Take a break from Israel's wartime tension with Jerusalem nature spots

A breath of – relatively – fresh air in one of Jerusalem’s many green lungs could help to slow the heartbeat and help us reconnect with the vibrant life force of Mother Nature.

 WILDLIFE GRAZES peacefully in a visitor-less Gazelle Valley (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
WILDLIFE GRAZES peacefully in a visitor-less Gazelle Valley
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)

What to do about all this tension?

Yes, we need to have some idea of what’s going on when our very existence appears to be in danger when horrific attacks have been unleashed against hundreds of innocent civilians. This is clearly a dire passage in this country’s time line. But we also need some respite from the pervading sense of doom and gloom, the round-the-clock news bulletins, and the relentless feeling of apprehension and anxiety.

We are all concerned, but the plain fact of the matter is we need to keep our strength up, too. Tough times call for tough measures, but we are not going to be much use to anyone if we wear ourselves down with worry.

If you have been out and about at all since the start of the murderous attack by Hamas on Saturday, you will have encountered sparsely populated streets and public spaces, let alone the light traffic. People in general are wary of venturing out of their homes, unless it is a quick foray to purchase necessities or a dash for the neighborhood bomb shelter.

But a breath of – relatively – fresh air in one of Jerusalem’s many green lungs could help to slow the heartbeat and help us reconnect with the vibrant life force of Mother Nature.

Jerusalem's best nature spots

When I popped over to Gazelle Valley earlier this week, there was nary a soul to be seen across the expanses of the 260- dunam nature reserve. Actually, there were quite a few souls in evidence, but all of the charming titular four-legged species.

 THE MILLENNIUM-AND-A-HALF-PLUS-OLD Eastern Orthodox monastery provides a reassuring stable presence in Emek Hamatzleva. (credit: BARRY DAVIS)
THE MILLENNIUM-AND-A-HALF-PLUS-OLD Eastern Orthodox monastery provides a reassuring stable presence in Emek Hamatzleva. (credit: BARRY DAVIS)

With human presence at its lowest there since the dreaded pandemic lockdowns, the gazelles felt confident to stretch their spindly yet sturdy legs and nip out of their safe base nestling behind the forest of the dense towering vegetation. Then again, as soon as they caught sight of me within 30 or 40 meters, they scampered off, gamboling effortlessly in their singular undulating gallop. Still, seeing a couple of dozen gazelles insouciantly munching away against the urban backdrop of the normally teeming Pat Junction and the foreboding presence of the Holyland residential complex was a sight for sore eyes.

And, despite greenery being at a premium at the reserve at this time of year, it was enjoyable and relaxing to follow the Orchard Trail and take a close look at the remains of an ancient orchard and far younger trees, with the promise of rejuvenating rain just over the horizon. In truth, the site looks a little worse for the hot summer wear, but it still retains an ambience of tranquility amid the din of the traffic hurtling by along Herzog Street and Begin Boulevard.

Emek Hamatzleva (Valley of the Cross) is always a good bet for a bit of a bucolic break from the rat race, and anything else that may be detrimental to our spiritual and physical well-being. In years gone by, after the first post-summer rains, we have picked olives swelled by the precipitation and tried our hand, with varying degrees of success, at pickling them. Most of the fruit around the monastery perimeter was plucked a while ago, but there was still enough to fill a couple of jars at home.

There is something magical about the rolling spread of nature which retains more than a semblance of verdancy all year round. Perhaps it is the reassuring continued presence of the Eastern Orthodox monastery which, it is believed, has been around since the fourth century CE.

The Greek Christian institution has seen it all and weathered it all, initially as a basilica.

The Muslim rulers of the region came and went, followed by the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and the British. The beauty of the timeworn architecture and the location was lauded by 17th-century English clergyman Henry Maundrell, who noted that: “A Convent of the Greeks, taking its name from the Holy Cross. This convent is very neat in its structure and in its situation delightful.”

You still get that sense of accrued history today as Mother Nature’s treasures continue to sprout and flourish in sprawling, seemingly untouched order. There are cozy hideaways betwixt the arboreal fixtures, benches for sitting and ruminating, and open spaces where, should the mood take you, one can indulge in a game of, say, Frisbee, or tuck into a pastoral repast.

And there is the simple pure joy of treading barefoot across the herbage or – imagine that – hugging a tree! In these uncertain times, getting up close to a silent, solid, stable, sentinel-like trunk can do wonders for your state of mind.

Naturally, there is always the concern that you might be caught mid-meadow by a siren. That actually happened to us, but we found refuge in the Scouts base, sharing the reinforced innards of the building with a bunch of boisterous teenagers happily crammed into the secure area. Thankfully, we soon got the all-clear.

THERE ARE green spots of all types and sizes across the city. The Liberty Bell Park is not one of the more diminutive, but it imparts a sense of intimacy between the unfettered sections, with its wisteria-festooned outdoor arcade which is a heady joy to the eyes and nostrils at springtime.

The place seemed to be totally deserted when I dropped by, adjoining playground included. Then I heard raucous cries of delight, mixed with thudding sounds, coming from not too far away. I made my way across a sodden lawn – the sprinklers had been doing overtime – and found the concrete skateboard-scooter enclosure. There were half a dozen boys speeding in one direction or t’other on their scooters, while a skateboarder quenched his hard-earned thirst at the cooler.

I assumed the bearded gent standing near one of the runways was an instructor. When I got a closer look, I saw he was clad in Air Force pants and army boots. “Yes, I’ve been mobilized,” Moshe responded to my query about his garb. “No, I’m not an instructor,” was the answer to my second question.

“My kid was going crazy at home, so we came here so he could let off some steam and have some fun.” Not a bad idea. The “kid” was clearly having a good time, along with others at various stages of their childhood youth as they trundled to my left before revving up and trying to gain sufficient momentum to make up the 45-degree incline at the other end and, possibly, get some acrobatics in. It all seemed so wonderfully “normal” and life-affirming.

MEANWHILE, OVER at Independence Park, the generously proportioned lawns, slap bang in the center of town, were understandably not exactly packed with picnickers, children climbing trees, youngsters playing soccer or Frisbee, or folk out with their canine best pals. In fact, there was an Italian monk settled on a bench talking on the phone, with his dog camped behind and, curiously, a cat close by.

Presumably the clergyman had decided it was time for the mutt to have a constitutional and, no doubt, let off something besides steam. Otherwise, there was just the solitary figure of a man, who looked to be in the senior citizen age group, ambling his way down the lush verdant slope toward Agron Street, named after The Jerusalem Post founder Gershon Agron.

While the park looked inviting as dusk approached, the tension in the air was palpable as locals flitted in and out of the supermarket on the corner of King George Street and the odd vehicle made their way up and down Agron Street. But, as I ventured further into the heart of the park, the hubbub of the, albeit pared-back, downtown dynamics gradually dimmed, and the serenity of nature just going about its perpetual business took over.

And, yes, I indulged in a bit of tree-hugging. And, why not? It takes little time, you don’t need anyone else or any accessories for the activity, and – at least for now, it’s free. There is also evidence that trees communicate with each other, so perhaps they can absorb some of our vibes and relay some goodwill back to us.

One thing is for sure – trees are not violent and do little harm; that is, if they aren’t blown over by some venomous gust of wind or don’t send out roots that undermine your fence or domestic pathway paving stones. And they are vital for the quality of the air we breathe; indeed, our very continued existence on terra firma. That’s besides providing us with welcome shade from the merciless Middle Eastern summer and, often, autumn sun.

IF YOU like a drive, bus journey, or lengthy traipse from any of the aforementioned public parks, you may want to avail yourself of one of the many neighborhood community parks dotted around the city. Community parks come all in all shapes and sizes and are a veritable boon for any gardenless city dweller looking for a taste of a more outdoor and greener life.

The jewel in the local resident-initiated and maintained network of flora is the Brody Community Garden – actually, it is defined as a bustan, or orchard, which attests to the proliferation of fruit trees devotedly tended by volunteers living in the vicinity.

The garden is neatly, and easily accessible, located betwixt Hapalmach Street and Harav Berlin Street on the interface between Rehavia and Old Katamon. You can bring your moldy fruit and veg there to add to the composters or just ensconce yourself on one of the benches there and view the foliage of the citrus, almond, and willow trees, flowers, vegetables, and herbs while you soak up the tranquil ambience. There is also a glass-fronted cabinet crammed full with books in English and Hebrew for your perusal. All good, spiritual and respiratory invigorating stuff.

The community garden behind Shimoni Street near Nayot is also a haven of peace, and the Wohl Rose Park, just a stone’s throw away from the Knesset where, one presumes, our leaders are putting in extra hours to try to resolve the current security situation, offers lush grassy areas, a rippling pond, and, naturally, rose beds with good air, pleasing aesthetics and a lookout to the city beyond.

Of course, there are also the capacious grounds of Sacher Park with its lawns, play facilities for kids, cycle and running paths, and shady spots that wend their way down to Emek Hamatzleva.

And, if you live in the area of Kiryat Hayovel, Givat Shaul, or Har Nof, the Jerusalem Forest is right there to be walked, explored, and enjoyed.

So, let’s do ourselves a favor and try to keep an even emotional keel while we do our best to weather the storm, and spread some goodwill and compassion. ❖