Hainewalde (‘grove forest’ in German) is a picturesque farming village nestled in the foothills of the Zittau Mountains near the Polish-Czech border with Germany. Through it meanders the Mandau River—a shallow stream really, except during rare torrential storms, when it overflows and wreaks havoc to dwellings along its shores. At the village center lies a stately, if modest, Baroque manor, whose exterior locals have succeeded in maintaining well enough to give visitors an impression of its former splendor. Rare flowers and plants, souvenirs of grand voyages made by aristocrats past, continue to flourish on its terraced garden and grounds.
Across the way, lies an imposing gatehouse, now a lovingly restored private residence protected by a moat that has more the character of a small lake. Down the road is the church, in whose cemetery stands a Baroque chapel embellished by dramatic, life-size, allegorical sculptures depicting appropriate emotions like regret. Many of the houses were built during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the typical umgebinde style dominant in this corner of Europe, where—until the mid-nineteenth-century advent of factories—textiles, especially damask, were produced as a cottage industry by local peasants. Ground floors in umgebinde Häuser consist of a solid timber arcade that supports the upper stories—a foundation strong enough to support the looms on which textiles once were woven. You could knock out the first-floor walls of these buildings and the dwelling would remain standing. In a beautiful and early effort at protective siding, the ‘weather’ two sides of homes were embellished by overlapping sheets of slate siding, executed in decorative patterns that vary from village to village—undoubtedly signature arrangements of artisans who took advantage of the varied shades—greys, blues, purples—of the locally quarried stone. Unlike many parts of the world, where differing aesthetics and construction techniques distinguish the habitations of rich from poor, in this ‘three-corner’ region, it was only scale and the costliness of decorative portals that marked varying levels of affluence or penury.
Few farmers remain. Most are in their eighties and have scaled down from animal husbandry and cultivation of vast fields of rye and corn, planted on a sensible, rotating basis, to a few grazing sheep, some chickens, and gardens, clearly a passion of local inhabitants. During the German Democratic Republic era (1949-1990), this was a depopulating region. Recently, young families and workers reliant on the fiberoptic network are returning, in a kind of Green Wave.
Their choice is easy to understand. The air is fresh now that brown coal plants have been decommissioned, traffic is minimal, fields and forests abound. The only sounds one hears are the breeze through the trees, the humming of bees, the quiet chirping of insects, and the noisier song of birds, especially at dawn and dusk. And the church bells chiming the day’s beginning and end, and some hours in between. Although cultivated fields surround the village, because they are government-protected, no pesticides are sprayed, just water during arid periods. Wild roses along with fruit trees and bushes abound and scent the air, as do the rotating assortment of wildflowers during the summertime. The sky here is big in the way that it is on, say, the Great Plains, despite rolling hills as far as the eye can see.
I’ve been coming to this place—one that often feels like it’s been forgotten by time—since the mid-1990s, first, to visit my ‘adopted’ German parents, Inge and Jürgen (a story for another time), and then also because it’s a place I feel happy and grounded. During her childhood and adolescent years, my daughter and I visited most summers for a week, often at the end of July for Inge’s birthday, a time when the neighboring village holds its annual festival, complete with fireworks, which we watched from the barn terrace, nestled under woolen blankets by a fire, when the evening turned chilly.
During extended stays in Germany, I’ve visited more often, always enjoying the maternal warmth and old-fashioned cooking of Inge and the tales of Jürgen, an avid amateur historian of his ancestral village (his father was its schoolmaster) and the surrounding territory. Geology, geography, economic, political, and cultural history, all were within Jürgen’s wheelhouse, and I was an attentive audience. Together, we visited the Wang stave church, purchased in Norway during the nineteenth century by an enthusiastic nobleman and reconstructed, timber for timber, in nearby Poland; the magnificent, sgraffitoed palace of the unfortunate, sixteenth-century General Wallenstein; and the splendid gardens designed by the adventurous and obsessive Hermann, Prince of Pückler-Muskau (1785-1871), owner of what was then Germany’s largest estate. He impoverished himself and his wife in order to realize his dream of an English-style garden burgeoning with exotic flora on his property—now, half in Poland, half in Germany—straddling the Neisse River. Today, most Germans know his name only because there’s a kind of popsicle named after him.
Inge and Jürgen invited me numerous times to visit or shelter with them during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, but travel regulations shifted often and without warning, so I stayed in Paris, where I was happily ‘stranded’. Had I known then what I know now—that Jügen would die of COVID-19 at Christmas 2020 and Inge would soon thereafter relocate to a retirement home in Potsdam—I may well have chanced it. Now, things here are irrevocably different. While I miss our routines—it was almost like camp, with established times for meals, excursions, naps, and evening recreations—I am enjoying, for the first time, the freedom of being here alone.
While I’d intended to work and write during my two-week stay, the place—its attractions and needs—have interfered. Mainly, I’ve worked in the garden. It’s large, with too many growing things—fruit trees (sweet and sour cherry, plum, apple, pear, quince), berry bushes (current and gooseberry), flowering bushes (lilacs, peonies, azaleas), a birch, a ginko, a fir, and many other sorts of trees—and it’s grown a bit wild absent Jürgen’s attention. Although I never gardened with him, I apply the knowledge gained from my biological father, also a passionate gardener. It feels wonderful to put on Jürgen’s ratty sweater and yardwork jacket and tidy the place up a bit.
Afterwards, as now, I repair to the hammock purchased by his grandson, now the main caretaker when he’s not busy studying in Dresden. I’ve set it up at the property’s end, behind the 100-year-old linden tree, surrounded by fields and sky. The property has the best location of any in the village: at the end of a quiet lane atop a hill with magisterial views of the countryside. From here, you can see Poland, ten kilometers distant. Although conditions will never again be as they once were, Hainewalde remains one of my ‘happy places’, one to which I look forward to spending more time in the future.