For Germans, the woods are a place of refuge from contemporary society. Over the years, it has become popular for parents to enroll their children into Waldkindergarten, forest nurseries, where they experience a kind of wilderness education that is unlike any ordinary classroom setting. Along with the scientifically impromptu questions that the children ask of their instructors, there exists an opportunity to develop a spiritual connection to nature. Relying on all of their senses while tapping into their creative energy enables the children to commune with the natural world, thus gaining a sense of harmony and environmental responsibility from their experience.
The Hidden Life of Trees
The woods are such an integral part of the German experience that German forester Peter Wohlleben, wrote a book about the social networking of trees and of their emotions. After I read an article about his book in the NYTimes (and finally purchased his book from Bear Pond Books), I remember thinking to myself, “This is yet another confirmation that I had lived a past life in Germany.” I have always felt a kindred connection to the woods. Whenever I go hiking, I often speak to the trees, sing them songs, touch their trunks and stroke their leaves. It’s no accident that my property abuts the woods. I need to surround myself with trees. Indeed, I often prefer the company of these woody souls over people.
A Revelation through Google Earth
Given Germany’s deeply rooted connection to the woods, I had always assumed that its forests were robust and covered much of the country. Then I did a Google Earth exploration of Germany and was shocked to discover that their legendary forests were nearly depleted. In the images below, the dark green areas surrounding the red place mark is what remains of the Black Forest. The second image below is a close-up of the Black Forest to show how over time, farmlands and towns have carved into its lush terrain.
This was not how it used to be.
Long ago before the Roman Empire came barreling in, much of Germany was woodlands. Today, Germany is primarily comprised of farmland and small towns with even smaller woodlands dotting the landscape.
A Fascist Deforestation Effort
So what happened? When were the forests wiped away? Or was it a gradual progression that occurred as the population increased? The answer is a combination of all three questions, and we have the Nazis to blame for its greatest deforestation efforts.
Astute in the art of secrecy and hypocrisy, it goes without saying that the Germans implemented “solutions” that were ruthlessly efficient and clandestine. When deforestation resulted from militarization, the Nazi regime stayed silent.
On the surface, propaganda ran amok demonstrating Germany's inherent and sacred love of the forests. In the 1936 film, Ewiger Wald (Eternal Forest) captured the symbiosis between people and the woods. The Eternal Forest, like the eternal people, the Volksgemeinschaft, or national community of the “chosen people” and their inextricably linked connection to and protection of the woods, made this film a National Socialist favorite. Although there were “ecological components of Nazism” that readily compared the spirit of the forest to its people, the Nazi regime was rapidly destroying large swaths of its woodlands in favor of an industrial empire (Gerhard, 114).
Although Germany’s forests have regained one million hectares in the last five decades and is among the most “densely wooded countries in Europe,” the fact that population growth now exceeds 81 million, the once endless, magical woods are merely a fractured forest comprised of a network of smaller woodlands on an inevitable track toward extinction.
Comparing the forests in Vermont to Germany---a state that is geographically smaller than Germany--the forests in the Green Mountain State, and the areas surrounding it, are lush and uninterrupted. Below are the satellite views of Vermont zoomed out to the same proportions of the maps of Germany above, 50 miles and 2000 ft, respectively. Notice the stark differences between both sets of maps.
To compare these differences between Vermont (my adopted home) and the broken land of where my soul belongs is heartrending. Germany is a country that has been ravaged by the irrecoverable consequences of its own tainted history, and its forests are becoming a thing of folklore.