GERMANY – “Sometimes when completely nude, too,” said BBC Journalist Mike MacEacheran, Monday (15/3).
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.
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.”