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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Natural history

Galilee Diary #406, September 7, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


…it has been taught: three come unexpectedly: the Messiah, a found object, and a scorpion. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a)
…and the snake was the craftiest of all the beasts of the field…(Genesis 3:1)
…I will make a mourning cry like the jackals… (Micah 1:8)

Late one Friday night a few weeks ago our son Josh, still up when the rest of the family were sleeping, walking barefoot across the living room, met a robust looking black scorpion about two inches long. Being a resourceful type he knew just what to do – he ran upstairs to awaken his younger sister, the zoologist, who he figured would be much more interested in the guest than he was. Sure enough she came to the rescue and captured the critter in a jar where we could all be impressed by it the next day. Saturday night she contacted an entomologist friend at the university who grilled her on all the details of the scorpion's various organs and appendages, and decided that it was indeed valuable for stud (he has a matching female). So Ilana put the jar in a plastic bag and took it with her on the train to Tel Aviv. Presumably it is now happy in its new urban setting. The trains on Sunday morning are very crowded, but our daughter resisted the temptation to use her travelling companion to clear herself some elbow room. Scorpions are one of our indigenous natural neighbors that we know are living around us, but we only encounter one maybe once a year or less, so it's always a surprise meeting.

Snakes too are part of the landscape here in the Galilee, and one encounters them more often than scorpions – disappearing into the bushes along the sidewalk, crossing the road (sometimes unsuccessfully). There are a number of varieties found here, including both poisonous and non-poisonous ones. This summer there were an unusually large number of cases of snakebite in the western Galilee, only one of which, I think, was fatal. Various theories have been proposed to account for this increase: a) Global warming (of course) – being cold-blooded animals, snakes are more sensitive to ambient temperature, and during the heat of the day seek out cool, shady places; as the surroundings get hotter and natural habitats get destroyed, they seek their shade in our gardens and porches. b) Earthquakes in southern Lebanon – snakes don't like earthquakes (the theory goes) and so they have fled south into Israel. c) In recent years there have been escalating range wars between farmers and cowmen in the upper Galilee. These occasionally result in violence, generally against cows. When the meat of poisoned cows in the field is eaten by birds of prey, the birds die and their population is reduced, which in turn results in an increase in the snake population, as snakes are part of the hawks' normal natural diet.

Every evening when the muezzin of Shaab, the village across the valley, chants the call to prayer over the loudspeaker of the mosque, the jackals living on the mountainside respond with an eerie chorus of high pitched howling. Sometimes they sound as if they are just beyond the edge of our garden, and there are clearly a lot of them – but I've never seen one. Their cousins the foxes we see from time to time, generally in the headlights, running across the road at dusk. Apparently the foxes, and maybe the jackals too, have found an easy source of food in garbage dumpsters (and the offal from illegal slaughter dumped in the valley by our neighbors in Sha'ab), so they are doing very well in our area. For years rabies was a problem with these populations (when we arrived at Shorashim in 1990 there was an epidemic, and we had to keep all dogs and cats indoors when we weren't walking them (try walking a cat). But now the use of oral rabies vaccine in bait has apparently succeeded in almost eliminating the threat.

It's not just we and the Arabs who have to share this land.

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