They declared me unfit to live said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world
These words took me through the deserted streets of Stolpe, a village on the banks of the Lower Oder Valley in eastern Germany, as I made good on a promise to myself that I was going to wake up early on the first day of our trip and run to Poland. At the edge of the village I crossed the bridge over the canal that led me onto the Stolpe Polder, part of the national park and the flat valley floor protected from the canal and the river by high dykes topped with pathways for hikers, bikers and birdwatchers drawn to this strange landscape.
It was early – around seven – but already the air was hot and heavy, the sky overcast and in the distance, to the east above Poland or perhaps even the Baltic, coloured a deep and disturbing red. I ran along the dyke, aware that apart from a couple of tiny figures working a field a couple of kilometres away, I had the entire polder to myself, sharing this flat and lonely landscape with the storks, the housemartins, the starlings and a startled golden oriole, flashing across the path in a burst of green and yellow.
Bruce continued to sing in my ears, and although the lyrics had little to do with my surroundings, the haunting quality music seemed to fit as I dropped uneasily down from the dyke path and onto the valley floor. Although I knew that this particular part of the Oder was “dry” (other sections are routinely flooded as part of the management of the river), it was still an odd feeling, similar to crossing a beach or sandbanks at low tide. What would happen if the dykes were to be breached, the Oder reclaiming the flood meadows, swallowing me whole? From here I knew it was just two kilometres to the next dyke and the river itself, so I pressed on, startling the birdlife and who knows what else that was rustling in the high grass at the verge of the dusty track.
The path was straight, dead straight, and I could see my destination long before my legs pulled me up onto the second dyke… and there she was. The Oder River, moving languidly north towards to the Baltic Sea, and on the other bank, Poland. There was no more Germany left to run through, not in this destination, and even if I wanted to continue east, to do so would have meant swimming across the border. On the opposite side a Polish dog picked its way through the mud at the water’s edge, ignoring the whistle from an owner who was to remain hidden. On the spit beyond where the dog paddled, a crane lifted gravel from one pile to another, waiting for a barge to come and collect its latest load, but for now the river was quiet.
I stood atop the dyke for a while, to take a few pictures and to catch my breath, and then turned and dropped back down again to the dusty straight path and the run home. Now I ran towards Stolpe, its medieval tower on the hill coming ever closer with each step. By the time I reached the village it had disappeared again – too close and behind the trees that clung to the sides of the hill. There was some life in the streets now. A lady leaned out of a ground floor window to polish the glass. A man in blue overalls waited by the bus stop. From behind me I heard the sudden whirring of wheels and a cheery “Guten Morgen!” delivered by way of a warning as a figure in lycra sped past. Otherwise the village was waiting. A hot morning was only going to progress into an even hotter day. There was no need to rush, and anyway, the bakery van was not due for another couple of hours yet. Breakfast could wait a little while longer.
Groom stands alone and watches the river rush on so effortlessly
Lord and he’s wonderin’ where can his baby be
Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe
With a last couple of strides I reached home as Bruce brought the album to a close. It is a long way from Brandenburg to Nebraska but that is, strangely enough, a journey many Germans took in the second half of the 19th Century… and there will be many in this region of eastern Germany, in the countryside or the industrial towns of the GDR that have been in decline since the fall of the Wall and reunification, for whom Spingsteen’s lyrics must certainly resonate. With the last handful of steps up a slight incline to home, I realised that there may be more similarities than I first thought.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton