We travelled north, out from Berlin along the bumpy autobahn that exits the city via Pankow and which is presumably too important a commuter road into and out of the city for it ever to be closed to fix its legendarily uneven surface. From the Berliner Ring – the German capital’s M25 – we left the motorway and continued our journey on overland roads that made their way through forests, villages and between fields. Even outside of the large patches of forest that cover much of the state, many of the roads through farmland are lined with a single row of trees; avenue streets through the countryside. Trees, woods and forests. Add about a thousand lakes and that, to my mind at least, is Brandenburg.
Sometimes, when you drive, ride or walk through the state that completely surrounds Berlin, it feels as if there is no one there; as if there is some kind of force at the heart of the city – the TV Tower perhaps – that sucks people towards it to leave behind a depopulated, forgotten hinterland where wolves and wild boar roam the forests and black kites share the skies with white tailed eagles. There are people of course, some 2.4 million who call Brandenburg home, but that number has fallen by about 8% since 1989 and German reunification a year later and it is predicted to fall further still. And when I think about Brandenburg, this land beyond Berlin’s borders, I don’t think of Potsdam or Cottbus or the old one-industry towns lined up along the Oder and the Polish border, but empty villages, empty lakes and empty lanes. The word that first comes to mind is sleepy. Spring, summer, autumn or winter; it doesn’t matter. There will be space in the market square, on the forest trail, at the beach on the lakeshore.
Our destination was a small settlement near Wandlitz – that town where the head honchos of the GDR escaped a Berlin proving somewhat unruly and built their fortified compound in the woods – and once there we followed a dirt track in the direction of the lake. The track ended at a rough turning circle beneath tall, gloomy pine trees and so we proceeded on foot, dodging flies and mosquitoes along a boggy path through the woods until we reached the water’s edge. The old bathing beach, not maintained since GDR times, was overgrown with grass and three-metre tall reeds blocking easy access to the open water, so we pressed on along the sandy shore. Now we reached a couple of rickety landing stages. Presumably they once belonged to someone – perhaps they still did – but the metal gates and locks had long been broken and left by the side of the desire path forced through the trees, the rusted metal slowly being subsumed by nettles, grass and other growth from the forest floor.
The landing stages pushed out into the lake, and though they were peeling and missing planks in places, they had clearly become the access point for the villagers who had no waterfront of their own. Towels, bags and shoes had been left along its length, and out on the water we could see bobbing heads of a family of swimmers who were – we would later discover – completely naked beneath the gentle waves of their own creation.
Before we had even slipped into the water ourselves they had returned to the landing stage to hurriedly dry off before leaving us once more alone between the Brandenburg trees and the water. We swam out onto a lake where the only other movement was from a water snake gliding across the surface and a fishing boat turning on its mooring close to the opposite shore, its solitary occupant periodically flicking a line out from where he was sitting. An unidentifiable bird of prey hovered in the distance. Sometime moved in the reeds. Otherwise the scene was still, in the late afternoon sun.
As the sun fell ever lower in the sky, the fishing boat had returned to its dock and the bird of prey had moved on to search for its supper elsewhere, we climbed out onto the landing stage to dry off and warm up a little before we braved the mosquitos of the forest once more. We would not manage to emerge from the darkness unscathed, and we made our way back to Berlin a little burned and a little bitten, our skin smelling of sun cream and lake water. Once more I was reminded of what Brandenburg really meant to me: a place of escape. Another summer had begun.
Words & Picture: Paul Scraton