Within a few years, the fields around an environmental youth village to the north of Tel Aviv will be turned into residential projects. Ecologist Roni Shushan is clinging to the last bits of untouched land.
By Moshe Gilad | Feb.25, 2013

The enthusiasm of Roni Shushan, chief ecologist of Hakfar Hayarok, is contagious. We are hiking in the open area to the west of this veteran boarding school, which now calls itself a “youth village for environmental leadership.” Shushan is quick to smile and, well, he’s just quick. One minute he is speaking with me quietly, demonstrating a deep knowledge of botany and zoology, the next, he is deep in mud, showing a group of 7th-graders ranged around the edge of a winter pool how to hold their nets to catch tadpoles, how to collect them and how to return the tiny crabs caught in the net back to the water. The students snap to life when Shushan arrives, and after a few minutes they share his enthusiasm for the aquatic life in the pool.

The pond is an artificial one, created to provide “local nature.” The flowers in a nearby field were planted by students at Hakfar Hayarok to promote the growth of wildflowers in the area. Shushan, this school and a few environmental organizations are engaged in an intensive effort to restore this region’s original flora and fauna. Now, at the peak of flower season, one can see here how much of Israel’s coastal Sharon plain once looked, how the red clay soil appeared before people covered it with lawns, parking lots and high-rises.

The apartment towers of the nearby northern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv Gimmel loom, clearly visible. Urban sprawl is spreading northward, and within a few years the fields around Hakfar Hayarok will be turned into residential projects. The big question nagging at Shushan and his colleagues – Yariv Malihi, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s ecologist for the central district, and Prof. Yuval Sapir of Tel Aviv University, is how much of the Sharon’s natural habitat will remain after this happens.

Shushan shows me a strange, shiny creature, about one centimeter in length, that he has extracted from the mud and which wriggles on his palm. He says it is Triops cancriformis, a rare species of tadpole shrimp that is now plentiful in this winter pond surrounded by busy highways, thanks to the endeavors of his students and school officials over several years.

‘We aren’t tree huggers’

Shushan is a fervent booster of Hakfar Hayarok, which has nearly 2,000 students, but he also has a more subversive, revolutionary side. He smiles as he wryly terms the type of activism he has led in recent years as a form of “settlement.” He claims to have no illusions about the future of the undeveloped area west of the school. “We aren’t tree huggers,” he repeated several times in the course of our tour. But by its end I was quite convinced that he gently hugs flowers.

Hakfar Hayarok has more than 2,000 dunams (500 acres ). Shushan says that no further development is expected on the school’s 400-dunam campus, known as the “camp” or “citadel,” but the remainder is zoned for development. “This is land with high ecological value,” says Shushan. “But there are plans to build nearly 10,000 apartments on it, which will mean the end of enormous habitat and breeding areas for amphibians and many other types of animals.”

He makes a plea to developers: “Even if you take the land; take nature’s values into consideration,” adding, “In the meantime, we are creating nature by force.”

Four years ago Shushan earmarked a plot adjacent to the school to be used as a “gardening field.” Students prepared the soil and planted native wildflowers. Some are unique to the Sharon: These include the Lupinus Palaestinus lupine, which is now blooming with beautiful white flowers; Silene palaestina, the cloven-petaled Campion and Linaria joppensis, which he says is an endangered species. They also planted trees considered native to the area, such as pear, fig, carob and mastic (Pistacia lentiscus ).

The rainwater from the area surrounding the winter pool, which was built with the aid of a landscape architect, drains into it. On the banks of the pool, which is nearly filled, is a wooden platform used for observation and to collect wildlife samples.

Shushan’s dream is to create a 100-dunam community park adjacent to the Glilot interchange, that will be home to plants native to the Sharon as well as serving as a refuge, eventually, for all the endangered plants and animals from around this region.

A small concrete culvert takes us under the Ayalon highway, to what Shushan says is the Sharon’s largest field of daffodils. Near the western bank of the freeway we come across a fenced-off area containing a Samaritan burial site from the fourth and fifth centuries. The eight burial chambers hewn into the rock were used by the local Samaritan community until its disastrous revolt against Byzantine rule in 529 C.E. Dozens of tall irises, of the Iris atropurpurea variety, bloom between the caves.

As I approach the onramp to the Ayalon highway, on my way home, “Hatzavim Porhim” (“Squills Bloom” ), by the late-’70s-early-’80s Israeli band T-Slam plays: “By Hakfar Hayarok / Between trees and fences / On rocky ground / Looking for roots.” I used to think these lines referred to the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery, adjacent to Hakfar Hayarok. But now they have a slightly different meaning.