by David Crow
A cold fog was blowing through the forest. Hamid pulled the car over and let us out along with Mohammed, our guide for the morning. We were outside of Ifrane, where we had spent the night. He drove off down the winding mountain road, with plans to meet later in the day at an unknown destination.
Mohammed was a recently retired schoolteacher who was born and raised in the alpine terrain of the Middle Atlas Mountains. “I did not see the coast until I was nineteen,” he told us, “even though it is only two hours away.” His true passion was nature and the local environment, and he was a highly knowledgeable botanist. We were setting off on a rugged hike to meet the local plants.
Sara and I were grateful that we had our winter clothes. Ifrane gets heavy snow, which makes the faux Swiss ski village a playground for the wealthy. Spring had not arrived yet.
“I will take you to a place I don’t take other people,” Mohammed confided in us. “I am afraid that if I show people this place it will be ruined.”
We climbed down a long incline covered with low growing vegetation and limestone rocks, descending into a valley populated with gigantic poplars and a stream. Something magical was in the air.
We followed the stream into a narrow forested gorge. The water was clear and bright, and much higher than normal from the unusual rains. Mohammed immediately began to show us the diversity of plants growing in the area: here was a species of mint used locally in the bread, giving its fragrance as we walked on it; here was usnea lichen, named “tree beard,” the same as in the West; here was a type of wild thyme, and milk thistle that the local people cooked like vegetables. I knew a few, but not most.
The trees around us were immense and fascinating. There were the ancient cedars, and spruce and fir, as well as oddly shaped species I did not recognize with massive trunks but practically no height or branches. If the fairy realm existed anywhere anymore it was here.
“How far does this forest go?” I asked.
“Only a few kilometers,” Mohammed replied.
“What happens then?”
“You see, it is only a façade,” he said. “When you get over this ridge, it is just clear cutting.”
We walked on, contemplating the destruction of this beautiful place.
Mohammed turned and began telling me the story more fully, first becoming animated and then upset. The foresters were corrupt, he said, every one of them. Their job was to protect the trees, but instead they had ways of dealing in the black market. They would hire shepherds to climb a tall tree and cut the upper branches to feed their animals, which would kill the tree; after the tree died the foresters would sell it to the loggers.
The problem of deforestation was compounded by apathy of the local people. The shepherds that roamed the mountains grazing their animals lived a wild and free life, and people in the villages all wanted to move to the cities; no one cared. Reforestation efforts failed: people took the money, planted the trees, and then pulled them out later so they could continue the grazing.
“There is a lot of cedar wood oil produced here,” I commented. “Where does that come from?”
“Tons and tons, but that is from sawdust from the lumber milling,” Mohammed replied.
We walked on, the troubling story of the trees mixing paradoxically with the enchanted landscape. Sara was in a special heaven known only to photographers of wildflowers. Mohammed showed us more unusual plants, used for cooking, for medicine, for aphrodisiacs.
“You know, the roots that are left in the ground after they cut the cedar have the most oil in them. My grandfather used to take a piece and place it by the fire, and the oil would run out and fragrance the house. Maybe I can get a contract to dig out those roots and distill them on a small scale.”
And maybe we could use the money from that oil to support the planting of more trees, I said.
We walked on through the late morning, talking, learning, thinking about the condition of the world. Dozens of flower species were in bloom, something Mohammed had not seen for a long time. It was the influence of the unseasonal rains, he explained.
“Nature is beyond our ability to understand,” he said.