It looks like a scene from a fairytale, except…
Disturbance – or the industrious woods.
I sit on a log and wait for something to come out of the brush pile. It’s a stack of cut pine, so out of place here, surrounded by nothing but beech trees. It looks like it was left here to be picked up later, like a sack of heavy groceries someone had put down on the way home and then forgot about. The weight of this giant pile of former trees impresses me, disturbs me. It seems to unbalance the slopes of towering, straight beech trees in the background.
The moment is so quiet. (The thing I thought was a #Haubenmeise does not emerge from the hidey holes of the brush pile). By quiet I mean that my mind has finally quieted. Often, the first half of the walk is all about rumination, or rather complaining. This time the complaining takes the form of a thick, dog-eared catalogue of all the non-quiet places I have ever lived in, and throw in some impatience concerning birding. Then there is a turning point, for no other reason probably than my blood has circulated enough. And at that moment, whatever I find in front of me becomes important. Like this brush pile.
The scene feels portentous, heavy, disturbing in the objective sense, in the same way that a flood or high wind is disturbing, or a tractor carving out a road and piling up this enormous stack of cut pine trees – from where? Putting them where they don’t belong but then where they belong is where they are now. Maybe the Haubenmeise, who are happiest in confers, will see through the anomaly and move on.
The whole forest is disturbance-born. This beech forest, to the eyes of the ecologist, is obviously a monoculture plantation, and yet beautiful. So, disturbance and artificial selection at work. These woods have always been managed. The tools are amplified but the landscape of these wooded slopes probably looks much like it did for hundreds of years, if not a thousand.
Ancient, perpetual disturbance. Something to think about over the sound of a power saw in the town below. I try to listen more carefully and take that sound apart: compressor, motor, blade. Isn’t the largest part of this noise from the blade grinding the wood? And wouldn’t it have been the same sound if the saw was powered by a water mill? Villages, especially farm villages, have always been noisy places. Walking along a ridge on the side of the Dörnberg I can see who exactly is making the noise with the saw, see him moving about in his garden. On a clear day I can tell who is out walking five fields away by their gait and the kind of dog with them. (Infidelity must be even more daring in the countryside than in the cities.) The total lack of anonymity and near lack of privacy has always been village life too.
Back to the log pile. Now a pair of chattering Meisen fly around me like bees, too quick to get a good look at them. As compensation, a Drossel of some kind appears on the brush pile, partly veiled by a wisp of pine needles. It tells me nothing except that it is a brown Drossel of some kind. It does not sing. But I had, after all, got my “life bird” on this walk. A #Zaunkoenig (fenceking) without it’s zaun, reminding me that it was always what it was, long before there were fence posts, and that the brush piles on the forest floor – whether put there by natural or unnatural disturbance – have always been its home.
At the pine pile, my eyes reconcile the disturbance of this huge mass deposited in the landscape, recalibrate the balance in my view. If I wait any longer for any other bird to appear this sight will lose its specialness. It may as well be a gargantuan pile of asparagus. I move on.
I am not alone in the woods. No one is. Before too long someone will come along, sharing the path with me. Always cheerful, if a little reserved, wishing to create space, out of Covid, or just naturally shy. On any particular day, there is always a young woman or two on horseback. Today, an older gent on his bicycle. We say “Hallo” and I think he might be anglo like me, I thought I heard “Hello” and not “Hallo.” I hope the binoculars around my neck explain everything, why I am sitting on this log, legs akimbo, just looking at the pile of cut pine.
The road along the forested slope will take me in view of the village down below, my home. All noise and chatter and bright sunlight. Only if I was tired and hungry would I approach it happily. The din of April is getting to me. And I don’t mean birdsong. I mean the constant stream of tractors and trucks of all shapes and sizes charging down our street, each in a greater hurry then the one before, all pulling huge and bizarre pieces of equipment: things that pierce things, things that rake things, things that pull other things, things that collect and distribute things, things that haul away other things. Everything rattling noisily on the cobblestone streets. These are not your grandfather’s tractors. These monsters are built for speed as much as power, and the young farmers seem to relish this noise and power. But these high-decibel disturbances go hand in hand with old alleys with their tiny gardens, neighbours chatting. There’s a general atmosphere of tightness, fellowship, mutual aid — and a little suffocation thrown in. Basically everything you’ve read about village life. Just with noisy power equipment and speeding cars.
The long-distance view of the hills and stately wind turbines is not as nice looking as it was in winter; the air all around is hazy and you can see what looks like a line of smog along the ridges. It’s dirt, thrown into the air. On a huge scale. I extrapolate the frenetic mechanical activity in our neck of the woods/fields over the entire farming region of northwest Hessen. The number of tractors? The number of fields being plowed? I can’t count that high. It’s the agricultural version of Los Angeles. And the dry, hot weather is not helping. I wish for rain. Because it’s April, for heaven’s sake.
I’m not complaining about farming, I tell Lothar. I am just as amazed by the sheer volume of food produced in Hessen as I am by the noise and this haze of particulates covering a whole region of Germany.
“We have to be nice to farmers,” he says, “especially now.”
Now being April, planting time, now being Covid, now being just now, the general anxiety of the new normal. And I am nice, I am respectful. On my walks I always step aside to yield the track to them. I smile, nod, as do they, sharing the road but not wasting anyone’s time. We–idle walkers and busy farmers–share the space in a way that goes back centuries before anyone talked about “coexistence”. I am sure there are painstakingly measured property lines and well-documented leases but it’s also true that in Germany, or at least Hessen, there is still this feeling that nobody owns the land; it belongs to everyone but we give way to those who work it.