Monday, April 7, 2014

The High Gardens of Lebanon: Jabal Moussa Biosphere Reserve




              An hour in, an hour out. It’s a warm day on a mountain trail, and we are perspiring. Only the very beginning is steep, but we are climbing as we enter the official border of the Jabal Moussa Biosphere Reserve, an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon. We have passed, and declined, the Roman Steps. The wind blows like a New England northeaster at the crossroads of the Roman way and the Biosphere ascent. We are at a pass through the mountains, so nothing blocks the wind from the ocean to the interior highlands. Ten steps farther in, and the wind disappears. We begin to feel the power of the April sun and the burn of the climb.
           Happily, our guide likes to pause and talk, rather a lot, and quite frequently at the start. We learn there are protected local native species in the reserve. We learn there are animals. The hyrax (I keep thinking thorax), that turns out to be shrewish, mousey figure. More interesting are the wolves, all three of them. Slightly appalling is the reference to the lion, I mean hyena, bad enough, though a mere carrion eater, we are told. The wolves avoid people. That’s good because people prefer to avoid wolves.
                We have already passed through amazing country to get to this point. Steep hillsides; think driving through the Rockies or coastal Route One in California. The requisite hairpin turns. You honk your horn and wind around. Lebanese stone villas built on the top of mountainsides, brand new, out of sight of all other human habitation. Prospects of vast hillsides alternately terraced for farming (olives I learn) and torn up by quarrying. Open wounds of geology, the vertical striations of stone exposing the skeletons of the mountains. Gravel and sandy yellow earth piling up below. The stone looks like a local limestone, light graphite gray or yellowish sandstone.
                Up in the mountain, the undisturbed geology of the gray stone, lacy and eroded into bizarre shapes, with holes weather-poked through the surfaces, twisted and pointy edges, jagged dreamlike shapes. Gaudi-esque. The outcroppings look sawn or carved by the hand of man.
                The guide, Johnny (all Lebanese guides are called Johnny), points out the local trees, a handsome fully leafed juniper that doesn’t look a lot like most of its northern cousins. Oaks that hold their leaves. I realize only later, reading the brochure that this is a kind of live oak, such as we saw in Florida last year (quercus calliprinos). He points out a rare flower, this one has its own little botanical plaque, and has obliged by blooming beautiful blowsy pink-red blossoms. A native, rare peony.
                Then Johnny comes to Hadrian, the second century Roman emperor, famous for Hadrian’s Wall built across the northern half of the Britain in a vain attempt to keep out the barbarians (i.e. Scots). Hadrian liked to visit the provinces and when he came to Lebanon designated four kinds of trees as “reserved” for his own private use. This is “now regarded” according to the Reserve as an early attempt of forest management, though clearly it was an effort to preserve resources valuable to the Roman Empire. One was the juniper, whose oily, waterproof inside made it good for the planking of hulls on ships. Hadrian’s decree forbade the cutting of any of these trees, creating a necessity among the locals to know their trees.
                They almost certainly did since people lived in these mountains, and we visited one of their wells, a deep basin under a rocky floor where the freshwater gathered. They used it for agriculture, small plots planted in open areas between peaks and cliffs. And for their animals: We saw a stone trough built a few steps away from the well.
                We took lots of photos. The terraced mountain sides. Some sheep. Vertical perspectives. A little long-tailed gray lizard, walking on the faces of rocky walls, his khaki-colored skin a touch darker than the gray walls. High above a covey of great-winged falcons circled.
                At the end of the hike, looking for the restrooms, the only public ones within narrow miles of mountain roads, we find the roofed picnic-space terrace where a bus trip of Lebanese hikers, with children, are picnicking on great platters of veggie crudities and local fruits. A barely teen boy carries a large drum into the midst of the tables and begins to beat a rhythm. The adults join in clapping, and eventually a wide-hipped middle-aged woman gets up to dance the folk style,hands up to one side, hands up to the other side dance you see at weddings. I watch; the classic outsider.
                We are all in the embrace of these wonderful mountains.