Be'eri Forest - Wandering among the anemones

I'm not often at a loss for words. And it wasn't as if I'd never been there before. But when I saw what this winter's rains had done to most of the 11,000 dunams in Be'eri Forest, all I could say was, 'Oh, my!' Everywhere I looked, masses of glowing red anemones mingled with tall, thick emerald green grasses in a weave so dazzling it simply took my breath away.

My sources at the Jewish National Fund assure me that the anemones will bloom well into March, so pick a sunny day over the next few weeks and get thee to the Negev. The flowers are especially impressive along a route that the JNF has just finished developing for the public.

Located in the eastern portion of the woods, the road is 2.7 km. long and suitable for all vehicles. Along the way you can view masses of anemones, explore water installations of varying types, stop at picnic sites, and gaze at environmental art. Next to each stop there should be detailed signs in Hebrew and English. Two of the installations - Re'im Well and the Waterwheel Well - are wheelchair accessible; so are the picnic tables nearby.

Begin at the Re'im recreation site. To get there, follow Route 232 to Kibbutz Be'eri. Look for a very small white-and-red trail sign near the ground just a few meters south of the bridge over Nahal Grar. Turn west and park. Then wander through the flowers.

In Latin, anemone means 'daughter of the wind' - a name bestowed on this superb flower because it blossoms despite harsh winter weather. While anemones further north bloom in purple and even white, here they are a heart-colored red.

At one time, anemone flowers were used as a remedy for headaches and the bulbs as a remedy for toothaches. Some long-ago farmers even fed their chickens anemone leaves in the belief that this would increase the number of eggs they laid. And maybe it worked - I couldn't say.

THE ANEMONE'S brilliant red hue has fascinated people from time immemorial and has resulted in all kinds of legends. According to one tale, Italian Crusaders brought soil back from the Holy Land to be scattered on the graves of fallen heroes. Soon afterwards, they say, thousands of blood-red anemones sprouted.

Your first stop is at Re'im Well, named for a kibbutz nearby that was established in 1949. It is one of 50 wells that the British dug out or restored in the Western Negev during the 1930s. Of the five located near this part of Nahal Grar, only three are still standing; the other two were swept away or partially demolished during winter floods.

Re'im Well is over 40 meters deep, and reaches all the way down to the aquifer - a layer of porous rock that contains water. A diesel engine once pumped out the water, which flowed into the limestone storage pool you see on the site. Some unknown worker inscribed the date - 1932 - on one side of the pool, alongside the words 'Praise be to Allah.'

The recreation area boasts picnic tables, a small playground, and a plethora of trees and bushes. Look for masses of sabra cacti, which are called 'prickly pears' in their native Mexico. You are welcome to taste them in summer, when their sweet, delicious fruit is ripe. But remember to wear gloves when you cut the fruit from the plant, as thorns can be up to 5 cm. long. Even worse, the smaller prickles are not only invisible, but dig deep into your flesh and are difficult to remove.

To view the next water installations, get back in your car and follow the blue marked signs that lead down and then over Nahal Grar. Immediately look to your right to see two rusting metal pipes. During World War II, the British used metal pipes to help put out the fires that raged when the Germans bombed London. After the war, the British didn't need the pipes anymore. Engineer Simha Blass, who worked for the Mekorot water company in Palestine, suggested buying large numbers of them and bringing them to this country.

Blass was also the driving force behind the pipeline laid for 11 Negev settlements established on Yom Kippur night in 1946. Jewish leaders hoped that a Jewish presence in the Negev would stop the UN from including it in a Palestinian state and, indeed, these communities helped shape the future map of Israel. One of those settlements was Kibbutz Be'eri.

BACK ON the trail, look below the road on your left to see a three-sided structure filled with anemones. This is part of a well that was washed away by immense floods in 1961; its pool was cut in half during colossal rains 30 years later. You can get out of your car to see the other half, located partway down the slope.

Now the route takes you inside one of the channels of Nahal Grar. Both banks of the river are made of loess - a claylike rock which seals off the soil below when the top level gets wet, and causes flash flooding that cuts deeply into the earth. The loess cliff to your left is the highest of its kind in Israel.

The Waterwheel Well that is next on your route was built at the end of the 19th century, when the Ottoman Turks ruled the land. It operated on a system the Turks brought with them from home, in which small clay receptacles were chained together on a wheel attached to a wooden beam. As an animal pushed a handle connected to the beam, the jars were lowered into the well, and one by one filled with water. As the wheel continued to turn, the vessels would return to the surface, to be emptied into the storage pool and troughs.

During the British Mandate, the waterwheel was dismantled and replaced by modern diesel engines. But you can still see the old storage pools, troughs, and the stone support that held the beam and the waterwheel.

Continuing along the route, look left to see two strange stone structures. Although they look like little houses, they are actually underground water cisterns that have been totally exposed.

Two thousand years ago this entire area was completely covered with rocks and soil. Christians lived nearby in a village that is today known as Hirbet Mador. To collect water, the menfolk burrowed into the earth and dug out these pear-shaped reservoirs. The rock they used for building the sides and top was kurkar, a gravelly limestone made of fossilized sea creatures.

When it rained, the water was diverted into canals - or possibly clay pipes - that ran into two 'nostrils' that you can clearly see. A hole was left on top so villagers could clean the well and haul out water.

The cisterns would have remained underground but for the fact that the elements have the upper hand. As the soil was washed away over the centuries, these structures slowly came into view.

If you go inside the one on your right, you will see plaster on the inner walls. Tiny pieces of clay pottery were scattered between layers of stone to help keep out moisture. Inside the left 'house' you will find a sunken floor intended to collect the dirt and silt that entered with the rain. Back on the road, look right to see a similar structure used by the village. This one remains partly underground. Water for this cistern came from the roofs and courtyards of the residents' dwellings. And the system worked fine for centuries, until troops from New Zealand and Australia came through here in 1917 with hundreds of horses and camels. To slake their animals' thirst, soldiers poured concrete into the cistern's sedimentation basin and created troughs. TO REACH the last water installation on this route, you pass the lush green fields of Kibbutz Be'eri. You will be taking Concrete Road, much of which is now covered by asphalt. Constructed in 1933, it was originally a dirt road that stretched from Be'eri to the port at Gaza. At that time, a company mining sulfur near Be'eri used the road to transport its product to the sea.

During World War II, General Rommel began advancing toward Palestine from North Africa. Taking measures to counter his anticipated assault, the British established an air force base and ammunition complex next to the sulfur factory. The road, which they covered with concrete slabs, connected the air force with 217 hangars filled with ammunition. A few years ago, artists planted environmental sculptures next to the hangars. Only one is still visible, but it is a doozy: a paratrooper just before he jumps.

Rommel was defeated before he made it to Palestine, and after the war the British simply up and left the complex. An extended Arab family, hamulat Abu Mualek, settled here instead. They built a flour mill and a pool to collect water, and brought a motor to activate the grindstones. Among the customers for their flour were the settlers at Be'eri. Remains from the mill are found next to a sign at the site; the Arabs took up arms against their Jewish neighbors in 1948 and lost their village.

Now take the first left fork you come to and drive past a very large playground and picnic area to reach Nahbir - the original site of Kibbutz Be'eri, and all that remains of the pre-state settlement. Nahbir is the Arabic word for badlands - the perfect description for the land the locals sold to Jewish pioneers. The water tower and concrete outpost still stand, but after the War of Independence the settlers moved to better soil a few hundred meters east. As you return to the fork to leave the forest, look left to see a maze cut deep into the ground. This is the Bitronot Nature Reserve, 6,000 dunams of soil carved into all kinds of shapes by the Nahbir River.

End your trip with a frolic through the reserve's strange formations and thousands of glorious winter wildflowers.