What do we do when climate change threatens more than just a species and its habitat, but puts at risk thousands of years of relationships between land-based cultures and their most sacred plants?
When Adla Massoud and her friends invited me to join them for a pilgrimage to the northernmost stands of Cedars of Lebanon in 2018, we could not have guessed that these ancient trees would be decimated by wildfires within two years’ time. I had arrived for my fifth stay in Lebanon only the day before, but despite my jetlag, I jumped at the chance to meet her before sunrise to drive high into the mountains where war-torn Syria was well within sight. Our goal was to see the legendary cedars above Wadi Qadisha, the Holy Valley not far from where the poet Gibran Khalil Gibran was born in Bsharri, not far from one of the twelve remaining stands of cedars of any size. While no poet is more strongly associated with Lebanon than its refugee prophet Gibran, no tree has been more embedded in Lebanese identity for the last four thousand years than Cedrus libani.
After zigzagging up the switchbacks of highest road in of northeastern Lebanon that held only a scatter of wind-beaten cedars on its steep slopes, we spotted a thicker patch of ancient trees nestled in the valley down below us, where the chilly wind would not freeze us to our bones. We then descended into a denser stand of these iconic conifers; they grew within a more tranquil sanctuary that my Lebanese companions referred to Horsh Arz el-Rab.
Still suffering from jetlag, it took me several minutes for it to dawn on me that we were standing amidst the legendary “Forest of the Cedars of God,” a refuge that had been revered by countless pilgrims over the ages. All around us were scarred and gnarled trees that had suffered but survived pestilence and plagues, logging and wars for centuries. They deserved to be treated as the sacred elders of the Levant, for they had endured innumerable threats despite all odds.
As I slowly walked along in the meadow below these venerable trees, I realized that the Holy Valley of Qadisha was not just home to several hundred resilient cedars. It served as a a cradle for other botanical treasures as well- the ones which had fed and nourished Middle Eastern cultures for upwards of ten millennia. There at my feet—and sometimes at the very foot of a towering cedar—were the wild relatives of wheat, rye and barley, chickpeas and lentils, the mainstays of the Mediterranean diet.
While I was nearly as excited to see these ancestors of our food crops as I was the cedars themselves, there was something unsettling about their appearance. As I popped open pods after pod of the wild legumes, their seeds were shriveled, or few and far between. The grains of the wild cereals there were also desiccated, probably due to a drought or heat wave that had hit them just as they were filling out.
When I arrived later that week on the campus of the American University of Beirut for a two month stay, I was gifted a report on climate change in Lebanon that hinted at the cause of those shriveled seeds. A team of the Mediterranean region’s finest scientists had predicted that average temperatures in the Levant would be increasing by as much as 4 degrees Centigrade by the year 2100, compared to what they were 150 years ago. Already heatwaves were lasting half the summer, but they were soon expected to end for as long as 200 days each warm season. Although I suffered sunburns that autumn in 45 degree C heat (113 F) in the Beqaa Valley where my relatives still farmed their ancient tree crops, scientists predicted that temperatures would reach 50 degrees C (122 F) well before the turn of the century, making farm work unbearable.
But what the climate change study could not have predicted is the frequency and intensity of the wildfires which would burn the highest ridges in Mount Lebanon in 2019 and 2020, reaching elevations of 6500 feet (2000 m) for the first time in recorded history. These fires scorched seedlings of cedars, pines and junipers that had been planted well above their average elevations in the hope that they might mature even as climatic changes advance upslope.
In September of 2020, the northern Qammouaa forest was ablaze near Mechmech, not far from the trees I had walked under at Horsh Arz el-Rab. A month later, two more fires engulfed the coniferous forests in the Chouf region further south where Druze militias had once protected the cedars by placing land mines around them to ensure that invading armies would not log them. Over just two days in October of 2020, foresters mapped more than 140 wildfires. By the year’s end, wildfires will have burned forested areas more than seven times the annual average acreage, becoming the worst fire season ever recorded in what was once called the Land of Milk and Honey.
Having already reached the highest summits of Lebanon, neither the cedars themselves nor the wildlife which depend upon them can move “up” in elevation top escape the consequences of climate change. But rather than conceding that their enigmatic cedars are doomed to extinction, the Lebanese communities in the highlands and their consulting scientists have undertaken three strategies to deal with this dilemma.
First, they are extensively planting hundreds of thousands of cedars at the highest elevations where stone terraces anciently constructed for fruit tree crops have created moister, richer soil that may help the trees survive most onslaughts. Secondly, they are transplanting seedlings from genetic strains of cedars best adapted to the changing conditions, and then planting marketable native herbs in their understories to promote better stewardship and livelihoods in the restored forests. Lastly, they have mounted an unprecedented participatory “citizen science” effort to reduce fire risks and quickly extinguish any wildfire with occurs in the proximity of the remaining stands of cedars.
These humble efforts cannot halt the unrelenting, seemingly inexorable march of climate change. But they can renew the bond between the Lebanese people and their most sacred tree at a time when the need to sow hope is as crucial as the need to sow the seeds of wild cedars, pines, junipers, chickpeas, lentils, wheats and barleys.
Gary Paul Nabhan is a seed conservationist, restoration ecologist, Franciscan Brother and nature writer of Lebanese descent. Honored with a MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” with the Vavilov Medal, a Lannan Literary Fellowship and as a Food Forever Champion by the Global Crop Trust, Nabhan is author or editor of more than 30 books and 150 scientific articles on biocultural diversity, food security and climate change.