Can one find a part of Europe where land is plenty and people are few? This is not the usual image of that western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass. Then go eastward, to regions few think of when ‘Europe’ is mentioned, to Eastern Europe. There you will encounter endless forests, marshland and mountains. To be sure, it is still relative, for farmland always has the next village within eyeshot, and you can be sure that someone, at some time over the last few centuries, has been before you in this spot in the quiet forest. Yet, at a particular moment, you can be entirely alone, not a human being within range. So it is one year in a late winter, in the easternmost parts of Germany. The snow keeps falling and the ice lingers and people hope for spring. Indoors they stay, restless and fidgety, but I am out hiking through snowdrifts and snowstorms, relishing the crisp air, the walde and burge all to myself.
Day One: The Silence of the Forest (March 2013)
A couple of days ago the snow returned, reminding us that spring isn’t quite here. Until then, we had begun to feel the warmer touches to the air; the bushes had thought about a bud and some birds began gathering twigs. Too soon, it seems. Recently thawed ground once again lies under a thick cover; pines that had shed their heavy loads are once again blanketed; snow clearing equipment put away until next season is hauled out again.
I am keen to walk – in the forest. My route takes me eastward from my lodgings in Herrnhut, down the hill along a well-known path – Galloping Tuberculosis (the alternative to Langsamer Tod, the Slow Death) – which is the age-old track for villagers between Ruppersdorf and Herrnhut. Along the Petersbach brook it trails through the forest to Oily Crotch (Eulchratsham), before turning northwest and up again through the forest. The last stretch is through open fields, over the Hutberg and to the village of Strahwalde.
For much of the trek, my footsteps are first in the snow. Drifting up to half a metre, it is deep enough so my foot sinks in past my ankle, shallow enough so it is not my whole leg. With temperatures no more than minus 10, it is perfect weather and quite mild. Progress is slow, occasionally slippery, but steady. Beneath the layer of snow lie icy ridges, strange angles, holes – all ready to catch an unwary ankle, to test and tone muscles used to slack walking on the flats. A thorough workout for gluts, thighs, calves and the multiple muscles of my feet and ankles.
In the midst of it all, I am thoroughly absorbed with three things:
First, the silence of the forest. I have experienced the quiet after a snow storm in the city, in Montreal where it was wonderful to be out after a storm with the noise absorber of a white blanket everywhere. But here in the forest, the usual sounds of animals, wind, trees, have disappeared; or rather they are absorbed by the interlocked flakes.
Second, the animal tracks are everywhere. They may be small, dainty steps, perhaps of a bird prancing about on the snow; they may be slightly longer hops, perhaps a squirrel; they may be the pointed toes and sweep of a tail that I guess is a fox; they may be what appear to be rabbit prints, two at a time in neat pairs; or dog tracks, out with an ‘owner’, following their own olfactory path rather than the visual one humans follow. But the triple prints in a triangle are a puzzle, until some deer bound across the track, startled, and I note their tracks. Many other tracks contribute to the intricate tracery, made by animals I cannot not even guess. It may be easy to hide in a snowy landscape at some level, if one knows how (I see very few animals), but well-nigh impossible to cover one’s tracks unless you follow exactly in the footsteps that have gone before – if there are any like one’s own.
Third, the extraordinary effect of snow on trees. On bare branches, a line of snow renders a stark outline, throwing into relief the line of the branch itself. By contrast, conifers seem to set themselves to catch snow on their webs of needles. Whole trees seem to compete with one another to see who can collect the most snow.
Eventually, the forest and its silence, with laden trees and animal tracery in the snow, come to an end. My path takes me out of the forest and over the open fields past the Hutberg. Now I trail someone’s cross-country skis – of which there are many tracks this late winter. I stride up the hill and skid lightly down, a solitary figure in the expanse of white. The sun appears and glistens on the snow; villages and their houses huddle beneath heavy white brows, puffing smoke. Then a magical moment: a brief snow storm, with myriad large fluffy flakes swirling down and cutting down visibility. A low sun peaks beneath the clouds and I am captured – again.
Yet I am also captured by the lowness of the sun, or rather, almost trapped. I am so absorbed by the storm and its light that dusk comes to an end before I know it. Visibility runs down quickly and I am still far from my lodgings. Fortunately even the smallest amount of light is enhanced by the snow. I make for the glow of warm yellow lights in the village windows.
Day Two: Bone-Chiller (March 2013)
Some winds brandish their wind-chill with bitter glee, anticipating the gasps and shivers as they hit yet more warm-blooded creatures. So it is today as I set out on the trails. As soon as I come out from behind the shelter of the wall, the wind hits. Turning to face it, with eyes watering and nostril hairs frozen, I realise I am looking directly towards Siberia. Later I am to discover that this was the coldest spring morning Germany has ever had.
The forest beckons, promising to block the bone-chiller. And so it does. The conifers may whistle higher up, snow may come tumbling down from a waving tree branch, but down below, among the roots and trunks, I am comparatively warm. Underfoot, the snow is compacted to some extent along the trail, so the going is easier than I experienced earlier.
It takes little time for me to feel as though I have been on the road for ages. The kilometres may roll past more slowly underfoot, but pass they do. Well-tried walking boots, comfortable clothes, muscles working smoothly and generating their own warmth, a small pack – nothing more is needed.
Now it is the mountain, the Hengstberg (Horses Hill), where fresh teams of horses used to haul heavy carts up the slope. The trench where the old road ran is still to be found here. I clamber up the slope, beginning to sweat, removing caps and gloves for a brief period. And then it is a slide down the other side, on my bum due to the steepness, and I find once again the childhood glee of pleasure in the snow.
Now I eschew the protective forest and set out over open fields. Here the snow drifts in the Siberian wind, and ice forms on roads and paths, eager to send an unwary foot skidding. Extremities begin to freeze as my body seeks to protect its core. In the village of Batromjecy-Berthelsdorf I pause out of the wind and still I shiver – I find out later that it is minus 20 degrees with the wind chill. I seek out the church. The spirit may have moved here in 1723, sending a handful of Moravian Brethren out to Africa, Greenland, North America, and Asia, but the spirit is not going to warm me today. I seek the spirit in a coffee at the local Gastäte, but it is closed, despite the exuberant sign proclaiming that it is open. Now my body core itself begins to cool, so I turn and march to my lodgings – up the long hill and exposed to the wind. Climbs like this are supposed to get circulation going, but only the coffees and strudel in the cosiness of the Hutbergkellar can achieve that.
Day Three: Wolfsberg Wald (March 2013)
Winter seems as though it may be defeated through sheer willpower. Today with the mercury pushing above zero, living creatures have decided to wait no longer. The birds emerge from whatever shelter they had found from the bitter winds and are out, seeking nesting materials and food, squealing, squawking, chirping. Deer seem to leap out every time I look ahead on the still snowy forest track. Dogs are frisky, barking, eager to be out and sniffing anyone and everything. Human beings burrow in garages looking for the implements of spring – gardening tools, bicycles, old chairs in which to sit and enjoy the sun to come … Or they festoon bushes beside their front doors with eggs for Easter. Or they are out walking.
I seek out the wald to the north. This is no patch of trees on a hilltop, for it is huge enough to swallow you and get you seriously lost. It is also vast enough to provide sanctuary for wolves, for they like to avoid human beings. I am told this is not merely due to old fears of hunters, but because human beings stink to high heaven in a wolf’s nostrils. I have actually seen wolf tracks in this forest, so I like to call it after one of its mountains, the Wolfsberg Wald.
On this trek, I walk some 15 kilometres from Herrnhut to Kemnitz and then Bernstadt. I pass through jumbled village cores first established about a millennium ago, along snow-covered trails deep in the forests, along muddy paths across fields, and then finally alongside the main road into Bernstadt. On the way I learn three more lessons about walking through German forests.
First, Germans like to organise their ‘wildernesses’. Of course, there are the sign-posted tracks, marked with routes for walking, horse riding and cycling. And yes, they have hunter/wildlife observer platforms throughout. But when it comes to numbering the bird boxes, it goes to a whole new level. At a scratch I can understand how such boxes help threatened species. But to number them consecutively … ‘There’s a new batch of chicks in number 96 on Berthelsdorfer Strasse’.
That brings me to the second lesson. Tracks through forests are not logging tracks or fire tracks – the sort to which I have become accustomed back home. They are ‘streets’. In fact, they are named according to the village at the other end. So in Berthelsdorf, Kemnitzer Strasse takes you to Kemnitz. And the same track in Kemnitz is called Berthesldorfer Strasse and takes you to, yes, Berthelsdorf. Hold on: they are forest tracks! I can understand a paved road with such names. But forest tracks? Of course, if I cast my mind back a few centuries, when only the rich had horses and carriages and the majority walked, then such a track was the best way between villages. No one would think twice about a 10 km walk from one to the other. It is simply what you did to get around.
Lesson three: German beer tastes much better after a day out walking, even with snow still thick on the ground. Your legs and feet appreciate it more, especially when they have passed from well-oiled pistons to stiff and tender limbs urgently in need of rest and resuscitation. Your carbohydrate deprived body is thankful, since beer provides a concentrated replenishment that is far better than those oddly coloured, fancily bottled and highly sugared ‘sports drinks’. And your throat is eternally thankful.
Day Four: Lost in the Village (March 2013)
Most often on a longer hike, you stride through villages, perhaps stopping for a little to eat and a piss. Apart from a couple of houses strung out along the ever-present stream, there’s nothing much to them. Or is there? For some reason or other I end up in the back streets of the village of Strahwalde, perhaps due to a ‘wrong’ turn. It is hard to know what a ‘wrong’ turn is, since the streets twist and bend in that medieval way.
Before I know it, I have crossed the stream, which is variously dammed for washing clothes in times past, runs through a small mill, or has a diversion for a reason long forgotten. I sidle past a house with an ageing mural on its side, the work of an artist perhaps, who decided long ago to relocate here. Up a twisting path and I am in the midst of run-down stables before striding past the front door of the old schloß, or manor house of the lord. Built in the seventeenth century, it was part of the ‘refeudalisation’ of eastern Europe that was underway. Less a return to feudalism per se, it was a manifestation of early capitalism, but in an area where land was plentiful and labour scarce. So peasants were legally tied to the land of their lord, or perhaps one of his early factories, in a way that seemed as though the old order was returning. But it actually enabled the transition to more fully fledged capitalism. These days the schloß is cracked and worn, windows broken and doors boarded up. I wish that for all the ruling class.
I drop down from the hill – for rulers ‘need’ to have the best views – and come across a man rummaging in his garage. Snow may still be on the ground, ice may still be forming in the creek, but it is March and it is supposed to be spring. So he is sorting out his gardening tools, ready to dig and plant, hoe and rake the moment the thaw arrives. But the garage takes my fancy, for it is a simple rectangular construction, with a light sloping roof to the wooden double door at the front. It is exactly the same design as countless others I have encountered, with cement-rendered finish over large bricks. Simple, functional, cheap – a product of the DDR when one still made such things. This one has a few extra touches: some paint on the timber door, a large thermometer out the front, a weather-cock on its corner. For his sake and for mine, I hope spring comes soon.
A bicycle passes by, upon which is the same man I have seen on a number of occasions. A slightly vacant stare, with one eye to the side; perhaps his family has been in the village a little too long. At the next turn, a woman leans out of her kitchen window and talks to a neighbour on the street. The neighbour’s only errand may well be to meet and chat a little like this. A dog scampers on its way somewhere, and a child follows on a bicycle, trying to keep up with the dog.
Now I twist around the corners of the small farmer’s houses, some with the local braces-and-shingle style. On the lower floor, heavy timber forms arches that look much like braces to hold up one’s pants, should one be of that vintage. Two such braces are at one short end of the house, while three run to the front door. From the door to the other end the braces stop and angled timber and brick takes their place – the kitchen and perhaps (if retrofitted) a small toilet and bathroom inside. Upstairs is for sleeping, and here are shingles aplenty. They cascade down from the roof, past windows and to the intersection between the two floors. And each village has its own distinct pattern. Here the shingles are predominantly black, with white spot patterns in between. Tight and warm in winter; unbearably close in summer.
The spatial relationship between this house and its neighbours seems to have no clear plan, except perhaps to be close to the creek. Or rather, they reveal a very different production of space that dictates such arrangements. With corners jutting out, with designs at all angles apart from 90 degrees, each place is set obliquely to the other. It looks as though a giant child has been playing with them, only to toss them aside and then walk away to seek some other amusement. Here, at the core of a twelfth century village is a living reminder of almost impossible to imagine senses of lived space. Yet, at least one item of spatial production is clear to me: no matter which path you take, with its many twists and unaccountable bends, it always seems to wind its way to the church. Once, long ago, it may have been Roman Catholic and then Lutheran, but now it bears the lamb and banner of the Moravian Brethren over its doors.
I look at my watch: three hours have passed! Is not a village supposed to be tiny, a few houses strung out on a stream?
Day Five: Crossroad (March 2013)
Clearly, everyone and everything wants spring to arrive. The birds have had to put away their sticks and string and straw for the time being. The deer had been hoping for fresh shoots of grass to nibble, but instead find they need to scratch about in the snow for old, frozen leaves. The squirrels’ winter supplies have well and truly run out, but the new stock is by no means ready. Even the first flowers of spring, the yellow winter aconites and white snowdrops, have pushed up in the odd corner only to be frozen stiff.
But spring refuses to arrive. Or rather, winter is undertaking an excellent rear-guard action to keep spring at bay. My winter rhythms continue, baby-steps over slippery ice remain the norm, coats-hats-gloves are still firmly in place. I set off out the back of Berthesdorf, keen to try new paths, through scatterings of houses that collectively call themselves the villages of Kränke, Neuberthelsdorf, Heuscheune … Even though I know that each house has a dog, even though I am occasionally apprehensive, the German dogs are well-behaved indeed. Perhaps it is the mundane reality of walkers and cyclists that makes such prey unexciting. Perhaps it is the German way, that all must be ordered and controlled. But a barking dog is a rare experience.
I stride over hills and cross creeks, each with a village huddled along it. I hike across fields still white with snow. I plunge into forests full of the animals that are perplexed by the absence of spring. I come to a crossroad – a temptation, a choice, a compromise. Is that not always the way with crossroads? Turn that way and I follow an unknown path; turn this way and it takes me home. Homeward I must turn – not without a longing look towards the other path – for the light is fading and hunger calls me. As do warm lodgings.