The morning is tough as we mount the bikes for the second day, not helped by the falling snow as we leave Bautzen and by the sucking mud of the tracks in the ‘biosphere’ between Guttau and Uhyst. By the afternoon it becomes easier, assisted by a great lunch at Uhyst. We are slowly regaining our cycling fitness.
Today I rediscover an old pleasure, ponder the environmental heritage of the communist era in the east and am struck by the relative sparseness of human population. The pleasure first: when cycling over long days, my body burns up the energy at an unbelievable rate. So I find I can eat and eat and eat in a way that I have not done since I was in my twenties. A massive breakfast, courtesy of that European tradition of including breakfast in the accommodation cost, involves mountains of muesli, bread rolls, cheeses, jams, yoghurt and honey. Lunch is a bakery, with yet more of those wonderful German breads, topped up with calorie rich slices that the locals love so much. And dinner is a succession of courses until at last my needs are sated. I fall in love with the sumptuous Bauernfrüstücke and the Sorbian dish of potatoes and quark (a fresh and very soft cheese). Do that in one’s usual life and the midriff expands even for someone like me.
As for the environment, I begin to notice the dates when lakes were declared natural areas, when forests were demarcated as wild areas, when the river itself became an environmental concern. Those dates are typically in the 1960s and 1970s. But was that not the era of the DDR? If we are to believe the propaganda of trendy environmentalists in the West, communist governments were supposed to be environmental bandits, destroying swathes of forests and lakes and water courses for the sake of industrialisation. In some cases, of course, they made mistakes, but they seem to have learnt from those experiences and fostered more environmental projects than many care to remember. After all, communism is keen not merely on human flourishing, but also of the earth as a whole, of unleashing the forces of nature in a way that is stymied and atrophied by capitalism.
In these parts, the communist governments inherited a feature of eastern Europe that goes much further back. The swathes of forest and field, of rivers and mountains are a signal of the sparseness of human beings hereabouts. To be sure, it is a relative scarcity, for regions of desert and cold are sparser, but for conditions genial to human habitation such as Europe, human beings are relatively scarce on the ground. Complex factors play a role here, such as the waves of invasions and migrations from further east that rolled over eastern Europe, or the appeal of the warmer coastal zones to the west rather than the chillier inner reaches of Europe, as also distinct economic developments in the east. So it was already in the years of early capitalism. In western Europe, the density of population meant that land was scarce and people moved about more readily to find sustenance, even reclaiming land from the sea as in the Netherlands and throughout greater Frisia, along the Waddenzee and up to Jutland. In the east, land and not labour was plentiful, so the ‘refeudalisation’ of eastern Europe sought to bind farm labourers to the estates – legally and economically, by force if necessary. That scarcity of labour continued in communist times, with collectivisation another mode of economic security. Today, one can ride for half a day, through forests and steppes, over mountains and through wetlands, and come across only villages and towns scattered here and there. Readymade, it would seem, for the celebration of nature and the wild that you continue to find. Readymade also for those extraordinary tracks through such land: a fahradstrasse (bicycle road) through a forest; a solitary lane across a field, a lane that twists and dips a little as you pass through; the energy sucking mud of a spring thaw in the biospheres that cover the landscape.
We stop gratefully in the village of Neustadt, where a dark-haired mother with a sad face and two inquisitive little boys greet us. She and her mother run the gasthaus, although her mind is elsewhere, tracing perhaps a long and difficult story that ends up in a small village in eastern Germany. Meanwhile, the boys pepper us with myriad questions concerning the distant lands from which we come and the variations in the times of day and night between such places.
In between, we eat yet more Sorbian food, and restore our bodies with another endless sleep.