The Neglected, Overgrown, Eldritch Hubbelrath Valley

A few days ago I took Tapio, my mountain bike, out for a ride through Düsseldorf’s most neglected nature preserve: Hubbelrath Valley Creek.

This is a narrow valley around Hubbelrath Creek, a narrow, slow-moving creek originating in the hilly Bergisches Land about 10 km northwest of Düsseldorf.  The valley was formed by erosion and has fairly steep sides called ‘Siepen‘ (g) in the local dialect. The valley’s rich loess soil made it an ideal place for farms, and several large estates still survive.

The valley itself, and the trail within it, are pretty neglected. The main reason for this, as an account by a local nature group (g) attests, was the placement of a large landfill for household trash on one side of the valley. The landfill was found to be seeping chemicals into the valley, so it was excavated, and the household trash was removed and incinerated. The landfill was later used for construction waste, but is now in the process of being sealed and reforested. Ironically, though, the nearby landfill probably helped the valley regain its natural characteristics, since it kept people away.

The trail proper starts next to a huge country house and stable complex called Mydlinghoven Farm:

Der OrtThe oldest parts of the historically-protected complex date to 1460, and it was most recently expanded into a stable in 1915. After the stables closed, the area was transformed into a restaurant, then into a seniors’ home. After those closed, the future of the complex was uncertain until 2016, when a cooperative bought and removated it. It’s now a mixed-use “alternative living” community called “Wir vom Gut“, (“Us from the Farm”) which combines senior residence with apartments for young families and for people who just want to get somewhat (but not completely) away from it all. It’s sort of like a semi-commune, in which people share tasks and hang out a lot. They seem to enjoy living there.

To reach the trail, you ride past this estate into a meadow behind it. There are no signs for the trail, the trail-head is nothing more than a slight gap in the vegetation. I tried to enter it last year, but it was closed off with red-and-white tape. This time, I vowed to ride it no matter what. And lo and behold, no tape.

The trail is narrow single-track lined with stinging nettle and thorny bushes and creepers, including blackberries. I wish I’d brought a machete. The trail is also crossed by roots and fallen branches which create tripping hazards. I didn’t even think of trying to bike it — thorny branches and stinging nettle flaying my eyeballs isn’t my idea of fun, although I won’t kink-shame you if it’s yours. The first part of the trail, heading due south from Mydlinghoven Farm, is also interrupted by fallen trees seemingly about every 100 meters on average. Some of them have been chainsawed to free the trail, but most have just been left as they are, with their massive root-clusters sticking up into the air. The final problem with the trail is that you can’t see the creek from it. The creek runs off to one side, screened by vegetation. Parts of the creek-bed are actually fenced-off to prevent the organic Galloway cattle who graze nearby from trampling it. But the attraction is not really the creek, as such, but the marshy lowland surrounding it.

So, the trail’s poorly-maintained, muddy, blocked by fallen trees, runs by the side of a former landfill, and isn’t even a proper creek-side trail. So much for the downsides. There are plenty of upsides, though. First, alder, fir, and birch trees provide plenty of shade. There’s an amazing density of birdsong. The tall grass, the marshy patches, the standing and fallen trees, the bird and bat boxes, and the lack of humans or dogs make for an ideal avian retreat — 55 species have been spotted here, including black woodpeckers, red kites, kingfishers, herons, and sandpipers. There are also plenty of somewhat exotic plants which thrive in marshy conditions, such as loosestrife, great horsetail, and meadowsweet. Rich, pungent odors (most of them pleasant, all of them interesting) abound — every few steps brings a fresh olfactory bonanza.

About 400 meters south of Mydlinghoven Farm there’s an abandoned house in a small clearing that’s decaying most picturesquely. A bit further south is a large meadow with two rusty fence-gates standing in isolation. There are also a few metal measuring-station tubes in the meadow, presumably from the time when the landfill was in operation. Given that there are no humans around for kilometers, the traces of former use lend the trail a pleasantly spooky, slightly post-apocalyptic flair. Next time I’m going to wear hiking boots, bring a machete, and do some more exploring.

German Word of the Week: Schneckenkönig

Yesterday I biked near Lake Unterbach south of Düsseldorf and noticed something white in the path. It was this snail:

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This is a Roman or Burgundy snail in English, in German they’re called Weinbergschnecke: vineyard snail. These big, juicy bastards are common here (these are the snails from which escargot is made), but I’d never seen one with this light coloration before, perhaps it’s an albino, but I’m no malacologist. I posted it on Facebook, and one of my friends there said it looked at first like it might be a Schneckenkönig — a “snail-king”, but wasn’t.

So of course the question became: what in tarnation is a Schneckenkönig? And lo and behold, I found another German word that, if you trust Wikipedia (g), has no equivalent in any other language. A Schneckenkönig is a snail whose shell (Haus in German, ain’t that cute?) twists counter-clockwise, instead of clockwise. In English, this is known as inverse chirality, which is not very fun to say.

Left-coiling snails only occur about 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1,000,000, so their title of ‘snail-king’ is well-deserved. Apparently there are people who devote a lot of time (g) to searching for one of these elusive beasts.

But even ordinary snails are electrifyingly bizarre creatures. Let Isabella Rossellini explain how:

German Words of the Week: Renaturierung and Eisvogel (Spring Birdsong Bonus)

Four years ago, the city of Düsseldorf undertook a project of Renaturierung — literally, “re-naturing”. This refers to taking land which was being used for agriculture, quarries, buildings, or perhaps nothing at all, and allowing it to revert to a more natural state. In this case, the land was the Urdenbach Marshes, a wetland area on the southern edge of Düsseldorf. The Rhine river changed direction long ago, and the area between the old course of the Rhine and the new course became a wetland frequented by many bird species. Then, in the 1950s, housing was built in the area, a dike was built to prevent the summer flooding of the wetland and create a pedestrian path

In 2014, a project began to restore the wetland (g) by opening up the dike in two places and building bridges and other amenities to preserve the pedestrian path:

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Was the project successful? Judge for yourself. Yesterday I rode my bike to the marshes, picked a spot, and made a short film. It lasts about 5 minutes. I count at least 10 different kinds of birdsong, some of it downright deafening. If you just want the highlights, a kingfisher (Eisvogel, or “Ice-Bird”, in German) hovers and strikes at 4:12. Enjoy:

 

Andreas K. Licks the Salamander

In German nature photographer Andreas Kieling’s edutaining video series ‘Little Primer on the Forest’, he explains, in his suave, soothing voice, all sorts of interesting things about European forests.

This time the subject is the fire salamander. As Kieling notes, they were all over the place near the Thuringian forest village where he grew up. The name comes from a horrifying custom: people used to throw live salamanders into a fire to protect their homes and buildings from lightning strikes or accidental fires.

But that’s not the only horrifying thing in this video. Fire salamanders have some of the longest gestation periods in the animal kingdom: up to 2 and 1/2 years! The fire salamander he’s holding is, in fact, pregnant. Yet these mothers have no umbilical cords, so no nutrients from mommy. How do the salamander fetuses survive? By eating each other. About 20 salamander fetuses start out in the womb, then the biggest eats all the others. Eventually, only 1 or 2 make it out of the mother’s, er, cloaca.

And the final shocking scene of this video comes toward the end. Fire salamanders are somewhat poisonous, which explains their warning coloration: “The fire salamander’s primary alkaloid toxin, samandarin, causes strong muscle convulsions and hypertension combined with hyperventilation in all vertebrates. The poison glands of the fire salamander are concentrated in certain areas of the body, especially around the head and the dorsal skin surface.”

Nevertheless, Andreas goes there. Trigger warning/spoiler alert: Andreas licks the pregnant salamander. Live. On-camera. Uncensored. He doesn’t go into convulsions, fortunately. He just makes a face at the bitter taste. I suppose his vast store of forest-knowledge tells him there’s not enough poison in a single salamander-lick to harm a large human. I found the salamander-licking scene a bit much, but Kieling is hands-on — he likes to fondle, touch, and taste the plants animals he’s describing. You never know when he’s going to cram his hand into an anthill or stuff a bunch of leaves into his mouth. That’s what makes his videos so fun to watch.

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).

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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:

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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.