Report by Christiane Würtenberger
How wrong can you be? I had always imagined that real wilderness was far, far away. As a child, I thought that you had to fly off somewhere exotic to have adventures in the jungle. I was not totally wrong; after all, when I was small, there was no national park. Now there is the Black Forest National Park, created as recently as 2014. Only 90 minutes west of Stuttgart and covering some 25,000 acres/10,000 hectares, its 40 square miles/100 square km protects forests, moors, mountain heathland and lakes. Nature is allowed to take its course; humans do not manage this environment. In fact, humans are not welcome unless it is with a park ranger. These expert men and women look forward to showing us what goes on in this “German jungle”.
A guided walk with ranger Florian Hoffmann is a revelation. We are amazed. We learn. We scramble. We feel. We smell. We can even taste the forest. In just five years, the natural landscape has changed dramatically. We humans are welcome guests in this world and we can scarcely contain our amazement. A tree has fallen across the path. Before we climb over the trunk, we take a close look. Florian points out that there is a forest world "in miniature" living on the dead tree: lichen grows; rare fungi pop up; tiny mini fir trees push their way up into the light. And they call this dead wood! Everything lives in this nature park. As the old wood decays, it provides a home for new forest plants.
When we set off through the undergrowth, the morning air is fresh and tingling. As we press on, the wilderness gets wilder. But nothing is threatening. What seems unusual at first glance soon looks just as it should. As Ranger Florian points out tiny details that are not in any hiking or nature guide, we begin to understand what real wilderness is all about.
As well as learning more about nature, I learn something about myself. The forest reminds me of what I learned at school, a long, long time ago. For example, what is the difference between fir and spruce? Um ... what was it the teacher said? "Fir cones stick up; spruce cones hang down," explains the ranger, a mine of information. (Of course, now I remember. Basic knowledge!). "Spruce needles are sharp; fir needles are soft,” adds Florian, giving us a branch to rub with our hands. (Now that he tells us, I remember learning that). As I put on my knowing smile, I am deeply grateful to the ranger for mentioning the obvious little things. The citrus smell of the needles, for example, that comes when you rub them between your fingers. The spruce have a gentle lemony scent; the fir are more like orange. (I have to admit that I don’t remember learning that).
As we talk, the sun penetrates the dense green roof. Some rays even make it to the forest floor. The ranger has a piece of tree bark in his hand; the inside looks like a carving. "That’s the work of the eight-toothed spruce bark beetle," says Florian, with a smile. (This time I listen and say nothing for a change. I don’t believe that a beetle could have created this artwork). Florian explains: “This bark beetle feeds on the inside of the tree bark, leaving lacy patterns on the underside.” Florian is like a talking book. Apparently, there are a thousand and one stories hidden in the wild. I wonder what this park will be like in years to come, when the wilderness becomes even wilder? Pine martens and three-toed woodpeckers, pygmy owls and boreal owls, nutcrackers and red crossbills already call this paradise home. Every day must be interesting and exciting in a nature reserve.
Soon this wonderful, unspoiled green world will be even more approachable. A new National Park Centre is opening at the Ruhestein mountain pass at the end of 2020. From the building’s foyer, visitors can take the skywalk through the tree tops, with panoramic views. A permanent multimedia exhibition explains to young and old about the development of this untamed, wild forest. And, with luck, I will meet Florian again for one of his walks. And I promise that I will remember all those facts about the fir and the spruce, and which smells of lemon and which smells of orange.
Information about the flora, fauna and experiences in the Black Forest National Park, 90 minutes west of Stuttgart: