerned, the park already exists: It has a page of its own on iNature.info, a Hebrew site that lists the country's national parks and nature reserves.

It emerges, however, that the park also has opponents: nature-haters, most likely. They claim there are no genuine natural treasures along the eastern slopes of Mount Scopus, that the land belongs to the inhabitants of two villages, A-Tur and Isawiyah, and that the park's creation is a stratagem to prevent local residents from building on the land without having to expropriate it.

These detractors point out that the original initiative, dating back several years, was spearheaded by Eviatar Cohen, who was at the time director of the Jerusalem district of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. He had been involved in the establishment of settler outposts in the West Bank and was a senior official at Elad, the ultranationalist organization that among other things manages the City of David site in Jerusalem. The critics suspect that the recent appointment of the former head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, Shaul Goldstein, as director of the NPA, will turn the park into a reality. For his part, Goldstein said in September, "Our response to the Palestinian initiative [at the United Nations] and its implications is to tighten our grip in the soil."

I think that's also a paraphrase of something Muir said, but I'm not positive.

There's only one way to prove that the new park is not a bluff: to take a knapsack and a canteen of water, lace up some good walking shoes and spend a day hiking around the site. I approach from the direction of A-Tur, tread gingerly between piles of rubbish strewn on the slopes and gradually emerge between the houses into an equally filthy area, though more open, from which the A-Za'im checkpoint in the separation wall is visible, along with a few tin shacks and two main roads. Between them lies a wide uncultivated field that ascends via a rocky slope toward the buildings of the Hebrew University.

I have arrived.

I had hoped that the sight of the national park would stir me to burst into old-time, traditional national-park-type songs, but instead I find myself conjuring up a song by the now-defunct Nos'ei Hamigva'at band from Jerusalem: "Visit to the mount / A visit at the mount / You can shout 'Mazal tov! Mazal tov' / The large and small lights lead you / To frozen metallic skies."

There's something dispiriting about those lyrics, despite the "Mazal tov." There is also something dispiriting in the landscape around me, but I refuse to accept it in a literal way: This, after all, is a national park in Israel, a country that boasts environmental organizations like the Jewish National Fund and the civilian battalion of dog-handlers at Kfar Tapuah. We don't mix politics and ecology. This park is wonderful, only you need to give it a few minutes to reveal its splendor.

Here's one advantage: It's compact. The whole park is a square of land one side of which is Route 1, another side is the outskirts of Isawiyah, a third side the outskirts of A-Tur and the last side is the university campus and the road leading from it to the hospital at Augusta Victoria. Each side is less than a kilometer in length, so we're basically talking here about a pretty small traffic island. Two traffic islands, actually, because the new tunnel road to Ma'aleh Adumim slices the park down the middle. A traffic island can be thrilling, too. It's all a matter of landscaping.

"The area's flora is typical of desert scrubland, dominated by the prickly burnet," the iNature site informs us, "and desert species like the Artemisia sieberi [a wild herb]." The site also mentions Brassicaceae, a plant with narrow leaves which can only be found in this part of the country.

From my first step on the hill I search for those plants but spot mainly the prickly burnet. Damn it, why do the leaves have to be so narrow? If they were wider I would certainly spot you and take pleasure in your beauty.

The truth is that most of the area is covered with plant species which are not mentioned on the website, among them the common thistle and the knapweed. I take their picture in "macro" mode and they come out quite lovely. But when will I get to shoot something with the 300-mm. lens, the length of a Grad missile launcher, which is waiting in my knapsack? When will wild animals venture out to the slopes? In the meantime, nothing moves around me other than cars that come out of the tunnel. Having no other choice, I make do with turning over a stone and photographing an armadillidium vulgare, the common pill-bug.

After zipping up my backpack (I learned in Yellowstone that this deters bears from poking around in it ), I continue climbing. I chose to start the trek at the foot of the hill, to take in the full picture. Casting my gaze upward, I know now what the photographer Ansel Adams must have felt upon seeing the awe-inspiring Half Dome in Yosemite, what thrilled landscape painter Albrecht Altdorfer on the peaks of the Alps and what naturalist Muir experienced upon first embracing the trunk of a sequoia and looking up toward its top.

Nature-haters will say that this is no more than a nice hill, that every hill in the world is nice when you aren't riding a bike on it, that there is always some sort of drama in vertical topography. Well, they can say what they want. They will never understand Muir, who said, "When we try to pick out anything [in nature] by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

I tug at the branch of a bush near my feet and discover that its roots are embedded in the remnants of a rusty barrel - but that's not what Muir meant. He meant to say that this national park is connected by unfathomable subterranean ties to the Great Coral Reef and to the rain forests in Brazil. As I cast my gaze up the hill I am actually looking at the peak of Kilimanjaro. And anyway, even if I'm not, even if there is no especially great natural beauty here, in Israel the category of "national park" (as opposed to "nature reserve" ) usually refers to archaeological sites: Masada National Park, Mamshit National Park, etc. The impression here, too, is that this park's finest aspect can be attributed to "human activity." The iNature site relates, "While the Mount Scopus tunnel, named for the poet Naomi Shemer (which separates the sections of the national park ) was being dug, a quarry cave was found, from which stone implements were fashioned during the Second Temple period (the cave is close to the tunnel road from Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumim, on the southern side of the road )."

I cross the road cautiously and step into the cave of the patriarchs - sorry, I mean the quarry cave. It really is here: a shallow little niche on the slope, carved in the limestone. Okay, it's not very impressive, but the NPA has one last, triumphant argument: The area of the park reflects an historic connection between the city and the desert.

The nature-haters will say that the ridge is steep enough to allow a view from the city to the desert even if the owners of the land are allowed to build on it. They will say that even now the slope does not constitute an encroachment of the desert into the city, but at most a blot of wasteland on its outskirts. They will say that rapid development of Ma'aleh Adumim and implementation of other building plans for Jews in area E1 will soon cut off the slopes of Mount Scopus from the true wilderness.

Well, they can say what they want. I say that this is a national park. Period. John Muir is on my side, and everyone else can take a flying leap. I am even calling a friend over and inviting her to join me. It's the journalist and geographer Daniella Cheslow, a good friend and a true nature lover. I ask her to bring wine and good food worthy of a picnic in a national park.

Daniella meets me at the end of the park as a cold, gloomy twilight descends. For some reason she bursts into laughter at every remark I make about flora and fauna. She insists on taking my picture as I emerge from a garbage-stuffed, fire-scorched crevice and asks me to try to look "heroic, like a mountain climber." What does she mean, "like"? I am a mountain climber. We are at the very summit! To make my point, I sing her an excerpt from the Nos'ei Hamigva'at song: "Visit to the mount / Visit at the mount / On a gray day you see / People crying on empty graves / Lamenting their coming end / On a clear day you see nothing."

As evening falls, we sit below the antennas of the nearby military base and watch the goats munching on garbage from torn cartons of vegetables, the concrete wall surrounding Shuafat refugee camp and the parking lot for rusted buses. I show Daniella that while I was waiting for her I photographed a wild creature: a Palestinian boy scampering between mounds of construction refuse.

We both hope it's not an endangered species.