Monday, May 31, 2010

Mittenwald - Southern German Alps

The Bavarian Alps are only a two hour train south of Munich. During the trip we leave the flat lands of the Isar River with their tractors and ploughed fields. Train stations lose their neat and tidy look and in several towns the yards are filled with large logs waiting for transport to sawmills. As we close on the mountains steep pastures and colourful villages like Mittenwald - at first I thought this might mean "in the middle of the bush" but later on a map I noticed both an east forest and west forest so Mittenwald actually is just the forest in the middle.

Mittenwald is a conservative rural community, vividly Catholic in their house paintings and staunchly holding to their values. When I entered stores or restaurants the greeting was always "Grusze Gott", or God's greetings to you. Georg, at the Deutsches Museum, commented that the religious influence of the German Reformation got no further west or south than the Rhine and Danube rivers. Not a hydrological barrier, rather the old boundary of the Roman Empire. South of the line cities remained powerful and conservative social forces maintained the old order through the Middle Ages and into the present. Beyond, in the wilds of the north, who knows what might happen!

Spring was well in place during my visit. The forests were emerald and as I hiked up the mountain I heard the most marvelous tinkling sound, rather like a waterfall. However as I closed on it the noise became a most ribald cacophony, a herd of goats, each belled, munching their way along the hill slope. It was lovely to hear.

Towering above the town are the Alps, just beyond is Austria.

On my way back to Munich I stopped to visit a friend who took me to his lake side local, where beer and freshly caught and barbequed mackerel were on the table for my last supper on this trip. We dined across the water from one of the small, but no less eccentric, palaces of "Mad" King Ludwig.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Every Engineers Favorite Museum

Marionplatz is the main square of Munchen. The Rat Haus (City Hall) was restored after its destruction in the war right up to the installation of the famous glockenspiel clock and animated figures. Every day at 11:00 they perform, big crowds of tourists gather to watch the spectacle.

Nearby is the Deutsche Museum, an extraordinary record of scientific and technological history. Established in the mid-1920s on an island in the Isar River previously hosting a large chemical plant, the museum exhibits a lot of cool stuff. The first German submarine, U1 (1906), is here with large parts of the hull cut away to allow us to see inside. The mining history exibit covers a third of a hectare on multiple layers in the building. Visitors wander through medieval tunnels watching silver miners, watch an operating steam waterpump and walk alongside aggressivce coal mining machines from the 1960s.

I have the priviledge of being guided by Georg Jochim one of the museum researchers. Georg is working on the effect of the "invention of America" on European thought. Once people got over the idea of the New World as Asia they had to try and figure out what it was. This has all kinds of interesting philosophical and material implications, not least upon the inhabitants of the new place.

The museum has a Greenland kayak and notes the influence of the Canadian canoe, displaying a German version for family camping.

Everybody likes to photographed with the Starfighter.

From the top of the Museum's tower we have a splendid view of the Isar River flowing through a green Munchen. After the war the City decided to rebuild their town in its previous low rise tradition. So while in the distance the huge scale of the Olympic stadium, sheltered by artifical hills made from the rubble of the bombed out buildings previously on the site, the large core of the city retains the prominent skyline of church steeples and medieval city buildings.

Die Zauberflote - A Night at the Opera

On Friday evening I attend a performance of the Magic Flute at the Staatstheater am Gartnerplatz. Built in 1865 this theatre was established as an Actien-Volksttheater, that is, it was publically funded and not subject to royal control. The theatre continues to offer a wide array from the performing arts today. After picking up my tickets I headed to the Deutsche Eiche (German Oak) for dinner. The Eiche has long been a centre of the colourful arts counter-culture of Munchen. Today it boasts the largest male sauna in the city, is a meeting point for the city's Gay society and has an excellent and well presented dinner menu. After dinner I joined the growing circle of opera attendees gathering in the small park before the theatre. I watched a half dozen young women in high heels and formal black gowns opening a bottle and giggle as they passed around small cups launching their evening with some bubbly.

Veal medallions with butter spatzel and salad

Apfel strudel with strawberries, vanilla custard and chocolate almond ice cream

The Gartner Platz theater is small, about the size of the Palace Grand in Dawson City, perhaps a trifle more ornate. There was an intimacy of players, orchestra and audience that such a space provides and the "Masonic" intricacies of Mozart's fantastic tale unwound before us.

I watched a similar scene on the edge of the Englische Garten on my way home.

Soccer Fever in Munchen

This past week Munchen has been focused on soccer. While the runup to the World Cup in South Africa is covered, it has been overshadowed by the excitement of the European Finals pitting the local Bayern team against Intermailand of Italy. The depth of this soccer fanaticism was apparent when I noticed little soccer nets with soccer balls in the urinals. A journalist (possibly a woman) investigating these devices determined men, now more physically and mentally focused on their business, were keeping bathrooms much cleaner.

On Saturday afternoon a friend and I went to the beer garden in the Viktualienmarkt (famers' market) in downtown Munchen. Remarkably, from a North American perspective, there is a well treed open space in the middle of downtown where one can buy a beer, wurst and bretzel and settle down for a good talk. However Saturday was not restful, the beer garden resounded with the militant soccer songs of the Bayern fans, all decked out in the red and white team colours. Later I heard the cheers and yells at every restaurant and bar as I walked home. I watched the last third of the game, "Not so good for Bayern so far, they have 22 minutes left to score two goals to win. Intermailand is holding them. Ohh, ohh, Italy just scored again, three goals to win now." Sunday was very quiet in Munich.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lecturing in Munich

The Rachel Carson Centre (Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring, describing the effects of DDT on songbirds is recognized as the start of the modern environmental movement) at Ludwig-Maximillian Universitat Munchen (LMU) is a new research and teaching unit focusing on environmental history. Christoff Mauch, the director of the Centre, and I met at a "Rivers in History" conference he organized for the German Historical Institute in Washington DC some years ago. Christoff suggested I come to Munich. Nadine Klopfer, a charming young professor who researched the cultural divisions shaping Montreal`s urban landscape and teaches Canadian Studies, organized a lecture series on Canadian environmental history and I was on my way.

In the Yukon I do not often have the chance to network with other historians so it has been a real treat for me this week. At the Centre I met Andrew Isenberg who has written a fascinating history of the destruction of the North American bison herds and another book on the California gold rush, both have been a help to me in my work on the Klondike gold rush and Yukon wildlife management history. I also met Patrick Kupper, a Swiss historian of national parks who is just finishing up a book on national parks aaround the world. One of the chapters is written by Brad Martin, the PhD student who has been working with me in Whitehorse. So it has been a comfortable, interesting and cosmopolitan experience of a global network to which I belong.

My lecture was about learning to drive boat on the Yukon River. A pair of First Nation brothers from Dawson City have taught me not only about how to avoid sandbars but to come to an understanding of how they see the world. While we Newcomers see the material world as a place to exercise our power to obtain the resources we need to live, the Aboriginal people of the Yukon basin see themselves in a partnership with all of the animals and plants around them. This shows itself in the belief that the animals and plants they harvest for their use will return to them only if they are treated with respect and care.

The paper was well received and I was happy to have made the effort to prepare the paper and take the time to come to Germany to deliver it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

At the Pinakothek

I arrived in Munich on Monday afternoon and, while the weather has been cool and gray (still spring for this northern boy), I've begun sampling both beer and the city. I spent a relaxed morning over breakfast and walking in the immense English Garden near the university where I'll be lecturing later this week. It is a lovely rusticated European-type wild in the middle of the city. From my hotel balcony adjacent to the park I can hear the ducks, geese and songbirds, the hum of traffic is almost lost.

This afternoon I roamed through the Pinakothek der Moderne - an amazing show on Modern design by middle Europeans (Italians, Germans and an amazing Czech car) between the 1920s, 1950s and sort of dribbling into today with the evolution of personal computers. I bought my first personal computer, and still have that luggable metal monster in working order down in the furnace room, in 1983 so I felt a part of the exhibit. This occurs many times more often than it used to - like never - and I'm beginning to think perhaps I should be concerned about having so much first hand knowledge about museum artefacts.

Afterwards I toured the Alte (Old) Pinakothec next door, amazing collection of old Masters, after two hours I was just about metaphored right out. Still I found it interesting to see the architectural relics of the classic past making an appearance in 15th and 16th century paintings so it is clear there was quite a strong sense of the golden past that had been. Earlier this spring I read The Chrysalids (1955), where John Wyndham plays with the idea of a society that sees past relics and strives to make both sense of them and to use them as a destination to strive for. What were they thinking in their world of wild places full of ruins? European Enmvironmental history has some cool stuff to play with.

Religious Art - It's all fun until the bbq gets out of control.

And I only visited two of the twelve cultural institutions (albeit two or three of them appear to be closed for renos at the moment) on the immediate site, never mind the rest of the city.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Practice - Touring Freiburg

Yesterday morning I took the boys, or rather Johann took Fritz and I into downtown Freiburg to do some light shopping and sightseeing (while their parents got some adult work done.) Johann led the way down to the S Bahn (tram) and made sure we got off at the right stop downtown. We had to buy a PlayMobil birthday present for Donald's birthday party, held the next day. At the shop both boys received a balloon. We then spent a few minutes out on the street blowing them up and letting the air out before we straddled one fo the "bachlein" (little creeks) that run through the downtown. Balloons were filled with water and drained, balloons floated down the bachlein and were chased, feet went into the bachlein and got wet. All great fun.

Then Johann tooks us to the Munster (the cathedral in the market square) and we climbed to the top of the tower - a very narrow circular stone staircase with people going both directions. We had to stop for a rest a few times on the way because the steps are high and Fritz's legs are still pretty short, but eventually we made it all the way to the top and had a splendid view of the market and surrounding core of Freiburg.

Then back on the tram and a walk home, the long way, past the farm animals and playground, both of which required lengthy stops. Having no agenda beyond giving the parents some space for their work we had a relaxed and entertaining time. Good practice.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Pleasures of Freudenstadt

Freudenstadt (literally Joy or Pleasure City) is in the northern Schwarzwald,a region of many small Schwabishe villages and quite big hills. A holiday resort area with spas and hill walking, though not yet in season so no big crowds. The flowering trees in town are all open so beautiful blossoms. Asparagus is in season so it is the special at many restaurants. I dined at the hotel owner recommended (their own restaurant is closed on Wednesdays so I'll be there tomorrow) "Im Schlupfwinkel", a colloquilism that was explained in gesture and actions and might translate as "Canoodling Corner." It was cozy and romantic but I dined alone with my Weekly Guardian.

The town does focus on how much fun you can have during your visit. The website has ten pages:
* Holiday Pleasures
* Travel Pleasures
* Eat & Drink
* Hiking Pleasures
* Sporting Pleasures
* Water Pleasures
* Health Pleasures
* Winter Pleasures
* Pleasures of Life
* Exploring Pleasures
Apparently only eat and drink are obviously pleasures. I must check to see what the "Pleasures of Life" are.

The town, already established in the Middle Ages, underwent a considerable rebuilding during the 17th century as an early example of town planning. It has a huge market square and the town hall and church anchor down opposite corners. Quite a striking colonade of shops and restaurants surround the whole square. However these are all new. During the Second World War the Wehrmacht (German Army) built their western headquarters there and it was the base directing the attack on France in 1940. In mid April 1945 (just three weeks before the end of the War) the French First Army arrived to fight a determined SS military force. Consequently the town was completely destroyed by artillery, air attack and fire. The church in 1945 can be seen at bombed church. Over the past sixty years, with the bulk of restoration taking place in the 1950s, the town has rebuilt it self on its historic lines. The church bells I listened to this evening were only replaced in 1999.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Looking for Home: Reflections from a Canoe

Our four canoes swept around another bend in the Yukon River. It was late in the day. All eyes scanned the shores for a campsite. But the flat, uninviting walls of straggling black spruce along the river showed little promise. The sun, angling down behind the surrounding hills, offered only another hour or two of light. We had to find a place to set up camp and make supper before dark.

Ahead, on the nose of an island silhouetted before us, we could see a couple of tall white spruce, a sign of higher and better drained ground. We renewed our paddling and crossed the river current to swing towards the trees. As we closed on the island we were disappointed. The river banks were high and deeply undercut, trees and great clods of earth crumbling into the current rushing by the face of the island. Avoiding the sweepers hanging drunkenly over the current we looked further down the bank. A few hundred metres downstream, a stony beach offered a place to land and we eagerly scrambled ashore.

On shore we followed footprints up the bank and into a gloomy recess cutoff from the river by the black spruce. A fire pit, still warm – Owww! Hot actually, and a tent site were a relief to find. But the place was so unappealing we returned to the beach and scanned the the river banks downstream with binoculars. Straight across the river we saw what we were looking for.

We moved the canoes as far up the beach as we could and began to ferry across. Bows upstream, we cautiously angled the canoes across the current and let it push us to the other shore. With paddles digging deep, it was almost possible to hold our place against the powerful current of the river. We landed, scattered downstream from the chosen point, but were able to line our canoes back upstream.

The camp was delightful – a dry, open site surrounded by tall white spruce with a well placed fire pit and dry wood near by. We eagerly emptied the canoes, hauling our gear up the gentle slope as dusk settled. Soon a warming fire was blazing, tents set up and the camp kitchen was in business.
We awoke to bright morning with fat banks of fog hanging just above the water with the opposite hill tops seeming to float in the sky. As on every morning, we sat by the fire, relaxing with our hot coffee, and admired the view. And like every morning we evaluated our campsite. Over the course of the week-long trip we developed quite a list of what made a good campsite; the chance to watch the sunset, morning sun to warm us and dry out the tents, a hearth and firewood, a flat beach and easy access from the river, dry, flat ground for the tents,shelter from the near constant wind of the valley, a nearby creek for fresh water and as a safe haven for our young water sprites, and an absence of bear tracks. Along the Yukon River there were many places suitable for camping. However, there seemed to be indescribable qualities that made some sites more comfortable and attractive than others.
What we were working up was not an arbitrary list of camp site features. Rather we were gradually identifying those qualities that meant home – a place to provide us not only the necessities and safety, but which also offered us a connection or relationship with the environment and people around us. We wanted to be able to see the river valley and be aware of changes in weather and water. Those sites that seemed to do this best were also those used by earlier travellers. The signs of previous habitation – the pile of dry wood, the stump dining room suite and the worn tent pads, all welcomed us. And we did our best to ensure travellers following us also felt welcome. It was this chance to establish and respect the connections to a place and the people, both before and following us, that made for a memorable campsite.
Yukon First Nation Elders emphasize the importance of protecting and perpetuating such connections to place as central to the health of a society and the land they live on. The maintenance of those human skills and practices ensuring the health and cleanliness of the environment are crucial parts of all our responsibility in finding and keeping home.Originally prepared in October, 1996