Returning the Mighty Oak to the Sharon's Shadeless Plains

Acorn-armed tree-lovers aim to reverse Ottoman-era deforestation by replanting 750-acre forest

If you passed south of the Hadera forest last weekend, you might have seen a small group walking slowly, carrying buckets, staring at the ground. Every now and then one of them would stoop, pick up an acorn and drop it into a bucket. The group's plan is to replant a massive oak forest - one that existed in the area until being destroyed by man some 150 years ago.

"We believe planting one oak tree is the beginning of a forest," sums up one of the group's leaders, Arnon Goren. "Our forest."

Oak - Yaron Kaminsky - Sept. 30, 2010
Yaron Kaminsky

Ofer, a resident of the Sharon and one of Goren's key partners in the scheme, says he's been "playing" with oaks for some years. "I started growing oak seedlings - I just love that tree. At first I didn't do it professionally but I learned over time, and now I have plenty of saplings."

After Ofer told Goren, a wastewater treatment engineer and environmental activist, about his hobby, Goren gave him a book entitled "The man who planted trees." It tells the story of a French shepherd who slowly, over years, planted acorn after acorn until he turned his arid area into fertile woodland.

"The book really turned things in my head. This one person changed an entire environment, bringing back rivers, animals, trees. A tree is a wonderful thing, it's magic," Ofer says.

His love for oaks and enthusiasm for the book tied in with the knowledge that his own area used to be an oak forest. It may be difficult to believe today, but until 150 years ago the Sharon was covered with oaks. The area's very name is derived from the Akkadian word for forest, "Sharan."

"It's well known that the Sharon used to have extensive woods, which are mentioned in many sources - for example, the battle between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin," said Amikam Riklin, director of the Jewish National Fund's Inspection Unit.

Goren said that some 700 years later maps by the Palestine Exploration Fund (a British topographic and ethnographic surveying society ) from 1872 show an oak forest in the Sharon. "It didn't cover the entire area, but there was a forest here," he said.

The forest was doomed in the 1820s, when Egypt's ruler Muhammad Ali acquiesced to the Ottoman sultan's request to help him in his war against the Greeks. Ali needed wood to build his fleet, and began cutting down the Sharon trees. Deforestation continued when the oaks were cut as fuel for railway steam engines.

Only some oaks remain in the Sharon today - some of them in the "hundred oaks wood" on a sandy hill outside Hadera.

The Sharon is also home to the largest oak tree in the country - standing in the fields of the Sadek family from Taibeh, measuring 690 cm around its trunk.

"Now we've decided to bring back the forest," Ofer says. The plan is not for the entire Sharon area, but rather for the 750-acre Sharon Park. Ofer and Goren brought along a few friends, and the group has been expanding steadily. They are collecting local acorns only, determined not to import oaks from other locales.

The group also began working with the students of the Sadot school in Bat Hefer, to grow acorn seedlings and saplings and plant the trees in communities across the Sharon. "While we are planting the forest, we want each and every one to plant an oak where he lives," says Ofer. "Bringing back the oak forest to this enormous expanse between Kfar Vitkin and Givat Olga will make the landscape green and help nature, the climate, reduce global warming, improve air quality, bring rains and benefit us, the residents."

This weekend the group will meet to hunt for acorns once again, together with families from the Sharon.