It Had Been Beautiful

The death and death of the German forest


In the first few weeks of 2018, a lethal windstorm swept through Europe. In Germany, it blasted across several regions with gusts of up to 126 miles per hour. There were hundreds of thousands of power cuts. Trains stopped running and flights were cancelled. In some areas, schools were forced to close. Several people were killed; more were injured. By the end of January, it was estimated that the damages had already cracked the billion Euro mark, making Friederike, as the storm was known, the second most costly to hit Germany in the past twenty years.

Just a few months later, the continent faced another extreme weather event. Starting with record-breaking temperatures in April and May, a summer-long heatwave and severe drought plagued Germany, bringing with them ravaged crops, unseasonal wildfires, and more death and damage wrought. (Records set that year were only rivalled by those of the notorious heatwave fifteen years prior—which, at the time, had been deemed the hottest year on record in Europe since at least 1540.) It also resulted, anecdotally speaking, in some very uncomfortably warm Germans, accustomed to their short and moderate summers. For others, it was a season of hedonism and sunburns. Public pools logged record visitors; bars overflowed onto sidewalks and streets; and city parks stayed full through the early hours of dawn.

Meanwhile, outside of the cities, these events exacerbated a crisis that has been unfolding in the German forest for decades—millennia, even. Friederike felled scores of trees across the country, leaving the woods looking like a giant’s game of pick-up-sticks. When the dry heat of the summer came, the trees that remained could not handle the extra stress. They needed to recoup and recover. Instead, sensing their weakened state, pests that were usually kept in check by healthy forests settled in and multiplied. Typically, they would have been culled, in part, by the winter cold. But when a mild winter followed the extreme summer, these pests dug in their heels. Of the usual suspects—oak and eastern pine processionary moths, black arches, jewel beetles—the bark beetle became Public Enemy Number 1, the symbolic stand-in for the problem as a whole.

Bark beetles are black or brown in color and smaller than a pinkie nail. They spend their lifetimes burrowing and drilling under the bark of trees, where they reproduce. (Behind a shard of bark of an infested tree, some bark beetle paths look like engravings, eerily symmetrical and beautiful.) The beetle, of which there are thousands of species worldwide, is most deadly in Germany to the spruce, and is opportunistic in its habits: it likes its hosts already weak and stressed. As in many other regions of the world, bark beetles are part of the normal life cycle of the German forest. In the years leading up to 2018, a wave of bark beetle damage was already beginning to be reported in forests in the United States and across Europe—not just Germany but the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Slovakia, Russia, and the primeval Bialowieza Forest in Poland.

Friederike felled scores of trees across the country, leaving the woods looking like a giant’s game of pick-up-sticks.

However, it was soon clear to German scientists that 2018 was not a typical infestation: it had flared, but it did not fade. In 2019, German states reported that they were experiencing the largest mass increase in bark beetles in several years, and in one extreme case, since the Second World War. That same year, the government announced that 281,700 acres of forest needed to be replanted nationally. One-third of this damage was put up to storms like Friederike; the other two-thirds, to the bark beetle.

In 2020, after another dry summer and mild winter, it was found that crown defoliation, a main indicator of tree health, had risen to thirty-six percent in 2019 and that trees destroyed by pest infestations in German forests had increased almost six-fold since 2018. “Anyone driving through Germany at the moment can already see the catastrophe with the naked eye, almost everywhere,” wrote the journalist Christian Stöcker in his column in Der Spiegel. “Wooded slopes, whether in Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Thuringia or Bavaria, look like the backs of mangy animals: ugly brown spots everywhere, sparse patches, large areas with trees that can be recognized as dead from afar.”

In addition to the pests, which forecasters warned had not yet reached their peak, years of industry and traffic pollution, agriculture, and fertilization had leached the soil of nutrients. Meanwhile, long-term acidification had forced the trees to migrate their roots to the upper layers of the earth: the exact depth where drought was hitting the hardest. At the same time, reforestation was becoming more convoluted as foresters felt less sure which trees would survive in a warming climate. As a result, foresters and forest owners were locked in a managerial quagmire. In pest-infected groves, should they pick and choose which wood to leave, in the name of natural forest regeneration, or simply, to be safe, clear the forests entirely? They worried that the battle was stacked against them. As the Chairman of the Association of German Foresters told the press, there was simply not enough staff to manage the escalating situation. “We have been in crisis mode for two years,” he said. “Everyone is busy fetching damaged wood from the forest.”

As 2020 wore on, national headlines became more insistent. “Germany’s forests are doing worse than ever.” “Forest damage has increased dramatically.” “Stirbt langsam,” it dies slowly. There was talk of the curse of monocultures; economic impacts; carbon storage and carbon release. But there was also a growing fear of losing something important—not only in an ecological sense, but in a national one, too. In the 1980s, a similar scare sparked by acid rain, damaged forests, and dire predictions had briefly convinced the German public that they were on the verge of losing their trees for good—by some estimates, before the year 2000. Waldsterben, or Forest Death, as the crisis came to be known, had led to protests, media outrage, and, eventually, caps on pollution. Now, for Germans of a certain age, the situation at hand was beginning to feel uncomfortably familiar. It certainly did to BUND, the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation. By mid 2019, the federation had already started referring to the crisis as Waldsterben, or Forest Death, 2.0.

Cult of the German Tree

While Germany has a bit of coast and some nice mountains, forests are by far its most distinguished—and distinguishable—landscape. Roughly a third of the country is forested, equaling to 28.2 million acres of Wald. Sixty-seven percent of these forests are privately owned, divided between some two million companies, municipalities, and individuals. The remaining thirty-three percent are owned by the state. (Comparatively, in the United States, roughly forty-four percent of the country’s 751 million acres of forest were on public land in 2007.) Germany is, in other words, a nation of trees. It is also a nation of tree-lovers.

As adults, Germans I’ve been on walks with seem able to identify tree species on the fly in a way I cannot.

I’ve read, and been told, that this is just a stereotype. We don’t love our forests any more than the Swedes or the Danes, some Germans might say. But it seems there are as many champions of this cliché as there are dissidents. As one recent article put it: “Many forest experts joke that the country is home to a good 80 million foresters.” (Germany’s total population hovers around 83 million.)

From the perspective of an American abroad, the forest does indeed seem to touch everything from education to extracurriculars to activism. Waldkitas, or forest kindergartens, though conceived of in Scandinavia, have flourished here over the last two decades, particularly in urban areas like Berlin. (As adults, Germans I’ve been on walks with, even those who did not attend Waldkitas, seem able to identify tree species on the fly in a way I cannot.) One of the most iconic protests of the modern eco-activist movement was, and continues to be, centered in the Hambach Forest. The forest, which is owned by a major coal producer who cleared large swaths of the “Hambi” to make way for its opencast mine, is one of the oldest in Germany and home to rare and threatened species. Protestors have occupied and even lived in Hambach off and on since 2012; “Hambi” has become a kind of code word for environmental activism. Even during the 2020 U.S. presidential election—which seemed to obsess not just America but the entire world, particularly online—trees and forests continued to trend on German Twitter.

Throughout history, a lot of time and fancy have been dedicated to parsing what this means for the German people. The country is not in any way singular in its fascination, but there is a kind of unsettledness, a wantonness in the German cult of trees. Depending on the year, the writer, the artist, and the political climate, der Wald is variously a sign of barbarity, unity, democracy, rebirth, nationalism and fascism, activism, or peace. It’s been co-opted by artists, historians, Nazis, politicians across the spectrum, and scientists. It gave us, to varying degrees, landscape painting, the Green Party, and the Brothers Grimm. But it all started with a couple of Romans.

As far back as the first century BC, historians like Publius Cornelius Tacitus and Julius Caesar supplied pieces of what became founding myths of the German nation. Tacitus, in his Germania, depicts a vastly forested landscape that was unkempt, formidable, and deeply intertwined with the character of the people who lived there: the Teutonic tribes. These forests were so dense, Romans said, that one, the famous Hercynian Forest (of which the Black Forest is thought to be a part), took several days to cross east to west. Both Tacitus and Caesar described a people so untouched by other cultures—in their pagan worship, barbaric nature, and bark textiles—that they were a virtually “pure” race.

Centuries later, the Nazis would adopt this “untainted” image of tribal Germany as proof of their own racial purity. Encouraged by Heinrich Himmler’s enthusiasm for Tacitus’s text, and its message, the Third Reich at one point even sent its storm troops into Italy to (unsuccessfully) try to seize Germania’s original manuscript from its hiding place in the town of Jesi. As Simon Schama writes in Landscape and Memory, the purity of the land portrayed in these ancient texts appealed to the Nazis, too. They saw the land—and by extension, nature—as a vital cog in their brutal regime, leading to the infamous motto of Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) and an unsettling ecological progressiveness: the preservation of natural spaces, outdoor and scientific education for the Nazi Youth, and a more nature-based forestry program. As Schama puts it, “Exterminating millions of lives was not at all incompatible with passionate protection for millions of trees.”

Germany’s forests have been co-opted by artists, historians, Nazis, politicians across the spectrum, and scientists.

The Nazis were far from the first to draw on the work of Roman historians; many of their predecessors did so to different ends. Renaissance thinkers, like Conrad Celtis, took the Romans’ depictions of the barbaric forest and its barbaric people and refashioned them in the name of nation-building and forging a collective identity. Celtis’s cohort of Renaissance men were driving a special kind of rebranding effort. As Schama writes, they wanted the woods to no longer be “thought of as brutal wildernesses but rather as places of health and wealth.” Around the same time, Albrecht Altdorfer, the prolific Renaissance artist largely credited as one of the founders of landscape painting, was creating a new visual language of the forest. While his paintings and carvings included the same darkness and mystery evoked by the descriptions of the Hercynian, they also cast the forest as a romantic space—a place of intrigue, possibility, and chivalry. His woods are dense, curved, dripping with moss. In his etchings, trees become the primary subject, their features as complex and nuanced as those of a human.

During debates over peasants’ use rights and the public’s access to private land in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the forest became a rallying cry. Advocates like (then-journalist) Karl Marx and the writer and folklorist Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl saw in der Wald a powerful political symbol with which to fight against the restriction of public access to privately owned nature—in particular, forests owned by aristocrats. In his supplement to the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842, Marx addressed the gathering of fallen wood in these forests—an offense which was considered a breach of private property and punishable under the law—as a means to comment on the imbalanced persecution of the working and peasant classes. “But if the law applies the term theft to an action that is scarcely even a violation of forest regulations,” he wrote, “then the law lies, and the poor are sacrificed to a legal lie.” As Jeffrey K. Wilson writes in The German Forest: Nature, Identity, and the Contestation of a National Symbol 1871-1914, “Social reformers, agrarian activists, and nationalists all feared that the separation of Germans from their beloved forest would spark a rebellion in the long term, if not in the near future.” For Riehl, the stakes were even higher. “We must preserve the forests, not simply so that the oven is not cold in winter,” he wrote in Land und Leute in 1854, “but also in order that the pulse of German folk life continues to beat warmly and cheerfully, in order that Germany remains German.”

By then, the cult of the forest in Germany had gathered such force that it had become a kind of sociopolitical concept, an established metaphor for the desire for a national myth and symbol. When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their Altdeutsche Wälder (Old German Forests) in 1813—comprising legends, fables, proverbs, poetry, and the secret meanings of plants and flowers—“The German Forest” metaphor had been strengthened by centuries of forest-minded men before them. In their gathered tales, the forest was a place of dark and light, death and rebirth, originality and universality. A place that contained multitudes. While the Grimms’ take on the forest wasn’t original, their stories did do something special: they solidified in not just the German imagination, but the wider Western one too, an image of the German Wald that was slipping further and further from any verisimilitude to the forest itself.

Monoculture Is Death

In the online database for Germany’s third National Forest Inventory, carried out between 2011 and 2012, there is a question in the FAQ that asks, “How close-to-nature are the forests?” Upon clicking this link, you are sent to a page with a table, broken into five categories: very close to nature, close to nature, conditionally close to nature, culturally marked, and culturally conditioned. Though all of these categories fall under the umbrella of “forest area” and often, by extension, “der Wald,” distinctions such as these matter—in particular, when you are talking about forest health.

There are a multitude of factors affecting the life and death of trees in Germany. Geography, rainfall, and land use. Centuries of pollution and soil erosion. But perhaps the most discussed is this question of naturalness, and through it, unnaturalness—namely, the issue of plantations and monocultures, or crops made up of a single species of tree. This is because there are more tree plantations in Germany than there are natural growth forests: by my own rough calculations, comparing federal statistics with the total area of forested land, plantations outweigh natural growths by an approximate ratio of 3:2.

This was not always the case, although the country’s slow march toward monocultures has been unfolding for centuries now. The Middle Ages were not kind to any of Europe’s forests. After a period of forest expansion, resulting from the drastic reduction in human activity during and after the Black Death, populations billowed once again and so did agriculture. With the growth of fields, cities, and towns in Germany, forests were greatly reduced. As Dr. Andreas Bolte, director of the Forest Ecosystem’s branch of the Thünen Institute in Brandenburg, wrote to me over email, monocultures saved German forests from utter destruction. “There were areas where migrating dunes threatened villages due to erosion,” he says. “Reforestation in the humus-poor soils could only succeed with undemanding tree species that could be easily and quickly grown in large quantities, such as pine and spruce.”

This need to replenish forests faster gave birth to a science that was well-established and respected on syllabi and in faculties throughout Germany by the end of the nineteenth century. These early foresters were not looking to old groves as their blueprint when planning new ones. Joachim Radkau, in his article “Wood and Forestry in German History: In Quest of an Environmental Approach,” writes that his impressions from studying the teachings of “the founding fathers of German forestry” is that the concept of “nature”—or, in inventory-speak, “close to nature”—was inconsequential for them. In other words, instead of the broadleaf, deciduous trees that had populated the country’s primeval forests, they pivoted to quick-growing conifers, focusing on efficiency over diversification.

Today, monocultures are more notorious than praised. Their main fault is susceptibility. Spruce, for instance—which make up twenty-five percent of Germany’s forested land—have shallow roots, making them particularly vulnerable to storms; of the trees toppled by the destructive Cyclone Kyrill in 2007, sixty-five percent were spruce. Further, when trees of the same species are planted one by one in a row, pests—like bark beetles—can easily travel from stand to stand. As such, in many parts of the country, it has been the tree plantations—rather than the “real” forest—that have been the hardest hit by the beetles since 2018. “The problem that we have at the moment with the discussion,” Knut Sturm, forest manager of the Lübeck City Forest and Chairman of the Advisory Board for the Natural Forest Academy, explained to me, “is that the foresters and the industry say, ‘Ok, we have problems with the forest, generally, and we need help for the forest.’ But in reality, they mean they need help to re-install the plantation forestry.” Sturm, and others in the field like him, are worried about repeating forestry’s mistakes.

The great swaths of spruce and pine planted over the last two centuries have had another effect, too. An average German on an average stroll through der deutsche Wald does not often experience the same forests so lavishly recalled in histories and literature, represented in art and plays. (As early as the nineteenth century, Radkau observes, “we find an increasing number of complaints about the monotony of the artificial conifer forests.”) Today, Germany has two very different kinds of forests. One, the real, living forest, imprinted by civilization and capitalism, storms and war; the other, as the art historian Christopher S. Wood has said, which must “be revived in the mind.”

Trees Aren’t People

In German, one of the words for imagination is Vorstellung. Vor, as in before, ahead, pre; Stellung as in stance, position, attitude. But Vorstellung can also mean “idea,” or “mental image.” When you read about the forest in German texts and articles, this word, in all its different meanings, comes up often—perhaps nowhere more than in the articles about, and conversations around, one man.

The way he tells it, the forester Peter Wohlleben did not set out to become a famous author. He barely set out to write. It was his wife who convinced him to put down some of the things he told guests on his forest tours—and those words became The Hidden Life of Trees. In the book, Wohlleben explains that trees are social beings, putting in layman’s terms such concepts as mast years, cross-breeding, and mycorrhizal networks, otherwise known as the wood wide web. Published in 2015, The Hidden Life was not the forester’s first book, but it was his first best-seller, remaining at the top of German lists for two years and hitting best-seller lists internationally as well. It has since become the subject of a documentary produced by the company behind such German-made classics as Fack ju Göhte, The NeverEnding Story, and The Wave. Now, Wohlleben also hosts a podcast, runs “Wohlleben’s Forest Academy,” and is planning a speaking tour.

The Hidden Life is fun to read, full of breathless metaphors and exclamation points, a tidy combination of Grimm-like dramatics and science. It is easy to see why it became a popular entry point into the world of trees. “With his book, he changed the way I look at the forest forever,” German talk show host Markus Lanz told the New York Times in 2016. “Every time I walk through a beautiful woods, I think about it.” But despite his talk of tree parents and tree neighbors and tree pedagogy—despite, in particular, his exclamation points—Wohlleben insists he is no ingénue. He is first and foremost an advocate for unmanaged forests. And he has the track record to prove it. Back in 2007, after Cyclone Kyrill and long before his unexpected fame, Wohlleben, then part of the Working Group for Natural Forest Management, was quoted in an article in Der Spiegel bemoaning the return of monocultures and saying he hoped that perhaps, finally, forestry would learn from its mistakes and pivot toward a more natural bent of forest management.

Something I heard more than once when talking about the current crisis with foresters and forest scientists is that the bigger picture is often overlooked.

Still, what Wohlleben represents to his critics is not a progressive stance on forest management, but rather the desire to create out of nature an easy-to-understand, imaginary world. Above all, scientists and science writers took and take issue with Wohlleben’s anthropomorphizing: how he describes the trees’ reactions to and defenses against the world around them as if they were in possession of an animal- (and, at times, of a human-) like consciousness. In 2017, an online petition against The Hidden Life, entitled “Even in the forest, it’s facts we want instead of fairy tales,” garnered over 4,500 supporters. In January of 2020, one of Wohlleben’s most outspoken detractors, the biologist Torben Halbe, was interviewed in Der Spiegel. Halbe, author of the book The Real Life of Trees: A Book Against Imagined Environmental Protection, argues that the forest that Wohlleben describes is a “Bambi forest.” “Mr. Wohlleben does not impart knowledge,” Halbe told the newspaper, “but rather entertains.” Similarly, Richard Fortey, in his review of the book in Nature in 2016, wrote, “Trees are splendid and interesting enough in their own right without being saddled with a panoply of emotions. The anthropomorphism in this otherwise compelling book is more spice than it needs. Trees ain’t Ents.”

Something I heard more than once when talking about the current crisis with foresters and forest scientists is that the bigger picture is often overlooked. “Today, the dangers have become more diverse and regionally much more differentiated and, unlike in the 1980s, can no longer be managed with technical measures,” says Dr. Nicole Wellbrock, head of soil protection and forest health at the Thünen Institute. “Climate change, continuing nitrogen inputs, and increasing use lead to regionally varying burdens, which can no longer be managed without joint efforts across borders. International cooperation and agreement are needed today more than ever.”

But there is a concern, too, of the kind that has haunted Wohlleben’s success. “What worries me is the combination of esotericism and humanization of forests underlined by beautiful pictures,” Dr. Wellbrock continues. “This leads to an exaggeration of nature and to a false image and false expectations.”

All of us go into the forest expecting something. Often, that is to be engulfed; to feel small; to look up. In short, to be surrounded by big, tall trees. But depending on the choices of foresters and the government, today and in the years to come, the trees that have suffered and withered away in Germany may not be replaced by the fast-growing freshness of spruce and pine. Rather by slower growing, mixed forests whose green relief we will not enjoy within our lifetimes. In 2019, Federal Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner announced plans for a “Several Million Trees Program” that would free up half a billion euros for reforestation. With this announcement came a set of guidelines, released by the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. It was declared that any reforestation must be carried out with adaptability and sustainability in mind; Klöckner made clear that monocultures were a thing of the past. Last November, a further 500 million euros were released by Klöckner as a part of a corona stimulus package—with the stipulation that a sustainability certificate was a prerequisite for receipt of funds. This money, she said in a speech during the German Forest Days in September of 2020, is “for climate-stable mixed forests and near-natural forest management concepts.” She continued: “In order to secure the forest for future generations, it is not just politics and forestry that are required, but all of us.”

This, in turn, requires a change in our understanding. The climate psychologist Per Espen Stoknes has theorized that one of the greatest barriers between us and climate action is distance: whether through time, space, or both. There are many ways to counteract that, he says. For one thing, we can reimagine the idea of climate: see it, instead, as surrounding us all the time—as the very air itself. The idea of forest may require a reimagination, too, as a place of trees both big and small, of death and regrowth. A place that contains multitudes.

Suicidal Forest

In October of last year, I went on a weekend trip to the Harz National Park. The Harz is known for its mountains, karst, fog, and forest, the last of which is characterized by low elevation beech and higher spruce. The park straddles the state line between Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt—and the former border between East and West Germany. It also, more quaintly, straddles the border between imagination and reality. In his poem “The First Walpurgis Night,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe recorded how a devil, a witch, and their druid followers gathered upon the park’s highest peak, the Brocken, to celebrate their pagan gods. Today, the iconography of witches is littered throughout the Harz, from road signs to living room decor, and the villages on the park’s borders drip with a somewhat performative whimsy.

All of us go into the forest expecting something.

My first hike in the park started low, in the Ilse valley, on a path that really did seem lifted straight out of a poem, or a fairytale. This visit had come at the height of fall—just a week, in fact, before Walpurgis night—and the beech trees had littered the trails with a mosaic of orange, yellow, and burnt-red leaves. Above, the trees were reflections in the same colors, bright halos around pale trunks. To my right ran a healthy-looking mountain stream. The light was low and squeezed obliquely through the branches of bushes and ferns.

After about an hour of walking, I emerged above a set of waterfalls to a quite different view. On the hill opposite was a grove of ghostly trunks, grey and bare, rising above a few lines of petite, fresh-looking new-growths. Like many spruce forests in Germany, those of the Harz have been hit hard by the bark beetle over the past few years—in one estimate, nearly 7,490 acres of spruce were infested by the pest in 2019, compared to the previous year’s 988 acres. In the name of forest health, the park relies in large part—roughly 60 percent—on natural forest regeneration. To combat these high levels of damage, they also replanted 400,000 deciduous trees in the autumn of 2019.

There is still research to be done into which trees will be the best suited for Germany as its climate warms, as well as how best to foster these forests of the future: through an approach that is closer to nature, or “culturally determined,” or somewhere in between. But, with the recent funding released by the federal government, there does seem to be a growing sense that more time and resources need to be put toward mixed forests—ones designed to the specific climate and the specific location where they are to grow. Or as Katrin Möller, the head of the main office for forest protection for the Brandenburg Forest Service told me, “You can only trust in the diversity of forests, forest structures, and also a certain diversity in management.”

Before my trip, I’d read Tripadvisor comments that warned that the Harz’s forest had become ugly, ravaged, and unvisitable. It was true that in the wind, the bark of partially fallen trees began to rub against their neighbors and the ghost forests around me started to creak and whine. I hiked still higher, onto a lonely stretch of gravel road, cutting in between the dead trees. With debris all around, I felt on edge—as if at any minute, one of those grey beams would come swinging down upon my head. I vaguely remembered having read, somewhere, that a walk in the German forest has become a deadly undertaking.

In her book, Losing Eden, Lucy Jones writes that “One of the consequences of our disconnection from the natural world is that, depending on where we live, many of us rarely witness the depletion of the natural world and biodiversity loss at first hand.” And sometimes, even when we’ve read about the dead trees and the greying crowns for months on end, we are still shocked, still taken aback, when we see those dead, grey groves in person, as if we are discovering the damage anew. We expect the thick growth of Hansel and Gretel’s forests and are instead met, to lift a phrase from Simon Schama, with “Dante’s sanguinary, suicidal trees.”

On the trail down to the parking lot, I wondered if my fellow hikers were also inspecting the landscape around them for signs of health and disease. Passing a hiking group with beers and mulled wine in hand, I concluded that mostly, people were just enjoying themselves. Their waterproof-pant-clad thighs swooshed gently as they walked, their No Funny Business hiking boots trod steadily and confidently uphill. My assumption was colored by the fact that I too was happy to be out of the city and in nature. I wouldn’t be there in winter, when the trees became bare and the magic of fall was past and the dead stands were no longer shielded by healthy ones. I wouldn’t be witness to the details local foresters would report. I might read about it, but I wouldn’t see it myself. Just like the foresters and scientists working to build a forest for the future won’t, most likely, see it either—or even know if they chose the right path forward. After all, forests don’t operate on human timescales.

I knew that when I shared photos of the trip with my family and friends, I would only show the ones of the fall colors; the stream; the light. Because that was how, from thousands of miles away, they expected my weekend in the German forest to look. Back in Berlin, I’d tell anyone who asked about the trip that it had been beautiful.

Sami Emory is a writer from Northern California, based in Berlin. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Gossamer, Audubon, Harper’s, and elsewhere.

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