[ MANY MILES AWAY ]
Legacies of the
It was the woods that brought me to Vermont.
More precisely, it was the footpath through its
woods – the Long Trail. Its moniker “A Footpath in
the Wilderness” was part of the allure, though only
49 miles of the 273-mile-long trail goes through
designated wilderness areas. And even those
sections reveal legacies of human use: stone
walls and cellar holes are only the most obvious
signs; charcoal layers in the soil, lilac and apple
trees deep in the woods, understories of European
buckthorn and Asian honeysuckle varieties are
other pieces of the cultural landscape puzzle.
Lately, I’ve been exploring another trail in a
different landscape, one with a much starker
history of human use – and disuse. This trail
traces a remnant of the Cold War: the former
border between East Germany and West Germany.
While the Berlin Wall divided the city and rendered
West Berlin an island in communist East Germany,
another, much longer, border divided the rest of
the country for 40 years. Like the Berlin Wall, the
870-mile-long border between the two Germanys
was among the most heavily fortified in the
world: a high-security strip of land cleared of all
vegetation and studded with land mines, watch
towers, and booby-trapped fences. It truly was a
Todesstreifen – a death strip.
The full meaning of this expression hit me
on a visit in 2009, when I was walking through
a stand of Scots pines near the former border
with Jürgen Starck, a naturalist from the federal state of Brandenburg. Starck pointed out a
simple wooden marker with a name and date
carved into it: Bernhard Simon, October 28, 1963.
And a smaller sign underneath: Er wollte von
Deutschland nach Deutschland – He wanted to
go from Germany to Germany. Starck explained
that Bernhard, aged 18, had stepped on a land
mine as he was trying to escape together with
his brother, and had been injured so severely that
he died shortly after his brother managed to drag
him onto West German soil.
Bernhard was one of nearly 400 people who
died while attempting to cross the border – not
counting those who died trying to escape via the
Baltic Sea or the Berlin Wall, which would bring
the total closer to 900.
Memorial markers for people who were killed
by landmines or shot by snipers; the crumbling
remains of watch towers; concrete tracks laid
to facilitate the movement of patrol vehicles:
these are now cultural pieces of the German
landscape. Today, the former death strip has been
transformed into Germany’s longest, skinniest
nature preserve – the Grünes Band (Green Belt).
Ironically, during the 40 years that people were
kept out of the border strip, this inhospitable
place became a refuge for plant and animal species that were losing habitat to development and
agriculture on both sides of the border: some
1,200 rare or threatened species have been documented in the former border area so far. Among
them are animals such as the black stork, black
woodpecker, tree falcon, bluebird, and European
wild cat; and plant species like moor clover, sand
sedge, and Arnica. On its 870-mile course from
the Baltic Sea to the mountains of Bohemia in
the Czech Republic, the Grünes Band traverses
forests, wetlands, lakes, floodplains, grasslands,
sand dunes, heathlands, and mountain meadows
Germany’s Grünes Band (or Green Belt) is a landscape puzzle made up of both natural and cultural pieces.