Everyone is there in Germany. They do it in the trees of the Black Forest. In the magical Harz mountains. In the national parks of Bavaria by moonlight. And in the woods of downtown Berlin and Munich. Sometimes also completely naked.
This is not a story about the sex lives of Germans or any other nationality, however. Instead, it’s an exploration of the country’s little-known love story with something else entirely: waldeinsamkeit, an archaic German term for the feeling of “loneliness in the forest”.
Germans have a wonderfully evocative dictionary of words with no direct English equivalent, with several descriptive albeit melancholy expressions that all find a place in the conversation. There is spirit of adventure (a desire to travel), for example. Or Heimat (an emotional bond with a homeland). Another is fern (a desire for distant lands).
Type waldeinsamkeit into Google Translate, however, and the immediate result – “the loneliness of the forest” – does little to clarify its true meaning: the enlightened and sublime feeling that can come from being alone in the woods. It is an inherently untranslatable German word, and yet, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing national and local lockdowns (of which Germany and its regions have had several), the spirit of waldeinsamkeit in as long as philosophy is more and more alive.
With more free time, more flexibility and more pressure at home, but also less alternative hobbies, Germans sought calm, fresh air and hermit solitude in greater numbers than before. There is a palpable desire – the feeling of a life half lived – and it has not gone unnoticed that the country’s unrestricted spruce, conifer, beech, oak and birch forests are busier than ever.
Germans have a wonderfully evocative word dictionary with no direct English equivalent
A study published last summer by the European Forestry Institute in Bonn found that visits to a monitored forest plot in North Rhine-Westphalia during the first and second lockdowns saw an unprecedented explosion in visitors, forestry recreation doubling. The authors concluded that the coronavirus-induced boom revealed that Germans are embracing forest loneliness once again and that forests remain a critical infrastructure for national public health and societies in general.
“In our recent study, visitors said that finding peace was by far the number one motivation to go to the forest,” Jeanne-Lazya Roux, a researcher at the European Forest Institute, told me. “Another new study we’re working on shows there’s a renaissance in valuing forests for their spiritual attributes, or re-spiritualizing the forest, as we call it.
For a first time like me, there was no better introduction to the enduring ideology of the waldeinsamkeit than a visit to the Black Forest. With an area of 6000 km2, Baden-Württemberg’s ubiquitous forest is almost half the size of Northern Ireland, its vast expanses of birch and beech riddled with folk tales and cuckoo clock legends.
Last summer I spent a week in Ferienland, the evergreen highlands of the Black Forest, and I could hardly stop smiling. As if springing from the pages of a fairy tale, this part of the Black Forest is thick with woodland cover, containing a vast network of forest paths connected to hamlets, hills, high pastures and pine sheds. sylvan, elm and oak. It was a joy to find the time to be alone; get lost in the forest. Was this the freedom so many Germans wanted?
On my return, I reunited with Professor Nikolaus Wegmann, a Germanist and literary historian at Princeton University. Over the phone he told me that waldeinsamkeit was revalidated because people are absorbing philosophy into their post-pandemic life. Even if the average German would have a hard time identifying the origins of the idea.
“At one level, waldeinsamkeit is a simple compound of the word ‘forest’ (Wald) and “ loneliness ” (einsamkeit), but on another it represents the soul and deeper psyche of Germany, “said Wegmann, who teaches courses on German literature and its motifs, including waldeinsamkeit.” Nowadays, the term takes on a new meaning because of the coronavirus: the isolation and loneliness of the forest, unlike the city world, is more and more attractive. “
Consider the landscape of Germany and it’s not hard to see why. With 90 billion trees, 76 tree species and around 1,215 plant species that make up German forests, there is plenty to do. The forest covers an area of over 100,000 km2, half of which is owned by the state and, in total, 33% of the country’s area is forest.
Culturally, it is also clear that Germany is instinctively concerned with the forest. From the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm, where forests symbolize imaginary worlds, to recent writings by German forester Peter Wohlleben (who wrote New York Times bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate), the forest motif is almost inevitable.
“The concept of going into the woods is part of everyday life for us Germans,” Wegmann told me. “Even though we are one of the most industrialized countries in the world, you don’t have to go looking for a forest here. We are forest people, even as far away as the Roman Empire when the Romans described us as such. “
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Specifically, Wegmann refers to the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who was the first scholar to write about the Germanic tribes and their love of the woods in Germania, his historical account written in AD 98 on the lands of the ancient Teutons.
If Tacitus helped to strengthen the idea, it is also true that most sources trace the term waldeinsamkeit back to the 18th century. It was in 1797 that the term first appeared in Der Blonde Eckbert (The Fair-Haired Eckbert), a fairy tale set in the Harz Mountains written by Ludwig Tieck, one of the founding fathers of the literary movement. romantic captivating the zeitgeist. One of the central ideas of the trend was celebrations of nature in harmony with the embrace of isolation and melancholy. In this sense, waldeinsamkeit was born.
In the second half of the 19th century, the widely read poet and novelist Joseph Victor von Scheffel created what has been dubbed by academics the “waldeinsamkeit manual”. In his collection of 12 Waldeinsamkeit poems, he describes in detail the cycle of loneliness in the forest, from what you should feel when you are alone in a forest to – oddly – how to really appreciate wildfires. His thoughts of being lost, alone in the woods, captured the imagination of audiences during live readings across the country.
Von Scheffel’s experience mirrors that of another much better-known literary figure. Popular American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply involved in German culture, writing his own ode to the loneliness of the forest in 1858, in which he wrote verses such as: “The forest is my faithful friend, like God, she m ‘uses’. The title of the poem? Waldeinsamkeit, of course.
Centuries later, waldeinsamkeit has become a tangible symbol of German identity. From Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Herman Hesse to Martin Heidegger and Adolf Hitler, all kinds of notable figures in the nation have embraced the practice of solitude in the forest, citing it as a remedy for stress. It can also be noted that the Nazis, who fortified the idea of the forest as a symbol of German nationalism, encouraged people to plant German oaks to honor Hitler. At the 1936 Olympic Games, in fact, “Hitler oaks” (one-year-old young trees) were given to the gold medalists.
Stories like this are everywhere.
“Waldeinsamkeit is a strain visible throughout German culture and history and the term may have fallen out of favor, but it continues to convey a very romantic notion of the country,” said Austen Hinkley, doctoral student in the Department of Comparative Literature. from Princeton. The claim that the term is untranslatable and indescribable to non-Germans is also important. It can really only be explained by first-hand experience – a total immersion in the German landscape. “
The Schutzgemeinschaft Deutscher Wald, the German association for the protection of forests, is a good starting point to better understand the loneliness of forests. Created to build on Germany’s love affair with the woods, the organization recently launched a transformative new mindfulness app, which can be downloaded to any smartphone or experienced on a walking trail. specially designed outside the association’s headquarters in Bonn.
“The app focuses on breathing and exercises for mental and physical well-being and has been designed for use in any forest in the world, not just in Germany,” said Thorsten Müller, project manager. Whether it’s encouraging visitors to focus on breathing, or taking a macro view of the forest – to pay attention to the colors, structures, textures and specific details of an object – the purpose is to make people more attentive. “
The concept of going into the woods is part of everyday life for us Germans
Following the launch of the app, nine more Mindful Forest Paths have been created across Germany, with signposts where visitors can scan QR codes to better learn how to interact with the forests around them. Among those to look for are forest trails in Hentern in the Hunsrück Highlands in Rhineland-Palatinate, as well as Rottenburg in Baden-Württemberg and Freiamt in the heart of the Black Forest. It may seem counterintuitive to seek solitude and escape the world armed with a smartphone, but, according to Müller, it’s about intensifying the feeling of being alone in a forest.
“It’s clear to see the effects of forestry activities on the mental well-being of people, especially during this pandemic,” Müller told me. “As a psychologist, I can see how important both elements of mindfulness and forestry are. Ultimately it’s about finding connections with the forest – and that’s waldeinsamkeit in one. word.”
After the pandemic, many of us will find ourselves drawn to Germany and its forests to be alone, to rediscover our roots. In the depths of these woods, as we venture out on paths that lead away from civilization, we will listen attentively to the murmur of the breeze and the gentle crushing of the leaves under our shoes. We will want to explore deeper and deeper, not only to discover a forest, but perhaps to seek the larger world within ourselves. In this place of forests and fairy tales, it will seem like the only appropriate thing to do.
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