Friday, November 1, 1996
WILDERNESS & SOLITUDE
text and photographs by Fareed Abou-Haidar
Lebanon is a small, crowded country where it is hard to get away from man-made influences. Seemingly everywhere, there are buildings, roads, cars, rock quarries, and other intrusions on the natural environment (including some that blend in nicely, such as old houses and stone retaining walls). And then, there is the noise; the cacophony of trucks, cars, bulldozers, loudspeakers seems to permeate most of the country, echoing across valleys and mountains.
In the U.S., the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed to protect outstanding, publicly owned, roadless areas from development. These areas are accessible only by foot or horseback. People can go there and "get lost", leaving the cares of the city behind them. Solitude allows people to just sit back under a tree and contemplate. The only sounds are natural: water, birds, insects, thunder.
In Lebanon, it is much harder to experience solitude. In fact, there is no word in Arabic for solitude. The closest word is "loneliness". Solitude is not loneliness. While it is nice to be sociable (something the Lebanese are well known for), there is nothing wrong with having a desire for solitude every now and then.
Lebanon is so small and overdeveloped that there are few areas that escape man-made influences. Buildings, roads, power lines etc. are likely to be seen from nearly any part of the country. Thus, it would be impossible to meet the rigid U.S. standard for Wilderness Areas. Still, there are many areas in Lebanon that deserve to be set aside as Wilderness Areas, forever safe from development. Such areas would be a mental "lung", allowing a reprieve from the bustle of everyday life. The lack of roads would insure an uncrowded experience and the lack of garbage for people willing to walk a few hundred meters or more. In addition, the natural environment would be better protected in such car-free areas. (In the U.S., a road in the wilderness invariably means trash of all kinds, from beer cans to junked cars.) Such areas might be managed less intensively than national parks.
There are still many areas in Lebanon that can be declared off-limits to cars and development. Some are in good shape (example: they still have their tree cover); other may be degraded (example: the barren mountain areas above around 1700 meters) but still offer solitude. In some areas, it may be possible to close and revegetate roads that no longer serve a useful purpose.
Examples of such areas would be the Ibrahim River gorge (although that area is of national-park caliber) and many other inner-valley areas that have not been developed; most of the top of the Mount Lebanon range, and extensive forested areas such as the pine forests of the Meten area.