When I told the people closest to me that I was going to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) in search of fairies, no one batted an eyelash, neither at the plan to spend a few days alone hiking, nor upon hearing that I was looking for the creatures of stories.
Perhaps it’s telling that I received an illustrated book of the complete Grimm’s fairytales in the original German as a gift for Weihnachten*, a gift that was both surprising and touching. Perhaps it’s not just me who’s willing to entertain the possibility of fairies. And really, why not?
I had relatively few stereotypes of Germany before moving here, but one was certainly the Black Forest, a place devoid of light and full of mystery, a place that held secrets that could not be known from outside. As I would come to learn over three and a half days hiking from my base in Bad Herrenalb, the Schwarzwald is not only full of light, but indeed also full of mystery. And while I found the answers to some questions throughout my walks in the woods, the woods kept quiet in a way that has already called me to listen again.
Walking through the trees, I couldn’t stop smiling. There was a peace that came over me, a sense of getting lost in the sounds of leaves and water, so much water, that flowed through the forest.
Already struck by the fading light and the mist rising over the hills surrounding the valley, I watched the patterns the sun made on the forest floor and in the surrounding trees. And in the mornings, I watched the sun creep up and wake the very same forest. It is no surprise that these woods are at the centre of so many stories and dreams.
Every day, all day, I could not stop thinking how glad I was to be there, to bear witness to the majesty that is nature. I remember how I felt the first time someone told me they like to imagine how the forest looked 500 years ago. And imagine I did.
Walking along the west side of the valley, I spent the day almost entirely in the snow. There had been hints of snow throughout, but here I experienced the forest in a whole new way.
I have a great love for signs when following trails. You can learn so much about places and about how people choose to define a place. The guidebook I received from the owner of my pension explained how to follow the trails in the Schwarzwald, but said nothing about how the markers on trees are occasionally hard to find, and can be somewhat ambiguous. The amount of signage is, after all, no indication of the visitor’s ability to follow the signs. I backtracked once a day, even changing course entirely one afternoon, and a particular decision to stray from the obvious path turned out to be my favourite part of a walk.
I enjoyed the Schwarzwald because it was designed to be explored. There is clearly a long tradition of resting in the woods, of taking a moment to just be. I photographed relatively few benches, rested on even fewer, but was glad that they were there. They made the forest a place to spend time in rather than a place to revere from afar.
I didn’t encounter many people along the way, but I can only say nice things about those I did meet. Everyone said hello and we shared smiles about the beauty around us. One elderly man called directions to me from across a field, a woman in a bakery struck up a conversation comparing Germany and Canada, the guests at my pension wished one another a good day upon leaving the breakfast room. And most memorable of all, a man I met while waiting for the S-Bahn in front of Karlsruhe train station sent me a postcard at the pension to thank me for the chat and wish me a good trip. I sent him a postcard in return when I got home to Weimar, thanking him for his note and his tips for where to walk. Unbeknownst to me, I had entered a community, and that could be seen in the forest, too. There are huts dotted across the Schwarzwald, closed for the winter but maintained. I passed many, photographed few, and was glad for the feeling of woods explored and alive.
I often go hiking with the goal of reaching the highest point or finding the best view. While there were these moments, I didn’t walk in the Schwarzwald with any sort of goal. I just wanted to be there, and there I was.
I am always fascinated with wood. With its colour, with its forms, and with how it is all around us all the time. And in the forest, I was ever more aware of not only how much we depend on this resource, but how precious it truly is.
Having chosen to spend a few days alone in the forest to clear my head, to breathe new air, to watch the world with new eyes, it made sense to look carefully. It made sense to look thoughtfully, not just at the big picture, but rather at all the individual parts.
Germans say, “Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus.” This literally translates to, “The way you shout into the forest, so it echoes back out.” In English we might say instead, “What goes around, comes around.” A similar concept is, of course, karma. I like the emphasis on the forest, on being part of a greater ecosystem and environment. I like the idea of echoes, of sounds coming back to us, perhaps in ways we had never intended. We walk into the world, we treat others well, and this impact on the world around us arcs back in some way.
I went for a walk in the woods to find fairies, and here I must be fully honest: I was too captivated by how the forest welcomed me, how its lights and colours and sounds drew me in, to go looking for something that was hidden. The forest deserves its secrets; I am privileged enough for being let into its greatness and returning home feeling more connected to the world around me. I don’t need evidence of fairies to know that there’s magic out there.
*Weihnachten is the German name for Christmas. As I’ve learned over the past two years and celebrations, this time of the year has a rather different connotation than the North American event, which is why I prefer the word for this context.