When I visited my first ‘real’ forest in Berlin, I could not help feeling how sparse it was compared to Malaysia’s rainforests. I had long heard tell of Grunewald, Berlin’s largest green area, which spreads over 3,000 hectares in the west.
It was an unfair comparison. Firstly, I knew Grunewald was a temperate forest, which meant it would have a lot fewer species to begin with. Secondly, early Spring was not the best time to visit it, with all its boughs still naked and the undergrowth cowering from the cold.
But the comparison was most unfair because Grunewald did not escape the fate of virtually all forests in Berlin.
Besides having had trenches dug within them and being bombed during WWII, forests became a key source of fuel during and after the war.
In Grunewald’s case, over half the forest was clear-cut or thinned, according to the Grunewald Forestry Office. But within a decade after the war, 2,000 hectares had been reforested.
Trees of different species and ages were planted under tough conditions by thousands of Berliners.
Today, Grunewald is a recreational forest that is also a production forest, one certified by Naturland (organic agriculture) and Forest Stewardship Council (sustainable timber).
So, on that cold March day, we checked it out, accessing it from the upmarket, big-mansioned neighbourhood of the same name. A path took us through tall, bare trees. It was very quiet.
A woman walked towards us. I smiled at her but she continued looking down glumly and trudged past. Oh, yes, the famous Berlin trait of not acknowledging another person on a shared path even though you might be the only humans for kilometres.
When a couple and their dog came towards us, we knew to act nonchalant and to attempt no contact.
Suddenly, the glint of sunshine on water caught our eye. We were approaching one of the numerous lakes in the forest.
The sun backlit a picturesque wooden bridge, perfectly silhouetting it against the water.
The gloom and quiet of the forest lifted and before us on the edge of the massive Grunewaldsee, were what seemed like a hundred canines of all shapes, sizes, colour and disposition, enjoying the wet sandy beach and cold water.
Their owners milled around, but it was impossible to see who belonged to whom as the dogs gleefully frolicked with each other and any willing human.
It was quite a sight. How Berliners can continue to ignore each other in this festive atmosphere, I know not.
One drippy doggy, fresh from a splurge in the lake, brought me its yellow ball. I looked around for its owner, but seeing no one looking my way, took the ball and threw it back into the water.
The Hund galloped after it and as S and I moved on, I sent it a mental note: “Sorry to have ruined your game of fetch, my friend, but other humans would be glad to continue it, I’m sure”.
The pathway we proceeded along was packed with dogs, owners and children. Like children, there is something about dogs that frees up the social nooses around people’s necks. Their antics must of need, make strangers laugh at the same time. Surely.
Not the next dog-owner we encountered. A beret-wearing bushy-moustached older man who embodied the most stereotypical image of ‘older German man’, he had a leash around his neck. Ah, I thought, here in Grunewald, the dogs run free and their owners are leashed.
However, my look of interest was returned with hostility.
Then I realised that almost all the dog owners had leashes around their necks. All the better to warm your hands in pockets on cold walks, I guess.
We walked along the lake, part of a chain formed during the Ice Age, with the rows of trees like a fence between us and the water.
At the southern end of the lake, we came to a 16th-century royal hunting lodge, the Jagdschloss Grunewald. The oldest royal building in Berlin, the Baroque features that currently defined it were added in the 18th century. The lodge was now an art gallery housing, among other things, works by Renaissance German artist Cranach.
From the lodge, we cut through hilly plantation forest that was almost deserted. I was beginning to wonder if we were lost when we came to a large road. The signboard read, “Onkle Toms Hütte Str”, literally, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Street. I was amused and wondered at its genesis.
We crossed the road, which brought us to a fen, one of Grunewald’s nine protected nature reserves.
The vegetation of the Riemeisterfenn was quite different to the surrounding forest, with much smaller trees and sedges.
These were again, different from the peat swamp ecosystems in Malaysia, as the vegetation was not as dense and had moreover, shed all foliage in Winter.
I scrambled down the bank to the still, dark water of the narrow pool to photograph the reflection of the vegetation in it. A heron which was perched on a branch flew lazily away.
Behind me on the path, a mother and child were walking past. S heard the child ask its parent, “Why is that person in the water? Are there fish?”
It was coming to the end of the day when we trudged to the Onkle Toms Hütte U-Bahn station. It was certainly a day that was marvellous for the encounters we experienced in the forest. ω
The Grunewald Berlin Forest is managed by the Berlin Forestry Office in the Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment. Besides information about management and policies, their site has tips for walks and things to do.