Here I wait in line at passport control at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport. Under my arm is a cardboard box I have carried halfway across the planet. Inside it: six cedar cones, souvenirs of a visit to Bsharri, site of Lebanon’s most famous cedar forest, a quarter-century ago. Over the years, as news stories began to make clear the stress the trees are facing from climate change, I got to wondering whether my old cones could somehow be useful. Could they “speak” to scientists or conservationists today? When a Lebanese plant geneticist agreed that analysis of their dormant seeds might shed light on future environmental threats to the cedar, it was enough for me. While my cones get their investigation I’m going to learn what is being done to ensure that the trees survive.
In 1833 French writer Alphonse de Lamartine hyperbolized, “The Cedars of Lebanon are the most famous natural monuments in the universe.”
Something like that could have been written in hieroglyphs or cuneiform 5,000 years ago and in languages near and far ever since. But in a contradictory and all-too-human way, from the Phoenicians onward, the same civilizations that have rhapsodized about the cedars have largely done their mercantile best to fell them in vast numbers.
Cedrus libani grows exclusively in the mountains of the northeastern Mediterranean: in Lebanon, eastern Syria and southwestern Turkey.
In Lebanon the trees once covered an estimated half of the modern country. Now they cover a mere one percent, just 2,000 hectares, if you add up all the scattered parcels. This qualifies Cedrus libani for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species—a lamentation for our time written in the clinical prose of science.
No more cedars in Lebanon?
It’s happened before, or so says the oldest story in human history, the Epic of Gilgamesh. In it, cutting down the cedars, a virgin forest where only gods could dwell, marked humankind’s first environmental plunder.
Has the arc of time brought us again to such a point?
For Lebanon, the decline of its cedars, and its struggle to preserve them, is not just about the virtues of biodiversity. Cedrus libani identifies the country. Lebanon is the only nation in the world with a tree on its flag.
Return to Bsharri
There is something one never forgets about a Cedrus libani woodland. I can still trace my footsteps 24 years ago on an overcast, cold December day in the Arz el-Rab (Forest of the Cedars of God). The expansive, tabular trees, their branches like elephant ears, their younger cousins massive in height, made a royal court of giants with conical crowns. A quiet in that snowy arcadia seized me. Cedar cones, unlike those of other conifers that dangle, dance upright atop their branches like congregations facing the heavens. And with every wintry breath, I took in a woody, sweet scent of cedar oil. It was then I picked up cones as mementos of these living witnesses to so much history, carriers of genes that span the ages.
In Bsharri again, I meet up with Youssef Tawk, the town’s medical doctor and one of Lebanon’s foremost environmental activists. Upon his return in 1990 from studies in Belgium, he joined a resolute group of residents who, even in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, founded The Committee of Cedar Forests Friends to save their iconic stand of trees from “shepherds, warlords, developers and real estate speculators.”
With a lined face, penetrating eyes and a white beard, Tawk looks like he is ready to sit for a Rembrandt portrait. The old trees now number just 375, and the forest is circumscribed by a stone wall, paid for by Queen Victoria to protect the trees from grazing goats. It is arguably more of a park than a true forest, Tawk explains. These remaining cedars have long struggled to regenerate.
It was around the time of my first visit that the condition of the trees began to decline noticeably. The cause, or causes, were unknown.
“The old trees will die, but young trees planted outside the walls will replace them,” was Tawk’s frantic thought at the time. Cedar planting became his obsession, and soon his life’s calling.
“The terrain that I chose was awful. I planted for five years, and they all died.” With persistence, however, he got the hang of it. In the years since, the survival rate of the seedlings and young trees is now 80 percent. The newly forested area has multiplied the old trees 30 times over the original 10 hectares with some 125,000 young trees. He and the committee have hardly done this alone: townsfolk, volunteers, artists, poets and ngos have all pitched in; celebrities, too, including Lebanese Mexican billionaire Alfredo Harp Helú and Elle Oriental Editor-in-Chief Désirée Sadek—all have lent a hand. In this, they together mirror conservation and reforestation efforts all over the country—even across Lebanon’s sectarian divides, Tawk points out.
Nonetheless, he adds, a changing climate “looms large over all of the good works.”
“Species will not disappear from one day to the next. But in 200 years they will have no forest.”
That’s Magda Bou Dagher-Kharrat, a plant geneticist in the Department of Plant and Earth Science at Saint Joseph University. She is speaking about “functional extinction,” even if individual trees remain. “To find the bioclimactic envelope with the same wind, water and temperature, we have to go every year a little bit higher to get colder temperatures in order to get the cones to open. If a cone opens up properly, seeds fall down, and they germinate in the soil. If the cones do not have low enough temperatures to break open, seeds will germinate inside the cones. This is fatal for them. That is what climate change’s real effect is.”
Saint Joseph University’s biological science campus at Mansourieh perches atop a ravine in the mountains above Beirut. But I’m down in the basement parking lot. The sign on the door says Jouzour Loubnan (Roots of Lebanon). Dagher-Kharrat is also the director of this 10-year-old laboratory for seed germination and conservation. It looks to be a modest enterprise—basically a refrigerator full of seeds and a small lab—with ambition to collect the seeds of Lebanese species, including Cedrus libani, and to use them for ecosystem restoration. Jouzour Loubnan has been instrumental in the planting of some 300,000 trees. It was Dagher-Kharrat’s curiosity about my 24-year-old souvenirs that brought me here.
She points to a map of Lebanon on the wall. “This is where we are making assisted migration. We are taking from here and putting it up there.” Her finger traces the roughly 2,000-meter range of Mount Lebanon above Bsharri, altitudes that push the limits of cedars to where, historically, only the cedar’s hardier close cousin, lazzab, or juniper, thrives. (The junipers, too, are threatened but mainly by illegal cutting and overgrazing.)
Dagher-Kharrat summons my cardboard box of 24-year-old cones, the ones she has nicknamed “the sleeping beauties.”
“The genetic diversity that our cedars are harboring and the potential they have to stay alive while a lot of other cedars during the Ice Ages did not,” says Dagher-Kharrat, make this “kind of the end of a dynasty, you can say—the last representatives of these great genes.”
She summons my cardboard box of 24-year-old cones, which she calls, “the sleeping beauties.” Previous studies have found that most cedar seeds remain viable for three to six years when dried and stored a few degrees above freezing. Mine had been introduced to scorching summers in southern California and subzero winters in Canada—not exactly the recommended protocol for oily seed preservation. Still, it just so happened that 1994 was also when biologists first began to notice the effects of climate change in the Bsharri forest. I wondered if the genetic data in these cones could help biologists better understand the recent past, and thus help the cedars better withstand future environmental shifts? Dagher-Kharrat was interested specifically in the prospect of comparing how a tree grown from my old seed might fare alongside a current seedling. But could we wake a sleeping beauty?
“They are very small. They look like fossils,” says Dagher-Kharrat. “This one definitely will not find seeds inside. It is not fertilized.
“You said you didn’t collect them on the trees?” She points at the broken stems on the cones, suspicious.
Dagher-Kharrat plops me in front of a computer screen. Her cones, she says, were undeveloped, from the wrong year of that cedar’s three-year life cycle for maturity. Their color originally must have been green, she surmises. “It’s not fertile. It’s a baby in the second trimester,” she concludes.
“I am very optimistic,” I say with bluster and ignorance. Dagher-Kharrat laughs.
She tells me it is not realistic to use the usual protocol of weeks of hot and cold to try to open my underwhelming cones. She can, however, try a new protocol: soak them for two days and, maybe, crank them open.
“I wrote, ‘Sheldon’s seeds,’” says Dagher-Kharrat as she labels a beaker of water. “I should have written ‘cones,’ so maybe it is a good sign. Maybe I will get seeds.”
You’re in a conversation with Nabil Nemer, and then you’re not. He darts off into the woods to examine one of his insect traps. His is a world of offense and defense, insects and trees, aggregation pheromones and a combination of toxic and polymer chemistry. Nemer, Lebanon’s only tree entomologist and a professor at three universities, snatches a bug too small for me to see off a flower and drops it in a bag. “My vision is only excited when I see insects,” he says.
“The truth is climate change is not affecting the cedar tree. But it is causing other elements that are causing the dieback of cedars,” Nemer emphasizes.
We are walking in Arz Tannourine, the largest and densest cedar forest in Lebanon, which is still only about 600 hectares. It’s June, and nearly a third of the trees look almost burnt, with browning needles and overall partial defoliation. This contrasts with the healthy trees, the green cedar forest of centuries-old voluminous, chandelier-type trees, spread out under the azure sky.
Nemer fondles some red-brown needles and finds a green larva. With three pairs of legs on the thorax and a single pair of anal prolegs, it’s very small, and almost cute. Cephalcia tannourinensis, what was later found to have attacked Bsharri, is named after its discovery in this forest, he says. The common English name is cedar webbing sawfly.
“You have to look how other factors are being interpreted by the insects and [also] how factors are interpreted by the trees. This is why the trees will be ‘calling’ for the insects to come to it,” says Nemer.
It’s at this minute level that climate change plays out.
The lifecycle of this sawfly is such that each spring adult female flying from tree to tree lay as many as 50 eggs on the needles of new buds. As the larvae open, they feed on the needles. After a month the mature larvae drop to the ground. There they enter into one of two types of diapause, or dormancy: either annual or for up to seven years, depending on soil moisture and temperature. Rising temperatures and diminished snowfall are changing the soil conditions, Nemer explains, triggering more larvae to go into one-year diapause. The result is more sawflies. The cedars can manage against a minor onslaught from the Cephalcia tannourinensis, but the numbers now overwhelm the trees’ defenses.
If the attack is for three years, the branch is dead. So in the second year, one has to carefully weigh leaving it to the forest’s natural cycle or bringing in the Lebanese Army to spray the forest with a pesticide called diflubenzuron.
“We need to know how to manage our forests,” he says, “and not to have new forests that will not survive.”
Reforestation is all fine and well, he adds, but “what to do if something happens to these trees?”
“Baby is coming!” Dagher-Kharrat jokes as she skillfully cracks open my cone after it’s sat in water for a few days.
“They have seeds! We got the miracle.” She half-seriously asks, “Did you pray these two days?”
I am feeling validated, but I am uncomprehending: How did they stay alive?
“A very slow metabolism,” says Dagher-Kharrat. “This is what characterizes plant seeds and spores. This is a miracle of life that humans and animals cannot do.”
Dagher-Kharrat picks the scales of the cone apart like an artichoke. “Touch it. Don’t be afraid.”
They resemble the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” or at least the part of the wings. Each gossamer, translucent brown “wing” holds a two-millimeter seed that looks like a tiny beak. They are slippery and firm.
Dagher-Kharrat cuts into a seed to reveal the whitest white inside the endosperm, the nutritive tissue. She cuts it again to put the embryo under the microscope.
“This wasn’t fertilized.”
Now I should pray, I think.
“I am still optimistic,” she says. She cuts into a second seed. Beside the white endosperm is the embryo, and there are the tiny but visible beginnings of what look like … a tree.
“Voilà! This is a baby cedar. Here is the root. And here are the leaves. Slept for 24 years.”
After conducting a “flotation test,” she pulls 34 seeds from the cone that just might grow into cedars. To get there, she says, what is needed next is to “kiss the sleeping beauties awake.” Scientifically, this means a standard protocol of 30 days of stratification: cycles of light and temperature that approximate the natural cycles of day and night in the mountains.
“Sometimes working in the environmental domain can be depressing,” says Dagher-Kharrat. “The cone opening in my hands gives me a power for 10 years,” she says referring to her own inner strength.
How Green is My Valley
Rising above Bsharri is Jabal al-Makmel with its 3,088-meter Qurnat as Sawda’ (Black Peak), the highest peak in the Levant. One legend says Noah planted a sacred tree here after the great flood: Was it symbolic atonement to replace the forest of cedar trees that built his ark? At the crest the stunning views of the Qadisha Valley below disappear, only to be replaced by a still more scenic splendor on the other side—the Bekaa Valley. I am riding with Charbel Tawk (no relation to Youssef), an agronomist and the former president of The Committee of Cedar Forests Friends. We plan to meet up with Nasser Shreif, field botanist and herbalist, at the Yamounneh Nature Reserve.
Allah a’ ma’ak,” Tawk greets Shreif colloquially. Shreif, rugged in an army fatigue jacket and fishing hat, has a growly voice and talks in chapters more than sentences. Tawk is sturdy and wordy himself. We’re surveying Shreif’s planting of cedars and other tree species at the top of a foothill of the Anti-Lebanon range amid wind gusts and intermittent, late-season rain. I look out below on the greenest of green agriculture carpeting most of the 10-square-kilometer Qadisha Valley. A dammed lake shimmers at one end.
“The first reserve in the world was here in Yamounneh,” says Shreif with a sweep of his hand. “There is a plaque not far away from here where [Roman Emperor] Hadrian obliged the people to conserve four local species: cedar, juniper, oak and pine. If Hadrian in the second century said that it should be a reserve, why not me, the son of the land here? Why don’t I do that? I worked hard with the government to name it as a reserve in 1998.”
Despite the Anti-Lebanon range not getting the Mediterranean sea breezes thought to be essential for a cedar forest, Shreif is determined to prove that the trees can adapt to warming temperatures and lower altitudes in this semiarid region. “It used to have a lot of cedars here, even near the desert,” says Shreif.
The two sons of the summit, from different sides of the mountain, talk robustly. “We are on the same wavelength, me and him,” says Tawk.
It’s soon apparent why Shreif is so excited to talk shop. He doesn’t have much help. He says he’s planting for his sons to find trees after 20 or 30 years, and he has to contend with goats “passing by eating seedlings.” Indeed, it’s hard to make out the future forest here.
Shreif calls us over to show a cedar seedling. “Two years ago I hid it here in the rocks. It will be a beautiful tree.”
The English Road
One look at the Arz Najib section of the planned Lazzab Danniyeh Nature Reserve, north of Bsharri, where cedars and junipers perch on Jurassic karst outcrops like park wardens, and you can’t help but start to silently count what else marks these hills: stumps.
Queen Victoria may have given the wall in Bsharri, but the British took their plunder too. During World War ii, they axed and sawed into forests so dense no one could walk inside them, say locals. The logs went to make “sleepers,” or ties, for the railroad along the coast. In their logging, indeed, they only matched the Ottomans, who a world war earlier razed trees along the way for the Hijaz Railway. The British left only a few trees with any age to them, usually in remote places where their network of rugged roads, called “the English Road,” could not reach.
But there is a story of triumph here as well. After the British left in 1942, nearby Quammoua villagers in Lebanon’s northern Akhar district started collecting money to pay people to guard the area so their forest could grow back. It was the first modern environmental action in Lebanon. They have ever since been stewards over the trees, and despite their own economic hardships, they have bought wood from another region, legally.
A goat’s bell tinkles, and a herder, Ahmad Hamza, introduces himself to the trio that drove me here: Shawki Khalad, one of the two park rangers for the 23-square-kilometer protected area, policeman Ahmad Yahya, and a representative from the Dunniyeh Union of Municipalities, Manor Obeid. Hamza walks up on one of the rough roads the British made for their pushcarts laden with tree trunks. The trio asks him his opinion of the plan to raise the protected status of the area. Hamza says his father is against it.
“Where would he go with his goats?” he asks. Add his herd to the 350,000 or so goats in Lebanon, many of which graze in forests—and feed omnivorously on seedlings of all types of trees. Yahya, Khalad and Obeid trade off on the young man for a full five minutes, assuring him that there would be grassland for his goats and that he has to respect the rules. “He cannot imagine the idea,” says Obeid.
Farther along our road, a more upscale economic intrusion threatens the cedars in an old-growth forest called Jered Njass, on the north face of Jabal al-Makmel. Today it hosts a subdivision in which large villas wrap themselves around centuries-old trees. Climbing up toward the peak, a road has plunged into the forest, which ends near the top, where the land has been cut clear to make way for a hotel-and-ski complex.
“The problem over there is just the goats. But here it is the human being,” says a downcast Khalad.
Shouf Biosphere Reserve
On the other end of the country, in the south, the sign in the Barouk Cedar Forest says I’m only a gaze away from immortality. It’s here that grows what is claimed to be the oldest cedar in Lebanon, aged more than 3,000 years; not far from it, clocking in at a reputed 2,000 years old, the very cedar that so inspired Alphonse de Lamartine’s panegyric.
Science, it turns out, tells a different story. The trees, says native son Ramzi Touchan of the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona, are nowhere near that old. The oldest is “precisely” from 1374 ce, he says, and it’s not in Barouk, but in the Bsharri forest. “Never saw any older than that, anywhere,” he continues. Some olive trees are much older. But he admits that the myths have played an important cultural role in helping save many from the axe.
Ecologist for the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, Khalid Sleem is, similarly, all pragmatism. “More important than finding old trees is the resilience of the forest as a whole. If the forest generates more trees, and if offspring have the ability to survive, then this is a positive story. Finding thousand-year-old trees is not as important as a resilient forest that can withstand the climate change we’re facing today.”
If Hadrian in the second century said that it should be a reserve, why not me, the son of the land here. Why don’t I do that?
“We don’t only want to conserve just the cedars,” Sleem explains. “Many trees, plants, fungi, microorganisms benefit from the existence of the others. The whole system is connected…. Remove one element of it, the whole chain breaks.”
He takes me into another forest, Masseur el Shouf, that is like a dreamscape growing out of the rough, calcareous rocks that were once an ocean floor. The lower parts of the trees show lichen colonization. It looks unhealthy, but this is a natural thing, says Sleem. Only a few seasons back, the cedar cones didn’t open up at all, he says. “We feared this could have become a habit and the natural regeneration of the seeds would not go on with climate change.”
The Shouf Biosphere Reserve is the largest such area in Lebanon. It comprises some five percent of the entire nation and is the most developed of the country’s protected areas. It includes three cedar forests as well as villages, and people receive assistance in finding and developing green jobs.
Draw Sleem out on climate changes, though, and he goes bleak.
“[The] adaptation of species with trees take time. Offspring adapt. It takes hundreds of years. Climate change will outpace the lifespan of the trees.”
But try he will.
To help jump-start adaptation, he says, “we plant species at the same altitude we get the seeds because they should be adapted to this level of conditions.”
And like a shadow of Sleem’s warning, the nearby slopes of the high mountain of Masseur el Shouf rise, denuded of trees, legend says, ever since Solomon had built his temple.
The Hard Work of Planting
I complete my circuit around Jabal al-Makmel below Qurnat as Sawda’, at the 2000-meter limit of the cedars, in the buffer zone just outside Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve. Spanish bloom, poppies and rosa canina dot the hillsides. It’s in this zone the reserve hopes to expand its forest, the most biodiverse in the Middle East, with one of the region’s most ambitious planting programs.
The Lebanese Reforestation Initiative (lri) is just one of the players here, with a yearly planting of 3,500 trees, almost all of them cedars. Founded in 2010, the lri’s expertise comes with help from abroad, mostly usaid and the us Forest Service. It is Lebanon’s largest player in long-term sustainable reforestation efforts. Abdo Nassar, 24, is as old as the cones I brought home and part of a new generation of tech-savvy, passionate and optimistic environmental workers who make the greening of Lebanon a life calling.
“We sculpt and weed a half meter to a meter around the trees to reduce water competition,” says Nassar as he inspects the work of a team of Syrian laborers doing follow-up maintenance for trees put in the ground in the last three years.
Cedars are planted in a scooped hole with a lip on the lower end that helps retain moisture. Each one costs about $23, whether it lives or not.
Cedars are planted in a scooped hole with a raised lip on the lower end. He explains that this creates a microclimate around the tree that retains moisture. “Instead of runoff on the lower side, water gathers here and filtrates into soil for the seedlings,” he says. This manner of planting also helps shade the seedlings as best as possible so they are not overly exposed to the sun.
Reforestation is both water and labor intensive. It is also expensive. The cost of the seedling, the transportation, the planting, the irrigation tanks and pipes, the multiple sculptings and waterings over the usual period of three years, come to about us $23 or more per tree—alive or dead, grown to maturity or eaten young by a goat. Because trees can be planted on depleted soil, survival rates can vary from as much as 90 percent to as low as 50 percent. With lri planting 100,000 a year, it’s a financial commitment. And risky. If international funding ceases, will the trees even survive without follow up care from ngos? The plantings at Horsh Ehden by both lri and others cover 10 square kilometers. For it to be called a forest, scientifically, it should take about 15 years.
“Different partners. Individual actions,” says Nassar, “collectively you see the results.”
From a squatting position, Nassar takes my hand to feel the earth around a year-old seedling. It’s still even smaller than one of my cones. “This is the upper soil. Very dry. Touch it.” Sure enough, it’s dry. He moves my hand again, around to the lower side. Moisture. “There’s water,” I say.
I leave Lebanon with the scientific buzz that the seeds of my cones being alive after so long prove the Cedrus libani is indeed “the immortal tree,” as Lebanese are fond of calling it.
But a couple months after my return come sobering Whatsapp messages from Dagher-Kharrat’s lab assistant, Anthony Roucas. Germination is taking longer, he says.
I contact the usda-Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation Seed Bank in Fort Collins, Colorado, for more advice. Christina Walters, research leader of Plant Germplasm Preservation Research, suggests changes in the protocols, but Dagher-Kharrat wants to stick with her own.
Later, Roucas tells me the bad news: The 24-year-old seeds did not germinate, he says, because of the long-time exposure to moisture. But they want to try again, with a slightly different protocol.
Walters advises caution. “With seeds of this value, I would probably not try germination assays without further insights,” she writes. She agrees to do tests to characterize the seeds, to check the rna integrity that is essential to germination. I mail one of two cones I retained to Fort Collins.
Three months later Walters reports news no better than Roucas’s with her cone. Though structurally intact, “(the seeds) are not viable,” she says.
The homecoming journey of my cones seems to have ended. But she adds that dna is “much more stable than rna, and so there is a high likelihood that it would be suitable for genetic studies even though the seeds are not viable.” It is still possible to compare populations from the past with current ones “to determine if there has been some shift.”
And there it is: this sleeping beauty may not wake, but she can speak.
Dagher-Kharrat agrees. “It is like discovering a very old handwritten parchment written in a language we ignore,” she says, adding that in vitro culture could yet be a solution to growing cedars out of them in the future, with more advanced technology.
For now, five cones remain at Jouzour Loubnan. “They were maltreated for 24 years. I will not give them any special treatment,” says Dagher-Kharrat. Scientists like to keep samples for potential, she says, adding that every 10 to 15 years techniques and technologies advance, so opening the cones can be stretched out for years to come.
Charbel Tawk, Khalid Sleem and Nasser Shreif all say they would like to try the challenge of planting a few seeds just to prove nurseryman mettle.
And the sixth cone, at home alone in its silver bowl, seems to be calling out to Nabil Nemer. He would like to have a look at it sometime to check for small exit holes from insects that may have flitted and burrowed in Bsharri when I made my first visit.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the aspiring king climbs the mountain of Lebanon to fell its hallowed cedars and thus “stamp [his] fame on men’s minds forever.” But first he must slay the forest’s supernatural watchman, which he does by summoning a scorching wind. Then he sets his axe to the lofty trees while his companion, Enkidu, rips out their roots. When the gods confront the pair, Enkidu is remorseful, but Gilgamesh boasts. In judgment, the gods literally turn the heat on them: “From henceforth may the fire be on your faces, may it eat the bread that you eat, may it drink where you drink.”
Nobody wants the first story of the cedars to become their epitaph.