Circa 2004: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
If a man wanted a quick squiz at the spring fields of Germany, this was certainly the way to be doing it! It was early on a Sunday morning and we were streaming quietly through the countryside at a mere 300km/h between Mannheim and Goettingen, en route by train from southern Germany to Denmark. But even at this speed, I had to admit to a creeping uncertainty about what it was that I was seeing. Where were all the birds?
For a man like me, who likes nothing better than home and hearth and quiet hours in the veggie patch, it was my alter-ego riding in this carriage. This is the bloke who can speak German, leap on and off trains and planes, and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of environmental measurements, all in his head. Yet in the quiet interludes between visiting companies up and down Europe, it’s the veggie gardener who peeps through and looks around at what it is that we’ve become.
These fields outside the train window are a uniform green, and it seemed, stretch right up into Denmark and west across Belgium and France and up through the length of England. Apart from a disparity in colour and size, this is just what I’d be seeing back home in Australia – the landscape cleared of all biodiversity to make way for single crops of value to mankind, but of little value to a great variety of birds and beasts, notable here by their absence. Crows and magpies, the occasional flock of jackdaws - these were the only sign of life over these fields, unless one was lucky enough to catch sight of a heron beside a low-lying wetland, or a cluster of rabbits or an introduced pheasant in one of these fields.
It’s been two years since I was last in Germany, but my old bicycle has waited faithfully in the shed for me. Computer and notebooks are stowed away for a few days between these various train journeys, and with no more than a quick dusting of the saddle, I’m abroad and off again to plunge once more through the German fields and forests. I can barely explain, even to myself, what it is I’m looking for out here. But I think I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of what it is we might become if we keep trying to turn even more of the planet’s biomass into humanity.
Still, if you had to cram four times the population of Australia into Victoria, the German model wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. Organised with tremendous precision, everything works, and runs on time, just like this train. Wherever one goes, rubbish bins for the public allow ready separation of glass from plastic from paper. All drinks are sold in recyclable glass, and ‘Bio’ stores are everywhere, selling organic produce. Everything is tidy and pleasant and well ordered. The German’s complain loudly enough about their falling living standards, but they are coming off a very high plateau, and it all looks pretty good to me…
South of Bremen, I hook up with a German-Australian bloke responsible for installing many of the wind turbines that stretch across a wide swathe of northern Germany and up into Denmark. In the middle of flat and picturesque farmland, we climb 114 metres up the tower of a 2MW-wind turbine, which they have stopped in honour of my visit. This is a marvellous treat for me; these fine pieces of engineering whisper quietly way above the fields, and generate clean electricity for tens of thousands of households over a twenty year lifetime. Below them, life and farming goes on as before. Over eighty-five percent of the German population favours a move from coal and nuclear energy to sustainable energy resources like wind power.
Lunch on the spargel farm, however, was something else! Spargel (white asparagus) soup followed by spargel with cutlets and potatoes, and for dessert? Not spargel, thank God, but trifle and jelly (two serves – I was going to go back for thirds, but we had to get back on the road…) In these great sandy fields the asparagus mounds stretch as far as one can see. The soil itself has almost zero organic matter in it, though I never did get to roll around in it, which is the best test. Instead of organic matter, soluble nitrogen fertilisers are applied for weeks before it is harvested, under strict controls imposed by the European Community’s agricultural commission in Brussels. From dawn to dusk the spargel cutters are out there for the six-week season in mid-Spring. Germans? No, these folk are professors and music teachers and motor mechanics from Poland, the Czech Republic and other eastern European countries who pour into Germany and live for the duration of the harvest in what in Australia would be called ‘shearer’s quarters’. They earn more in this brief period than in the rest of the year back home. All to feed the German appetite for this seasonal vegetable of doubtful nutritional value.
Some weeks later, all pheasanted out, I returned from England to southern Germany, still with a few days in hand but starting to long for the noisy chorus of Australian birds over the veggie patch. Yet it remained for the very young to show me what it was I would otherwise have missed – the grasses of Europe.
This was a business trip, but it afforded me the luxury of time to spend with my niece and nephew, aged four and nine respectively. I’m their only uncle, and with their father being an only child, and my wife their only Aunt, it will be ever thus. So I’ve been playing soccer, wheezing and puffing like a grampus, and hurtling up and down tiny forest paths with my nephew screaming excitedly from the bar of my bicycle.
But it’s my little niece who has a special place in my heart. Barely able to crawl when she arrived for the first time in Australia, she would nevertheless dash for the back door on all fours, and attempt to pull herself up to get outside to the veggie garden. I’d haul her aloft, and we’d wander out together to sample at first hand the quality of the peas and texture of the broccoli heads.
Years have passed, and now we wander hand-in-hand down the lane from Oma’s house to the field at the end. Some years back, the German government made what is to my mind a beautiful decision; they decided to let their footpaths and open spaces run to seed. Instead of pristine mowed lawns, now one sees scraggly grasses alive with bees and wasps and tiny butterflies. This was not about saving motor-mower fuel, but rather an attempt to let the micro flora and fauna of Germany blossom and bloom and flourish. It is here, on our hands and knees in the wet grass, that we spy the real biodiversity of the German landscape, all of which was invisible from the high-speed train.
Within half an hour, we have each picked a marvellous bouquet of feathery grasses, clovers, tiny blooms and exotic seed heads, mixed with delicate elongated leaves and clusters of tiny white flowers from the trees that overhang the pathways. There, in the posies picked for mother and mother-in-law, lies the real richness and beauty of the European landscape.