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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTEEN The Distressed Forests

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

The conversation about Germany's forests continued today over Kaffee und Kuchen – my Kuchen being Pflaumenkuchen with really too much Schlagsahne. The deep cultural roots of forests and woodland survived the war and were exploited for consolation after the trauma. There is a genre of Heimatfilm where nature consoles in an idyllic world - Das Schwarzwaldmädel (The Black Forest Girl - 1950), Der Förster vom Silberwald (The Woodsman from the Silver Forest - 1954) and Und ewig singen die Wälder (The Forests Sing Forever – 1959 – YouTube link below) are examples. Latterly, Das geheime Leben der Bäume (The Hidden Life of Trees – published here in 2016) written by a forest ranger, Peter Wohlleben, became a best seller with its stories of “daily dramas and moving love stories,” of the trees in his forest. He coined the term 'the wood wide web' - there is a link to an interview with him below. The German language carries the markers - forest-drawn idioms are everywhere: Holz in den Wald tragen - to carry wood into the forest (carrying coals to Newcastle); Ich glaub', ich steh' im Wald - "I think I'm standing in the woods" (blow me down); Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus – lit. the way you shout into the forest, the way it echoes back out (what goes around comes around); Sich wie die Axt im Walde benehmen – lit. to act like an axe in a forest (a bull in a China shop); Es herrscht Schweigen im Walde – lit "there is silence in the forest” (cat's got your tongue). Forest schools, nature trails and woodland cemeteries are on the up as are the new Wandervogel groups. And, if more proof were needed, the German version of Pokemon takes players into the forest. But the post war period did see the axes come out. Hermann/Arminius was expunged from school textbooks because of his militaristic associations – and, indeed, many Germans these days do not know his story (despite the vast statue of him near Detmold, the scene of his victory). There was push-back by artists against the misty Romanticism permeating the forests. Anselm Keifer was born as the war ended: “I was born in ruins. So as a child I played in ruins, it was the only place. A child accepts everything; he doesn’t ask if it’s good or bad. But I also like ruins because they are a starting point for something new.” His paintings Parsifal and Notung show wooden boards as building material for German memory storage. As the art historian Daniel Arasse writing about Keifer in 2001 said, “How can anyone be an artist in the tradition of German art and culture after Auschwitz?” In 1982, Joseph Beuys – Keifer's mentor and collaborator - planted 7,000 oak saplings in Kassel for Documenta 7. They were popularly known as 'parking lot destroyers' – or, as Beuys put it, they were intended: 'to grow awareness within the urban environment of the human dependence on the larger ecosystem'. The oak tree is the quintessential German tree. Etchings from the nineteenth century imagining Hermann's battle, for example, show him swinging his broadsword under broadleafed oaks. In Schleswig-Holstein, there is a 500 year old oak called the Bräutigamseiche (Bridegroom Oak) with a hole high up where people looking for love can post letters. The oak has a postal address and the tree receives an average of five letters a day.. Anyone can open the letters and that may lead to love. One lonely girl trapped behind the Berlin Wall wrote regularly to Bräutigamseiche and her letters were opened by a local Schleswig farmer. When the Wall fell in 1989, he went to Berlin and found her and they were married twelve months later. The magic worked for old Bräutigamseiche himself and in 2009 he married Himmelgeist, a rather attractive horse-chestnut living in Düsseldorf. But then tragedy – six years later, Himmelgeist passed away: now her stump stands carved as her own memorial. In Waldbewusstsein und Waldwissen in Deutschland (2001), the ethnologist Albrecht Lehmann expressed his confidence that “Germans are the people of the forest par excellence”. Certainly the extraordinary level of protest against Elon Musk's gigafactory - a project offering 12,500 new jobs but at the cost of felling a small forest - reinforces this view. But a decade of global warming later and the threat is not to the cultural legacy, but to the forests themselves. The story starts really at the end of the Second World War, according to a forester in the Black Forest, when the French took timber, probably oak and lime, from the forests as reparations. Pliny in his Naturalis Historia describes the oak trees of Germany stretching all the way to the Baltic. But the French did not replace the oaks, they planted a non-native species, the spruce, quick-growing to stop erosion. So in Germany today, many forests are like our own dear Forestry Commission blots – a single species in neat rows that march across the landscape.

These vast forestry monocultures are particularly vulnerable. Acid rain was a problem in the 1980s, as was elm disease, but now there is a even more intractable problem – the bark beetle. Global warming means that there are no longer sharp winters to kill them: they emerge earlier in the year and are able consequently to breed not the normal once, but up to four generations per year. “If there are three generations, then 6 million beetles can be produced from one tree in one summer season,” says Jörg Ziegler, head forester of the Black Forest National Park. In the United States, the onslaught of bark beetles over the last twenty years has destroyed over a million acres of woodland. The explosion in the beetle population corresponds disastrously to the prolonged droughts since 2018. The water table on the high ground of these forests has dropped abruptly and the roots of the spruce are not long enough to reach down. Without water, the trees cannot produce the resin that provides some protection against attack. It is, as Larissa Schulz-Trieglaff of the Forest Owners Association said, the "catastrophe of the century" for German forests. According to government figures, some 700 square miles of forest are dying or have died. The answer, ironically, is to introduce non-native species. The Forest Owners' Association advocates diversification, planting trees like the American red oak or the Japanese larch that can cope better with global warming. Where we're heading, the Harz National Park, volunteers worked all autumn planting birch seedlings. Germans are not gong to give up their forests easily: at one point in the Harz this winter, volunteers outnumbered the seedlings available to be planted. Medieval Germans invented the Christmas tree and every town, every year, has a magnificent municipal tree in pride of place. But last Christmas, in the town of Wernigerode in the Harz, the citizens refused to allow the intended tree to be cut down. But for the next few decades, German forests will continue to suffer. Already, in the Black Forest, the army has been called in to help with the logging. And then there is the cost. Given that about half of all German forests are owned by private foresters, the government has to step in. This year the allocation is 889,000 euros and so it will go on. Here is Alexandra's prescient song of 1968 - Mein Freund der Baum ist tot - Here is a French news programme (in Aussie English) about the dying forests - This is an interview in English by Scandinavian tv with Peter Wohlleben - This is the film The Forests Sing Forever -

And I would like to mention an important initiative by an old friend of mine, Fujii Yoshihiro, who is the great expert of Environment & Sustainable Finance in Japan. Full information about his work in Japan here -

And more general information about environmental finance here -

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Apr 15, 2020

You need to add Hans Hotter here, singing Richard Strauss’s Gefunden to Goethe’s text

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