Inexplicably reluctant to break my writing procrastination streak—holding strong since December—I decided to spend the cool, sunny morning taking a short hike instead of writing my Monday blogpost, a ritual I enjoy. I didn’t even try to convince myself that I’d write it following my return, since I’m starting to get wise to my own antics. (I’ve long since realized that if I don’t meditate and exercise first thing upon waking they won’t happen at all, although the same cannot be said for eating, a domain where impulse reigns.)
I felt excited about pushing the boundaries of my geographical familiarity and headed into the forest behind the house where I stay toward a sign I remembered that posted destinations and distances. I hadn’t expected to learn new things, but I did. The first thing I learned was that deer have voices. They’ve been ubiquitous creatures in most places I’ve lived, but I’ve never heard them vocalize. Have you? Sometimes I wonder if I’m alone in not knowing such banal nature facts. As I walked through the meadow along the edge bordering the forest, I heard barking that definitely wasn’t canine – too sporadic. I peered among the trees and noticed a deer twenty meters away. The deer saw me. I froze, and we had a brief standoff. It barked few more times, and I continued walking, purposefully steering clear of the spot where it had stood before darting off, in case there were a sleeping fawn. That deer vocalized was thrilling new knowledge!
Once I found the path and arrived at the signpost, I discovered myself on one of several trails comprising the Victoria Path (Queen Victoria of England, whose mother was German and who married a German, once traveled these parts). I’d already walked 1.5 km and decided on the village of Spitzkunnersdorf, which sounded like a village (Dorf) where lace (Spitze) once was made (this is a region with centuries-long textile traditions). Or, since spitz means ‘pointed’ and I have no idea what a Kunner might be, perhaps it indicates renown for some kind of pointy expertise formerly found in this village. I’ve learned from decades of visiting this still rural region (Oberlausitz) that once daily necessities had been fulfilled, villagers often developed specialities in the production of particular items (sieves in Hainewalde, millstones in Jonsdorf, damask in Großschönau). Spitzkunnersdorf was 4 km away; in this region of salt and silk trading, villages lie at tight, 5 km intervals, meaning that wanderers in the pre-modern era (like Caspar David Friedrich) easily found overnight accommodations.
The next thing I learned was that my three favorite kinds of wild berries grow in this forest. Last year I found wild raspberries, but this time I discovered strawberries (although they may be the flavorless wild kind—only tasting will tell) and blueberries, my favorite. Closer examination revealed the presence of tiny, infant blueberries on the crooked stems, and I rued the fact that I’ll depart in late June, before any of them are ripe. But now I know where they grow!
A happy balance of shady and sunny spots on the path encouraged a great variety of flowers to thrive: lupine, daisies, forget-me-nots, dandelions, and many others in shades of blue, pink, yellow, and white, whose names I do not know. Against an aural backdrop of birdsong, I gamboled onward, passing a well-maintained ‘hunting cottage’ erected by local nobleman/hunting enthusiast Ernst von Kyaw, and a ‘protected’ geological outcropping of quartz, the White Stone, a remnant of a 30 km long eruption that occurred several million years ago, explained by a sign written in German, Czech, and Polish. I stopped to explore. And to climb. The White Stone wouldn’t have been much of a challenge for a seasoned rock jock, but I’m not one. I also suffer from acrophobia (worsening with age) and at 68, am somewhat less agile than I once was. But I saw a way up, so I tried it, partway. My bravery has limits. As soon as I made the decision, I was immediately struck with that exhilarating, dimly remembered sensation that arose when in childhood I delved into the unknown. My inner compass told me when to stop my skyward ascent, survey my progress, and enjoy my vantage point. And to revel in the sensation of my tensed muscles, fingers gripping rough stone, and the stone’s coolness where it touched my skin. I dedicated a moment of gratitude to my body, which still, pretty much, functions the same as it always has.
As I approached Spitzkunnersdorf, a buttercup-yellow field gradually emerged beyond the screen of trees, accompanied by a mildly acrid odor that replaced the pleasant scent of pine and floral perfumes that hitherto accompanied my trek. I walked to the field and put my nose against a canola flower. Yup, that was the source of the smell! I’d seen canola fields many times, but usually from a distance or whizzing past in a car, and their smell never impressed me. I walked to the forest’s edge and a broad blanket of vibrant yellow unfolded before me, reaching into the hazy, blue-mountained distance. Nestled at one edge, was Spitzkunnersdorf: two rectangular factory buildings (from the ‘divided Germany’ era when villages in this region had small textile factories that functioned as places of employment as well as for secular socializing), a steepled church, and a smattering of dwellings that followed the curve of the road leading in and out of town.
As I left the forest I passed a well-maintained ski jump, a surprise in a locale not known for its ski resorts. I headed to my destination, the charming, beautifully preserved, eighteenth-century church whose restoration finished earlier this year. Every detail was thoughtfully considered: from the meticulous painting of woodwork and sculptures, to sustainable, upholstered seat- and back-warmers installed in pews, and refreshments (apples, water, sweets) offered on a stand by the door to ‘pilgrims’. As in all churches in villages once owned by nobles, there’s a dedicated pew for them marking their superior position in the community, this spacious one an elaborately carved box above the altar on the first level of the south side. Before leaving, I complimented the restoration effort in the parish guest book, and took an apple; it was past noon and I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I noshed on it on a bench under a birch tree beside the canola field and wished I’d taken another – it was crisp and sweetly tart, just the way I like them, but it augmented rather than sated my hunger.
Once home and as I ate my ubiquitous raw salad on the shady terrace overlooking a rainbow of still-flowering trees, I thought about how happy it makes me to learn new things (skills or knowledge) and to pursue (solitary) nature adventures as I so often did as a child. And I wondered if it were typical of human experience to circle back to the truth of who one originally was, to a path that feels reassuringly similar, even when it’s characterized by a new set of encounters.