Monthly Archives: June 2012

So summer is finally with us (with apologies to antipodean friends).

Exams are over, schools are out – or nearly so. Professional colleagues are taking a break, to hotter climes, or cooler, depending on their starting point. City dwellers are flocking to favorite get-away places. The blogosphere is awash with travel snaps and the anticipation of routines escaped, littered with “out of blog” notices. In short, wealthy first world northerners are indulging in their annual flight-fest.

Many seek the sun, flocking south “in their million hordes”. From the cold, the wet, the dark, drawn to the sunlight – moths to a flame. But all of us – lizards, lemmings or pale skinned lambs – seek the blessing of shade sooner or later. Parasols are good, gazebos are better, but deep down we all know that trees give the best shade. Perhaps something inside from the days before we left them…

Now I could bore you with wonderful facts and endless statistics about the shade and life giving wonders of trees. Of how the earth would be scorched and desolate without them, or why tree-shade is always cooler than concrete-shade. But I won’t. Not today, at least. Because you all know that some of life’s sweetest summer moments are spent in peaceful arboreal shade…

  • “People watching” in Southern European town squares under pollarded planes or luscious maples
  • Chilling in hot city parks while children chase frisbees and dogs chase children
  • Recovering behind Mediterranean beaches in the cool of stone pines and cypresses
  • Picnicking in flower strewn orchards, or by cool mountain streams
  • Strolling in the dappled shade of beech forests or the deep gloom of conifers
  • Exploring exotic flea markets in out of the way places
  • Sipping that first icy cocktail under a pergola in an Aegean taverna

Need I say more?

Here are some “postcards” old and new, to remind you of the shade giving blessing of trees. When you’re sipping that first icy cocktail, remember to say a silent “thank you” to those who planted your shade.

Lebanon, 2012

Dorchester, c1900

Adelaide, 2011

Cornwall, c1890

PS – thank you to Kim, for leading me to the wonders of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs on-line catalogue. If you haven’t been, go soon!


Saudi Arabia. Noon. Friday, 22June. 21.50° N, 39.18° E

Outside, the Streets of Jeddah are deserted. The devout are busy  – well – being devout. It would be 40 degrees C in the shade if there were any. Even the mad dogs are taking a break. Only the occasional Englishman, mandatory panama at a defiantly jaunty tilt, is strolling the intense Red Sea Corniche. From my window  I can see the world’s tallest fountain playing to an empty gallery.

I try to focus on the job in hand. Trees in Jeddah? Well, according to my pathetic last minute internet research there is only one tree in Jeddah – at the famous Bayt Nassif. It (the bayt, that is) was built, so my browser tells me, in the 1870s by a local worthy, Sheikh Umar Effendi al-Nassif, and was called “The House with the Tree” because it was the only house that had one. This seems strange. It’s as though palm trees – all 2600 species of them – were only invented in the twentieth century, or were late arrivers in Jeddah, a city dating back to 500BCE…

late arriver?

The AC unit hums, and my mind wanders. A neem tree?…Apparently the Scouts have planted 30,000 mangrove trees on a Jeddah beach…I wonder how much space 30,000 mangroves need, and whether they start life above or below the waterline…and will there be room left for the deck-chairs?

It’s not as though Saudi Arabia lacks trees. The Kingdom has 97 species, compared to just 39 British natives – trees, that is, not wanderers in Panama hats. But then again this country is the size of Western Europe (yes – truly: Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy combined). And Jeddah has many thousands of trees now – noticeably far more than arid Riyadh.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Whenever Muslims plant a tree, they will earn the reward of charity because of the food that comes from it; and likewise what is stolen from it, what the wild beasts eat out of it, what the birds eat out of it, and what people take from it is charity for them.”

And Jeddah’s devout – with Mecca just 50 or so miles up the road – have clearly been following his advice. But it lacks iconic trees: no London Planes or Beijing Ginkgos here, no Cedars of Lebanon or Jacarandas of Pretoria. No Ljubljana Locusts or Flame trees of Thika.

…A Neem tree? The oldest tree in Jeddah? Two minutes on the internet and I’ve uncovered a genus new to me (no.557 for me) and two new species, including the Neem , or Indian Lilac, just a few streets from the cool of my hotel room.

Azadirachta indica – a fast grower that can reach a height of 20 meters, sometimes over 30. In Swahili it’s known as “Muarubaini” – the tree of forty, said to treat 40 different diseases. Mosquitos, head lice and psoriasis all flee before it. A drought resistant wonder, a Bengali appetizer…


I grit my teeth, grab my camera and my battered panama…

Last week I visited the Cedars of God.

Lebanon is beautiful. As you approach by air from the South or East a thousand miles of desert fail to clamber over the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and into the Beqaa Valley. Suddenly the valley displays a patchwork of farmland which soothes the desert weary eye, and somewhere down there the ancient town of Baalbek preserves its Roman glory. As you pass beyond Beqaa and over the Lebanon Mountains, still snow streaked in early June, the wonders of Lebanon instantly unfold before you. North and North West from here, the huge Anatolian Plateau kept the ancients clinging to the coastline, and West stretches the vast Mediterranean. It’s easy to see why the Gods chose this wonderful place.

Driving North from Beirut two days later, we passed Byblos, which gave its name to the Bible, and eventually struck East into the Wadi Qadisha (Aramaic for Holy), which Christians call the Valley Qannoubine. Past monasteries clinging to the hillside, and glimpsing the summer residence of the Maronite Partiarch, we climbed for 35 kilometres towards the source of the Nahr Qadisha (Holy River), and finally to Bsharry, hometown of the mystic, Khalil Gibran.

Beyond Bsharry the mountains reach 5000 ft, and here – defiantly penned just below the treeline – the Cedars of God are making their last stand against 6000 years of abuse which began when Gligamesh slew the forest protector, Humbaba. Sellers of cedar curios have set up their stalls to harvest the passing dollars and lebanese pounds.

Cedar sellers of Bsharry

The first problem for the Cedar was that it was just too perfect – truly a gift from the Gods.  Cedars need 200 years to reach maturity, and may live for 1500 years or more. This slow growth guarantees a fine grain and a wonderful wood which resists the action of water and emits a lovely scent which is a useful moth repellant (and can reputedly last for centuries). Furniture makers, boat builders and architects all loved it. The second challenge for Cedrus libani was its central location between deserts and oceans at the crossroads of ancient civilisations.

Civilisations will wax and wane, but an exploitation once learned is not forgotten. After Gilgamesh and the Sumerians quit the scene the Pharoahs came knocking at Phoenician doors (I guess they sent their agents) in search of imports for their boat building, and later annexed the region to secure their supply. They used the resin for mummification, and left cedar sawdust in Egyptian tombs. Meanwhile the Phoenicians, with their export business booming, needed cedar boats for their imperial antics across the Mediterranean, and soon their neighbour, King Solomon, was also busy building his famous Temple.

From the first book of Kings:

So Solomon built the house, and finished it. He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar; from the floor of the house to the rafters of the ceiling, he covered them on the inside with wood; and he covered the floor of the house with boards of cypress. He built twenty cubits of the rear of the house with boards of cedar from the floor to the rafters, and he built this within as an inner sanctuary, as the most holy place. The house, that is, the nave in front of the inner sanctuary, was forty cubits long. The cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and open flowers; all was cedar, no stone was seen.

Jewish priests were ordered by Moses to use the bark in circumcision and for the treatment of leprosy and Jews burnt  cedar wood on the Mount of Olives to announce the beginning of each new year.

And then their were Greeks of course, and later Romans, and many others no doubt that my incomplete history has overlooked…

And as though this were not enough, after the Ottoman Turks built their Hijaz railway (which Lawrence of Arabia later helped to destroy)  they deforested all the cedar growing areas within easy transport distance of the railway to provide fuel for their wood-burning engines. Only the highest and most remote groves escaped damage, thankfully including Bsharry’s Cedars of God.

And so today the Cedars huddle against the tree line – last survivors of possibly the oldest example of organized eco-destruction. Few they may be, but they are truly the Cedars of God.

Hope for the future