Everybody is at it in Germany. They’re doing it in the trees in the Black Forest. Out in the magical Harz Mountains. In the national parks of Bavaria when silhouetted in the moonlight. And in the city centre woodlands of Berlin and Munich. Sometimes when completely nude, too.
This isn’t a story about the sex lives of Germans or any other nationality, though. Instead, it’s an exploration of the country’s little-known love affair with something else entirely: waldeinsamkeit, an archaic German term for the feeling of “forest loneliness”.
Germans have a wonderfully evocative dictionary of words with no direct English equivalent, with several descriptive if melancholic expressions all finding a home in conversation. There is wanderlust (a desire to travel), for instance. Or heimat (an emotional tie to a homeland). Another is fernweh (a longing for far-off places).
Type waldeinsamkeit into Google Translate, however, and the immediate result – “solitude of the forest” – does little to spell out its true meaning: the enlightened, sublime feeling that can come from being alone in the woods. It is a quintessentially untranslatable German word, and yet owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing national and local lockdowns (of which Germany and its regions have had several), the spirit of waldeinsamkeit as a philosophy is increasingly alive.
With more free time, more flexibility and more pressure at home, but also fewer alternative pastimes, Germans have sought calm, fresh air and hermit-like solitude in greater numbers than before. There is a palpable yearning – a feeling of a life being half-lived – and it has not gone unnoticed that the country’s restriction-free spruce, conifer, beech, oak and birch forests are busier than ever.
Germans have a wonderfully evocative dictionary of words with no direct English equivalent
Research published last summer by the European Forest Institute in Bonn found that visits to a monitored tract of forestry in North Rhine-Westphalia during the first and second lockdowns experienced an unprecedented explosion of visitors, with forest recreation doubling. The authors concluded that the coronavirus-induced boom revealed that Germans are once again embracing forest solitude and that forests remain a critical infrastructure for national public health and societies at large.
“In our recent study, visitors said finding tranquillity was by far the number one motivation to go to the forest,” European Forest Institute researcher Jeanne-Lazya Roux told me. “Another new study we are working on shows there is a renaissance in valuing forests for their spiritual attributes, or re-spiritualisation of the forest, as we call it.”
For a first-timer like me, there was no better introduction to the enduring ideology of waldeinsamkeit than a visit to the Black Forest. At 6,000sq km, the all-encompassing woodland in Baden-Württemberg is almost half the size of Northern Ireland, its vast tracts of birch and beech riddled with folk tales and cuckoo clock-making legends.
Last summer, I spent a week in Ferienland, the Black Forest’s evergreen highlands, and I could barely stop grinning. As if sprung from the pages of a fairy tale, this portion of the Black Forest is thick with woodland cover, containing a far-reaching forest path network connected to hamlets, hilltops, high pastures and hangars of Scots pine, elm and oak. It was a joy to find the time to be alone; to lose myself in the forest. Was this the freedom so many Germans sought?
Upon my return, I tracked down Professor Nikolaus Wegmann, a Germanist and literary historian at Princeton University. Over the phone, he told me waldeinsamkeit is being revalidated because people are absorbing the philosophy into their post-pandemic lives. Even if the average German would find it hard to identify the idea’s origins.
“On one level, waldeinsamkeit is a simple compound of the word ‘forest’ (wald) and ‘loneliness’ (einsamkeit), but on another it represents the soul and deeper psyche of Germany,” said Wegmann, who teaches courses on German literature and its motifs, including waldeinsamkeit. “Nowadays, the term is taking on a new meaning because of coronavirus: the isolation and loneliness of the forest, in contrast to the world of the city, is increasingly attractive.”
Consider Germany’s landscape and it’s not hard to see why. With 90 billion trees, 76 tree species and around 1,215 plant species making up Germany’s forests, there’s plenty of it to go around. Woodland covers an area of more than 100,000sq km, of which half is state-owned, and in all, 33% of the country’s land area is forest.
Culturally, it is also clear Germany is instinctively preoccupied with woodland. From the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm, where forests symbolise make-believe worlds, to the recent writings of German forester Peter Wohlleben (who penned the New York Times bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate), the forest motif is almost unavoidable.
“The concept of going into the woods is part of everyday life for us Germans,” Wegmann told me. “Even though we’re one of the most industrialised nations in the world, you don’t need to go looking for a forest here. We are forest people, even as far back as the Roman Empire when the Romans described us as such.”
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Specifically, Wegmann is referring to Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who was the first scholar to write about Germanic tribes and their love of woodlands in Germania, his historical account written in 98 AD of the lands of the ancient Teutons.
If Tacitus helped fortify the idea, then it is also true that most sources trace the term waldeinsamkeit to the 18th Century. It was 1797 when the term first appeared in Der Blonde Eckbert (The Fair-Haired Eckbert), a fairy-tale set in the Harz Mountains written by Ludwig Tieck, one of the founding fathers of the zeitgeist-capturing Romantic literary movement. One of the central ideas of the trend was celebrations of nature in harmony with the embrace of isolation and melancholy. In this sense, waldeinsamkeit was born.
In the latter half of the 19th Century, widely read poet and novelist Joseph Victor von Scheffel created what has been dubbed by academics the “waldeinsamkeit manual”. In his 12-poem collection Waldeinsamkeit, he describes the forest loneliness cycle at length, from how you should feel when you find yourself alone in a forest to – bizarrely – how to truly appreciate forest fires. His thoughts on being lost, alone in the woods, captured the public imagination at live readings around the country.
Von Scheffel’s experience mirrors that of another, far better-known literary figure. Popular American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply engaged with German culture, writing his own ode to forest loneliness in 1858, in which he wrote couplets like, “The forest is my loyal friend, Like God it useth me.” The poem’s title? Waldeinsamkeit, of course.
Centuries later, waldeinsamkeit has evolved into a tangible symbol of German identity. From Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Herman Hesse to Martin Heidegger and Adolf Hitler, all manner of the nation’s notable characters embraced the practice of forest loneliness, citing it as a cure for stress. It might also be noted that the Nazis, who fortified the idea of the forest as a symbol of German nationalism, encouraged people to plant German oaks to honour Hitler. At the 1936 Olympic Games, in fact, “Hitler oaks” (year-old saplings) were given to gold medal winners.
Stories like this are everywhere.
“Waldeinsamkeit is a visible strain throughout German culture and history and the term might have fallen out of favour, but it continues to convey a very romantic notion of the country,” said Austen Hinkley, a doctoral candidate at Princeton’s Department of Comparative Literature. “The claim the term is untranslatable and indescribable to non-Germans is also important. It can only really be explained by first-hand experience – total immersion in the German landscape.”
A good starting point to better understand forest loneliness is Schutzgemeinschaft Deutscher Wald, the German Forest Protection Association. Set up to build on Germany’s love affair with woodlands, the organisation has recently launched a transformational new mindfulness app, which can be downloaded onto any smartphone or experienced on a purpose-built walking trail outside the association’s Bonn headquarters.
“The app focuses on breathing and mental and physical wellness exercises and has been designed so it can be used in any forest in the world, not just in Germany,” said project manager Thorsten Müller. “Whether it’s encouraging visitors to focus on breathing, or to take a macro view of the forest – to pay attention to the colours, structures, textures and specific details of an object – the goal is to make people more attentive.”
The concept of going into the woods is part of everyday life for us Germans
Following the app’s launch, an additional nine mindfulness forest paths have been created across Germany, with signposts where visitors can scan QR codes to better learn how to interact with the woodlands around them. Among those to seek out include forest paths in Hentern in the Hunsrück uplands of Rhineland-Palatinate, as well as in Rottenburg in Baden-Württemberg and Freiamt, deep within in the Black Forest. It might seem counterintuitive to seek loneliness and escape from the world armed with a smartphone, but, according to Müller, it’s about intensifying the feeling of being alone in a forest.
“It’s clear to see the effects of forest activities on people’s mental wellbeing, particularly during this pandemic,” Müller told me. “As a psychologist, I can see how important the two elements of mindfulness and forestry are. Ultimately, it’s about finding connections to the forest – and that’s waldeinsamkeit in a nutshell.”
Post-pandemic, many of us will find ourselves drawn to Germany and its forests to be alone, to rediscover our roots. Deep within these woodlands, venturing down paths that curve away from civilisation, we will listen intently to the whisper on the breeze and the soft crush of leaves beneath our shoes. We’ll want to explore further and deeper, to not merely discover a forest but perhaps to look for the larger world within ourselves. In this place of forests and fairy tales, it will seem like the only proper thing to do.
BBC Travel’s Well World is a global take on wellness that explores different ways that cultures the world over strive for a healthy lifestyle.
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