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Turkish Man Devotes Life to Bringing Shade to Parched Anatolian Plateau

Rahim Demirbas stands in a parched grove, where he recently planted new trees. (Photo: Nicholas Birch)

Barren mountains and pasture scoured by ceaseless wind: the land west of Eregli is about as close as Turkey gets to desert.

But it is here, at the southern edge of the central Anatolian plateau, in the shadow of a peak named after deer that were hunted to extinction over 50 years ago, that Rahim Demirbas has been planting his forest since 1998.

He lists some of the hundred-odd species as his dented old pick-up truck forges ahead under a gray sky that promises rain but remains stubbornly dry: spruce, cedar, apricot, walnut, horse chestnut, wild cherry, oleaster and drought-resistant wild pear.

"The villagers thought I was mad, my family too," he says, swinging left onto the pot-holed road that leads up to Beyoren, the village where he was born in 1940. "They are slowly beginning to understand."

He stops the truck just underneath the village, once home to 200 families, now almost abandoned, and points across the valley: roughly 10,000 trees climbing up the opposite flank of the mountain, the oldest of them, a species of cedar, now over 20-feet tall.

Over the past two years, Demirbas has planted 12,000 more on a second patch of land he bought roughly five kilometers away, down on the plain.

He turns to look back down the road, a treeless bowl hemmed in by a line of snow-covered mountains - the eastern Taurus - on the horizon. "A drop in the ocean," he says, "but Mevlana says that 'every drop of water feeds the ocean.'"

A self-taught man who was the first inhabitant of Beyoren to get a university education, Demirbas had saved a decent amount of money when he retired as a mathematics teacher in the early 1990s. He made more money afterwards, selling carpets colored with natural dyes he himself had concocted to tourists in the city of Konya, a two-hour drive to the West by car.

Today, he has almost nothing left. Buying the saplings and the wire fence to keep the goats out, he reckons, set him back by at least 250,000 lira (US$157,000). He found the cash by selling the two houses he owned.

He wants to keep on planting. He quotes a proverb of the Prophet Mohammed: "If you have a sapling to hand, plant it, even if the Day of Judgment is about to begin." He needs to plant 28,000 more trees to reach a nice round total of 50,000, he says.

More than the money, he is worried by the lack of water. He laid six kilometers of pipe to bring water down from Karacadag, and built six pools to hold it in. But with less snow on the mountain every year, the pools are dry by August.

Having tried and failed to dig a well himself, he would like the state water department to help him. "I would pay for it," he says. "It's not charity I want. It's a proper drilling rig."

A bit more water, and he reckons he could cover the whole eastern flank of the mountain in forest, as it was a hundred years ago, before the locals cut the trees down and tore up their roots for firewood.

"My ancestors were nomads," Demirbas explains. "They would set up their tents, take what they needed, and then move on. Sometimes I think Turkey never left its tent. The speed we are using this country up, it is as if we are planning to move somewhere else tomorrow."

A strong believer that trees can save the world, Demirbas has dreamed of planting his forest for over two decades, when he persuaded Beyoren villagers to follow him up to the mountain to scatter acorns.

One of seven children, his son Halil thinks the project took on much more significance for his father after his youngest son died, aged 18. "He sees the trees as mementos," says Halil, who runs a private school that Demirbas opened in the nearby town of Karapinar. "In our culture, you plant trees over graves. Einstein had a formula explaining why: e=mc2. Energy doesn't disappear; it changes shape."

Walking through his forest, Rahim Demirbas only once mentions his son, referring to a belief, widespread in some parts of Turkey, that leaves falling from trees in autumn lighten the sins of the dead and speed their way to paradise.

He stops as he says it, and looks up at the sky, still grey, still refusing to rain. Then he bends down, pulls a couple of leaves off a plant nestling between two stones and proffers them. "Try this," he says. "We call it snotweed. It is delicious."

Munching on the bitter leaves, he sets off at a lope through the trees towards the bottom of the hill, stooping occasionally to manhandle a water pipe from the base of one sapling to another.

At the bottom, just up from where he has parked the truck in the dry river bed, he sits down at the foot of a spruce and takes a swig from a bottle of water. As a child, he explains, he used to steal fledglings from nests in the spring and try to bring them up himself. The chicks never lasted very long. Now half the trees have nests. "The birds have forgiven me," he says.

He stands up, sighing contentedly. "Sit on this earth for five minutes and you get up feeling refreshed," he says. "I left the village when I was 17, but the village never left me." 

Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

Turkish Man Devotes Life to Bringing Shade to Parched Anatolian Plateau

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