“Nature doesn’t change, nature is nature. But there aren’t seasons anymore,” my host tells me as we sit on her family’s patio in Qemmamine, a village in northern Lebanon. While most of the families who live here have land on the slopes surrounding us, young people are forced to work ‘below’ to make ends meet. ‘Below’ might refer to a nearby village, to Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon, or Beirut, a nearly three-hour drive away. Regardless of where people end up, “there is no work here” quickly becomes the most common phrase I hear in rural communities in northern Lebanon.
I am hiking the northern part of the 273-mile-long Lebanon Mountain Trail, and staying in family-owned guesthouses along the way. In the evenings, I ask my hosts about their village's history. In Qemmamine, I learn that almost everyone traces their roots to the same three ancestors, who moved here to farm almost 200 years ago. Today, there are no more than 2,000 residents, but elders remember a time in the 1940s when the population swelled with workers who came from across Lebanon to harvest lumber from the mountainsides. The river was stronger then, they recall, and the trees floated down it until they reached the sea.
Although logging no longer takes places on those slopes, forests in Lebanon are facing more complex threats than ever. I have decided to hike the Lebanon Mountain Trail to explore community responses to the threats presented by deforestation and climate change, with a focus on how religion informs their efforts. When I’m scrambling up a rocky hill or the Mediterranean sun shines directly onto my face, I sometimes wonder—why do I need to walk these miles to understand the story of conservation in Lebanon? An air-conditioned apartment in Beirut seems like a more appealing base than my bright blue backpack. When I break bread with families who live in the shadows of cedars and junipers, or stumble upon an oak tree growing atop a ruined Byzantine monastery, I am reminded: This is why I have chosen to walk.