Earth Day

When stay-at-home rules help you learn you’re living in a huge salad bowl

Foraged greens, clearer birdsong and prime wildlife documentaries: Nature comes into focus on this Earth Day in the time of coronavirus

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

A common redstart, photographed in Jerusalem (Courtesy Dudu Ben Or)
A common redstart, photographed in Jerusalem (Courtesy Dudu Ben Or)

There may never have been a better time to celebrate Earth Day than in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when air pollution and warming gases are dropping over many regions as much of the world remains under some form of lockdown.

Despite the stay-at-home orders, the day brings to the fore many opportunities to appreciate aspects of life on this earth that may otherwise go undiscovered.

To that end, we’ve gathered an assortment of Earth Day activities, some more involved than others, and a few that only require you to sit and listen to the sounds around you. There’s TV watching, too. (Netflix should always be included in any coronavirus-time list.)

1) It’s all for the birds. Many people have found what practically amounts to a bird observatory outside their windows. That makes complete sense, said naturalist Amir Balaban, the urban nature coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel who founded the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and led the fight to save the 64-acre stretch of land that is Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley.

“We’re all in the same place for more time, so we’re paying more attention,” said Balaban. “Acoustically, there’s no competition for the birds, they’re the most vocal source around us. Birds are winning, big time, while we’re in this timeout.”

Birder Amir Balaban handles a bulbul to a group of Sacred Festival participants at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory on September 14, 2016 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

With less traffic on the roads, it’s easier to pay more attention to the calls birds make, their early-morning chitchat, times when they sound angry or happy, or when they’re just making conversation.

“Most of the time, it’s hard to interpret,” he said. “Now, you can go see what’s happening out there. Is there a cat coming close? Or maybe a snake? Listen first, and listen again.”

There’s often a rich bird life in urban neighborhoods that are filled with stable, older trees, long-entrenched gardens and local growth, said Balaban. Neighborhoods with lush Mediterranean growth will have plenty of feathered friends, along with their chicks as well.

“They always want food, and they make a lot of noise, and you just have to live with it for a while,” he said.

Right now is migration season, and Israel is on a huge bird migration route, noted Balaban, who has been offering short lectures and birding activities on the Jerusalem Bird Observatory Facebook page since the start of the coronavirus.

A Palestine Sunbird (Cinnyris osea), almost as small as a hummingbird (Courtesy Jerusalem Bird Observatory)

“All these birds are stopping off by us, in parks, in backyards, in green spaces,” he said. “They’re on the road and they’re doing their rehearsal with us.”

Grab some binoculars or a phone camera, and keep an eye out for nightingales, black caps, robins, white throats and common redstarts, recommended Balaban.

If you’re curious about the identities of the birds in your surroundings, there are resources. Capture some images on your phone, and then look them up on the birdwatching portal. If you’re stuck, send questions to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory Facebook page, but Balaban warned that he gets thousands of requests each day and can’t answer all of them.

"Cuckoo!" Stick your head out the window!These days, the migratory birds are at their peak.Both songbirds and soaring…

Posted by The Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory on Wednesday, April 1, 2020

He also suggested making an acoustic map of the birds heard in your neighborhood, and spending some time on Xeno Canto, a fascinating web portal that shares bird sounds from around the world.

“One of the good things that came out of the coronavirus is learning how important it is that nature is available and close to people’s homes,” said Balaban. “Having a good urban green space is no less important than the corner grocery store or health clinic.”

2) Urban green spaces are good, but there’s what to discover even in a patch of weeds along the sidewalk, said professional forager Yatir Sade, who usually runs foraging and culinary tours along Israel’s coastline.

Now, however, he’s helping Israelis find foraged delights right outside their house.

“You can find an abundance of plants that can be used in the kitchen,” said Sade (yes, his name means “field” in Hebrew), on one of the videos he’s producing in lieu of his usual foraging tours. “I’m not standing in the middle of a field, it’s really a huge salad bowl.”

April in Israel is a period of bright green grasses, fields full of red anemones, delicate pink cyclamen and yellow daisies. There’s also plenty of edible greens among the flowering blooms, said Sade, who highlighted wild chrysanthemums in his first video.

“It’s not the little savyon,” he said, referring to the bright yellow clusters of Senecio vernalis that show up in many fields of wildflowers.

The wild chrysanthemum is edible, full of iron and protein and vitamin C, said Sade.

“What you eat are the young leaves,” he said. “you can put them in salad, a casserole or an omelette, and they taste a little like celery, they’re a little salty.”

Forager Yatir Sade holds up the edible leaf of the wild chrysanthemum (Courtesy Yatir Sade)

The long stem of the wild chrysanthemum is also edible once the outer peel is removed, leaving a juicy, soft interior. The petals, however, are better left alone.

“It’s found almost everywhere,” said Sade of the edible flower. “Go out of your house and find it,” and when you do, he advised, make a salad of wild chrysanthemum leaves and sliced radish, tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Bete’avon — bon appetit.

3) If you don’t feel like leaving the house, we’ve got some Earth Day binge-watching for you.

Start with “Wild,” an Israeli documentary by Uriel Sinai and Danel Elpeleg about Ariella, a veterinarian, and Shmulik, the chief caretaker of a wildlife hospital. The 60-minute award-winning film available on YES delves into the issues that present themselves when caring for patients who can’t speak for themselves.

What else? There are plenty of options on Netflix for Earth Day couch potatoes.

National Geographic is featuring “Jane Goodall: The Hope,” about the renowned work of Dr. Goodall’s decades of advocacy work for chimpanzees.

Goodall told the Associated Press earlier this week that she worries about human behavior going back to business as usual after the pandemic is over.

“We have to learn how to deal with less,” said Goodall.

For kids, there’s Netflix’s “Absurd Planet,” a humorous new science series that drops on April 22 and looks at the planet’s most intriguing animals.

(And a certain pair of 11-year-old twins never tire of the “72 Most Dangerous Animals” series, set in Asia, Latin America and Australia.)

Another new Netflix series is BBC’s “Win the Wilderness,” a competitive reality show about six couples trying to prove they can survive in the wilds of Alaska. It’s not about the issues confronting planet Earth, but it shows people making it in the great unknown that is Alaskan nature.

Finally, there’s always “Our Planet,” the eight-part documentary series offering a look at the planet’s remaining wilderness areas and their animal inhabitants, filmed in 50 countries across all the continents of the world and narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

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