Between 1810 and 1820, Caspar David Friedrich painted the harbor of his native city of Greifswald crowded with the masts of sailing ships, among them galleasses, brigantines and yachts. The old Hanseatic city was connected with all the major commercial centers via the navigable estuary of the river Ryck, which flows into the Baltic Sea, and even though the channel of the river Ryck was much broader then, it frequently threatened to silt up.
The 94-centimeter-high, 74-centimeter-wide oil painting had been in the possession of the Hamburger Kunsthalle since 1909, and in 1931 went on show at Munich’s Glass Palace as part of the exhibition Works by German Romantics from Caspar David Friedrich to Moritz von Schwind. On June 6 a fire broke out there that destroyed more than three thousand paintings, including all the works in the special exhibition.
The problem is not locating the source but making it out. I am standing by a meadow with a map in my hand which is no help to me. In front of me is a ditch, the water not deep, the channel at most half a meter wide, the water’s surface covered with a holy carpet of yellowish-green duckweed. Sedge grows along the bank, yellow and pale as straw. The place where the water apparently rises to the surface from the depths of the earth has been colonized by thick green moss. What did I expect? A bubbling spring? An information board? I refer to the map once more, look for the slack blue line that starts in the eggshell-colored open terrain below the green-shaded woodland area. It may well be that the true source is more likely to be found up there, in the forest stretching out behind the handful of houses which turn this spot into an actual place with a name that I was able to tell the taxi driver. No doubt he was wondering what I was planning to do here, especially on an Easter Saturday, but in this part of the country, curiosity alone has never tempted anyone into speaking. The people here are serious and indifferent – as if submerged in a nameless sorrow—and, like this landscape, get by perfectly well without words.
This wholly inconspicuous rivulet probably is, in fact, what I am looking for: the source of the Ryck, formerly the river Hilda, which supplies the port of Greifswald many kilometers seawards of here, before flowing, broad and almost majestic, into an inlet of the bay, the Danish Wieck. I see the fissured, greying timber of the fence posts to my left, the two lines of rusty barbed wire, behind them the grassland dotted with countless mounds of freshly dug earth, the work of industrious moles, and, as was my intention, start to follow the upper course of the river in a south-westerly direction.
The great blanket of cloud spread out across the sky hangs low and heavy over me. Only in the distance are there breaks in the cloud, giving a glimpse of a streak of pale powder pink. A few broad-shouldered oak trees stand overlooking the paddock, remnants of a wood pasture long-since cleared. Their branches are reflected in the hollows brimming with rain and meltwater, big as lakes. Grass grows up like rushes out of the pale blue pools. A wagtail hops through the water, dips its tail feathers in a curtsey, and takes off on its springy flight.
Encrusted patches of March snow, barely three days old, glisten from the shaded grassy corners, from the indented tractor tracks, and from the white plastic wrappings covering the round bales, in which the hay ferments into silage. An overturned trough is rusting on the riverbank. Spreading above it are bare branches of hawthorn, its bark enveloped in sulphur-yellow lichen. The trumpet call of the crane rings out, triumphal and indignant. Beyond the ditch, two lead-grey birds raise their oversized wings and propel themselves into the air, only to wheel around ready to land again not long afterwards—in perfect unison, their legs reaching out towards the ground—and with three breathless beats of their wings come to a standstill. Their call resonates for a while longer, until it is finally swallowed by the east wind. It hisses in from the sea, a piercing wind that sweeps moth-grey oak leaves before it. The arable soil feels soapy underfoot. Blackish brown lumps of clay lie bare and sodden on the surface. In the furrows, rape is sprouting, its leaf edges already stained peroxide blond by pesticides. The colours are pale, the light feeble, as if dusk might descend at any moment.
In the lee of a swampy depression, a herd of deer browses. As I draw closer, they gallop down to the wood, their white flags flashing. On the edge of the kettle hole a scrap of camouflage material flutters on the frame of a raised hide. Not far off some mossy concrete roof slabs are piled up in front of leafless hedges of bramble, elder and blackthorn. Rusty loops of low-grade steel poke out of the reinforcement holes, now exposed and at the mercy of the weather. Moss as black as algae has taken over the porous blocks. Behind this, sheltered by the sparse undergrowth, a streaky green pond lies quietly in its ice-age hole, a spawning place for frogs and toads, which wait, out of sight, for the signal to procreate. The withered grass has dried to a waxy yellow, bleached by the winter. Only the leaves of the buttercup burst in abundance, spinach-green, from the damp black earth.
I go back to the ditch, follow it until the water disappears underground in a concrete pipe. On the horizon, the bright blades of the wind turbines go round, living machines. I think of the black horsehead pumps I saw as a child, and their sinister stoical thrusting into the depths of the earth. It was the last ice age that formed this region, the lowlands of the Ryck valley, a tongue-shaped basin in a gently undulating moraine landscape, its fields and kettle holes edged with massive boulders worn smooth by sandy debris and glacial water. The deeper layers hold rich resources of crude oil and salt.
A few hundred meters further southwest, grey-barked birches mark out the onward path of the stream. I cut across country until I reach its now slightly broader bed. The narrow unploughed strip meanders between the field and the ditch, barely two meters wide. The carpet of greenery is ripped open in places. The peaty earth shimmers damply, churned up by wild boar. A skylark ascends, warbling, into the sky and its breathless song announces the spring, though it seems far-off, inconceivable even. For the first time the water is audible now too. It flows, gurgling softly, towards a patch of woodland and disappears beneath some hazel bushes. I plunge into the intimate stillness of the wood. Here, sheltered from the penetrating east wind, the ground is still thick with the withered, ash-colored fallen leaves from the previous year. The undergrowth is earthy and grey, all except for the heath pearlwort, green as parsley. And the winter aconites on the point of blossoming into egg-yolk yellow stand erect with their leaves fanned out. As the wood begins to thin out, I discover—among brushwood, pine cones, and deer scat with its blue-black sheen—the shed antlers of a stag. The dark brown bony structure weighs heavy. I run my hand over the pleasantly chapped, leathery hard surface with its knobbly protrusions, and over the smooth tips of the tines. At the bulging ring that was once attached to the pedicle on the stag’s skull there are still tufts of hair from the animal, which must have discarded its headgear only recently. The alabaster-white, scabbily rough bone tissue at the rupture point feels sharp as coral. It must have taken some strength to cast off the antlers. The bark of the nearby spruces is streaked with score marks. Milky resin oozes from the wounds like frozen blood. Some trunks have been gnawed bare by the hungry deer.
A gust of wind rustles the treetops, the sky brightens, and for a moment the pale disc of the sun glows through the wall of cloud. It casts no shadows, but immediately there is a buzz of activity in the air, and the birds grow louder: the mechanical chatter of the magpies, the unflagging song of the chaffinches, the tuneful warble of the blackbirds and the melancholy sing-song of the robins.
As I emerge from the wood, a carrion crow takes flight, sails, cawing, over the field speckled green with winter barley, swoops down time and again without interrupting its hoarse call. The landscape looks different, peaceful, tidy. A perfectly straight clay footpath lined with leafless willows follows the ditch as far as the next hamlet. Schnapps bottles from obsolete brands lie in the water. Arching out left of the footpath from the withered undergrowth are reddish grey bramble stems. Birds’ nests are perched in the bare hedges. And beneath a hawthorn bush lie dozens of chalky-pale, shattered snails’ shells and the stones where blackbirds and thrushes have smashed the armor-plating to extract the soft flesh. The mud churned up by tractor tyres and softened by rain and meltwater yields underfoot with every step I take. The puddles have taken on the color of their surroundings. It is the umber of wet clay and the murky swamp, a uniform waxy hue with little in the way of contrast, save for the spring-green tinged branches of pussy willow quivering with silvery young catkins in the frosty air. Their silky fur has only just unpeeled itself from the sticky buds.
At the edge of the city the watercourse forks. I follow the most inconspicuous of its branches, the stream hidden deep in the scruffy field margin and lined with crack willow. The trees rise up out of the karstic brushwood like bulky beings moored upside-down to the undercut riverbank, their crowns pollarded, their branches stunted, hollowed out by wind and weather. Rotting wood bulges from their burst insides.
Soon the footpath crosses a water channel which, on the map, now bears the name of the river of my quest. Uncurving, it heads east, breaks loose from its surroundings, a natural boundary between two paddocks, hemmed in by willow fences. Lying on the meagre soil of the riverbank are blades of sedge beaten flat by the rain. Silently the water follows the course designed for it, fed by more and more drainage ditches branching off to the north and south. The open countryside lies there frigid. Everything is remote, the land occupied, cultivated, providing pasture for cattle still crowded in their sheds. Only the wind rages, whipping my breath away, stormily impeding my steps. The sky is clustered with bulging clouds. The hum of traffic is audible from somewhere near or far.
It is a while before anything catches the eye again. Dogwood and blackthorn bushes enclose the fields and provide shelter from the harsh north-easterly. A flock of greyish brown, blackbird-sized birds swoops over the fields, repeatedly touching down en masse to rest, and taking to the air again at the slightest disturbance. They are fieldfares, the grey-speckled thrushes that feature in the cookbooks of bygone days, which overwinter in the Mediterranean. Yellowhammers, too, soon appear as dabs of broom-yellow in the gusty air. Imperceptibly the ditch grows fuller, the water level rises, the channel broadens out, the rippling water flowing through the open shutter of a mechanical weir.
When, after a time, a road approaches and crosses the ditch, the smooth, tin-grey asphalt is alien to me. Cars zoom past. To the north, shiny concrete-grey barns, bilious green silos and a grayish white pyramid of cellophane-wrapped bales of straw are visible through a row of poplars. From somewhere comes the drone of farm machinery. Solitary flakes of snow dance noiselessly above the boggy ground of the yellowed pastureland.
In the grass of the riverbank I find a brown-grained river mussel, as large as a chicken’s egg. Its inner surface shimmers in shades of mother-of-pearl. Not far off, some mallard ducks are dabbling in the water. They fly away with an irritable whining and flapping as I approach, more easily startled than their town-dwelling cousins, and gather on the nearby fallow field. Their webbed feet show up in shades of orange and the heads of the drakes shimmer peacock-blue against the grey expanse of the field. After the monochromy of the last few hours, the birds’ bright coloring appears almost exotic.
Then I arrive at the place I had picked as the end point of my first leg. The little village of Wüst Eldena consists of not much more than a restored manor house and a row of brick-brown farmworkers’ cottages. Apart from a dilapidated fire station and a few tumbledown barns, all the buildings look lived in: there are curtains hanging in the windows, cars standing on the driveways, and chickens strutting along by the fence surrounding their run. Neglect pervades the place. Its name is an empty claim. It refers to the Cistercian monastery at the mouth of the Ryck, Greifswald’s ancient founding building, which has been languishing in a state of ruin since the Thirty Years’ War.
My mobile telephone has reception again. I dial the number, and just as the taxi appears at the end of the lane, snow begins to fall steadily from the sky in big thick flakes.
By Judith Schalansky, from Inventory of Losses, copyright © 2018 by Judith Schalansky, translation copyright © 2019 by Jackie Smith. First published as Verzeichnis einiger Verluste by Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.