Monday, 12 May 2014

Into the woods it's time to go

Greener than last year – 'my' little Travemünde wood
The woods, the woods; trees soaring up to meet the sky and undergrowth straining to catch what light permeates the swaying canopy.

On the floor, a blackbird rootles through last year’s crackling debris, while flowers, pale and delicate, offer white, yellow and purple contrast with the blanketing greens.

Last year when I made the short trip from Lübeck to Travemünde, there was three weeks less tree cover – and that after a mercilessly long winter. Purple crocuses showed an almost brazen deep colour by the edges of the footpath.

All around - or to be more accurate, all above - was filled with the sound of crows cawing.

When we stepped off the train at Travemünde in the mid morning of 3 May, it was the first noise to assail the ears. The little wood butts right up to the equally little station and the crows were already out in force.

Delicate apple blossom
But underlying that raucous sound was birdsong, and once in the wood itself, it seems as though there are layers of sound; the smallest birds first, nearest to the ear, then the wood pigeons billing and cooing, a little farther off, and then the crows, high above.

And all with the faint echo that gives it such a haunting quality.

It's only a small wood, but just a few steps inside and you are divorced from the sights and sounds of the modern world, and half expecting to round the next turn and see a gingerbread house before you.

All this is just a few hundred metres from the beach and the shore.

Where the Baltic waters meet the silver sands were lying vast numbers of seaweed and mussels, ripped free of their moorings by the tide and left high and dry.

The crows were having a banquet, strutting along, testing shells with sharp beaks and wolfing any remaining meat.

Along the coast
That little wood – my little wood, or so I find myself thinking of it since I experienced it with some awe a year ago – is far from unique.

On the Sunday morning, we set off along the promenade before taking a footpath up into the mass of trees that rose all the way up to the cliff edge.

The walk to Niendorf is around 7.5km along the coast, taking in more than one small wood. Footpaths are well maintained and leave no need for scrambling – as I remember from the last time I did a UK coastal walk, some years ago, in Yorkshire.

The way was dotted with a series of charming metal sculptures of wildlife – some forming part of seats – by Guillermo Steinbrüggen, which were created and put in place as part of ‘Land-Art-Projekt’ in 2010.

Two memorials also stand alongside the path, with neat flowers alongside: one is ‘in memory of the deceased who found their eternal rest in the Bay of Lübeck’, which may mean those who have died at sea in peacetime, but could also include the many who died in the bay during WWII.

Owl sculpture bench
Those included concentration camp inmates who were being transported by the SS aboard the Cap Arcona, which was then bombed by the RAF.

The path runs alongside farm land in places and, in keeping with a country where cigarette machines hang, un-vandalised, on exterior walls – even in cities – there are no barriers between public footpath and private agricultural land.

It is assumed that you will have enough brains and enough general decency that any physical barrier would be superfluous.

But back to all those trees.

As I touched on last year, the forest occupies an important place in the German psyche.

We, having deforested this island centuries ago, don’t find that easy to understand, but step inside such a wood for even just a few minutes and you can feel it working on you.

Historically, one could do worse than start by considering Hermann the German.

Wolf sculpture
A Cherusci chieftain’s son, he was given the Latin name of Arminius and a military training in Rome after being taken hostage on one attempt at subjugating the Germanic peoples and lands.

But in 9AD, in the Teutoburg Forest, he handed out a serious smacking to the Romans, when the various Germanic tribes he’d pulled into a coalition destroyed three Imperial legions under Publius Varus, having lured them there with talk of suppressing a rebellion.

It was one of Rome’s most devastating defeats and intended annexations of western Germany and Bohemia were postponed – and as it turned out, never did happen.

In the first part of his excellent three-part documentary on German art, Andrew Graham Dixon highlighted the place of the forest within that art - seen in a number of ways, but not least through the carvings found throughout the country, including in old churches.

Wolpertinger, after Dürer
Then there are all the folkloric creatures that inhabit those forests.

There’s the elwedritsche, a mythical, flightless bird living in the Palatinate, and the rasselbock in Thuringia, which is essentially a large rabbit with antlers, making it sound rather similar to the Bavarian wolpertinger, a creature made up of bits of various animals and birds, which lives in the Alpine forests.

It’s something that makes me wonder how many similarly mythical captures can one think of from the British Isles.

Personally, I know of the northern boggart and I know of the Cornish piskie, but for anything else, I’d have to start searching. Folklore does not seem to exist much more in the UK.

And such folklore overlaps with German art.

The German renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) didn’t merely include the woods in his scenes, including St John in the Forest (1515), but the fantastical occurs in his paintings, including his most famous work, the Isenheim Altarpiece.

The Temptation of St Anthony, Matthias Grünewald
It’s easy to think of the creatures that occur in the Temptation of St Anthony section of that masterpiece as Bosch-like, but they also have that sense of the frightening forest and the hybrids of folklore that live among the trees.

As only a slight aside, take away the umlaut from Grünewald’s name and you get ‘green wood’.

And then, of course, there are the fairy tales.

Remove the Disneyfication, and you’re left with dark tales that, in many cases, feature forests – and corvids. Hansel and Gretel is one the most famous, but many others feature getting lost in a forest as a key ingredient.

My reading matter for the trip was The Rat, by Günter Grass – largely because, having remembered seeing the sculptured rat alongside some Smurfs when I’d visited Günter Grass-Haus during last year’s visit to Lübeck and thought to look it up.

The book – how on earth can anything by a novelist such as Grass be out of print – turned out, unexpectedly, to be partly set around the area, which Grass moved to in 1986, the year of publication.

Overlooking Lübeck Bay
Its central theme is the environmental desecration wrought by humankind, and part of Grass’s way of highlighting this is to write of the forests dying and, with them, the fairy tale characters who live within, a theme that he returned to in Totes Holz (1990), which combined art and prose.

Even if the accidental nuclear apocalypse of The Rat may seem a little dated, since it was so much of the Cold War era, the potential for an environmental apocalypse remains very much with us.

Grass’s concerns were far from lacking a foundation in reality: in the 1980s, in Bavaria alone, 2.5 million hectares of woodland showed the signs of pollution damage, while vast numbers of trees in the fabled Black Forest of Baden-Wuerttemburg were under threat.

The Germans have a word for it: ‘Waldsterben,’ or forest death.

Since then, much has changed. Problems remain – not least due to climate change – but there are reasons that Germany has become a global leader in wind and solar energy.

As we sat waiting for the first train of the morning to take us from Travemünde to Lübeck on our way back to London via Hamburg, the crows in the little wood alongside the track were already about their business.

But long after we’d passed beyond the Baltic resort, it was clear that the cawing had imprinted itself on my mind, together with just a hint of the thrill and the mystery of the forest.

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