Sunday, October 12, 2003

Scouring of the Sands

(in my best NG style...)
I 'm walking along the wadi, trying to keep my balance on the uneven path, when Efrat points at the sand ridge and says: my field site is over there, at the top. I look at this wall of sand looming over me, thinking to myself-it didnt look so high when we got down from the car, but all I say is -ok, show me the way. We start climbing, the afternoon sun beating down on our shoulders, as we head for the traps. As we move upwards, the entire horizon stretches, and I am reminded that I'm in the middle of the Negev desert in Israel. The Negev is largely a rocky desert, but what makes Seher special is the vast expanses of sandy dunes. The government has tried to tame the sands by planting scores of salt tolerant trees in an ill concieved savannization project, but there are dunes still. I'm accompanying ecologist Efrat Elimelech, a student of the Ben Gurion University, to her field site, where she's attempting to solve the riddle of the antlions' diet. She works on antlions, a curious little beast that digs small pits in the ground and waits for prey to fall in. The pits are conical, with smooth walls that prevent ants or any such insects from clambering up to safety. And the moment the antlions detect any prey activity, they emerge from the bottom of the pit and start flipping sand at the insects and thereby ensuring that the insect stays within the pit. However, its a risky life for the antlions. They may go through days without any insect falling into the pit. And digging the pit is costly as well. So the choice of pit site is of paramount importance. Efrat is analysing this and other behaviour in her laboratory, which is set up in the desert research organization tucked away in the startlingly verdant campus of the Midreshet Sede Boqer. But we're out here on a different mission. Efrat is now trying to figure out what the antlions eat in the wild. She's set up a system of traps to catch ground dwelling insects. In this way, she can check what is the probable prey of antlions in the wild.

We reach the top after a while, and the landscape grabs me by the eyes. The wadi stretches away from us in true serpentine fashion, and the top of the ridge is dominated by the trees- trees one would mistake for a forest only in heavy fog- the lack of undergrowth is striking. The sand filters into everything, under bushes, around trees everywhere. At first, it seems as pure as the first thing ever made on this planet, but on second look you realise it's not true- scores of tracks crisscross the sand at every opportunity. The sand is so fine that everything leaves a mark, even the moult of a spider dangling from a low branch. In the distance I can make out the silhouette of the Negev's major chemical plant and polluter- Ramat Hovav. The main road lies further east, a steady stream of vehicles. Past the road is the bedouin settlement.

I follow Efrat as she pulls up her traps and examines them for prey. There are not many today. She says that most of the activity in the desert is in the night , and that's why she gets more insects in the morning. We move from trap to trap as she notes down the inhabitants of each trap. The traps are designed to cause as less damage as possible. Efrat merely notes down what the insects are and their sizes before releasing them. Its only the unidentifiable ones that get collected for examination under the microscope. As she explains to me what she hopes to find, we are interrupted by the roar of an ATV. The bedouins living in the area tend to use the dunes as their major entertainment zone, trying to climb all sorts of hills and try impossible routes in the general manner of teenagers everywhere. Since the site is not a reserve, there is no prohibition of this kind of activity and hence it's an ideal playground for off road enthusiasts. The roar of the ATVs shatter the tranquillity of the place, one more reminder that we are in a desert that is hemmed in by civilization: the roar of the off road vehicles, the odor of the foul winds from the chemical plant and the eternal presence of the army. As we finish for the day and head downwards, the wind whipping around my neck, I am treated to the sight of a spectacular sunset, almost as if in compensation for the loss of mood.