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Observations, Reflections and Proposals for Creative Ecological Interventions

by David Haley

FINAL REPORT OF A VISIT TO ISRAEL: 23 February - 1 March 2005

David Haley with head of regional Beduin Council in Hura, and a resident. The damaged stream passes htrough the middle of the city, dividing two tribes, or - possibly connecting them.
David Haley with head of regional Beduin Council in Hura, and a local resident. The damaged stream passes through the middle of the city, dividing two tribes, or - possibly connecting them. (All photos in this essay by Shai Zakai)

[Editor's note: This is a rewarding look at how an ecological artist can approach the visit to a new site and work with local residents and organizations to explore new stewardship possibilities. In it, David Haley explores proposals where "the arts will not only illustrate and interpret the situation, but contribute to an integrated creative ecology process and a sustainable future."]

Part of the Toolbox for Working Methods.
Part of the Toolbox of Working Methods.

In addition to making a presentation of my work, the purpose of my visit to Israel was to explore and then create ecological arts interventions in collaboration with Shai Zakai, (photographer, ecoartist, Director & Founder IFfEA) and the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art. The main report provides an account of this extraordinary visit and how I arrived at some proposals to contribute to the Forum's projects. The aims of the proposals are to use the arts to create further, deeper, wider ecological dialogues, permit others to join that dialogue and generate further questions. In summary the proposals cluster around two projects:


PROPOSALS FOR HURA- For Bedouin people to determine their transition from traditional to modern lifestyles, they need to participate in holistic spatial planning. Artists would be engaged as an integral part of socio/eco/design/planning/council teams to contribute to non-linear processes of town evolution. They would reconsider the function of towns to be part of a regional network of 'learning, dwelling, community resource centres'.

The town centre would be developed as a meeting place for social interaction and wadi restoration. A civic event could mark the opening of the town centre and become an annual civic celebration. To do this the Education Centre would engage artists each year to develop celebratory workshops to value, maintain and develop Bedouin arts and invent new traditions for the town that care for the wadi.

PROPOSALS FOR THE TOWN OF MIZPE - The gateway project could incorporate a 'pre-visitor centre', to introduce visitors to the wonders of the Maktesh wadi ecology. As with Hura, resident and visiting artists would teach local people festival skills to develop local identity and pride of place. Sculptures would be commissioned to enhance the town and stimulate its inhabitants.

A PROJECT FOR SUSTAINABILITY - A National Water Day could be declared for people from all over Israel to observe and report on the state of their river systems. Education packages for schools and community groups would be prepared in advance. The information from this national field study would be analysed by Ben-Gurion University, Institute for Desert Studies. The state of Israel's water systems will then have been 'drawn on-the-ground' by local people participating and networking their understanding of their river systems. The evening of the National Water Day would be spent in local festivals that celebrate water. This project is being developed in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University, the Manchester Museum and the Wadi Arava project and there are plans for an exhibition of the process in the UK.


PROPOSALS FOR THE WASTE SITE OF ISRAEL & THE DEVELOPMENT OF INTERNATIONAL EVENTS - The Israeli Forum for Ecological Art's international event and conference could create workshops with local people to produce prestigious recycled products. This would contribute to local employment and shift attitudes about the area to become the place that creatively manages Israel's sustainable future. Artists would be engaged to contribute to developing a whole-systems approach needs to the process of waste management. Research will be carried out on the logistics and economic viability of waste separation and recycling, and on the long-term costs of not doing this.


Pre-visit Research
DAY 1 - Outward Journey
DAY 2 - Orientation
DAY 3 - Into the Negev Day 4 - Observations on the Maktesh Ramon
DAY 5 - The Israeli Forum for Ecological Art Conference



David Haley in Israel, 2005.
David Haley, Israel, 2005.

I was honoured to be invited by Shai Zakai, Director & Founder of the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art, to make a presentation to their 6th Annual Conference, and when she mentioned the possibility of contributing to her Revival Streams projects in the Negev, I became very excited. Even though there had been no acts of terrorism since November, I discussed this visit with my wife and daughter and they agreed I should go. The issue of security is not one that I wanted to linger on in this account, but it is an important issue that I needed to address. External popular opinion and myth need to be understood, as do the issues around conflict as a norm. Both of my parents had been ardent Zionists, and although my father visited Israel many times before and after 1948, my Mother never managed to visit. This was to be my first visit.

I was driven, also, to make this trip to see for myself what the vision of artists like Shai Zakai may contribute to resolving the situation. What practical contribution could be made to education, culture, water, ecology and climate change by the self funded Israeli Forum for Ecological Art?



The day before I flew out, I managed to secure a meeting with Dr Piotr Bienkowski, Head of Collections and Academic Development, Manchester Museum, University of Manchester; Honorary Research Fellow, School of Archaeology, Classics and Oriental Studies, University of Liverpool. He is also a Director of the Wadi Arabah Project, an international multi-disciplinary project that aims to establish the key historical role of the Wadi Arabah as a dynamic interface between southern Jordan and the Negev of southern Israel. Dr Bienkowsi showed me the GIS images he had created by plotting archaeological sites, based on published and unpublished data. I was interested in the notion that the Israeli Archaeological Association did not use internationally accepted standards. Instead of giving point coordinates, they describe a shape and area - a different spatial narrative and understanding of location, a retelling of history.

I asked if he knew anything of the drawings of the Bedouins and he told me of their rock drawings and of their poetry. I wondered if the poetry linked to the Psalms. Dr Bienkowsi gave me details of Professor Bruin of the, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

We agreed to meet again on my return to consider collaborative arts and research initiatives. I downloaded all the links from the Wadi Arabha website and these provided me extensive reading on the 'Med/Red-Dead Sea' canal proposals, and other ecological issues for my outward journey.



My flight included a transfer from British Airways to EL Al at Brussels. At the check-in, an Israeli Security Officer in a smart black suit politely interrogated me for 45 minutes. This was tiring and rather unsettling, but after the intense exchange (including a call to Shai to verify my story) and a retrieval and search of my check-in luggage, I thanked the Officer, on behalf of my wife and daughter, for his courteous and thorough professionalism.

The flight was good, just 3 hours late and nobody seemed to notice, let alone comment on it. On arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, I was welcomed at the counter of by the appointed taxi company before I had a chance to announce my name. 45 minutes later, at Shai's village in the forest, the taxi driver had to phone to have the security gate opened - apparently, this was the first time it had been closed.

At 5.00 AM Shai gave me breakfast, I talked about my journey, she talked about our itinerary and we watched dawn break over the hills between her village and Jerusalem. Shai returned to her husband Eran, and I to my bed to sleep until midday.



Apparently there has been an unusually high level of rainfall in Israel this year, so the walk from Shai's house through the adjacent forest was astoundingly beautiful. Her garden is regularly visited by hummingbirds, doves and other brightly coloured exotic species, as it represents a small clearing within the forest. Shade is provided by a variety of trees including lemon and the alien eucalyptus.

The forest is rough and rocky with acacia, oaks and 'goddess trees'. There were swathes of pink and lilac cyclamen, bright red poppies, wild iris and orchids. Shai's tour included small rock-pools of life, ancient vineyard terraces and wineries, naturally formed meeting places and the valley in which David fought Golliath!

Late in the day, we visited Shai's Concrete Creek and witnessed the relentless rumble of the large cement trucks. It is a much larger project than I had first thought, and its intimate relationship to the surrounding landscape can only really be understood properly by visiting. Shai's dry pathos and determination is revealed as you realise that she is perhaps another David pitched against giants of her own tribe. She tidied the vandalised interpretation signs and flag artworks at each 'station' along the dry river course. Many of the steel flagpoles have been stolen. Rumour has it that the Bedouin sell them as scrap metal to be sent to China - ironically the same destination as much of Israel's arms industry. As we approached the cement quarry, a narrow stream of water flowed within the riverbed. Shai was concerned about how to report this fractured freshwater pipeline without breaking the fragile peace between her and the quarry company. Jackals howled in the distance.

We returned to Shai's house and I met her two beautiful daughters. The elder is a gym instructor, in her first year of army service, between school and university. The 15 year old made a CD of Israeli rock music for my daughter and then caught an organised youth coach trip for a night out in Tel Aviv.

That night Shai and her husband, Eran, took me to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. We passed through a turn-style, metal detector and saw young Israeli soldiers with machine guns casually slung over their shoulders. Floodlights maintain a sense of 24 hour activity. The orthodox men occupied 80% of the wall's width and it was difficult to approach the wall itself - women were separated by a fence. I meditated for a while and wondered about the trees and grasses growing from the wall. From the photographs and TV images I had seen all my life, they were always there - I was pleased that they had not succumbed to the 'clean and tidy' aesthetic. For me the trees provided a symbol of a life-sustaining wall and I slipped a small folded note into a crack that joined thousands of other similar prayers, meditations, wishes and remembrances.

I was struck at the close proximity of a large mosque, dome and minarets, on the other side of the wall (White Mosque, El-Asqa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock). Jews praying on one side, Muslims praying on the other. Was the wall separating them, or bringing them together? This form of separation and unity was to be echoed throughout my visit and the scale and density of everything surprised me, constantly.

We had dinner at a fashionable restaurant - one of several that Eran had been commissioned to deign. We were checked in by a security woman and Eran explained that some years ago the first café he had designed for this company had been bombed - many had died. Eran reluctantly agreed to the restaurant owner's plea that he give an instant interview to a TV crew reporting on the phenomenon of Jerusalem style and fashion.



Waste along the Hura streambed. The challenge is to turn a backyard, marginal stream into a central open space unifying the city.
Waste along the Hura streambed. The challenge is to turn a backyard, marginal stream into a central open space unifying the city.

We set off late in the morning as Shai had many last-minute plans to attend to for our visit and arrangements for the conference at which I would speak. A newspaper advert that she had placed about my presentation was generating many phone calls that continued unabated over the following two days - her car has an excellent 'hands-free' mobile phone system. Between the phone calls we talked incessantly about art, ecology, our projects, more art and more ecology. Shai introduced me to her Revival Rivers programme and explained that we were visiting two of the possible river projects.


Our first stop was at Hura, one of the official new towns being created for Bedouin people. We met Dr. Mohamed, the Mayor of the town, the Head Teacher of the extensive new education centre, and we were joined by two of Shai's architectural students. Mohamed had gained his PhD in Chemistry and had been the Director of a chemical research institute. He now dedicated himself to developing better conditions for his people in their transition from the traditional nomadic lifestyle to modern Western ways of living.

Education was his primary objective in enabling the Bedouin to survive this enormous social shift. In addition to the education centre with its excellent facilities he talked of establishing a Museum of Bedouin history to value their culture. In the meantime, a new mosque was being built across the town from the existing mosque. Mohamed explained that the people of the town were from two tribes, so each required a mosque.

Amid the stylish, new, low-rise apartment buildings and building sites meandered the river, or wadi (it is worth mentioning that all the rivers I saw were called wadis, or dry river paths that briefly flow with water two or three times a year - I learned to read their pattern by subtle changes in soil colour and texture, the presence of sparse vegetation and by topography). Separating the two tribal communities, the wadi had become a physical boundary. It had also become the waste dump. Some of the temporary dwellings - corrugated iron and scrap structures abutted the edge of the wadi ditch. The garbage included goat remains, building waste, scrap and packaging from food and electrical goods. Mohamed was convinced that the proposed landscaping project (similar to that of the neighbouring Jewish town) would bring pride in appearances to his people. Shai intends that the landscape scheme will also protect the wadi. Her team of artists and ecologists have developed very good relations with Bedouin people, in particular a group of women goatherds.

We met with a Bedouin shepherd and his small flock. Mohamed explained that the man's name meant 'war'; their life was lonely, tough and dangerous, so they took courageous and powerful names to gain strength. The man was friendly smiled, shook hands, agreed to pose for photographs. While we talked a flock of white doves flew out from a ramshackle, vernacular dovecot. They circled overhead, catching the sunlight. Mohamed commented that these were kept just for their beauty.

Mohamed further explained other problems. It seems that some Bedouin people are creating unofficial towns, as each 'tribe' demands to have their own town to maintain their family identity. They then compete for recognition and resources with the official towns. There seems to be little 'policing', or planning control to stop this activity. Some men are moving their families into the new apartments and then taking their sheep and goats to continue their nomadic existence. The families are left destitute, dependent on petty crime or Government assistance to survive. Unemployment is high as the new industries enjoy a surfeit of labour.

I asked Mohamed if he knew of Bedouin rock drawings and poetry. He said his mother knew the tradition of drawing and she had applied this to the development of the local textiles designs.


  1. From my very short visit, I noted that the problem of trying to force nomadic people into a sedentary lifestyle is bound to cause conflict and the process will take several generations.
    [In the 1970s, under Soviet rule, nomadic people in Usbekistan were forced to give up their flocks and 'yurts' (circular felt tents that placed each member of the family in their cosmic position within the place of dwelling) to turn to industrial farming and live in new multi-story apartment blocks. The rectangular geometry of the architecture contributed to the disorientation of the inhabitants that led to many suicides.]
    However, the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin has become a dysfunctional existence in the modern world - concepts of land ownership, identity of place and economic values render the fragile ecology of these people incapable of return.
  2. The wadi is currently perceived as the dividing line between tribes. It has, therefore, become the line of conflict, the channel for frustration. As the demonised no-man's land, the wadi has become defiled by waste - the excess of Western society and consumer economy without adequate waste management systems - 'In ecology there is no waste' (Vandana Shiva).
  3. Affecting a Western style landscape design may further alienate people from their understanding of place and will not solve any of the problems I was presented.
  4. Where is the well? Nobody seemed sure, or particularly interested. Both physically and psychologically, how are a desert people to live sustainably without access to their most valuable resource?
  5. Is the wadi part of an aquifer system and if so, what condition is it in? As an ecological principle, this should be considered before all other developments.


  1. As a way of mediating the transition from traditional to modern lifestyles, the Government and Regional Councils may wish to consider a more participatory form of spatial planning. A holistic rather than market led deterministic approach may provide more appropriate infrastructures for development. Making time is the determining factor - a choice between short-term profit and sustainable communities.
  2. This in turn may lead developers and planners to reconsider notions of the function of towns. Rather than sedentary, internally focused clusters of residential, work and amenity buildings, to think of the region of towns as a network of 'learning, dwelling, community resource centres'. Based on the fact that each town's education centre shares the same curriculum, school attendance could be a fluid activity. Each town would provide resources for education, healthcare, trade, information (internet/library), water, socialising, religious practices, and so on. Dwelling could be undertaken at re-conceptualised inns - a subject for architectural research, these buildings would function as motels or fluid residencies for reasonably priced 'stop-overs'.
  3. The notion of a 'learning centre' is related the town's development being based on lessons learned from the needs of inhabitants and the ability to respond to effectively to demand - a more flexible approach to construction and provision of infrastructure will be required. This initiative could form the basis for much needed research into the adaptation of 'traditional' Western urban construction methods and planning processes to climate change.

    This development process would be capable of morphing to the changing requirements of a society, at the timescale of the people's own cultural evolution.

    Artists would be an integral part of each socio/eco/design/planning/council/team and would contribute to non-linear process of town evolution.

  4. Instead of landscaping the 'gateway' into town, the money could be used to develop a town centre. The town centre would provide a meeting place for social interaction, a place to sit and talk, a place to drink tea and coffee, a place for children to play and the aged to rest, a place for chess and backgammon, and perhaps a market. It may take the form of a large canopy - a modern adaptation of a Bedouin tent - providing cool shade and warm light according to the season and time of day.

    This meeting place would span the wadi (being careful not to further damage the bed and banks) as an expansive bridge-like construction. The wadi would then become the secular, non-territorial meeting place for all - a shared, common place to mingle. This social heart of the town would, therefore, become a practical and symbolic bridge to value the people and the wadi, protected by the canopy. Built into the design a dovecot would house the town's doves - providing a symbol of peace, or 'just for their beauty'.

  5. A civic event could mark the opening of the town centre and become an annual celebration of reconciliation between the two tribes. This activity would be led by the education centre that would engage artists in residence each year to develop celebratory workshops to value, maintain and develop Bedouin arts and invent new traditions for the town.


Experimental garden at the Dudaim waste site.
Experimental garden at the Dudaim waste site.

From Hura, Shai drove us South through the city of Beersheva to the central landfill area for Israel. The area comprises several large 'burial mounds'. One of the sites is owned by a private company to collect and manage the waste from Tel Aviv. The one we visited was managed by the Regional Authority and collected waste from the rest of Israel. The mound has a significant presence on the landscape and is further marked by the constant activity of the delivery trucks and by the flocks of birds circling and swooping overhead.

The Director of the Regional landfill greeted us in a smart businesslike cabin, surrounded by scrap sculptures, made by members of staff. He gave us coffee and biscuits and took us through his vision for the future of the site. He had already commissioned architects and engineers to visualise the ambitious scheme of walkways and a visitor/education centre to interpret the site and its socio/ecological role in waste management.

A tour of the site revealed a small garden, carefully tended by the staff, and an area of scientific research to develop waste-tolerant plants. Near the liquid waste pond a biogas electricity generator extracted methane gas from the landfill and this power is sold to the national grid.

Shai was considering a site adjacent to the landfill for her international ecological arts conference/triennale, as the unusual venue would generate interest amongst potential delegates. Such an event would support the ambitious plans for the landfill visitor centre and educational programme.

The Director explained that the site had become an important location for migrating birds as well as the resident vultures. He then took us to a nearby airfield that was now a thriving attraction for local and visiting amateur aviators.


  1. Despite the excellent waste management plans and present generation of alternative energy, there is surprisingly no separation of waste for recycling purposes.
  2. Given the exponential increase in waste generation, Israel will have to act soon to become a healthy dissipative structure, or it will become subsumed by its own waste.
  3. The Negev seems to have little value for the State of Israel. The desert ecology is perceived to be of no real importance. This is the wasteland and dirty industrial area and there seem to be no political or financial incentives to change this situation.
  4. Tourism seems to be based on ad hoc unsustainable sports (4x4, mountain bikes and flying) and intense resort activity.


  1. Based on the research of Professor Tony Bradshaw of the University of Liverpool, the landfill could be 'topped' with building demolition waste. This will accelerate the succession of tree cover, helping to stabilise the structure of the landfill mound and promote the 'digestion' of biodegradable waste.
  2. The proposed education/visitor centre could provide observation facilities for ornithologists studying bird migration. This could be developed into proper eco-tourism.
  3. A whole-system approach needs to be applied to the process of waste management. Research needs to be carried out on the logistics and economic viability of waste separation and recycling, and on the long-term costs of not doing this.
  4. The Israeli Forum for Ecological Art's international event and conference could create workshops with local people to produce quality recycled products [prestigious designers were engaged by the Barcelona Forum 2004 to produced desirable products for the Sustainability exhibition]. This would contribute to local employment and shift attitudes about the area, from the place where Israel dumps its waste, to the place that creatively manages Israel's sustainable future.
  5. The use of Bedouin tents for the conference would be a novelty factor for the delegates, value local traditions and contribute to our understanding of flexible, low environmental impact construction technologies.
  6. Careful consideration must be given to the business plan and marketing of a Biennial/Triennial and this must include fundamental questions like:
    • What needs will it fulfil - can these needs be met better in another way?
    • Who are the stakeholders (people with an interest in the project) - what are their roles and how can they participate?
    • What will be the benefits - outputs and outcomes?
    • How sustainable/viable is a repeat event - why every three-years?
    • Who will carry on the management and how will information be carried forward?
    • What will overseas visitors be attracted to - what's in it for them?
    • Why should any organisation fund the project -what's in it for them?
    • What's in it for local people?
    • What is the planning schedule?

    The process of answering these and other questions will help develop a meaningful, robust, viable and sustainable event, and avoid the global festival market fashion.


David Haley, Shai Zakai and others enjoying the view from the top of the Dudaim waste site.
David Haley, Shai Zakai and others enjoying the view from the top of the Dudaim waste site.
En route to Mizpe Ramon, Shai made a quick detour to visit a friend who had left Tel Aviv to develop a goat farm in a canyon in the Negev. For lunch we bought some of the best goats cheese and yogurt drink I have ever tasted.

As we approached the town of Mizpe Ramon, we passed an astronomical observatory and a military base for officer training. Shai pointed to the disruptive earthworks on either side of the road. Once I could appreciate the difference in terrain, it was evident that this dumping of mineral waste covered a vast area. She explained that this was the subject for a group of artists and others who wished to create a more attractive 'gateway' to the town and restore an important local wadi system.

We met the group of artists and others at a district of redundant industrial buildings in the town and from there we walked to the area in question. The group were eager to know my reactions and solutions. I explained that I had just arrived had not had a chance to view and learn about the situation, let alone arrive at any conclusions.

It was getting dark and the group decided to drive to a beauty spot to view the sunset. The view from the high plateau, across a vast canyon/gorge/crater was amazing, but interrupted by a collection of sculptures. Members of the group explained at length that the formation of this enormous 'crater' (40Km x 9Km) was not caused a meteor hitting earth, but by tectonic shifts and the tidal vortex in the time when the region had been a seabed - I was reminded of some of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings and notes on the subject of vortices.

Shai and I took tea with the group in a well-designed, but now disused environmental tourist residential centre. Shai and I were expected to make statements about our work and respond to the problems this group's had identified. These focused on the lack of support they had from the rest of the town for environmental care. They blamed the fact that 95% of town comprised of recent immigrants from former Soviet countries for the poor attitude. They blamed the fact that the town had no meaning, as industry was leaving the area. They blamed the fact they had not attracted an import institution to back their cause. I suggested that what ever their problems, the only way of addressing them would be through an education programme that may, eventually, reach the majority of the townspeople.

The hotel Shai and I were due to stay in was full, so the owners gave us a small house in a suburban district of the town.

We returned to the artist group at the disused visitor residence for an excellent dinner of Indian cuisine, produced by Ziv, the owner of the place. Questions and fears about the future of the Bedouin people arose in conversation. Some referred to them as a 'time-bomb' for society, others expressed concern about their fate and what to do for the best.

During the meal there was a flurry of mobile phone calls. People reacted in matter-of-fact voices and made more phone calls. Shai explained that a bomb had exploded in Tel Aviv. She had established that Eran and her daughters were safe, but in such a small country, everyone knows someone living in the capital.


  1. The town of Mizpe reminded me of Mid-West ghost town. Its purpose and meaning for existing seems to have vanished. This is, also, reminiscent of Kafka's story, The Great Wall of China - the wall itself was never the defence, it was the communities who built it and stayed to maintain it. But over time these communities lost touch with events at Court and even with who the current Emperor was. Looking East towards Jordan and South to Egypt, the on-going Peace Accords with each of these former enemies have rendered Mizpe redundant as a strategic outpost.
  2. If Mizpe Ramon is not the Promised Land, then where is the 'promised land'?
  3. It's always easier to blame the 'other'.
  4. Why do they want a 'gateway' when it's the town that is the problem?


  1. Based on hindsight, the artists' perspective has become distorted. The World Heritage view of the Maktesh should be an uninterrupted vista. Their sculptures should be used to enhance the ailing town and stimulate its inhabitants.

  2. Perhaps, the gateway project could incorporate a 'pre-visitor centre', a point of entry, to inform visitors of what they are about to experience (build anticipation) and educate them in the 'Maktesh Code of Practice'. This would welcome and introduce visitors to the wonders and the correct behaviour. A small gallery and leaflets would describe the ecological restoration process they are entering and would start to raise awareness of the problems AND the solutions. For an annual fee people could become Friends of the Maktesh (affiliated to the existing National Park scheme). Their voluntary labour would be rewarded in their contribution to sustainability and enrichment of species diversity - a truly creative act.
  3. During the discussions, the group seemed to be confused about the direction of the flow of the wadi at the high level. They did agree that when water did enter the 'crater', it was polluted. If any substantial amount of polluted water does flow to the lower level, then a 'flow-form' water revitalising system could be introduced. Based on the research of Rudolf Steiner (and Leonardo da Vinci) the process energises and purifies water by creating vortices in a series of descending bowls. Care would need to be taken, so as not to disrupt the rich ecology of the cliff face.
  4. A long-term education programme and the celebration of civic rites of passage may bring meaning, value and fun to the lives of the townspeople. The model of a lantern parade would be useful for enlivening the people and developing a community focus - maybe an annual festival that one day would attract thousands of visitors? As with Hura, this would require resident and visiting artists to teach local people festival skills that develop local identity and pride of place.



Hay and shacks located along the Hura stream bed. These disappear in floods from time to time.
Hay and shacks located along the Hura stream bed. These disappear in floods from time to time.

The following morning Shai and I left our house in search of breakfast. I was amused at the suburban appearance of this district - the man next door watering his garden - is water so plentiful? I was pleased to note the inclusion of solar water heating equipment on every roof, but saw few solar panels, or wind turbines to generate power. The only place open for breakfast was the well-appointed restaurant next to the new visitor centre. Here the view of the Maktesh was stunning. An Egyptian vulture glided on an air current above the cliff. A climbing school gathered and prepared for the day. Tourists started to arrive. The town slept on.

We were collected for our day-trip by a National Park Warden, Ben. He was a serious young man with a compelling character and despite his youth, great wisdom. There was no time to collect our belongings from where we were staying - luckily I had a camera with me. Ben's English was excellent and from the moment we boarded the 4x4 he started his enlightening interpretation of the Maktesh.

Ben showed us the scars and wounds of opencast mineral mining and stone quarrying. Some sites appeared to be small and random, others had become immense interventions in the 'wilderness'. All were now abandoned on ecological or economic grounds. Ben explained the laborious process of restoration that he and the other wardens are engaged in - resembling the effort and expertise needed to restore the paintings of old masters. Here the purpose is ecological as well as aesthetic. As he showed us site after site, he explained that it was not a matter of filling-in the holes, but of the need to carefully match the stratification with local material, but not by ruining another area.

Ben described the strategic plans for developing eco-sensitive tourism by using some of the catastrophic sites as education/observation/interpretation/experience visitor centres. The road edges are currently being marked by miles of small stones placed by hand, by the wardens. This, like the proposed visitor centres are designed to deter the National Park's current major threat - off-road 4x4 driving and mountain biking. The bikes, Ben explained, are worse than the vehicles, as their narrow concentration of weight 'cuts' the desert surface. He continued to describe the profound importance and fragility of the Maktesh desert ecology. Different from the Sahara and sand dune desert ecologies, the key to the Maktesh is its surface, or 'crust'. This is created by blue/green bacteria that secrete sugars as part of the process of photosynthesis. The sugars act as a transparent glue that sticks the particles of sand together. Over an enormous area, these form an impervious covering that is only broken by the wadis. When it rains, the water runs off the crust and into the wadis. Water flows for a short time towards the Arava, but importantly, water penetrates the surface of the wadis. This water collects in a system of underground aquifers, where it slowly permeates upwards, providing vital moisture for an ecosystem that lives about a foot beneath the surface.

For me, Ben's explanation was a profound understanding of life in this desert and connected to my basic understanding of one of the most important developments in evolution - the production of oxygen by blue/green bacteria through the process of photosynthesis. This realisation then contributed to the explanation of the presence of many varieties of lichen on rocks and trees - a symbiotic life form that depends on clean air. When I mentioned this, Ben became excited and told me of some beautiful forms of yellow lichen that grew on some of the vertical magma (black rock) formations - unfortunately, there was no time to visit them.

The explanation of the blue-green bacteria now made sense of the damage done by off-road 4x4s and in particular the 'cut' of the crust by mountain bikes. The wadi/aquifer system has evolved over millions of years, but now when it rains the water follows the tracks made by the vehicles and bikes and merely evaporates, undermining an entire desert ecosystem. This catastrophe is largely caused by ignorance and claims for freedom of will in a landscape considered to be of little importance and lacking life - who would think that a desert produces oxygen for us to breath and absorbs carbon from the excesses of our lifestyle?

I asked Ben about his ability to 'read' the desert landscape and of his sense of beauty. He laughed at the idea of the conversation moving towards art, but talked at length of the problem he now faces - 'Now I can only see the problems'. This tough young man expressed a deep sadness that the place he knew and loved was being inevitably trashed. His only recourse to action was to slow the process down by implementing the strategic plan, and to place small rocks at the edges of the roads - reminiscent of the act of remembrance at cemeteries.

We met with another three wardens at a very high vantage point. The group welcomed us with firm handshakes and we sat for some time, while Ben explained in Hebrew to the others what we, as ecological artists, were wanting. Shai added to this understanding. We then talked about many landscape narratives - the wadis, the roads, tourism, endangered species, power lines …

Here we parted from Ben with warm hugs. Our new guide, Nimrod, was a striking red-headed young man with a pony tail and beard. He had been trained by Ben and had previously gained much experience of his own, driving across Africa.

Nimrod took Shai and I on a route that traced the path of the main wadi's through the Maktesh. We stopped to examine different rocks and trees. He explained that he was driving down the centre of the wadi, so as not to damage the fragile riparian edge. We saw, on a large rock face, a path worn by walkers.

We stopped for tea with some Bedouins at a tourist facility. The Bedouin tents were huge and well appointed with settees and cushions. Shai gained contact details, with a view to hiring them for the conference.

Later, from the road, Nimrod spotted a man walking on a high ridge, by a narrow canyon. Nimrod stopped our vehicle and called to the man to come down to the road. He explained that he disliked this policing aspect of being a Warden, but that it was crucial for the protection of the ecology. From the canyon two children and a woman appeared, and they were followed by another family of four; then a group of six, and more, and more ordinary family people. Nimrod was writing out documentation to fine them for transgressing the local laws of endangering the environment when one of the women and a man approached him. They became agitated by the situation and returned to their group that now exceeded twenty. The group argued amongst themselves about who was responsible for paying the fine. They approached Nimrod again and he stood his ground photographing them. The adults looked shamed before their children as he carefully explained that they had ignored all the signage about the damage they were causing and the danger they were subjecting themselves and their children to. He let them off with a recorded warning. I asked how he managed to confront such groups of people and he explained that they were just ignorant people who meant no harm. His policy was to teach such people to enjoy the Maktesh properly rather than generate situations of conflict and bitterness.

As we came to the end of our extraordinary visit, Nimrod shepherded several vehicles to the exit as the National Park closed at 17.00 hrs. Not only was it ecologically unsafe to have people in the desert at night, but apparently there is a growing threat from drug dealers and smugglers who are now equipped with sophisticated night surveillance equipment.

Nimrod then treated us to a rooftop view of the Maktesh from the new Visitor Centre, for a last recap of our day's trip. I asked if he ever switched-off from his job, after work and he smiled - "No".

Shai and I returned to our suburban house in Mizpa. The man next-door was still watering his garden. We then drove North with a stop at the Ben-Gurion Memorial and we discussed the differences between an ecological artwork and a landscape design, with regard to the wadi-like pathway to his and his wife's tombs. Judging by the elaborate irrigation system needed to achieve the effect of a wadi, this is not an ecological artwork.

On our return to Shai's house, Eran had made preparations for the next day's event. Shai and I worked for a while on our presentations and arrangements.

  1. If the Maktesh Ramon is the Southern watershed for flow to the Mediterranean and flow to the Wadi Arava, with a West/East drop of 100', there will need to be an elaborate hydrological system to control the flow. Or, will the drop simply provide a siphon to draw water from the Med?

  2. For the Bedouin, time has changed, but for many it is difficult to let go of their culture. Like other nomadic and displaced rural people around the world, they are suspended between worlds - without the skills to enter the future, nor the memory of how to return.
  3. 'Better light a candle than curse the darkness'.


Shai Zakai,
Shai Zakai, "Forest Tunes", leaves and plant materials arranged in boxes, detail, 2005.
We woke late and the day was spent preparing for the evening. I managed to view some of Shai's provocative photo/images and video works. We all helped to construct her leaf archive installation in her living room and I contributed an oak leaf and feather from a tree near Windermere:

Feather and leaf
A large oak by the lake
Return to earth

Early evening, members of the Forum started to arrive. I was treated to an audience with Dr. Eliezer Frankenburg, Deputy Chief Scientist to the National Park. We reviewed some of my initial responses in the context of his immense experience - we never did finish our exciting exchange.

People, audio visual equipment and food arrived in abundance and while the Forum had their AGM, I was treated to another separate erudite discourse with the Director of the Art and Literature Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rafi Gamzou. As the ex-Israeli Cultural Attaché to New York, he had great charm. He, also, displayed great enthusiasm, as a supporter of Shai, leading the bid to fund my travel expenses under the BI-Arts scheme with the British Council.

There was a break for refreshments and I made my presentation that was warmly received with a lively question and answer session. Another refreshment break was marked by my attempt to conduct five conversations simultaneously, while juggling several plates of food and drinks. The conversations won, but I did eat an extremely good organic tangerine from the local kibutz - these slightly blemished fruits are apparently difficult to sell in Israel, because the appearance of the product is considered more important than its method of production.

The final conference session comprised of twelve presentations by Forum Members. I was amazed at the diversity and quality of work from young, mature and aged artists. The work carried much of the rich intellectual sophistication and wit of the European legacy. It included photoelectric cell driven sculptures, performance recycling strategies, the development of eco-friendly printing materials, enormous fibre art installations, pulp paper works, abstract expressionist paintings, land rights issues, digital arts, haiku poetry, water colours and stunning photography. Despite the lack of popularity for ecological art, in an art market that craves recognition from New York, the work was of high national standard and some ranking well in international contexts.

Within this feast of ecological art, Shai's work carries the defining vision and commitment to a truly ecological aesthetic and restorative strategy. In that sense, the Forum seems to be a collective of passionate individuals inspired to gather on occasion, rather than identify themselves as ecological artists. Her drive and the support of the scientist Elieser Frankenburg and the Forum's Chairman, ex-MP Mossi Raz, provide the focus.

By midnight, the conference came to a very satisfying conclusion and everyone left with a warm sense of achievement. After a brief, heartfelt hug from Shai, I was pleased to accept a lift to Tel Aviv from Rafi. He had arranged my much appreciated, but brief hotel stay and at 4.00 AM the taxi took me to the airport. I passed through check-in with ease.

  1. For me, this visit was an extraordinary experience that touched on many personal matters, global issues and revealed some specific Israeli concerns. The whole trip only lasted six days, but in 1967 (Six Day War) that was enough time to secure this nation's destiny. It is also said to be enough time to create the universe. While it will still take some time more to resolve the social, economic and political changes that are taking place, as the effects of climate change become more apparent, time itself is fast running out for Israel to address its ecological needs.
  2. Perhaps the biggest problem facing Israel, is its perpetual state of crisis. It is very difficult for people to consider sustainable development when they are at war. Values are defined by immediacy and functionality. Peace, the prefix for every development strategy, has become a cheapened commodity - 'peace-wash' for economic gain. However, peaceful existence and the capability for reflection are long-term concepts. Peace needs to be learned and celebrated through the resilience of art, with everyone singing the psalms of an eco-centric culture.
  1. GIS (Geographic Information System) is a familiar graphic modelling tool for those engaged in many forms of landscape and environmental research. It graphically presents different forms of data as layers that can be applied to coordinates of a terrain. Indeed, this system is being used by Dr Bientowski (see above) to plot archaeological sites along the Wadi Abrabha, and read these in conjunction with ecological and hydrological information to determine the historic flow of cultural patterns.
  2. A hydrological GIS model may, also, be used to directly inform the development of and debates about the Med/Red - Dead Sea canals, and the desalination of water for domestic and industrial consumption.

    To diminish feelings of isolation amongst communities engaged in wadi restoration, a National Water Day could be declared. On this day people from all over Israel will spend the day observing and reporting on the state of their river systems. Education packages for schools and community groups would be prepared in advance. The information from this national field study would be sent by email, post and text to a collaborating university department (perhaps Ben-Gurion University, Institute for Desert Studies) and entered into the GIS model. The state of Israel's water systems will then have been 'drawn on-the-ground' by local people participating and networking their understanding of their river systems.

    The evening of the National Water Day would be spent in local festivals that celebrate water in different forms. These might include meandering rivers of light, accompanied by community water xylophone orchestras and aquatic sports events. After the day's events are over, the festival will vanish for another year, rather like a wadi. And like a wadi, the information gathered from the burst of activity will sustain a year's worth of analysis, ecological restoration and learning.

    In this way, the arts will not only illustrate and interpret the situation, but contribute to an integrated creative ecology process and a sustainable future:

    A spatial poem
    And a song on the ground
    Rivers for life

DH, June 2005



Israeli Forum for Ecological Art & SEA: Social & Environmental Arts Research Centre
Manchester Metropolitan University

Proposals for Collaboration

It is anticipated that the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art will collaborate with SEA: Social & Environmental Arts Research Centre and its associated groups and courses to work towards and develop:

  • Research knowledge and resources on ecological art theory and practice
  • A programme of research projects that consider spatial planning issues
  • An exchange programme for students, staff and artists

The potential for collaboration should be considered in the context of SEA's strategies, operations and affiliations outlined below.

SEA: Social & Environmental Arts Research Centre

SEA was established in 2002 as a research centre within MIRIAD (Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design), at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).

SEA is a combination of the A&E [art & ecology], Arts for Health, City Lab, the Landscape Research Group and SEPRU that was established in 1997. SEA applies its significant international outputs to the University's body of research. SEA's main characteristics are its diverse interdisciplinarity and collaborative ventures at local, regional and international scales. These generate contexts for art and design, practice and theory in ecology, landscape, architecture, planning, health, social and political activism.

The core team are Margaret Harrison (Director, Research Professor), David Haley (Research Fellow, Director A&E [art &ecology] Research Group, MA Art As Environment Programme Leader) and Ed Bennis (Senior Lecturer, Director Landscape Research Group, MA Landscape Architecture Programme Leader).

Projects include:
Common-Wealth: cultural diversity as a driver of change (2002)
ASPiration [Artists as Spatial Planners] (2003 - ongoing)

A&E [art & ecology] Research Group

A&E [art & ecology] Research Group (formerly Water & Well-Being) was established in 1998 to understand and promote the creative use water in the public domain. It has since concentrated on developing arts practices that promote an eco-centric culture. Led by David Haley WWB is associated with the eco-arts network and Including work with microbiologists, environmental psychologists, ecologists, community activists and artists across Higher Education, Health, Public and Government sectors, this research initiative develops programmes of long-term, often large-scale, ecological arts interventions. Through our relationship with water, the main focus is on developing creative responses and adaptive capabilities to climate change.

Projects include:
River Life 3000: a dialogue for the beginning of time (2001- 04)
A Walk on the Wild Side (2004 - 08)
Destiny of Species - Darwin International Festival (2004 - 07)

Public Art & Urban Design Observatory, University of Barcelona

Initially through it's Waterfronts of Art programme, WWB established a fruitful, on-going relationship with The Public Art & Urban Design Observatory (previously PAO - Public Art Observatory) that is hosted by CER POLIS at University of Barcelona. This has included collaborative publications, international research conferences and workshops, and a Research Agreement (2000). SEA and CER POLIS are currently establishing 'split' MA and PhD programmes in Environmental Urban Design with University of Lisbon.

Projects include:
Waterfronts of Art (1997 - on going)
On the Waterfront (2000)

MA Art As Environment

Established in 1995 by Elsa Leviseur, this postgraduate programme is currently led by David Haley. Within the MIRIAD MA Programme, this route delivers a rigorous theoretical and challenging practical interdisciplinary course to a wide range of students. This course benefits greatly from its associaton with SEA, WWB, PAO and INIFAE (International Institute for Art and the Environment).

Projects include:
Study to establish the Irwell Valley Sculpture Trail (1995)
Sol Suolo, Villa Lais, Roma - INIFAE (1997)
Helen & Newton Harrison - Artranspennine98 (1997-98)
101 Ideas for Wiltz, Luxembourg - INIFAE (1999)
Public Art Programme for St Helens (2000- 01)
Waterfronts of Art Int. Workshop, Barcelona - PAO (2000)
Common Places Int. Workshop, Porto - PAO (2001)
Projects with UoM MEng Civil Engineer students (2000 - cont.)


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