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April 24 marks Arbor Day: Joggers, hikers and people walking their dogs particularly enjoy forests. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis in Germany, the woods seem to be even more popular than usual.
It's springtime in Germany and forests everywhere are leafy green again, dotted with trees and shrubs in glorious bloom. Forests hide the elves and witches of ancient fairytale lore, and have inspired countless poets and artists. In one of his most famous works, Wanderer's Nightsong, German poet Johann Wolfgang wrote in 1780: "Over every mountain-top lies peace, in every tree-top you scarcely feel a breath of wind…."
Idyllic poetry and budding nature aside, people seem to be heading to Germany's forests more than ever. But what are they looking for?
Peter Wohlleben has been a fan of nature ever since he was a young boy — way before he became a bestselling author and head of a forest academy in the heavily wooded western German Eifel region. "The forest knows no coronavirus," he told DW. "Animals, trees, insects — everything here is the same as usual." Forests have always been important for people to relax and get away from their daily lives, he says. "And now nature is also the only place that has no restrictions."
People can easily keep their distance from others in Germany's forests — they cover an area of more than 100,000 square kilometers, about half of which is state-owned. Unlike in the US, Germans have the right of access to forests at any time of day or night, with the exception of protected areas in national parks. Wohlleben considers this to be "a great achievement of the welfare state" — especially now that people's trust in a state that is imposing many a ban and restriction because of the coronavirus pandemic is being sorely tested.
"Right now, the forest is a place of well-being for many people," says Rainer Brämer, co-founder of the German Hiking Institute. The forestry expert in the town of Lohra is out and about in the forest almost every day, and has often severely criticized what he sees as a rampant alienation of the young generation from nature and the fact that our environment is increasingly dominated by technology.
A symbol of German identity
Germans have always had a special relationship to "their" forest. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman historian in the first century A.D., wrote that this relationship was based on fear. In fact the myth of the dark, eerie forests that are home to barbarians and robbers is based on Germania, Tacitus' text describing the Germanic tribes.
Roman historian Tacitus described the cultural role of the forest in 'Germania' over 2,000 years ago
That was 2,000 years ago, but Tacitus still shapes our image of the German forest today —an image that was never very realistic, writes Hansjörg Küster, professor of plant ecology at the Institute of Geobotany at Leibniz University of Hanover, in his book History of the Forest. Even back then, there were no primeval forests in Germany. The Germanic tribes practiced agriculture, and "you cannot practice agriculture in a forest because grain crops need light," Küster told DW.
Long before Tacitus' time, the forest was exposed to human influences. All the same, to the Romans, the forests felt so foreboding that they considered them to be primeval.
The forest is still today considered a symbol of German identity. Literature, painting and music is filled with emotion and heartache on the concept of the forest. Poets like Rainer Maria Rilke and Adalbert Stifter romanticized nature; in his famous 1834 poem Longing, Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857) evokes mountains, rushing brooks and beautiful summer nights. Caspar David Friedrich painted Wanderer above the Sea of Fog in about 1818, showing a wanderer gazing into the distance. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) composed romantic piano works. Poems, fairy tales and sagas elevate the German forest as a place of longing.
The early nature conservation movement in the 19th century, as well as beginning tourism and the first hiking clubs, promoted forests as part of Germany's cultural landscape. Even the Nazis used the woods for their national propaganda, stylizing Germans as forest people — in contrast to the allegedly inferior steppe and desert peoples.
Friends of the forest complain
"The forest wasn't always seen as a place of retreat, a place for reflection," says Matthias Gross, an environmental sociologist at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. But one should not underestimate Germans' romanticized relationship to the forest. "That's still deep inside us," he told DW, adding that a stroll in the forest is always a good idea to balance working from home.
To the displeasure of some forest lovers, more and more people have been rediscovering forests these days, from dog walkers to entire families.
Werner Fink, chairman of the "Waldfreund Königsdorf"(Forest friend Königsdorf) group near Cologne complains that many people are not aware that there are rules in forests, too. The group was founded 10 years ago in protest against the massive felling of a nearby beech forest with up to 100-year-old trees. "They let their horses trot through the undergrowth, allow the dogs to chase after wild animals, and people walk outside the paths," Fink says. "The forestry authorities are overtaxed with all these violations."
But Küster argues the forest is a "social construction" of nature anyway — every plant species may be subject to evolution, but culture still overrides nature. The forest owners are responsible for this development, says Peter Wohlleben. "The forest does not suffer from climate change, but from decades of forestry that is far removed from nature." He says that plantations wither, and bark beetles and drought take care of what is left. At the same time, the timber market is at a standstill, and many forest companies are in the red.
Despite all the suffering, Wohlleben says this pandemic is a chance for change once the worst is over. "You don't need many billions for that, just a change of mind," he says. The coronavirus pandemic also shows that humanity is not only still part of nature, the forest expert argues — humanity is extremely dependent on nature. Even the tiniest natural structures, like viruses, have an effect on us, he says, adding that he hopes that deceleration, more mindfulness and more space for nature will also have an effect. "The next time we take in a walk in the forest, where it is cooler, we will feel how much good it does us."