Dem dry bones

Ezekiel, Gilgamesh, Plato and Richard Coen on ancient deforestation.


In Sunday’s C of E lectionary, Ezekiel sees cedar trees like this in Israel (KJV):

17:22 Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent:

17:23 In the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell.

God’s silviculture here is peculiar.

You can’t grow a cedar from a cutting, any more than a cut Christmas tree will grow on in your garden. It’s just possible that Ezekiel and his auditors knew this (though God can perform miracles); however, the natural reading is that he didn’t. Ezekiel was born in Judaea, but went into exile in Babylonia with King Jehoiachin. The trees available in either place were either palms (which only grow from seeds) or fruit trees – olives, apricots – which can reproduce from cuttings, though apparently carob trees can’t. Nowadays you can reproduce many conifers by tissue culture , but that’s a very recent invention.

It seems likely that Ezekiel (writing from 592 to 570 BCE) and his audience had never seen a forest of cedars; probably any forest.

Deforestation in the Near East started long before the time of Ezekiel. Richard Cowen of UC Davis tells the story here. It’s a working draft for a chapter in a promising book, so I’ll only lift two standard references from him.

In the world’s oldest book, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2000 BCE), the heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu go on a destructive logging expedition to Anatolia. Finding the cedars with difficulty – already! – (vs 61), they slay the protective deity/monster Humbaba, fell the best trees, and raft them down the Euphrates. Princes like Gilgamesh and Solomon needed timber for prestige buildings, but the real damage was done by inefficient charcoal smelting on a huge scale.

150 years later, Plato showed a melancholy understanding of the changes in the Critias:

In comparison of what then was, there are remaining [in Attica] only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left. But in the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, as they are termed by us, of Phelleus were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle.

The typical Mediterranean mountain landscape left by Bronze and Iron Age asset-stripping is denuded to Plato’s skeleton. This is the Sierra de Alhama, SW from Granada, but it could be anywhere.


Old forests are rare in the region – the Trodos forest in Cyprus was saved by a combination of conservative monkish landowners and a British colonial ban on goats; those of inland Sardinia by remoteness. The cedars of Lebanon are reduced to a few small stands.

Reafforestation in these conditions is painful and expensive; I’ve seen freshly dynamited terraces in Cyprus.

A word you don’t hear much in the climate change debate is hysteresis. Going back on a big environmental change is very hard work; it may be impossible.


Note: the copyright in the cedar photo lies with this tourism promotion site, but I don’t suppose they mind the free advertising.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

9 thoughts on “Dem dry bones”

  1. The Earth will still be here long after Man is but a memory. The question is not whether we will change the environment/climate/whatever, but how, and inadvertently or on purpose.

  2. Vaxalon: In a temperate climate, and with low relief as in most of NW Europe and the Eastern USA, the soil didn't wash off and the forest regrows given a chance. New England woods are all second-growth. mostly self-sown. In the Med it's too late. No, it's not a universal that environmental changes are irreversible (except for species extinction); but where we don't understand the risks, they may be.

  3. Oddly enough, cedars are growing as weeds on the hills of Missouri. Forest and prairie restoration people [1] are logging them like crazy.
    [1] "Restore to what?", I always ask. The answer is always, to the way it looked in 1600. Why that year? No good answer, particularly as it is clear that the Indians of the southcentral midwest (North America) had been forcing ecological changes for thousands of years before the white man arrived.

  4. I come to this blog for a reason, and it's the advanced thought process I find here. Thank you all.
    Even if you could propagate the cedars, you'd have to restore the soil that has been washed away, then replant the understory flora, then bring the mycorrhizal fungae back to have a decent chance at reforestation. This system, in a difficult Meditteranean climate and ecosystem, has been changed for far too long to hope for any sort of regeneration in our – or our grandchildren's – lifetimes.

  5. We Lutherans had the same reading from Ezekiel today, though I'm too horticulturally illiterate for the cedars passage to ring any alarms.
    I noticed the pastor reading the lesson from a large book, a "lectionary" I suppose, and meant to ask if the same lessons were read every year ("2d Sunday after Pentecost = Ezekiel on cedars"), or if a new lectionary was issued annually. And by whom? Which churches are "on the same page"?

  6. A lectionary is a list of recommended readings, not the Bible they are read from. I believe the Church of England operates a two-year cycle or readings, and that the lectionary is no more standardised across the fraying Anglican communion than other parts of the liturgy. It's good to hear that the experts from different denominations compare notes. A lot of the choices for inclusion and exclusion are obvious; but churches don't go through the whole thing from A to Z the way synagogues do with the Torah, so it's easier for Christians to avoid the troubling bits.

  7. Thanks, James. There must be a consortium of churches that use the same readings–my dad's Presbyterian (PCUSA) church had the same insert as we did one Sunday. And my pastor sure seemed to be reading from a non-Bible with just the daily passages in it–must ask him about that.

  8. > This system, in a difficult Meditteranean
    > climate and ecosystem, has been changed for
    > far too long to hope for any sort of
    > regeneration in our – or our grandchildren's –
    > lifetimes.
    No doubt true, but at the same time you have to start somewhere. IIRC the zionists began the process around 1900 in Palestine and are now having some success.

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