Walking East Germany

‘Look!’ She cries.

I jump and turn, expecting a bounding dog perhaps, or randy bull, or quirky scarecrow, or …

Nothing of the sort, for it is a snowdrop. A small white flower had opened atop a shoot.

‘The first sign of spring’, she says, babbling on about her childhood in Denmark, about the excitement of seeing the first snowdrops.

And close beside it is a yellow flower, small too but with a slightly wider circumference. A winter aconite, companion of the snowdrop.

Now our step seems to be brighter, the first hint of the joyous rush of sap, the mad riot of blooming, the cacophony of plants popping, animals nesting, humans with the glint in their eye after long months of short days and long, cold nights spent in semi-hibernation.

Yet that would remain a promise, a hint of what is to come, for still the bone-chilling wind blows, still the icy cold saps extremities, still the sun sets early. For the snowdrop and aconite push up out of soil freshly thawed, prophets rather than flag-bearers of a spring that is yet to come.

We are – by happenstance – in the far east of Germany, based in the village of Herrnhut in the region of Oberlausitz (Saxony). We had arrived at the tail end of winter and would leave again in the full riot of spring. Filled with curiosity about (and not a little longing for) the former East Germany, we walk and walk, a simple backpack on our shoulders, and nothing more to ponder than food, lodgings and place to put tired feet.

Hengstberg

Winter can have a long tail. Early walks need the coats-hats-gloves combo, with dripping noses and eyes slitted against the driving snow. But walk we do, around the village, up the heights, along icy tracks traversed for centuries by the locals. On a day that begins clear, we set off for the Hengstberg, the Horse’s Hill. But when the sun sees that we are out, it slips away and snow clouds arrive. Soon enough, as we are climbing the paths of the Hengstberg, snow pelts into our faces.

But why the Horse’s Hill? I stumble across an old, medieval road, more of a gully now than a road. Up this narrow passage a fresh team of puffing horses would strain and pull heavy carts up the hill to Herrnhut. Those muscled horse teams were kept, watered and fed at the bottom of the hill at Eulkretscham, ready to be hired out to a traveller who arrived with a tired nag or two.

Still the snow drives and pelts, beginning to chill our bones. Without a fresh team of horses and a sheltered buggy, we push on. Our destination is Eulkretscham. We follow the path over the Hengstberg, curling around the crest and then down, by streams and fields, over rickety bridges, deep into the trees.

On our way over hill and through forest, we begin to see how the early community lived here, some centuries ago, to gain a glimpse into their map of life. Here is the bend in the creek (down a steep slope) where clothes were washed; here is the virgins’ forest (for firewood, I guess); here the widows’ field; here the orphans’ house; here is the semi-circle of stone seats where early groups would meet for prayer, Bible reading and gossip.

Eulkretscham eventually appears at the edge of the Wald (forest). The horses may be gone, but not the heavy beamed guest-house. On the stone threshold, we shake out snowy clothes, stomp out walking boots, and are seduced by the smell of beer, food and the invitation of a warm bed.

Großhennersdorf

Soon enough a crisp, early spring morning dawns – hard to resist the temptation of much-worn shoes and set off walking. Our first steps pass between low village walls, along a short street and then a turn into another Wald. Soon the trees welcome us, some evergreen pines enjoying the warmth of an early spring sun, some deciduous beginning to bud, the leaves underfoot being cast aside by new shoots. A brook fed by a spring and thawed ground sparkles quietly beside us, and soon we settle into the rhythm of the walk.

We had decided to walk from our base in Herrnhut to another called Großhennersdorf. The path makes its way through the forest, skirting freshly turned fields, crossing streams over simple wooden bridges. In other countries, this would be a ‘hike’, with all of the associations of a special event, with its necessary ‘hiking gear’, subculture and destinations. You can do that here too, with the rolling countryside blessed with a criss-crossing network of walking trails on which you can spend weeks, months, if not years.

But on this occasion it is a simple walk of about ten kilometres, from one village to another. This had once been the regular path for villagers making their way about their daily tasks. Laden perhaps with potatoes, onions and cabbages on their way to a market, setting out to a festival or worship service, slipping away to a planned tryst with a lover, wishing to visit a family member or friend – the reasons were as endless as the mode of transport was common. Now of course most drive or perhaps catch a bus along the sleek road that cuts another path through the forest.

In a forest awake with the sound of birds nesting, animals rustling, frogs hopping after a long winter in immobile rest, I imagine meeting other villagers on the way. A greeting of ‘tag’ (for ‘gutentag’) would be muttered as we pass, or perhaps as we stop for a drink and a rest by a small lake. Along our path is evidence of the long interaction of human beings with the land. In quiet corners, you inevitably find a seat – of stone (here basalt) or timber (rough-hewn or smooth) – for weary legs or perhaps a smoke and bite to eat.

We pass by a hut with a fireplace outside and I am tempted to light a fire and boil a billy. We meet a frog hopping towards the lake. We see a deer in amongst the trees and a hare sitting on the path ahead. We pass by a small village (Euhmühle) at the fork of the streams, about half-way on our journey. It has a few houses, once being in charge of the mill in these parts. We stop by a tree stump with magnificent shelf mushrooms. We pause on a hilltop to look out over a land we are coming to know – Herrnhut on the hill, the kirche in Berthelsdorf, the fold in the hills where Rennersdorf lies on the creek …

And we feel our legs becoming used to an activity that is all too rare in a fast world. On a walk such as this, one glimpses another pace of life before the need for speed. Not that long ago, if you needed to get somewhere, you simply took the time without thinking about it. A walk like this, from one village to another, would take under two hours – so be it. No need to rush. Now, of course, such an act seems like an exception, a steeping outside of the breakneck pace of life.

The walk also makes me realise why villages in central Europe are so close to one another, barely more than five kilometres apart. Given that they were built well before any of the modern modes of transport, and given that one’s primary mode was a pair of legs, it made perfect sense to build such villages within walking distance of one another. It also explains why a solitary farmhouse on a vast property is an exceedingly rare sight. Instead, a farmer (bauer) lives in a village with other farmers, setting out on a daily basis to tend their fields, gather wood and mushrooms from the forest, carry potatoes, eggs, onions and leeks to a market, visit a friend or relative, meet that secret lover …

Quoos (north of Berthelsdorf)

A day of Easter promise, with mild and warm winds bringing nesting birds from the south, a sun actually acting like a sun, and the seeds beginning to burst forth in the first signs of the mad floral rampage of spring and summer. Once again we don walking shoes and backpack, now looking towards the northern forest around Quoos.

We stride eagerly over the Altan, the lookout above Gottesacker, God’s Acre, where the seeds of the faithful departed lie in furrows awaiting the ultimate spring of Christ’s return to earth. Descending to the creek on the other side, we come to the village of Berthelsdorf that spreads itself out as it has done for centuries. Originally it was the Sorbian village of Batromjecy, dating back to the twelfth century when the local Sorbians began clearing some of the trees for farming (followed by German peasants). One may still walk the twisting streets of the old village core. The few houses, the spatial arrangement entwined and intimate, are still are modelled on the old Oberlausitz style. Chequered patterns of shingles on the upper floor, alternating between white and dark brown (although the nature of the chequer may vary according to preferences or family tradition), heavy dark beams connecting the upper floor to the ground. In between the beams are small windows set in white plaster, along with the front door. The whole impression is one of a brown and white bonnet pulled down around a face with strong bands.

This tumble of houses sits hard by the winding path of the stream. Source of life-giving water, occasionally dammed, place to wash bodies and clothes, to drop your bodily waste – never mind those downstream. Indeed, the village has that characteristic smell of the European countryside – the concentrated odour of cow’s piss and shit, melting with the thaw and running in rivulets off the fields and into the streams.

But we are keen to push on, up the hill and into the forest. Soon the track’s bitumen crumbles away to dirt, the grass on its edges grows longer and those unique trees with spindly fingers twisting skyward line its sides. They quickly give way to the dense conifers, speckled light and mossy forest floor. The softness of footfalls on the moss quietens speech. We walk briskly, as is our wont, absorbed by the forest, the momentary absence of other human beings, on the watch for an animal that may stop, look and dart off into the trees.

Once these forests covered the whole land and in its cool shade the tribes lived as forest dwellers, as hunters and gatherers. At a turn of the track after we have climb the low ‘berg’, we can see far afield. I squint my eyes, blurring the view and imagine it all covered with the dense growth of ancient forest. Perhaps a cooking fire threads its smoke into the sky halfway to the horizon, over its flames a deer or wild boar or hare that was more plentiful then – in direct proportion to the sparseness of human beings.

The track tempts us onward, evoking a desire to leave all behind and keep walking until dusk, calling in at a quiet guesthouse for the night with solid beams, smoky walls, warm chatter by the fire, inviting beds. Day would follow day and one’s only concern would be where to find water, food and lodgings, as well as the condition of one’s feet.

In the Wald

With a good two weeks of solid walking behind us, the muscles in our legs have twitched, firmed and found a lost pleasure, our feet and shoes have become accustomed to one another’s intimate presence in a new way, and our bodies long for the rhythm of the long hike – the way people used to travel all the time.

And so on our last day in a countryside to which we have warmed in more ways than expected, we set out for a decent expedition. Our walk takes us south-west of our village, across farmland to a large Wald, from where we turn in an easterly direction through the villages of Nineveh (!) and Ruppersdorf until we hit another forest. Eventually we wind our way back to the north-west to Herrnhut. Open fields, forests, villages, all in all about 20 kilometres.

We might have warmed to the countryside in our hearts, but colder weather has returned, with bitter, biting winds from the southeast. So we strike out into the teeth of the wind, across open fields that had dared to show the first sprouts of spring a week or so before. Would they draw their weather hoods tighter, don windbreakers, grit their teeth and bear it out, or would they wither before warmer winds return? As for us, we bend into the wind, wipe noses, look longingly to the shelter of the forest ahead, wonder what in hell possessed us to head out today and what it is about walking that attracts us in the first place ….

After what seems like an infernally endless trudge, the trees begin to throw their shadows over us and break up the wind. At the forest edge, we pause for the obligatory piss, snack and drink. And I look out over a land of rolling hills that has become more familiar with each passing day. There to the south is the higher hill with the Spreequelle I had explored earlier. There is the wind park by Bernstadt. There is Zittau in the distance. There is the sheltered hollow of Berthelsdorf. There is the fold of two hills where Herrnhut lies – our temporary home.

Pondering the scenery while stationary does not make the kilometres roll by, so we get the legs moving once again, sinking into the forest. Now the wind rustles the leaves and pine needles above, occasionally wafting upon us around tree trunks.

Romantic imagination may be one thing, but the reality is that Europe has arguably the most managed landscape on earth. Given that less than two per cent has not been cultivated in some way, one does not find true wilderness that has not been altered in some way by human interaction. And given the German propensity for organising and ordering all dimensions of one’s life, forests themselves are managed very well indeed. Trees are logged selectively in a way that maintains the forest’s integrity. Signs appear well before you might get lost. All cycling and walking trails are marked simply and easily – a small white square with a red, green, yellow or what-have-you colour depending on the trail. Of course, you can take other tracks if you wish, but inevitably these have some sort of insignia.

The paradox is that all this organisation enables you to relax, be absorbed by the land, enter another world and let your mind tumble. You don’t need to spend hours poring over maps to plot every step of the way. At a deeper level, a subtle easy-going nature among German farmers begins to show itself. Australians might be fabled as an easy-going people (although one needs to be properly suspicious of such cultural stereotypes), but you always find plenty of signs saying ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’. By contrast, here you may walk across a farmer’s field, make your way through some roadwork, walk along someone’s back lane without a worry, for few fences are to be found. Everyone does so, for it is the most normal act in the world. As we do – and much more.

But perhaps the greatest thrills are those serendipitous moments, fleeting moments that happen at a singular and unrepeatable conjunction of time and space. ‘Thrill’ is perhaps too strong a word, but they make the walk worthwhile, keep you feeling that the hike is never over, that you have merely taken a break in a much longer venture.

An older woman appears on a turn in the track. Fifty-something, fit and slender – unlike many of the locals – she is out alone in the forest. She strides along at a great pace, and has the sinewy legs and well-worn hiking boots of someone who has been out on the track for many, many kilometres and no doubt has many more to go. Where is she going? I wonder. Walking to see a friend in the next village? Out for a regular weekend hike over familiar and beloved countryside? A constitutional rendezvous with an old lover? Escaping something? A simple love of forests and fields underfoot?

A forester emerges from behind a massive tree trunk, chainsaw in hand, cigarette hanging from a lip. He stops beside a small pile of timber – small since his primary responsibility is to preserve the forest rather than raze it to the ground. A couple sits quietly on the edge of the forest, looking out over the fields. Binoculars in hand, they watch for the riot of life of early spring. Or so it seems. What about lovers, especially now that the sap is rising with spring. I am sure that the quiet corners of forest and field have been the location of more than one tryst, but we meet none – apart from ourselves.

But are there fugitives here too? A man walks furtively from some dense undergrowth to his car. He avoids our gaze, leaps in and drives away. Something to hide? A drug deal? Or perhaps a more sinister venture? No greetings here. Two men pack away sleeping gear into a van. Strictly speaking, you are not supposed to camp here, but who’s to know if you break camp quickly? And in time past, the forest would have provided refuges from wars and famines, hideouts for freedom fighters and revolutionaries, quiet paths for dreamers of a better world.

Yet I do not walk to meet other people – plenty enough of that in the world. Instead, I prefer the glance of sunlight through the trees, throwing a play of light and shadow before me. Or the ice-bordered stream that rushes away in the excited anticipation of spring. Or the dingo pausing on the track ahead. Dingo? Hardly. I look more intently and espy the erect ears of a hare. Through the trees a deer looks my way for a moment, before turning back to its own business. Scratchings on the forest floor suggest wild pigs have been here. Bear? Wolves? Only in the wilder and higher reaches of the mountains in the Czech Republic perhaps, or Italy. But not here. By now I am pondering the fact that these moments merely scrape the surface of field and forest, even in these few hours we are on the walk. Unroll the months, years and centuries and the land has its own history that is wider and probably more fascinating than the human beings who have been wandered about on its surface.

But what is it like to walk such a distance in a day, or really an afternoon? It would hardly be necessary to ask such a question if we still lived in the time before motorised transport, for people would do it as a matter of course. The first quarter of the hike seems to go on forever. If you happen upon a sign that indicates the distance from your base, then you will be disappointed. ‘3.5 km’! I thought we had walked at least ten! The thought that the bulk of the trek is still before you can be disheartening. You may well ponder cutting it short and heading back via the comfy looking village below.

Resisting temptation, you trudge on. Now the most enjoyable part of the walk begins, for your legs are in rhythm, your feet feel at home in your beloved boots, the forest is full of subtle delights, the energy from the snack kicks in and before you know it more than three quarters of the hike is completed. But then, when you spy your destination through a fold in the hills, the beacon atop a last climb, you begin to feel the day’s hike in legs, feet and mind. The pack grows heavier, the climbs steeper, the wind colder.

Until you finally step over the thick basalt threshold and through the heavy timber door and find one of those heavenly drinks the Germans know how to brew so well. And by this time your appetite is so huge you could eat three meals in one.

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