By Paul Scraton:
Tarmac becomes cobblestones becomes sandy soil as the old road leads out from the village towards the forest. At this end it is named for the village on the other side of the woods. Over there, it is named for this village. The way to… has linked the two communities for centuries, even if now the main road cuts through the forest away to the north and the railway to the south, leaving this track for those who travel by bicycle or those who make their way on foot, like in the old days.
At different points between the villages there has been artwork placed by the track, sharing the space with the pine and silver birch, oak and beech of the forest. They are sculptures of metal or plastic, glass or steel. They have been created to reflect the stories of this place, of this landscape. A pack of fake wolves, ghosts of the past to remind us of what was lost, placed in the woods only a few years before the real thing returned across the border to the east. A doorway to nowhere, to remind us of the lost villages of the region, abandoned to nature. Metal crates to remind us of… what? Of caged animals transported from shed to slaughter house? Or the way that dice falls, of how life changes. People move on. Others take their place.
He rides his bike between the villages daily, ever since they closed the pub at the end of his street. Now, for his beer and schnapps, he has to ride the old way through the woods, past the fruit trees and the artworks, through the forest and across the fields. Tarmac and cobblestone. Sand to trap his tires. There’s always a stretch where he has to stop and push. He chooses not to ride on the road because it is too busy, with cars and farm vehicles, and the lorries that use this cut through between the motorways, shaking the village houses as they pass. It takes him about forty minutes on the track, often only meeting others within a short distance of each of the villages. He often has the section through the forest all to himself.
If he made the journey on weekends he would meet more walkers, out from the city to hike between train stations, ticking off the artworks as they go. Because he is elderly now, and wears his old working boots all year round, they look at him as if he is an exhibit himself, a bit of local colour, a genuine country dweller on his genuine country bicycle. They don’t know that he also came out from the city, all those years ago, to work in the brewery. That he found life so dull and strange in the country, a feeling that he never noticed leaving him until one day it was completely gone and he realised he was here to stay. He couldn’t have imagined it.
How the dice fall.
This has always been a land of exiles, a landscape of settlers. A thousand years ago they came from the west, possessors of the right religion and skills to work the sandy soil. Later, the refugees of war and the economies of elsewhere. He himself had come for work, for better prospects than in the city. After him came the hippies and back-to-the-land dreamers. And later still, sleeping five to a room in an old factory dormitory on the edge of town, those fleeing more modern wars.
The pub in his village has closed. The brewery where he worked for thirty years, has long been abandoned. Now the beer is brought out from the city by lorry and the warehouse where he spent his days slowly crumbles, roof open to the elements and trees growing out of the brickwork. But he has to admit: the beer is better now, better than what they used to make. It wasn’t their fault. You can only work with what you’ve got.
Those visitors, those weekend walkers, they like to think the countryside remains fixed, that while their city neighbourhoods shift on uneasy foundations, out here things stay the same. It is a comforting thought, but it has never been true. A thousand years of comings and goings. Villages that take their names from long forgotten languages, the traces of religions that have no more followers. He has lived it through his life since he left the city, and still it continues. In the pub he reads the local newspaper headlines. Old businesses fade into memory as new initiatives are launched in hope. Bands from a country that no longer exists get together for one last show. Beetles and fires ravage the forest. A new bridge is built to help the animals cross the motorway. He sees the changes on every ride between the villages. Trees are felled. The brewery crumbles. The wolves return. Only the the track stays the same. At some point, he always has to get off and push.
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of two books published by Influx Press: Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast (2017) and Built on Sand (2019), a novel set in Berlin and Brandenburg.