My old friend Michael knows his stuff. Even the study twenty years ago he was my four semesters ahead, and so it has remained in life.
It does not matter where i go or what i do, Michael was always there before. When I moved to Hamburg twelve years ago Michael told me “you will definitely need an apartment in the “Schanze”! I have never been there but I knew it was loud there. “Nonsense”, said Michael, “It is not too loud, it is just lively!”
Two and a half years ago when I moved to Berlin, of course, long lived Michael there. After surviving moving, my family and me remained a few days off. “You absolutely must visit the Spreewald” said Michael. I had heard that man from Berlin spends his short vacation on the Baltic, and told him so. “Wrong” said Michael, that was once. Who really knows, is going to the Spreewald.”
At that time all I knew two things about the Spreewald. The shipping and the pickle. I felt a little inclination to deepen this acquaintance. “ So. And what exactly do you do in the Spreewald except of shipping and eating pickles? “I asked Michael and he simply asked me “were you ever shipping and ate these prickles?” “ –“ No” I had to admit but I still was not convinced. I could see it. Day after day paddling through the countryside on a collision course with a loud crowd of other fugitives from Berlin and felt reminded of my vacation trauma from my youth: The so called recreational are. The very word “recreational area” is already a contradiction in terms because there you inevitably meet these people you wanted to recover from.
“Excuse me but is the Spreewald not a bit to close”, I reported on concerns. “Geographically, yes, felt no” Michael said “ felt is the Spreewald a different world.” – “ Another World” I asked “ in what way?” – “ Hm, hard to describe” said even Michael who normally, who usually never waits to describe something, “but if you ask me, I would say it is primarily: Quiet. Sensational quietly , without making a fuss of it , of course. And he is not just silent but on the myriad ways. Forest still. Water still. Still life … “ “ Still life” I asked the man who had told me not so long ago that life means volume. “Yes, the real life is still, a life and nowhere is it more quiet than the Spreewald” Michael let me know and thus ended the conversation. There it was again, his four semesters in life ahead.
So there was nothing else to do but to get my wife and child to the car and to make my way into another world, an hour drive from Berlin to search for the true life between shipping and prickles. The Highway to Cottbus quickly became empty, the sky wider and the country phenomenally flat. When I had last seen so much undeveloped area? Continuing on the country road through villages with Sorbian subtitles, narrow leaves overshadowed alleys along massive tree trunks and every 20 meters a shield warning you to be careful. Suddenly my daughter screaming “ there, there a stork!” I am making an emergency break. We come to stop between two massive oak trees, are getting out of the car after a brief moment of shock to breath.
Not even one hundred meter away the stork stalks thoughtfully, almost fussy about the freshly mowed field and finds apparently plenty of mice and frogs which can no longer hide among the stubble stalks. His black and white plumage looks a bit plucked and dirty with a tinge of yellow urine color. His beak is less bright red than I thought when I suddenly realized that all I know about this animal is from over colored children´s books. Somehow you can see that this animal is an endangered species with his long skinny stilts. But we cannot bring him out of his comfort zone, as we stand by the wayside, speechless and obliviously. Either he is accustomed to tourists or he really lives in another world.
Maybe this is what Michael meant, this silence and introspection, far from everything. This stork definitely had an aura of silence which you could see. We saw him literally in still life. He moved but as in another time. He moved and poked at his leisurely hunting right in front of our eyes, but as an infinite distance. This stork was neither particularly sumptuous yet very original on contrary he was the first not kitschy stork in my whole life just because he lived in the silence of his own stork world so utterly and he did not care about our feelings. All other storybook storks which I had seen in my life wanted from me that I – externally or internally – exclaim “oh look, it is a stork!” All other storks wanted me to impose their feelings, to put myself in a mode of ecstatic nature. This stork did not want anything from me. He wanted some frogs and mice and not get disturbed. And that was so far away from cheesy and any other form of sentimental rape that I even forgot about the mosquitos.
Wrongly by the way. The mosquitos belong to the Spreewald and they guarantee the authenticity. The mosquito is like the anti –kitsch insurance in this landscape. Whenever it is cheesy in the Spreewald the mosquito is coming, and not just random ones. The Spreewald gnat is not at all comparable to the common Berlin mosquito. One would think that these country mosquitos are far inferior to the urban counterparts but the opposite is the case! The Spreewald mosquito is the crown of mosquito creation. He is incredibly fast, agile and crafty. Because he comes from the depths of silence and has adapted to it. You seem to hear the mosquito buzzing on the basis of the Spreewald silence but so quietly that it could also be just the ears, an acoustic illusion. If you think they come from the right, they come in reality from the left and when you think that they come from the front, they come from behind. Spreewald travelers tell of swarms of mosquitos, but it might as well be only a handful of mosquitos or just one because they are never caught – in stark contrast to the capital mosquito that is loud, brash and sluggish and did not survive the day. If you want to know the mosquito of the future, do not go to Berlin. Go to the Spreewald.
We drove on to the castle where my family wanted to eat an ice cream and I was hoping to get out of the dead zone so I could call Michael and tell him that he was right. I was true: The Spreewald is more than just shipping and the prickles. The Spreewald is also the world of storks and mosquitos, the feathered greetings from yesterday and the itchy harbingers of tomorrow. Yes, stork and mosquito belong together like past and future. The one is not possible without the other. And only those who so loves the Spreewald mosquito and revered as the stork, those love and adore this landscape.
In Burg my family went to get ice and Michael dot not answer the phone. But the ice-cream man had beside vanilla and strawberry also Prickle-Ice on offer, my daughter proclaimed it loudly with one fed by disgust curiosity: “Daddy, look, Prickle-Ice!” I refused to taste and claimed that I might have prickle hunger later, maybe. Honestly this prospect made me worry. In the tiny port of Burg the barges and canoes tight cavorted on tight. Excursion bustle, paddling humor and tourist groups in photo mood. I felt transported back to the vacation trauma of my youth.
Luckily I found the prospect of boat trips provider who campaigned for tours with “Solitude guarantee”. Whatever this might be, there was hope. So I load my family including ice cream back in the car and we drove to “Hagnes Island”, past prickle fields, prickle airmen, prickle stalls where I at least once had to stop for the sake of my daughter to buy a prickle barrel from own harvest, as I already spurned the Prickle-Ice, me muffle.
In the meanwhile Michael called back and spoke reassuringly to me: We were on the right track. If I had not come to Hagen by myself, he would have sent me there. He had gone shipping with him years ago and since then with no one else. Hagen was the best shipping Spreewald Compendium: Kahn driver by passion plus a great reciter of poems. – “ Aha”, I replied with a rather more restrained enthusiasm. What Michael said was somehow frightening me. But after I lost track several times and I had to use Michael as a remote verbal navigation device when suddenly a sign of Hagens Island appeared.
Anyway, Michael said there are only two important things for a boat ride, the first thing is – but he did not continue. The Lusatian dead zone was back and cuts his voice into digital prickle slices and so I had to face Hagen myself without knowing what these important things were.
Although one of the busiest boat captains in the Spreewald, Hagen had time for us. He just came back from a tour and released a happy small group on his island. Older people which rose quite devoutly and natural charmed ashore. I inquired Hagen about his “Solitude guarantee”. – You want to go where no other breaks through”, he asked and looked at me challenging. I was not sure if I want to but I had no choice than to nod. “So you are right here”, Hagen held out his hand to me and we were in business.
What have I learned from Hagen: The small arms of the Spree are called “Fließe” not “Flüße” and the rod is not “Ruder” but “Rudel”. Very important. And the two most important things that matters on a boat trip are – but in this moment my daughter screamed “Beaver” and points on the water, where an animal with the face over the water surface paddles along the shore. “These are no Beavers”, Hagen corrects, “but coypu”. – “Even more Beavers” screams my daughter when two even smaller animals flee because of us “Beaver babies”! Hagen said nothing.
Further and further he pushes the boat through the changing landscape. Ravines of soft woods and pastures with fences meadows, shelters, traces of man-made, labor and livestock. Then again far and wide swamp, Spree forest, tree skeletons with humps of moss, birches, alders, poplars, which have lain down to die. Only the water is always the same, slow, silent, shady. We met no soul, no Kahn – the Solitude guarantee.
So what are the two most important things on a boat trip, I asked Hagen and expected a life wisdom. “The sun and the sight”, he whispers and I was amazed because so far I did not noticed much. But it is true: As the light breaks through the treetops and the sky reflected in the water, such as the leveling stretched ahead of us …
Through transmitted light sheaves and shadow leaves we slide further into the maze of water paths which were always narrow, hidden behind foliage curtains, overgrown with cress and surrounded by reeds which careless apart flexes grinds along the ship´s side and scrapes as if it the loudest sound. No one speaks, not even Hagen. Witch each move on the smooth, supple water we are getting more silent so is the surrounding. Except for the drops and chutes of the pack. Still Life I think as we continue to go deeper into the increasingly superlatives of the silence, a dome of silence in this reconquered world of the forest.
Would you like to have a Prickle now my daughter asks, and I nod. When I was biting into the prickle it was crashing so the birds would fly up the forest. But it remains completely silent because somehow this belongs together. The shipping and the prickle. I chew and swallow. “Tastes not cheesy at all” I note.
John von Düffel, 2012