When you hear Lebanon, you think cedars. The tree is featured on the Lebanese flag, the cedar forests of Lebanon are mentioned in Gilgamesh — which is the oldest known written story — and any two-bit Beirut tourist shop will have trinkets supposedly carved from cedars. Which is why it is astonishing to see just how few are left. (At least in the main preserve, which is the one I visited. Apparently there is a secondary one in the Chouf that is quite a bit more extensive.)
In the reserve in Mount Lebanon, the cedars are confined to a few acres on a broad, denuded plateau at about 8000 feet. The winding road that takes you to them — with the anticipation mounting all the while — goes straight up from the sea through fantastic villages perched on the sides of chasms whose bottoms lie in shadow. You pass the village of Khalil Gibran — the famous poet who wrote The Prophet, a popular feature at 70s weddings — and churches built improbably on precipices. Bare mountain summits tug on shreds of mist. You’re almost there as the car climbs up through a final ravine…
Suddenly, the car passes through a 30 meter stretch of crammed stalls selling cedar-related tourist goods, and a few stately cedars begin to pop up on your right. Man, you must really be getting close to the forest!
But then you pull out into a treeless plain and there’s nothing in front of you except a bare mountainside with a lonely ski lift floppily hanging to it. Those few stately cedars were the forest. And barring a somewhat spotty attempt at replanting on the road to the entrance of the preserve, all the old trees have been cut down, literally to the edge of the stone wall surrounding the preserve. Inside, there are just enough trees — and some of them truly are sacred, thousand-year-old grandfathers that instill a lot of awe — that you can briefly be tricked into thinking you are inside a forest.
From a vantage point high on the mountain ridge above, however — where I drove afterward — the magnitude of the deforestation is clear. The cedars look like someone’s garden, perched on the lip of a high basin that must have once cradled a mighty forest that seemed inexhaustible to its early harvesters. The deforestation is probably a problem that dates back to ancient times, because there is very little evidence of stumps or the former forest. But based on the topography and climate, and my experience with clear-cuts in North America, it seems pretty clear that the forest was as large as I imagine (though I’d like to get a scientific confirmation).
It is a pitiful sight and one representative of Lebanon in general — so much has been taken from this country’s glory. Only a tiny glimmer remains, just like these cedars. Perhaps it is just barely enough to produce seeds, which if carefully protected could produce another forest of beautiful Lebanese cedars one day. Then again, the grove is also so small that a single catastrophe could easily wipe it out.
The sight of this grove also made me thankful for the systems of public land protection we have in the United States, something we need to continue to protect. We are extremely lucky to have as many national forests, parks, monuments and wilderness areas as we do. Let’s not take it for granted.