Caught by the River

Field Notes from High Fläming

Paul Scraton | 27th January 2019

Berlin-based Paul Scraton heads out of the city to discover the stories High Fläming Nature Park has to tell

Slowly, with each journey from the city, we compile a checklist of landmarks as they lead us from the motorway to the village. The fish farm and the old way through the trees, cobbled and grassy, just a few metres from the smooth tarmac of the road. A line of poplar trees, leading us across the rolling fields above which a rough-legged buzzard hovers. The sheep grazing beside abandoned railway tracks and the windmill above the village. We see the same scenery through the different prisms of light and weather. We anticipate the turn of the final corner, and the first glimpse of the village at the crest of a slight rise in the road.

We are just beginning to discover this place, to learn its stories. The economic shifts that transformed towns and villages, and caused some to be abandoned and swallowed by the forest; the legacy of long-ago wars when half the population was wiped out and battles on now-peaceful fields that lead to the deaths of thousands of men a long way from home; the glaciers that brought stones from Scandinavia and shaped the region into low rolling hills that drop down to flood meadows of a glacial valley. And we try to imagine the stories of a little yellow house, now there is no-one around to ask.


A path leads out from the newer part of the village, where the little yellow house stands, a neighbourhood built in the 1950s and nicknamed ‘Little Moscow’ by those whose families could remember a time before. It is a forestry track, wide enough for vehicles yet sandy and rutted. Here, in the High Fläming, the landscape is undulating and from the path we have a view out across the fields softened by the winter sunshine to where the railway track crosses. As we walk the post train rushes by in a rattle of yellow wagons. These feel like prairie visions, eighty kilometres south-west from Berlin.

The trail is lined with bramble and young trees, with hunter’s hides tucked in among some silver birch trees, as the forest looms ever closer. During the summer fires burned to the north of here. Villages were evacuated and the motorway south was closed. Inside of cars and trucks following the main route between Munich, Leipzig and the German capital, the autobahn became the preserve of the fire brigade and the animals that clambered down the embankment and onto the hard shoulder. In some parts the motorway was protected by electric fences, but because of the fire the power was cut and the animals had free passage onto the tarmac. The forest fires caused the sky to glow red in Berlin, and spoke at once to the future and the past. As our world gets warmer, the number of fires is increasing, and as the forest burns, long-abandoned war munitions explode beneath the trees.


Just inside the forest, a small pack of four-legged figures cause us to stop. These wolves are not real, but a creation, a sculpture by the Belgian artist Marion Burghouwt. There is a series of artworks out in the countryside of High Fläming created either by artists from Belgium or the local region and linked by a waymarked trail. This artistic exchange was inspired by history, and the Flemish settlers who moved to the region in the 12th century and from whom the region of Fläming gets its name.

Beside her sculpture, Burghouwt has left a message for all whom pass by in the woods:

The wolves represent the ghosts of the past
the search for new living space

They represent the past, of the animals that once lived in these woods, but once more the forest is shifting. Brandenburg, where High Fläming is tucked into the south-west corner, is now home to a third of all the wolves that live in Germany. They are back. In some places wolves have be reintroduced. In others, they have simply wandered across the border on a long journey from the east. As we walk we search for traces of their presence, but we soon realise we do not know what we are looking for. The tracks we see in the soil are a foreign language. It could say dog or deer, boar or wolf. We do not yet understand.


The huge boulders and smaller stones deposited during the Ice Age and the retreat of the glaciers were the first settlers of High Fläming. Village churches are built of the stones pulled from the fields by the till and the farmer’s plough after the Flemish settlers arrived 800 years ago. More waymarked walking trails lead through the forests to the larger stones, named for the goblins and the giants of local myth and legend. It was the giants who supposedly built the medieval castles  including Rabenstein, as the giants smashed together the stones from the forest floor to create a castle named for the ravens that guard the woods.

We climb the steep hill to the castle walls, and although we can enter the gate to the cobblestoned courtyard, it is otherwise shuttered and closed for the season. We explore the wooded hill instead, spying hollowed out trees that are presumably what is left of the forest goblins frozen in time by a sorcerer from the castle, who was fed up with their harassment of his visitors and other passers-by. As we walk beneath the old beech and oak trees, sensing that these new paths will soon become familiar to us, there is no sign of any goblins in the woods, or any wolves, but we do catch a glimpse of the flash of colour from a jay crossing the path and hear the rapid fire hammering of a woodpecker, somewhere up there, out of sight.


With each conversation with someone who knows this place and each walk through the landscape, it becomes clear that there are stories of the High Fläming that we will never learn. At the heart of the village is the old palace, now a collection of private apartments and a stone tower that is the only remnant of the medieval castle that once stood here. All are allowed to walk the grounds, a mix of landscaped gardens, woodland and meadows, and snaking paths crowded by rhododendron bushes that lead down to the railway line and the station that links the village with Berlin and the rest of the world.

At the heart of the gardens is a small cemetery, surrounded by a low fence and a cluster of trees. The last burial here was in the 1930s, after which the cemetery was abandoned for 70 years, overgrown and hidden in the grounds through war and the forty years of the GDR. This is the final resting place of the founder of the gardens and other members of his family, and in recent years the cemetery has been restored. It is a peaceful spot, for those walking through from the station to the village, although the restoration period dug up stories that offered up more questions than answers. During the work a previously unknown tomb was discovered, and it was determined that it once contained the body of an unknown child. All that remained, when the tomb was excavated, was a bottle of holy water, a string of pearls and two milk teeth. All places have their stories, and all places have their secrets.


Paul Scraton’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast was published by Influx Press in 2017. His debut work of fiction, Built on Sand, based on a set of interlinked stories from Berlin and countryside around, will be published by Influx in April 2019.