Burning houses and a walk in the woods

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The third part of our Bad Saarow diary, in one of our favourite places only an hour or so by car or train from Berlin:

A lot of the joy of our trips to Bad Saarow is, as I mentioned in the first part of this diary, the joy of the familiar… returning to a place that you know well can be comforting as well as filling you with (hopefully) happy and positive memories. But I am always happy when you have the possibility to discover something new about a place that you thought was fully explored, and the small footpath we stumbled upon during our Boxing Day walk was one such happy discovery.

It was not long, perhaps a hundred metres or even less, that linked a small estate of houses set back from the main road and the footpath that follows the edge of the Wierichswiesen, a half-farmed marshland surrounded by villas that include the marital home of famous boxer Max Schmeling (who died in 2005, aged 99) and the family home of his wife, the actress Anny Ondra. They married in Bad Saarow in 1933, and moved into a villa overlooking this marshland following the ceremony. When that house burned down, having been hit by lightning, they moved into the house of Ondra’s mother. That too would burn down, twenty-odd years later; a fate that appeared to befall many of these villas around the marshland, and which perhaps explains why the fire station is only a single street away.

There was not much life in these villas on Boxing Day, and only a few souls walking this part of what is now known as the Max-Schmeling-Trail, a five kilometre walk that passes by the main locations of his life in Bad Saarow. It was beautiful, the ice pools in the centre of the marsh the only sign that we had had snow 72 hours before, the sun breaking through the clouds, a soft wintery light that fit the Boxing Day mood perfectly.

The walk would take us right around the marshland and then into the forest, and as we stepped onto the path through the trees it began to rain. It did not last long, but it did add to the mud underfoot as we caught up with what was once the main road north from Bad Saarow, perhaps back when Schmeling was making his way to the village for his wedding day, but which is now a forgotten forest trail used only by walkers and forest vehicles. The only clue to its former importance was a narrow strip of cobblestones that surfaced occasionally, but for the most part it was a muddy, churned dirt track, a route taken most recently by a tractor, some horses, and what could have been a wild boar.

Somewhere in this forest are free-standing rocks, some of the biggest in Germany, that were delivered south from Sweden during the big melt at the end of the ice age. The forest, once restricted and used for military exercises, is now part of a Nordic Walking park, with colour-coded trails to take you past the stones and an abandoned ski jump, as well as a small lake named for the devil. It was nice to walk through the trees, and as the rain stopped and the sun broke through once more, I thought about how my relationship with the forest has changed over recent years.

Regular readers of Under a Grey Sky will know that it features a lot on these pages, mainly because it is what we have most of both in Berlin and in the immediate surroundings. I used to be nervous in forests, but this is less now, and where I once would moan about the uniformity of it all – where are the views? – I have come to realise that to appreciate the forest you need to shorten your gaze, look and listen more closely. What is growing at the base of the trees? Can you hear the woodpecker? Wild boar or farm vehicle?

“It is valuable and disturbing to know that grand oak trees can take three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live and three hundred years to die. Such knowledge, seriously considered, changes the grain of the mind… When woods and trees are destroyed – incidentally, deliberately – imagination and memory go with them.”

I read these words back at the house in Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, which had been waiting for me in my stocking the previous morning. I was pleased that he devoted a whole chapter to the forest, and that he seems to agree with my own increasing feelings of wonder when you both walk through and think about such places. “Single trees are extraordinary,” Macfarlene, writes, “…trees in number more extraordinary still.” Thinking back to those walks of the past year, through the forests of Germany and central Sweden, I couldn’t help but agree.

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Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

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