Every year on May 1st a strange force takes possession of the Germans. I’m not talking about Berlin’s annual May Day riots, when left-wing extremists swarm onto the streets to call for an end to capitalism and set wheelie bins alight. Or the nationwide rallies of trade unionists demanding better rights for workers. Or even the Bavarian May pole celebrations when -- for reasons best known to themselves – young men chop down the tall spruces, wrap their trunks in white and blue bunting and then try to steal the damn things from each other. Instead I’m talking about the Germans’ compulsion to reach back to nature.
Germany was born in a forest and every spring – especially at the start of May -- many Germans climb into their top-of-the-range Mercedes or hop aboard high-speed ICE trains to try to touch their primordial side. Some meet old friends for a ritualistic wander through the woods. Others band together for tug-of-war and wrestling afternoons (lubricated by litres of organic beer). Families unfurl tents for wildecamping sleepovers. Young couples seek out sunny, secluded glades in which to seal their love. Even stay-at-home city dwellers satisfy their boreal urges by cramming their balcony window boxes with geraniums.
The national desire to commune with nature beneath a Deutsche Eiche, or German oak, is an attempt to touch the nation’s quintessential past, or at least that part of it which was invented by the eighteenth-century Romantics. Last weekend my friend Matthias did just that, reaching out and grabbing hold of his German roots, by clutching a plastic bag of seedlings.
Matthias is high-flying business executive. As a rising star in a German multinational, he jets between Frankfurt, Shanghai and Delhi at least twice a month. In any one week he clocks up more air miles than I – a professional travel writer – do in a year. Yet despite his tortured bodyclock and killing workload, he thrives because of a strict, personal regime: no food on flights, no in-flight movies, no alcohol while away from home, daily meditation and physical exercise. Matthias is smart, sensible and modern; and totally in touch with nature.
On May 1st we met for a walk in Berlin’s Grunewald, the dense urban forest which sweeps around the city’s western fringe. As our children scurried ahead through the trees, Matthias showed me the contents of his plastic bag.
‘I’ve brought 18 saplings with me,’ he announced, a hint of pride in his voice. ‘They seeded themselves in my garden and I dug them up.’
Around us, stretching for miles in every direction, were hundreds of thousands of fully-grown trees.
‘What are you going to do with them?’ I asked.
Matthias looked at me as if I was mad. ‘I am going to plant them of course,’ he said. ‘What else should one do with young trees?’
We walked deep into the woods until – near a sandy bluff – he chose a moist spot of empty ground. As the children rolled down the embankment, Matthias – armed with his younger son’s plastic trowel – diligently planted the saplings in a large circle. He softened the soil between his fingers. He carried water from a nearby pond. He sat for a moment at the centre of the circle, at the heart of his own German wood, and contemplated the wonders of nature.
‘Ten years from now my trees will rise above that line of hills,’ he assured me at the top of the embankment, sweeping his arms along the horizon. ‘We’ll come back together and see them.’
As Matthias climbed into his super-charged vehicle, I believed that it would be so, that his May Day oaks, maples and birches – rescued from his suburban garden – will grow into mature trees in the green woods of Berlin. Unless of course a new autobahn is built through the Grunewald before 2021.
It was another mad May Day in Germany.