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:

 

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.

An English Idyll in the Rheinland

This blog is getting too political lately. Now for something completely different.

I visited Heltorf Castle Park (g) yesterday, an English-style landscape park from the early 19th century located on the very northern outskirts of Düsseldorf. It's part of the private holdings of the Spee noble family (g) which has resided near Düsseldorf for centuries and has left its mark on the city and the surroundings in innumerable ways. 

The park was originally part of the private grounds of the nearby Castle Heltorf, an early 19th-century pile. A certain Abbé Biarelle conceived of the idea of creating an English-style park in 1796, and the renowned landscape architect Maximilan Weyhe (g) began the work in 1803. The park is 54 hectares, and open to the public only on weekends during spring and summer. I'd always meant to visit. I rarely met people who had, but the ones who did returned singing its praises. 

It's quite far outside the city center, a 20-minute streetcar ride away, but very much worth it. The place is magical, on a par with the finest English parks. The landscape is lush, slightly hilly, and dominated by a spectacular centuries-old trees from all over the world — conifers, firs, maples, magnificent copper beeches (called "blood" beeches in German!) and the largest tulip tree in Europe, which must be at least 45 meters tall. A brook winds through the park, and forms several ponds in which fat carp meander and tadpoles squirm. There are innumerable rhododendrons throwing off blossoms in all colors.

And the best thing is visitors have it all to themselves, since the park isn't very well-known, is somewhat out of the way, and is only open for a small part of the year. I saw only 6 other people in the few hours I spent there. The park is located well outside the city, charges €3 entrance, and has no "attractions" or ice cream vendors or playgrounds or bandstands or trashcans or bathrooms or any other distractions. The only sounds are birdsong and occasionally a faraway hum of traffic. (This is the most densely-populated part of Europe, after all.)

If you need any more stimulation than nature, discreetly molded by men of impeccable refinement, you're in the wrong place. And probably quite unclubbable.

I saw not a single speck of litter anywhere. The park doesn't even have any seating (although there are a few simple log benches) or signs, except two discreet wooden arrows pointing you in the general direction of the exit. You can get a photocopied map of the park about the size of a postcard at the entrance, but it looks to be about 30 years old. Not that anything's changed much in that time, of course.

You're meant to meander around, pleasantly lost, until you encounter a moat or ha-ha. The modern Spee family runs a forestry business in the area, and a small corner of the park is apparently used for this purpose, since I saw a small, discreet sign asking visitors to keep out. But that just adds to the charm. Something's got to pay for the massive effort of work it takes to keep the park looking so unpretentious.

I even ran into the owner, Wilhelm Count of Spee (pronounced 'shpay'). He lives in fairly modest water castle on the edge of the property, and was out taking pictures on this fine spring day. Like every member of the German nobility I've ever met, he was quite friendly and laid-back, but also impeccably groomed and dressed. He looks a bit like Ulrich Mühe. He obviously loves this jewel of a park, and seems to know something about every tree in it. He says he's working on a detailed book on the park's history, which I'm looking forward to.

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Operation Glasshole™ Concluded

Yesterday, I donned protective gloves and wading boots, and finally finished cleaning up one short stretch of the Düssel river. Here's the video: 

As you can see, another 100 or so bottles, to add to the 100 or so I had fished out before. Plus, this round brought us:

  • A steak knife
  • 7 more bicycle locks
  • a pair of sunglasses
  • one (1) women's boot
  • a 1.5- meter length of rusting steel re-bar
  • a disc-shaped battery-operated IKEA light fixture, complete with rotting batteries
  • 5 plastic bags or pieces of plastic sheeting
  • 1 more umbrella
  • 1 section of metal grille
  • several plastic cups
  • three metal rods and/or picture frame elements
  • one laminated official notice on white A4 paper from the City of Düsseldorf which was formerly attached to the bridge, warning people not to lock their bikes to it until 16 October 2016 because of bridge maintenance.
  • what appeared to be one-half of a foam soccer ball
  • a still-stoppered fake mother-of-pearl perfume bottle
  • several parts of an ironing board
  • a few unclassifiable pieces of metal and plastic which looked like auto or machine parts

I displaced at least 10 juvenile and 2 adult spiny-cheeked crayfish from inside various bottles.

At the end of the day after making several tours of inspection, I could see no more junk. There were still hundreds of bottle caps, but I have my limits. One couple passing by asked me whether I was fishing for eels. After I was done, I had a chat with the Slavic woman who runs the convenience store next to the bridge. She called me "poor guy", and apparently assumed my clean-up operation was a form of punishment. I informed her that I had just gotten fed up and decided to clean up the river. She said "Well, that's nice of you, but let me tell you, people are just going to keep throwing stuff into it. I sit here all day and watch them."

I said that almost all the stuff was covered in silt, which made it seem as if it had been there a long time. She said that, on second thought, that she hadn't seen much littering lately: "There was a group of people who were doing most of it who moved away." She made a certain gesture indicating what sort of people they were, but I couldn't really decipher it. It sort of looked like a mixture of air-bottle glug-glug (drunks) mixed with some kind of arm-waving. Possibly a Nazi salute. But I can't be sure.

This gives me some hope that most of the garbage came from short bursts of antisocial behavior years ago; possibly a gaggle of winos colonizing the riverbank for a few days, throwing their empties (mostly 200 ml flasks of Stepanoff vodka) into the stream. And then, of course, the garbage was passively tolerated by thousands of local residents who crossed the bridge over the years, wrinkling their noses in disapproval but doing nothing about it.

One mystery that's provoked plenty of discussion on my Facebook page is the bicycle locks. A few of them had obviously been cut, but most of them seemed to be intact. Which raises the question of why anyone would throw what appears to be an intact bicycle lock into the stream? My only guess is that some people steal bikes by picking the locks. Then they reattach the lock and throw it in the river, presumably to get rid of evidence. It seems like a fairly ludicrous precaution, given that local police don't even try to solve individual bike thefts. But who knows?

Any guesses about this mystery?

The Disgusting Things I Found in the Düssel

Yesterday I took advantage of the nice weather and went fishing for garbage in the local stream that runs through my neighborhood, the Düssel.

The main find was bottles. At least 100 of them. Everything from small schnapps bottles to beer bottles to hip flasks of cheap vodka to actual wine bottles. All covered in and/or filled with nasty blackish gunk. Here are three of them, and what looks like a decaying can of Red Bull, just to give you an idea:

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But wait! That's not all! Once I actually got into the middle of the river, I found all sorts of other garbage, including 7-8 bike locks, an umbrella, various metal rods, a lightbulb, a pair of scissors, clothes, and rotten plastic bags. Here's just a selection:

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Finally, exhausted, I had to give up. It's pretty tiring wading through mud and hauling heavy sacks of garbage up the riverbank. And I found all of this in only a 10-meter-long section of the river south of a well-traveled bridge.

There's still a bunch of junk in only this section of the river. So I'm going to go back today, and hope to at least get this section cleaned up.

Düsseldorfers, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Really, light bulbs? Umbrellas?

On a cheerier note, it turns out that rubber boots are surprisingly comfortable! Also, it seems that at least some life forms can survive in this filth. The ducks stay away from this part of the river, probably having cut their feet on broken glass. But I did one adult and a few juvenile Kamberkrebs, the spiny-cheeked crayfish. Unfortunately, this is an invasive species from America which is an asymptomatic carrier of crayfish plague, which has devastated native European crayfish populations. I probably should have ended them, but I didn't have the heart.

And now, off to start Phase 3 of Operation Glasshole™. I should get some kind of medal for this.

The Golden Autumn in Düsseldorf

 Late September and early October was a time to remember. Clear skies, cool temperatures. I spent most of the time on my bike, exploring some of the nicer bits of Düsseldorf. Unterbach Lake, a large artificial lake and recreation areas located in the southwest suburb of Unterbach. Schloss Benrath, and 18th-century hunting castle with extensive grounds, and the Südpark/Volksgarten complex, one of the greatest parks in the world.

Here are a few of the raw pictures without much post-processing. Enjoy!

Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
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Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log
Benrath Schlosspark Light on Decaying Log

The Urdenbach Marshes in Summer

Yesterday I biked down to the Urdenbach Marshes south of Düsseldorf. It's a large nature reserve which used to be on the path of the Rhein until the river made a curve. City planners are now diverting brooks in the nature reserve to allow it to revert to marshland. It's now home to plenty of waterfowl, and the authorities are even planning to introduce water buffalo, although the locals aren't all that thrilled and may stop the plan. Unlike marshes in most parts of the world, this one isn't full of things that want to kill you. The sweet, intoxicating odor of decay and burgeoning life is everywhere. Before I move on to the pictures, one bleg: can anyone identify the light-purple labiate flowers? They're everywhere near the raised path. I looked everywhere, but could only find flowers which look a lot like these, but not quite the same. Frustrating.

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UK Algae-Covered Marsh Pond

 

Will a German Doctor’s Snake-Oil Doom America’s Carnivorous Plants?

It's the golden age of podcasts, everybody, and I've just discovered a fine one: Criminal. Each episode is 20 minutes long and has something to do with some sort of crime. The first episode profiled a man convicted of killing his wife who may be freed by proof an owl actually killed her. From this podcast we learn that 'owlstrike' is a word, and that owls usually attack humans on the right rear side of the head, and that owls are strong and silent and can really fuck you up if they want. There's also a story about the late 1990s inkjet currency-counterfeit trend, and a profile of one of Wyoming's three female coroners, who talks about a man who kept himself alive during a cold winter by drinking antifreeze.

The German connection comes in Episode 5, 'Dropping like Flies'. The carnivorous venus flytrap plant grows naturally only in a 90-square-mile of North Carolina:

Problem is, the market for flytraps is booming. Poachers can get between 10 and 25 cents per plant, and local flytrap nurseries make a healthy profit selling them on. The plants aren't yet listed as endangered, so the penalties are relatively low.

'Criminal' goes on the hunt for who is buying all these plants, and quickly arrives at the door of Carnivora. Carnivora is a U.S.-based company that sells a product based on extracts from the Venus Flytrap plant which it claims boosts the immune system. They're not allowed to claim that it cures cancer under U.S. law, but that is the main selling point in countries where they can make this claim. The man who came up with the formula was a German 'country doctor' named Helmut Keller. This 1985 article (g) from Der Spiegel records the frenzy surrounding the then-new preparation, as desperate cancer patients begged Keller to treat them.

Now, as the podcast reports, Keller's been dead for four years ('still here, but on the Other Side', claims the company's new director), the company is under new management, and is not being accused of breaking any American laws, since it only calls Carnivora a dietary supplement, not a cancer cure. Also, the current owner of the company claims it doesn't buy any flytraps from North Carolina, but instead gets them from laboratories in Holland and China. But if Carnivora isn't behind the huge recent increases in demand for flytrap plants, who or what is? As you might expect in the area of carnivorous-plant-poaching and alternative medicine, there are a lot of gray areas. A fascinating listen.

Morton Feldman in a Cave

Over the weekend there was a heatwave, so I decided to decamp to the cellar of my apartment building, where it's always a nice cool 20°. I sat in a folding fishing chair, played this quartet from Morton Feldman through my earphones, and worked. I noticed a line of water droplets on the bottom of a pipe about 2 meters in front of me. Every minute or so one of the droplets would fall to the floor. Plook. Plook.

And then it hit me: somebody should put on a concert of Morton Feldman in a cave. The gradual, natural processes of deposition and accretion, the geologic time scale, the chill, slightly unnerving sense of calm — what could be a better arena?

Feldman is popular in Germany, not least because he spent an 18-month DAAD fellowship in Berlin in the early 1970s. There are many talented German performers of Feldman's music, and of course Germany has some pretty nice caves.