German Word of the Week: Bruchwald & Hörsturz

I don’t travel in the summer, too hot and sticky. But the past few weeks have brought a spell of dry, sunny weather that has tempted me out on my Bulls cross bike several times a week. I’ve been riding to the east of Düsseldorf, to the hilly areas which mark the far eastern outskirts of the Bergisches Land , an area of low mountains and hills west of Düsseldorf and Cologne.

One discovery during these rides was the Stinderbachtal (g) nature preserve. A stream called the Stinder flows in the middle of a marshy area set among rolling hills and cliffside forests. A sign by the hiking trail identifies this as an Erlenbruchwald, where Erle is the German word for alder and Bruchwald (literally, break-forest), is the German word for…what, exactly?

Once I got home, I looked it up, and it means “carr“:

carr is a type of waterlogged wooded terrain that, typically, represents a succession stage between the original reedy swamp and the likely eventual formation of forest in a sub-maritime climate.[1] The name derives from the Old Norse kjarr, meaning a swamp. The carr is one stage in a hydrosere: the progression of vegetation beginning from a terrain submerged by fresh water along a river or lake margin. In sub-maritime regions, it begins with reed-swamp. As the reeds decay, the soil surface eventually rises above the water, creating fens that allow vegetation such as sedge to grow. As this progression continues, riparian trees and bushes appear and a carr landscape is created–in effect a wooded fen in a waterlogged terrain.

I make my living with words and I have a pretty damn big vocabulary, but I had never heard of the word “carr” before.

This is an example of the back-door second-language vocabulary enhancement effect, or BADOSLAVEE. The German term Bruchwald is not technical, Germans probably have a vague idea what one is (valley forest), even if they may not be able to identify it in precise geological terms. But its English counterpart is exotic as hell. And I would never have run across the English word had I not learned its German equivalent first.

Learning a second language exposes you to words that are ordinary in that language, but exotic in yours. Another example of this is Hörsturz, a German word which literally means “hear-fall”, and refers to a sudden loss of hearing.

The first time I heard this word, I said, “What? A sudden loss of hearing? You mean like after an explosion?”

“No, silly,” my German Interlocutor (GI) said, “it’s because of stress or overwork. You suddenly lose your ability to hear. It’s happened to me a few times. Happens to everyone now and then.”

“No it doesn’t,” I said. “You’re otherwise healthy, just sitting there, and you suddenly go deaf for no reason? And then you regain your hearing again at some point? How? Why? Never happened to me or anyone I’ve ever known.”

“Are you crazy?” GI said. “I though it was universal. Are you sure there’s no English word for that?”

And in fact, Germans consider a Hörsturz to be an ordinary sign of stress. You can call up your boss here and say: “I’m not coming in today because I suddenly lost my hearing for no reason, probably because you worked me too hard. But it will return on its own in a day or two, and I’ll come back then.” And your boss will say, “OK, get better soon.”

But you won’t be able to hear him.

Try that in any other country.

To check my suspicion that this was a German idiosyncrasy, I turned to Wikipedia, and sure enough, there’s a detailed entry for Hörsturz (g) including sections coverage by medical insurance, as well as treatment by vitamin-C infusion, “corticosteroids”, and “fibrinogen reduction” by apheresis. All for a medical syndrome that appears to be a by-product of some sort of Sapir-Whorf effect (language shapes perceptions of reality, things become much more common and recognizable if there’s a word for them), or generation-spanning mass hysteria.

Sure enough, there’s no entry in any other language except…Japanese. Intriguing, that.

Anyhow, as a reward for reading to the end of this post, I give you a few photos from the Erlenbruchwald, or “alder carr” of the Stinderbach Valley, plus surroundings:

Small Pockets of Nature Everywhere

Germany is one of the most densely-populated countries in Europe, and the Rhein-Ruhr region, where I live, is the most densely-populated in Germany.

But thanks to German regional planning, there are enclaves of nature even here. And they’re not created thanks to some misguided Corbusier-like mix of giant residential housing blocks surrounded by parks. The vast majority of Düsseldorfers live in 4-5 story buildings, not high-rises.

Yet the city is still compact, with beautiful greenery in the middle and at the edges. The key here is small parks and enclaves. One example is the Urdenbach marshes. Ages ago, the Rhein changed its path near a place called Urdenbach. It stopped following large curve and began flowing more directly, in a straighter course. Since the entire area of the former curve was only a few meters above the new course of the Rhine, it flooded whenever the Rhine flooded. This created a marshy wetland area.

Long story short, over the years the wetland was partially destroyed, some used for agriculture, some paved over. The old course of the Rhein was hemmed in by dams, and gradually dried into a small stream. In 2013 the city, and local government, and local nature organizations (these things take lots of consultation) decided to increase and broaden the flow of the “Altrhein”, and make parts of this nature preserve into a genuine marsh again. Here’s the picture from the official city-planning brochure (g).


The red is the small stream of the former Rhein, the light-blue is the part that would be be reclaimed as a wetland. The two yellow dots represent large breaches in the dam, letting the water flow in the lower area to the east. On the right, you see a residential area, the lower-middle class suburb of Hellerhof. On the left, agricultural land and rich pasture for sheep and cattle. I’ll come back to both the suburb and the fields a bit later.

The plan worked. The wetlands brought birds. In only one 5- minute span on a bench, I saw coots, cormorants, gray herons, swans, ducks, Northern geese, Nile geese, and grebes. And was surrounded by the awkward croaking of horny frogs. The brochure from which this photo was taken lays out the strategy the local authorities pursued after after breaching the dam: nothing. They just let the water find its course and build ponds of its own design. A few dead trees were scattered in the riverbed to adjust its flow. And then allowed to rot, creating natural temporary dams. Existing trees which couldn’t tolerate the higher moisture are slowly collapsing, leaving room for more moisture-tolerant trees.

The marsh area is only narrow strip hemmed in by farmers’ fields to the southwest and a thickly-settled suburb to the northeast. But still, it’s there. And it’s beautiful:

Other nearby areas have also been declared nature areas. Some of these areas cover no more ground than, say, a department store (example not chosen at random). Here’s part of one of them, near the suburb of Baumberg:

Meadow near Baumberg.JPG

This meadow directly abuts a farmer’s field, and is just a few hundred meters away from a suburb. But since it’s been left in its natural state, it’s enough to provide nesting and hunting grounds for hundreds of birds, frogs, mice, and other creatures. And a soothing vista for human passers-by.

Regional planners in the Rhineland don’t have vast open spaces to work with, so they make the most of what they have in a spirit of compromise, creating small but viable islands of nature right next to streets, railroad tracks, high-power lines (one of which goes right through the Urdenbach Marshes), crop fields, and housing complexes. Give animals an area in which they are completely undisturbed — even a small area — and they’ll be able to adapt to nearby human influence.

All of this nature-civilization compromise takes careful planning, much consultation with “stakeholders”, a strong state, and a sophisticated strategic vision. All things which Germans are quite good at creating and maintaining. It makes their sophisticated regional-planning system (pdf) a model for the world. Other countries would do well to adapt it, before it’s too late.