There is a tiresome meme, particularly in America, that goes "scratch a German and you'll find a nazi." Get one of these people worked up enough, the thought seems to be, and the inner authoritarian antisemite with delusions of world conquest comes out. Nobody who's lived here for more than ten minutes, let alone anyone who's ever actually met a real live German believes this, of course, but it persists.
No, the real meme is "scratch a German and you'll find an animistic pagan."
The early Christian missionaries must have really had a hard job in these lands, because they never really succeeded, in my opinion. Could the ancient Germanic nature-religion really have been wiped out when 2008 years after the birth of Christ nobody thinks twice about naming a child "wolf-path?" (Well, what did you think Wolfgang means?)
This is why, when German cinema first started making Westerns, it went straight to Karl May, the German writer who never left Europe and ground out pulp novels about the Old West which centered on the Indians. German Westerns weren't ahistorical: the Indians always lost, but they were also clearly the tragic heroes. They lived in close harmony with nature, and revered it. Why, they were almost Germans!
It's why Germans have those little settlements of garden houses everywhere there's enough space to wedge them in, and it's why they go mushroom hunting at the crack of dawn on weekends in the fall. It's why, when they go to America, they head to the National Parks, drive down Route 66, or groove on the Arizona desert. It's why they number the trees in their parks and forests (and really, if you don't believe me, go look: there'll be a little tag there somewhere, placed in the name of Ordnung).
And it's why my street is about to erupt into a seething cauldron of civil disobedience. Or not.
Early last week, some official-looking papers were taped to the doors of our buildings informing us that tomorrow, Monday April 21, city workers would fell most of the trees on our street and some adjoining ones. The trees in question were black cherry trees, and had, according to a Herr Doktor at the Berlin Environment Office, developed a root syndrome which might result in their falling over and hurting cars parked beneath them. The reaction was swift: more signs appeared, taped to the trees in question. One of them had word from yet another Herr Doktor questioning the accuracy of the first Herr Doktor's report. All of them noted one truly unfortunate detail: the city didn't have funds to replace the trees being felled.
In a repeat of something I've seen a lot before, signs resembling funeral notices appeared on the condemned trees, with a big black cross. "CONDEMNED TO DEATH" read a huge headline. A more reasonable sign in green then went up, calling for a mass demonstration. "The report of the root damage to the black cherry trees is doubtful," it says. "Not all the marked trees must be taken down. There is no money to replace them."
Then some red and white striped tape was stretched between the trees to be felled, along with no-parking signs effective at 7am on Monday. Sometime last night it vanished.
Today at 2pm, a demonstration was scheduled. About 30 minutes into it, I went to check it out. A merry old chap with a beard was pounding black wooden crosses into the patches of ground where the condemned trees were standing, as a television crew documented it. A pair of grim young men unfurled a huge sign that said "FIRST THE TREES...THEN THE PEOPLE!!" and just as quickly unfurled it after they'd gotten some attention. There was a table set up, at which signatures were being collected, and some guy walked down the street sticking copies of the mock-obit flyers under people's windshield wipers. The center of attention seemed to be another old guy with one of those contraptions of stick and string which make gigantic soap bubbles, and clusters of young parents stood around with their kids and chatted. A couple of bored cops checked every car coming into the street and otherwise stood around.
Will any of this cause the city to reconsider or put off the date of the trees' doom? Can demonstrating on a Sunday, when you'd better believe any relevant office is closed, do any good? Will this end up like every other instance like it I've ever seen in Berlin, with officials nodding their heads in sympathy and going ahead and doing what they'd intended to do anyway? And...are these trees really such a menace to automobiles and real estate? I don't know.
One thing I do know: it's not smart to mess with trees in Germany. It really does seem to call forth an atavistic response from people, as if the tree spirits had spoken to them and reminded them of the symbiosis that binds the Volk to the Bäume.
Another thing I know is that I've never yet seen the city of Berlin dissuaded from doing anything, no matter how stupid, once it had made up its mind to do it.
My heart's with the trees, but my money's with the chainsaws.
(The doomed eight, above, in green).
UPDATE: Went out at 1pm on Monday, all trees gone. A new, badly-painted sign declated it a SAW-MASSACRE!!