Chthonic Thunder in East Germany

What is the purpose of that?

At the midpoint of a long day’s ride, I stood with my bike before a curious box-like structure in the middle of a field, deep in the countryside of far east Germany. This one sported a door, cracked window or two and sat on a small trailer with wheels. Obviously it could be transported over and between fields.

I had stopped on a rise for a piss and bite to eat. Like me, my trusty old German bike with its worn tyres that desperately needed replacing was enjoying the run. I had wound my way east, north and then south-west along quiet single-lane roads lined with trees pointing their still bare fingers to the sky, through villages (dorps) – Bernstadt, Villersdorf, Friedersdorf, Buschscheenke … that had been laid down centuries ago along streams for the vital water supply.

But the ride took on a completely new feel at the turn into a field or forest. Here might be an imperceptible turn, a climb and then an enfolding on a bumpy, hilly path among the conifers and deciduous trees with their first buds (good place for a crap). Here might be a simple cement path, laid down for heavy farm machinery to negotiate boggy fields. Given that such a path was not a freeway and that such machinery is not a primary mode of transport, I had these paths to myself. Or it may be a bumpy dirt track, passing through fields sprouting with early spring crops.

It was on such a track that I had stopped to ponder the curious architectural work of the local Germans. Of course, this small shed was not the only one to be encountered in these parts, for they come in all shapes and sizes. One stands high and is enclosed on a platform, accessible by a rusty ladder. One is simply a seat halfway up a tree and attained by a broken wooden ladder. One is lower, larger and deeper in the forest. And this one too was low to the ground, in the middle of a field and on wheels.

I had asked many about the structures and inevitably an argument would spring up.

‘They are for watching the fields during early growing and harvest’, said a woman in a local village. ‘Mice and rodents may eat the crops, so watch must be kept’

‘No’, said an older man. ‘They are for nature lovers to wait and watch for animals’.

‘No, they are for hunters’, said a young woman. ‘My grandfather was a hunter and he used them.’

‘But I have never seen anyone in them’, I said. ‘Does that mean in hunting season they are full of hunters with rifles?’ Given that that they can be as little as a few hundred metres apart, I imagined the German countryside bristling with hunters firing away from these shelters. All the while and cyclists were milling around them, enjoying the outdoors and miraculously dodging bullets.

These discussions and others came back to me as I pondered this one in the field. Nearby a farmer was ploughing a field for a new crop as the weather promised to warm and the birds return. And then it struck me: perhaps they are rural toilets, chthonic thunderboxes for those working the fields. Given the German liking for examining the product of one’s innards – on the infamous shelf toilets where all is laid out – are these the rural equivalents? Rather than dropping your pants in the middle of a field, a simple shack was nearby. At least they have a magnificent view.

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