The rise of the beech

Malavika Bhattacharya | Updated on January 15, 2018

Green miles: A view of the Edersee Lake from Waldeck   -  Malavika Bhattacharya

A hike through beech forests in central Germany shows the glorious results of letting nature be nature

At the turn of spring, the forest canopy in Germany’s Kellerward-Edersee National Park is a magical neon green. Limited sunlight filters through the web of branches to form wispy golden patterns on the carpet of fallen brown leaves that crunch underfoot. The forest is luminescent in green and gold, but in a fortnight, the mood will change as the new leaves take on a darker tinge, marking the onset of summer. While the myriad hues of varied flora define most forest areas, this particular region is special for its homogeneity. In a rare phenomenon unique to Europe, the forest here is dominated almost exclusively by beech trees.

Situated in central Germany’s State of Hessen, around two hours north of Frankfurt, the Kellerwald-Edersee is a 5,700-hectare protected area spread across 51 hills and valleys to the south of the Edersee Lake. In 2011, Unesco added the park, along with four other German beech forest areas, to its World Heritage List. Together with the Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians, spread across Ukraine and Slovakia, the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany represent a relatively young, post Ice-Age ecosystem created over the last 4,000-6,000 years. Unesco states that “the Savannah is to Africa, what the rainforest is to South America and the beech forest to Europe — original wilderness.”

I hiked seven km of the Christian’s Eck trail through this primordial landscape. The ground rises in great folds — slate and greywacke rocks that, 350 million years ago, formed the ocean floor. Gnarled and moss-covered trees rise into the skies, up to 50m, many nearly 300 years old. From the edge of a cliff, I looked across the valley to beech-wrapped hills that rise and fall like green waves, a view cleverly christened the ‘Sea of Beeches’. Left to its own devices, the beech would occupy two-thirds of Germany, but human intervention has limited its cover to seven per cent of the country’s land. In these parts, the park’s motto to ‘let nature be nature’ has allowed the forest to take its course. The dense foliage is habitat to wild boar, red deer, bats, and rare birds such as the eagle owl and black stork.

Navigating past the fallen trees on the path requires skill and the ground is riddled with badger holes. At one point, a pungent odour pierces the air. Taking a deep breath, our guide Rita announced that a wild boar had been in the area and has left a lingering reminder of its visit. We hopped over stones to cross a narrow creek, hunted for native fire salamander in a stream, and spotted the prints of a red deer.

The only sign of human intervention are signboards, adorned with the yellow-and-black sigil of the eagle owl, that mark the trails. This careful coexistence with nature, I soon realised, extends beyond the national park to the entire Edersee region.

In 1914, the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Eder River led to the formation of the lake. Three villages, located on the former lake bed, needed to be relocated. The half-timbered houses, characteristic of the region, can be moved with frames intact, and so, entire villages were recreated effortlessly. Bringhausen, an entry point to the park, is one such ‘transported village’, where I saw the church that was reconstructed in its original form.

Overlooking the Edersee Lake from its northern periphery is the 12th-century Waldeck Castle set high on a hill. From the terrace, one gets a sweeping view of the 27-km-long snake-shaped lake and the dam. Bordering it are forested hills and meadows of yellow rapeseed, with wind turbines poking out of the horizon. Coming from Frankfurt, I had seen similar turbines lining the road. An old-school cable car trundles down from Waldeck Castle to the lake, its pinched carriages just wide enough for two passengers. Dangling above rooftops in this contraption, I noticed solar panels on every home.

The focus on renewable energy is heartening. Germany is a pioneer in the field, and as if to reaffirm this fact, the next day I woke to news reports about the country’s excess renewable energy production that had actually put electricity prices in the negative! From my vantage point atop Castle Waldeck, hydro, solar, and wind energy were all on display.

In 1943, the 47m-high, 400m-long dam was bombed by the Allied Forces during World War II, using a specially-created bouncing bomb. The castle and Waldeck survived the attack, and the dam was soon rebuilt.

Today, the town is a popular holiday spot and an ideal base to explore the natural reserves. Hikers navigate the Urwaldsteig, a 68-km trail that winds around the Edersee. Boat cruises operate on the lake; local restaurants serve seasonal produce such as the fresh white asparagus which I couldn’t get enough of; and picnics of German sausage, mustard and cheese are encouraged, both by the lakeside and in the park. Kellerwald’s motto, it appears, has inspired the region to adopt sustainable tourism models, renewable power, and a harmonious coexistence with nature.

Malavika Bhattacharya is a Delhi-based freelance writer


Getting there Fly to Frankfurt and drive around two hours north to Waldeck, or take a train to Herzhausen

Do Most trails in the Kellerwald-Edersee take half a day. Combine two trails, pack a picnic, and spend a day exploring the beech forest

Stay Several small towns dot the periphery of the lake and the park. Waldeck’s Ringhotel Roggenland for offers an authentic German village vibe

Tip Visit the Wild Animal Park Edersee where native and introduced species are kept in open enclosures

Published on November 04, 2016

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