In early spring of 2000, the year I’d first gone looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker, I went birdwatching in Israel. I had been to Israel before—to study biblical Hebrew, to visit relatives, to work on a kibbutz. Once, in college, I’d even won a fellowship to follow in the footsteps of Herman Melville, who visited the Holy Land in 1857. But I had never gone to look for birds.
My guide for my first day of birding in Israel was an ornithologist from Tel Aviv University, Yossi Leshem. A tall, stooped, open-faced man of about fifty, Leshem is the king of Israeli birding, an international ambassador of the pursuit, with an easy smile that is half a squint, as if he’s looked up so long he expects to see the sun. When we first met, at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory in the early morning, I was surprised to discover, on top of his wild but wispy hair, a small knitted kippa. He is an observant Jew and covers his head, contradicting my preconceived prejudice that the Orthodox don’t birdwatch. (Leshem was raised in a secular family of Holocaust survivors and didn’t become observant until the age of eleven, so he doesn’t completely challenge the theory.) I felt the strange excitement I always do around religious scientists, a promise of harmony that birding itself holds out.
He likes to quote biblical or rabbinic passages associated with the bird he is discussing, and prefaced a chapter about migration in one of his books with a verse from Proverbs:
There be three things which are too wonderful for me,
Indeed, four which I know not:
The way of a vulture in the sky;
The way of a serpent upon a rock;
The way of a ship in the midst of the sea;
And the way of a man with a young woman.
Leshem and I quickly left Jerusalem and were soon driving through the Judean desert and up the “Rift Road,” which mirrors the migratory route of the birds. The mountains of Moab, which are in Jordan, were off to our right; to our left were the Judean Mountains. The heat that rises from the earth and bounces off these mountain walls creates the thermal highway that soaring birds ride, expending a minimum of their own energy.
The West Bank, which we drove through, had become intensely dangerous in the winter of 2001 when I was there—there had been a number of shootings on the road, though I found Leshem’s driving as frightening as the specter of an attack. He is a frenetic talker and was whirling with bird-related plans: he helped create a festival of the cranes at a holistic spa near the Huleh Valley. He got a local winery to bottle Lesser Kestrel wine, with a picture of the endangered raptor on the label. Lufthansa, which has a crane as its motto, was supporting his website for tracking migrating birds. He’d been trying to interest the Palestinian Authority in a joint ecotourism venture (which, given the political collapse of winter had stalled indefinitely). Meanwhile, he was raising money for his international birding center at Latrun—the auditorium was not yet completed, did I know any donors?
All the while, Leshem kept interrupting himself to answer his constantly ringing cell phone, placing calls of his own to arrange a birding trip for me to Eilat and scrunching down behind the steering wheel whenever we passed a police car, since it is illegal to talk on the phone while driving in Israel. Leshem not only managed to do both, he was able to turn away from the road so that he could rummage in the backseat for a picture of himself and the Palestinian Minister of the Environment releasing a banded bird together in 1998, find a video about bird strikes and the air force (an area Leshem has pioneered), or snag me a loose bottle of Lesser Kestrel wine that was rolling free. Occasionally, he slammed on the brakes so we could get out to see a Barbary falcon or honey buzzard migrating overhead.
Our first stop was a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, Kfar Rupin, that, because of its fishponds, attracts splendid waterfowl. A few years earlier, the kibbutz had decided to put some money into guided bird tours, though, because of the violence, I was the only tourist. It happens that I had been a volunteer for a summer at Kfar Rupin eighteen years earlier, when I was a sophomore in college. The kibbutz was then selling sod and I would wake up at 4:00 a.m. to work in the grass fields. I still remember being in the field at dawn—the date palms along the horizon like feather dusters in the pink light; the squares of sod rolled up into my hands along the conveyor-belt ramp built into the tractor. The grass was cool, but when you dug your fingers in, the clinging dirt was warm, like the pelt of an animal, as if the earth had been skinned.
I had no idea at the time how irrelevant kibbutz life had become to Israeli society, but I might have guessed, since most of the other volunteers were drifting European kids, stopping off in Israel to catch up on their sleep and nutrition on their way back from Thailand. The pastoral dream still matters to the country—just as the Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman farmers still lingers in America—but it is a high-tech, urban country. I used to rumble out to the fields each morning in the back of a truck with a tattooed skinhead and a punk rocker who looked like a skinhead because the kibbutz had forced him to shave his green Mohawk. The only other Jewish volunteer was a dark-haired young woman from France who filled me with bashful longing. She wore her name in Hebrew around her neck and was rumored by the end of the summer to have given a volunteer from Ireland syphilis.
That summer I had no interest in birds. I spent a lot of time staring at the Gilboa Mountains, where my biblical namesake fell in battle fighting the Philistines alongside his father, the deposed King Saul. This time, however, I was delighted to see rare pygmy cormorants, all three of Israel’s beautiful kingfishers, and a flock of black storks—only 30,000 pass through the country each year, compared to some 500,000 white storks. The white storks were there in abundance, too, gliding endlessly overhead. There was something deeply soothing in the ancient patterns whirling above so much chaos. The stork still knows his appointed time.
From the Jordan Valley we drove to the Golan Heights, where I saw griffon vultures flying over the ruins of Gamla, a Jewish city in the time of Joshua and, in 66 c.e., the site of an ill-fated revolt against the Romans. I very much wanted to see a lammergeier, or bearded vulture, an enormous bird nearly four feet in length with a wingspan of eight or nine feet, which Tristram describes soaring back and forth in front of his camp, dropping turtles and snakes from a great height onto the rocks below. The practice earned it the Latin name ossifrage, which means “bone breaker.” Henry Baker Tristram, an Anglican priest and a great naturalist, who spent many years exploring Palestine in the 19th century, observed lammergeiers and speculated that it was a lammergier that had killed Aeschylus by dropping a tortoise on him, mistaking the playwright’s bald head for a rock and causing the only instance of death by tortoise in literary history—though perhaps it is the bird who should be held accountable.
But there aren’t any lammergeiers in Israel anymore, though there were in the early years of the state. Yossi Leshem informed me that Shimon Peres was out walking with Heinrich Mendelssohn, the father of Israeli ornithology—Mendelssohn often led “nature walks” that doubled as reconnaissance missions—when he looked up and saw a great bird with huge wings soaring above him and decided on the spot to take the Hebrew name for the bird, peres, substituting it for Perske in the manner of many Israelis who forsook their European names as if they were slave names and gave themselves new heroic, nature-born Hebrew ones. Peres, like ossifrage, means “the breaker.”
Here is the paradox of the modern relationship to nature in a nutshell—the natural world gave the founders of Israel their inspiration and allowed them to create a modern country that at once, in the manner of modern countries, imperiled the natural world that had originally inspired them. Leshem told me that he tried to get Peres to pose for a photograph with his avian doppelgänger—Leshem would like to raise awareness of the bird, which is still an occasional visitor—but it was an election year and Peres’s aides dissuaded him when they realized it was in fact a vulture that scavenged dead creatures.
From the Golan, Leshem drove me to the Huleh Valley, near the shrunken remains of the once great Huleh Lake and the swamp that surrounded it. If there is an environmental symbol of the way the founding myths of early Zionism have been turned on their head, it is the Huleh Lake, which was drained in 1953. This body of water and the swamp connected to it were identified in the Bible as the “waters of Merom.” Tristram visited the area and describes it as “an impenetrable swamp of unknown depth, whence the seething vapour, under the rays of an almost tropcial sun, is constantly ascending into the upper atmosphere during the day.” He puts the dimensions of the “morass” at four miles by eight miles, “one mass of floating papyrus and reeds, on which it is impossible to find a footing, and through and under which the Jordan works its way to the open water.”
As in Louisiana, where, just a few months earlier, I had been looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker, the needs of the swamp and the needs of the modern world alongside the swamp did not overlap—at least not at that moment in Israel’s precarious founding, when every inch of land was contested and needed. Draining the Huleh was one of the most ambitious public-works projects to date in Israel and in accord with the ethos of making the desert bloom and the swamps dry; it was also an astonishing act of habitat destruction that eliminated a stopover for thousands of migratory birds and led to the extinction of plant and animal species found only there. As the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
When I was young I believed with all my heart
the Huleh swamp had to be drained.
Then all the bright-colored birds fled for their lives.
Now half a century later they are filling it with water again
because it was all a mistake. Perhaps my entire life
I’ve been living a mistake.
The draining of the Huleh swamp galvanized a nascent environmental movement that morphed into the Society for the Protection of Nature; in recent years, the society has led efforts to reflood a few areas around the lake in the hope of drawing back the millions of migrating birds that spent the winter in the area.
Contemporary Israel was a five-year-old country when it drained the Huleh swamp and imposed a modern vision on a land that was always threatening to undo what was done to it. The accelerated pace of a country formed in a post-industrial age gives it an almost allegorical quality—it took America in its expanding vastness longer to achieve what is made so emblematic in the story of the Huleh swamp. In the Israeli novel The Blue Mountain, an ironic but affectionate portrait of Israel’s landloving, land-subduing founders, Meir Shalev writes that “beneath the checkered carpet of plowed field, stubble, and orchard, waiting for the first signs of Doubt, growled the most legendary beast of all, the great swamp imprisoned by the founders.”
Today, preservation of the remnant scrap of swamp, and a more recent program to plant peanuts and corn in neighboring fields, have coaxed back five thousand cranes who now winter in what’s left of the Huleh Lake. It was to see these birds, along with the flocks of black kites that gather at dusk, that Leshem and I traveled to the Huleh. It is not the great swarm of birds the swamp once drew, but then birders in every place must get used to asking “what to make of a diminished thing.”
The cranes were not where they were supposed to be, and as Leshem and I chased them by car from field to field, I thought about my aunt, long dead, who helped found a kibbutz just a few miles away on the banks of the Jordan River, which had fed the swamp. I thought of the beautiful eucalyptus tree my aunt planted, a great thirsty anchor on the bank of the narrow Jordan, and felt a pang. It was hard to suppress a melancholy qualm that the country had turned out so different from the dreams of those early Zionists, and that kibbutz life itself, so utopian in its origins, was passing away. Death is always the flip side of evolution—if someday we evolve as a species, it will entail mourning the selves we now are. How much easier it must have been to live in a world of static species and fixed beliefs.
At last we found our cranes, not on the ground, but in the air, where they were reeling off into the darkening sky, long necks stretched out in flight, black-fingered wings gripping the air, legs hanging straight out behind, suggesting crucified bodies. There were hundreds of giant birds, a magnificent sight.
Jonathan Rosen is the editor of the NextBook Press Jewish Encounters book series.