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Notes from a green Zeitreise
On our last Sunday in Berlin, we made an offering to a playground troll at the southwest corner of the Tiergarten, in the shadow of the golden angel we remembered from that Wim Wenders movie. The offering was of a beat-up Nerf football we found left behind on the lawn, tethering that spot to our homeland in some kind of supply chain sympathetic magic, and a yellow flower I pinched from a nearby bush. We wished for safe travels home from our summer vacation, and in the end it mostly worked.
On the last Thursday in August, I walked the Isar River where it runs through the old city of Munich. I had walked that river many times—first as a gap year wanderer forty years ago, when it was a typically abused urban canal that you could follow for a mile and never really notice, and again a decade ago, when my son and I went for a late winter run and marveled at how the river’s banks had been restored to their natural condition. I had heard stories from locals of how the Müncheners frolic on the river in the summer, but this was the first time I got to see it—a happy hour culture in which people carry their swimsuits and picnic supplies to work with them in the morning, and at the end of the day head to the water that runs through the central city.
I had read about the remarkable project whereby the river was restored by the city and state beginning in 1995, with more than 28 million Euros invested to improve water quality, drainage and flood control while also bringing back wildlife habitat and opportunities for natural recreation inside the urban core. That the water would so quickly recover its cleanliness as to be safe for swimming seems to have been something not even its designers anticipated. A model for the possibilities of a more visionary urban ecology that takes advantage of the intrinsic resilience of the natural systems our cities abuse, and one whose price seems rather modest when you really experience the results.
I must have walked close to two miles along the river from bridge to bridge, and the entire way it was full of people enjoying the bounty of this miracle on their own terms, and a much more diverse crowd than one would have seen in the West Germany of my youth. Toward the end, I came upon one island that seemed to have some kind of Garden of Earthly Delights gathering underway on the other side of the foliage. The biggest smile may have been this Anthropocene sunbather spotted on one of the few remaining concrete structures in that section of the river, in a sonic landscape blends rushing rapids and rush hour traffic:
The next morning I took an early train down to the Chiemgau, the lake district at the base of the Bavarian Alps where some of my relatives live. My cousin Florian took the day off his work for a Silicon Valley tech company, picked me up at the station, and drove us to the base of the Kampenwand for a hike. As we worked our way up toward the summit, and the verdant Sound of Music vistas opened up around us, Florian explained how his home region had gotten rain this summer that most of the rest of the western half of Germany had not. But the snow on those slopes has been meager for years, he said, most of what people ski on artificial. Making one wonder how that beautiful slice of restored river will do as the snow melt dries up more completely.
In Berlin, where I traveled the next day, the river is more intensely urban than ever in the central city, crowded with important institutional buildings and bounded by concrete pathways. But on a sunny Sunday afternoon at summer’s end, the quantity of people enjoying its banks was even greater. And then the little plaques in the pavement remind you that along the east bank the wall once stood, and you better appreciate how much the landscape has been opened up in your lifetime, with the newer buildings working hard to express the miracle and the hard work of reunification.
On both rivers, about the only wildlife I saw were ravens, and a few ducks. The riverfront light show advertised on the side of the Bundestag can’t help in that regard, in the city of ubiquitous but imaginary bears.
When my wife and daughter caught up with me, a morning walk took us to one of the last remaining sections of the wall still standing in the central city, the section that has been turned into a memorial and park, and there you could get a glimpse of how the zone where the fortifications of the Iron Curtain once stood has created an opportunity for rewilding. The most remarkable sections of the European Green Belt are outside of the cities, zones where the exclusion of human movement inadvertently created opportunities for nature to flourish, and where the opening up of the zone has created the opportunity for a wild park that runs from the Baltic to the Adriatic. But even in the heart of Berlin, you can find rewilded sections of the wall.
The principal reason we spent our family summer vacation in the land of the Teutons was that my German cousins were hosting a family reunion, with this year’s installment centered around a visit to the village southeast of Berlin where my great-grandparents had lived and started an art colony at the beginning of the last century. We had family that still lived there, who I had planned to visit over spring break the year I spent studying at Oxford, only to have my plans altered by the Chernobyl accident right before school vacation began. Now more than three decades later, my wife and daughter and I followed Berlin’s river south to the swampy delta of the Spreewald, an area still inhabited by the Sorbs who migrated there 1400 years ago.
The ghosts of the DDR are everywhere in the landscape as you leave Berlin, from the streetscapes of Kreuzberg to the curious wood carvings of Lübbenau. They aren’t the only ghosts that hide in plain sight in the German city. Some, like the Friedrichstrasse train station that was near our AirBnB, weigh on you with a gravity you would think a commuter rail stop incapable of. When we got to the countryside, we stayed in an old mansion-turned-hotel that had spent the Warsaw Pact years as a computer training center, and in the garden many of the tall stumps had been carved into singing choruses of faces that I took to be expressions of some kind of folky socialist modernism. Similar sculptures were there behind the church, and the playground, and the town medical clinic where we had to make a Friday morning visit. Not that different than some of the chainsaw art you can find in our neighborhood in Austin, trying to anthropomorphically express life through dead trees.
On an early morning ramble in the Spreewald, it was immediately evident how much more ancient that forest is than the ones I walk along Austin’s urban river. Wandering down little dirt roads that interlace the labyrinthine side channels of the river, you can sense how very old the human settlements are that cluster those pathways. And you don’t have to go very far before you start to get the feeling that maybe the folk art is channeling some much more ancient conjurings from nature than the utopian dreams of state socialism. When I came upon this green man in the swamp, I couldn’t help but wonder whether our summer vacation was about to take a turn into Midsommar.
On the last afternoon, we made a road trip to the other side of the delta, a village called Jamlitz where I got to see the house my grandfather had spent much of his childhood in, raised by parents who tried to pay the bills by starting an art school in the countryside for the girls of Berlin. The landscape of pine forests and wide marshes was one I knew with intense familiarity, but only from landscape paintings that hung on Midwestern walls of people who had left for the U.S. and otherwise not looked back. This landscape was alive, with a trio of red kites and a wild swan and the tracks of European mammals, and intensely well-preserved.
The house, one of my cousins explained, was originally built around the year 750, and then added onto by my great-grandparents. Standing there in the almost cave-like living room, which I now realized had its echoes in the homes of my grandparents and aunts and uncles, I tried to get my head around the idea of a house that had been continuously occupied for 1300 years.
At the end of the visit, I met my cousin who lives in that house, son of one of my mom’s first cousins, and learned we were born within months of each other, but raised in radically different realities. You could see some of the challenges of what he had endured in his eyes, and in the evidence around the house and yard of how he lived. I remembered the conception I was taught during the Cold War of what the lives our our cousins behind the Iron Curtain must have been like. But the evidence there was of something very different.
The house and garden was basically a small farm that had been functioning on essentially the same basis since the Middle Ages. Working vegetable garden, livestock, apiary, all on a small scale manageable by one family and occupying no more than a half-acre or so of land. An old barn had been turned into a shop, where old machines were kept running and old tools kept sharp by whatever means might need to be improvised. The only real evidence of the 21st century were the cars in the drive, the thermally efficient modern windows, and the solar panels on the roof. Making me think, as I looked back at the photos, that it taught a powerful lesson about how much living like the people of the past may be the best way to endure the future.
When we got back to Berlin to prepare for our flight home, not far from the spot where we made that offering to the playground troll, I found a very nice-sized chicken of the woods growing in a most unlikely location—on a tree on the roundabout that circles the imperial column on which stands the golden angel of military victory. No one else in the crowd of Sunday afternoon amblers and tourists seemed to notice it, but it suggested that the urban forest was healthier than you might think from all the cars zipping by. And that maybe the lessons of what we saw an hour outside of town about how to live in closer and more balanced connection with nature might really be ready to fruit in the hearts of our metropolises.
For more on the Isar River restoration, this white paper on the Bavarian government site is an excellent overview.
For more on the European Green Belt, this site is a good place to start.
For more on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse train station, here’s an interesting article by (of all people) Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings.
For more on the Spreewald and its curious inhabitants, some of whom emigrated to Central Texas just downriver from Austin, the English-language Wikipedia page is a decent place to start finding your way into the maze.
More on the art colony of Jamlitz at this German-language site.
And as a reminder of how endangered Europe’s ancient forests still are, check out this NYT piece about how many of them are being savaged to help provide cheap energy.
And on the subject of river conservation, come back next week what we found upon our return to Austin.
Have a great week.