Nothing Other Than Grass

Mirko Bonné, September 2015

Since June 2012, I’ve been keeping an online notebook, a poetic blog in which I combine everyday impressions and those from my various trips with comments about what I’ve been reading and ideas for texts and poems. Since the start of the Weather Stations project in February 2014, my entries have changed: weather observations have become more numerous, as well as remarks about politics, the climate and the environment. I’ve written down many quotes from the books and magazines I’ve read over the last one and a half years because they seemed to be making some sort of contribution to the climate change debate, in particular those sentences or verses written 20 or even 200 years ago. The overriding question raised by the following selections from my blog “The Grass” is however aimed at the poetic, that is, the part of language and the world that I see as living heritage and that does not seek answers and solutions, but is rather intrinsic to both, both question and solution.

 

 

Yesterday and today, I looked at a squirrel, in two arboreta far apart. Both were looking for something, both brown, yet the one from today had a grey chest and stomach. The one from yesterday scuttled away, its legs far apart, like a rabbit with a big tail, while the one from today was swifter, perhaps akin to a bird, leaping from the bush on to the tree. What knocking and gnawing sounds they made! The alert, yet still seemingly pensive way they looked around them. The way they appeared so suddenly, like a squirrel materialising from the ether, then how they stayed for such a surprisingly long time before disappearing equally suddenly, like squirrels gone without warning. The beautiful red-brown: trees on to which the evening sun falls. (17.2.2014)

 

Summer in March. A summery March, a March summer: “When the forsythias bloom, winter is gone.”

 

Watch out! Roof avalanches! Between Untereinöden and Überruh, maybe also near Oberholzleute, just past the Spitalhof: snow on the side of a valley in Oberallgäu. And the snow poles are still stuck like toothpicks in the roads that lead up the valley to the tidy farmsteads. We’re prepared for any eventuality here. (Isny, 6.4.)

In the morning, the child says he couldn’t sleep, as the window was open. “All the birds flew back and talked and made loud music in the hedges that grow up alongside the house.”

 

A young American author living in Australia and writing a novel about Atlantis said to me at Melbourne Art’s House, the old Meat Market, that it’s only tales, stories of experiences and individual people’s ideas that enable her to grasp something so inconceivable as climate change. Some time ago, she met a taxi driver in Mississippi who told her that she was putting aside as much money as possible in order to move to Florida with her family. She and her husband planned to buy a house on the beach for them and their children so that they would be among the first to be washed out to sea by the great flood, all the way to Atlantis.

Nocturnal gusts of wind in the courtyard, they pass over the dunes and strike the palms. An invisible bird answers each gust with a loud wailing cry that is joyous nonetheless. (Port Douglas, 4.5.)

Clouds that stay still for hours above the Coral Sea. They carry slowness in their very form and are bordered by black and white. If you pass beneath then, they do not conceal their volume. Each is, as Dylan Thomas once said of radio, “a building in the air”.

A green sea turtle in the waters of the reef, nearly the same size as me, yet with the eyes of God. Does it know I’m observing it?

The skin of many Australian women is as red as the earth, reddened by the blazing force of the sun.

 

104-year-old Lizzie Davies of the Coranderrk people was asked how she predicts rain. Lizzie Davis replied: “I touch the mountains”.

The bricklayers’ laughter can be heard in the courtyard, as they stand around in the open garage below, smoking and looking at the sky, where there’s a mid-May hailstorm. Minutes later, the warm sun shines once again and swallows swoop though its light in great arcs. The English, the Australian of the past weeks is still in my mind, I still dream and speak to myself in the foreign language – I think Burundjeri, Brunswick Street and Yarra River to myself on the bank of the Danube. It’s like something is melting away inside me, like the snow left behind in a forest glade. (Ingolstadt, 13.5.)

When I took the umbrella out of my suitcase, it seemed damp and when I opened it out to dry, it was full of drops that had travelled across the world: Australian rain.

 

This question is also of key significance in the climate change debate: how can you make something real (once again) that seems unreal? The question is how to bridge the gap. You assume that they, “the people” want reality. But is that really the case? (18.5.)

Up on the roof of their tower, the meteorologists measure how much sunlight there is on each and every day. A narrow strip of black card with an hourly scale within a semicircular housing is concealed behind a glass sphere that focuses the sun’s rays and directs them on to the strip. When I look at the scale, I see a tiny sun glowing yellow there that has been eating its way through the card since 6am this morning. I see how time passes, time made of light, the illumination of time.

The beauty of the orchard: the dark and light greens, the trees and the grass, the free interplay of the two.

 

A roaring heat. Flies on the window sill, gleaming motionless, dying motionless. The people moving slowly. Haze over the Burggasse. (Vienna, 11.6.)

 

When you run your fingers through the fronds of the Persian silk tree above you in the bright green light, it’s like you’re stroking an animal that’s standing upright in the wind and is compelled to be a tree. The silk tree’s fronds tell of their sex, of the house of the silk tree, of its history stories. (Ellerhoop Arboretum, 5.7.)

 

“There are also seagulls that bite”, says the child.

 

You’re alone with this silence and in it, you encounter yourself as a child once again, the boy that marvels here at the joy of the world for the first time.

 

In spring, travelling beekeepers trek over the island of Fehmarn and put up hives in the blooming rape fields. Intoxicated by the abundance of yellow, the bees collect nothing but rape nectar for weeks, pure rape honey.

 

Of Bojendorf at the northwestern tip of Fehmarn, they say that the boys from the village used to capture the sun every evening and imprison it in a barn overnight. (Fehmarn, 24.7.)

 

The row of plum trees between the S-Bahn tracks – I look into the summer light that remains and I’m close to tears. How long have they been there already? They are still here!

 

The shelf life of a plastic fishing line: 600 years.

 

The wind in the treetops does indeed tell a story but not about itself. It tells you about yourself.

 

After the animal captures and kills a young wren in the early morning, it crawls into a dark, silent corner for six hours, dejected. Then it comes out again, examines the scene of the crime and looks out of the window for a long time at where the bird appeared and will maybe appear again. The animal is ready to forget, ready to repeat. Life continues, killing continues, death continues.

 

In Kalathos, I saw an olive tree growing up through a red Toyota.

There are only dried-up riverbeds across the whole island – or have the rivers just dried out and silted up? There’s red rowing boat half in pieces right in the middle of the Loutan’s pebbled hollows. (Rhodos, 17.10.)

 

The sound of the wind moving into the dried out leaves of the plane tree, a papery rustling or rather a rattling, a cracking. It’s almost like a fire, a fire made of air. (Akra Ladiko, 19.10.)

“Be the rain.” Neil Young

 

You open the door and it’s autumn. (You shut your eyes and summer is there).

 

It’s not the world that is ungrateful, it is I.

 

Sitting by the Salzach on a November day so warm I can’t remember another like it: a warm November wind, the suburbs enveloped in the warm autumn breeze, the mountainside is yellow, green, golden and brown in the mild pulsations of the air. The birds flutter upwards over the river and women sit on its banks and eat up the light from bright bags. (Salzburg, 4.11.)

November 19th and there are still mosquitoes and wasps.

 

Every speck, every handkerchief-sized piece of lawn, every piece of soil, as long as it’s just brown or green, must be covered with tarmac so we can then put concrete on top of it. While every other encounter, be it love, friendship or some other form of affection, is an interstellar event.

 

The entire pain, the entire hatred, the entire fear, the entire greed. The entire destruction and annihilation in the name of this God or that. I bow down before anyone who can keep their mouth shut in a conversation about so-called faith. You can only rely on the empty sky, that is full of birds, full of clouds and air to breathe. (January 7th 2015, Paris)

 

A swarm of starlings flies up into the sky as if a storm had blown apart the top of a huge tree, the birds bursting away across the grey January sky.

 

As Camus quite rightly remarked, the weather is what every single person experiences and what connects us all. It’s just that everyone experiences it differently (like everything else too). My brother once confided in me how much he loved running through the snowy forest, because “your footsteps then turn silent”. How difficult it is, to tell of your feelings about the weather, your different feelings and the feelings of yours that differ from one another!

 

In the driving snow, the swiftly fleeing birds are like snowflakes.

 

“The tree may become a blossoming flame, man a speaking flame—an animal a walking flame.” Novalis

 

“Why is rain not blue if it falls from the sky?” Sylvain Tesson

A barge travels downstream along the Main river, passing under the Holbeinsteg bridge. It’s a winter day, ice-cold, windy, but without snow. It’s only the boat that’s covered with a thick layer of white snow from elsewhere, shaped into rib forms by the wind.

 

In the morning, a tremendous light shines over the green hills. It’s dawn in Ireland and the seagulls sail within it above the deserted car park in front of the huge, still entirely empty Tesco shopping centre “The Square”. (Tallaght, 27.2)

 

The green parakeets are free in the park’s bare treetops, like leaves, a May in flight, trying out places to hold on to. (London, Hyde Park, 16.3.)

Those who make use of the good weather – whom and what do they otherwise make use of?

Beneath the arch of the bridge – a lively green flickering on the masonry, a whirring, a meadow of light on an afternoon just for ghosts that want to stay.

 

Forty-five million “unusable” male chicken chicks are shredded each year in Germany in plants set up specifically for the purpose of destroying birds – dead wood that is alive. I live in a factory of death – a state in which killing is not a past phenomenon, a state which may pretend to be a socially minded, but in reality subordinates everything to profit and efficiency. The CSU minister responsible for this godless, ruthless mass slaughter rejects any criticism of the procedure, making reference to research that is already working on more effective killing methods.

 

It’s the fourth of April, and it’s still cold as winter, cold enough for a winter coat. The trees are bare, the bushes pale-green, full of timid buds. You feel startled when the warm spring sun suddenly falls from the cloudless blue. In the afternoon, it shines for a long time, golden, stretching out the spirit, making your eyes widen and recognise what is beloved in everything and everyone standing around in the car park: children, women, men, dogs, trees, old cars, people who laugh in the bright light. Then there’s a twinkling that flashes through the light, blue and gold. The fourth of April? It’s snowing.

 

As the budding, sprouting and blooming grows quicker each day (and each night), so too does the river become greener with every hour that passes.

 

You can chat to any blackbird at the top of a tree – as long as you have the time and the inclination to do so and a bit of blackbird patience.

 

On this small island in the Elbe, every bit of undergrowth seems unique in its form, with an unmistakable shadow, a specific rustling sound when the wind passes over the river, strange blackbirds in its branches. An amazing bush – as if it were itself an island. (Lühesand, 7.6.)

 

“The people were addicted to hope and blind from it too, that was their fate.” Gerhard Roth

 

Hot days, close to 40 degrees. In the stairwell, the wood creaks at every step. It seems to want to shout at the top of its voice of hot summer days and weeks in the past, of days free from school due to the heat, of children who sat in the cool shade of the stairwell. But the wood of the dead years is just creaking. (3.7.)

 

The people sit on the steps in front of their shops and wait for the rain to come. And when it starts, as it soon pelts down, they remain seated. To live so much more frequently! (Fuhlsbüttel, 7.7.)

 

A rainy day in Jutland. Everything seems slower in a warm wind, even the huge sea gulls over the pillboxes half submerged in the sand.

 

“At one point, the world looked like this”, says the child and shows you it: “there was nothing, nothing other than grass”.

Sun and Water

A renga in 16 stanzas
Written by the students of
the Weather Substation at the Romain Rolland Gymnasium
Berlin-Reinickendorf, July 2nd, 2015

The sun rises.
Its rays illuminate the whole valley.
The river flows downstream.
I allow the melody of the water
To carry me with it.

The morning sun
Shines on a green leaf
That floats on the water.
A small ant sits upon it
Making the journey downstream alone.

The days are grey.
They become ever brighter.
The sun is dazzling.
The waves break,
Break on the white beach.

The sun gives off light,
Glittering on the surface of the sea
Like a sky full of stars,
The rays shine
And illuminate all they touch.

Light shines on the sea,
Creating so many shades of blue.
The waves murmur.
The heat quickly spreads
And the days grow longer.

The smell of the sea,
Weak, yet still present,
Is carried by the wind,
Decorated by the songs
Of all its animal inhabitants.

The sea’s waves
Quietly gurgle
Against the coastline.
The surface of the sea glitters,
Mesmerised by the sun.

Heat, what now?
A mouth dried out.
One drop of water.
Desert sands and great heat,
But no water to come to the rescue.

Quiet, yet loud too,
The waves rush to the cliff.
A roaring sound, even as
It still feels peaceful.
Sun, summer by the sea.

Glittering beauty,
In the glow of the late sun.
As far as the eye can see,
the ocean lies calm.
But it can be so very different too.

An irascible wind
Sweeps through quiet spaces,
Turning the world on its head.
And how do I find myself there?
Changed, with fresh courage!

Reflected in the water,
It now sparkles and shines.
I grow wetter.
The heat is oppressively warm.
A night at sea begins.

Outside in the garden,
Leaves wilt in the fountain.
I see the sun
Going down in the distance.
The night completes the day.

She leaps into the cold,
Eye closed, tightly shut.
Her hair shimmers.
It will be dark in no time at all,
For the sun is setting.

The sun rises
And the lake is a mirror
To reflect it, the sun.
The lake sees the sun as blue
And the sun the lake as yellow.

The sun as a motor,
the heart of this world.
With water as the blood,
That keeps it alive.
Without both, there is nothing.

The Hand on the Clock of My Life

With Yeats and Heaney in Tallaght, Islington and Reinickendorf

Mount Seskin, StudentsThese were meetings that were more than warm-hearted. Over three weeks in February and March, I spoke with young people at three different schools about two poems that I believe have something important to say about the relationship between the individual and the respective climate in which he or she lives and thus also about the consequences of climate change. The poems in question here are “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” by William Butler Yeats, which was published in the Crossways collection in 1889, and “A Postcard from Iceland” by Seamus Heaney, which was written 100 years later. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, while Heaney received it in 1995. Around fifty students told me the different thoughts and feelings the two Irishmen’s poems had provoked in them and I listened, frequently both moved and amazed. The schools where I presented the poems were the Mount Seskin Community College in Tallaght near Dublin, the Islington Arts and Media School in London and the Romain Rolland Gymnasium in Berlin.

The Meditation of the Old Fisherman

You waves, though you dance by my feet like children at play
Though you glow and you glance, though you purr and you dart;

In the Junes that were warmer than these are, the waves were more gay,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



The herring are not in the tides as they were of old;

My sorrow! for many a creak gave the creel in the cart

That carried the take to Sligo town to be sold,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



And ah, you proud maiden, you are not so fair when his oar
Is heard on the water, as they were, the proud and apart,

Who paced in the eve by the nets on the pebbly shore,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



Mount SeskinIn Tallaght, Islngton and Reinickendorf, three students each read out one of verses of the Yeats poem to the class. All three classes were particularly keen on the repeated line at the end of each verse, which to many students felt like waves breaking on the shore. Others were enchanted by the “back and forth” produced by the poetic foot, reminiscent of dunes or pulsations, while others were astonished about how an old fisherman at the end of his life thinks about the world and so many different things: everything may change over time, but love and yearning always remain the same. We spoke at length about the connection between the human disposition and the climate and weather. What is climate anyway and what is weather, what are the differences between them and how can these differences be described? The boys in particular asked what “crack in my heart” might actually mean – whether Yeats, as it may seem, was really only concerned about love and its transient nature. I remember a silent student sitting with us in the art room at Mount Seskin College, shaking his head even as he read the poem again and again, quietly and just for himself. It was only at the end of the lesson that he finally gathered his courage and started talking about the floods in 2014, whereby numerous Dublin suburbs were destroyed following heavy storms and weeks of rain. “Suddenly a river that had never been there before came down the hill and carried the houses away with it, my grandparents’ house too.”

Seamus Heaney talks about another similarly unusual, yet very different river at the start of his 1987 poetry collection The Haw Lantern, whose motto is: RoRo

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.

Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Heaney’s poem “A Postcard from Iceland” delighted the students in Tallaght, London and Berlin in equal measure. Comparisons were immediately made to Yeats’ stanzas, while many immediately noticed that this poem too contains voices from real life talking about a lost connection, albeit in a different, more ironic tone:

As I dipped to test the stream some yards away
From a hot spring, I could hear nothing

But the whole mud-slick muttering and boiling.

And then my guide behind me saying,

”Lukewarm. And I think you’d want to know
That luk was an old Icelandic word for hand.“

And you would want to know (but you know already)
How usual that waft and pressure felt

When the inner palm of water found my palm.

IAMSThe longest discussions followed my question about whether the sense of a direct connection to the Earth represented by Heaney in the poem still holds if the hand in question is being bathed in artificially heated water. Independently of one another, all the students responded here with a resounding no. We were all in agreement that Seamus Heaneys’s poem is an account of two conversations, not just one held by a tour guide with a tourist visiting an island but also the conversation that nature, the Earth or creation has with anyone who is open and sensitive enough to join in. “We all ultimately know the language of lukewarm water”, said one student in Islington and another in Berlin. “When it comes down to it, everyone remembers what it was like to be in the womb – it’s just that it’s impossible to communicate that.” The climate in which each of us lives perhaps gives us a similar feeling of unconscious security: “(but you know already)”.


IAMS, EntryWhat language is capable of making this clear and what language can speak of the dangers that climate change brings with it? In these schools on the edge of three European capitals, not even a trace of helplessness was to be found, but rather lots of youthful vigour and curiosity, a lively interest for unfamiliar standpoints, a great deal of empathy and above all the willingness to finally make some changes to things according to one’s one ideas rather than the established ones. A fifteen-year-old student at IAMS, the Arts and Media School in the London district of Islington-Finsbury, found a fantastic impromptu image for how to overcome the mutually disavowing debates on climate change in science and literature: “On the clock of my life, the language of poetry is the minute hand and the language of science the hour hand.”

Photos: Students at Mount Seskin Community College (1), Oisín McGann in front of the Mount Seskin “Substation” (2), the Romain Rolland-Gymnasium, Berlin-Reinickendorf (3), Students of the IAMS (4), the entrance to the IAMS in Islington. John Keats went to school in nearby Finsbury. The four tenets of the school at its entrance: “Confidence Aspiration Reflection Respect” (5)

Solar Eclipse at Romain-Rolland-School

March 20, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

sonne1sonnen

 

One of my first thoughts as my alarm clock goes off and I lift myself out of my bed, deals with an event that has been discussed and planned for several weeks in my additional Physics course. Something unique and rare is going to happen today. Something so unique, that I will even be allowed to bunk off my Biology lesson and half of my English lesson to watch it: the Solar Eclipse which can be viewed not only in Berlin, not only in Germany, but in almost half of the European countries. So I am VERY excited, particularly because of the fact that this is the very first eclipse for me to observe. As there will be a lot of preparation and special equipment required for the observation, I won’t have Biology today and, instead, will be spending time outside and enjoy the beautifully warm and sunny spring weather today. Sunny spring weather? Oh, yes, we are actually very lucky today. Especially our Physics teacher was really concerned about the weather forecast provided on Wednesday, our last lesson before the eclipse, which predicted cloudy skies – not the best conditions for the use of our brand-new solarscope. But on my way to school I am assuaged as I see the bright blue sky. I actually have not seen such a beautiful sky for a long time: it looks like a freshly washed tablecloth that somebody laid on top of Berlin. Clean, no clouds, no fog, just sunshine and a few white tracks left by several airplanes. At the moment the sun is still shining as it usually does, but boy, this will change after the next two Geography lessons. 90 minutes pass like 90 seconds after which I will join the guys from my additional Physics course to build up our observation zone. During the break all the other students will have the opportunity to watch the eclipse with the help of our instruments. Which instruments? Apart from the solarscope, which is a special telescope for sun observations, a special box shaped projector that shows an enlarged projection of the sun, and a set of super-fancy-looking sunglasses which are so dark that you can look through them in the direction of the sun without setting your eyes on fire. And so it begins. The moon starts to cover the sun at approximately 10 a.m. The eclipse reaches its climax right as the long break starts. Hundreds of junior and senior RoRo students come to watch this spectacular event and I am right in the middle of this crowd. Now the moon covers 80% of the sun and I can feel something strange: obviously it is getting colder and I notice that the sunrays shining on my face do not feel as warm as they usually do. Although the sunlight still seems to be really bright and intensive it almost feels cold on my skin, which is a feeling I have never experienced before. The break passes quickly, the students start to leave, and so does the moon. It starts to leave the sun and reveals its native, well-known, round shape. The schoolyard is empty again as I start wrapping up all our equipment together with my fellows.

For now, that was my eclipse experience. That Friday was very exciting for me and I bet I am not the only one. The next eclipse visible from Germany will be on August 12, 2026 and I am sure I will not miss out on that one either.

(Igor Zaytsev)

An Enemy of the People

On 23.2.2015, the Sophie-Scholl-Schule substation attended a four-hour workshop at the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin about Henrik Ibsen’s play “An Enemy of the People”.

Theater workshop

 

In the play, Dr. Stockmann exposes a scandal: the water at the town health baths is contaminated. To begin with, he receives support from the press and his friends. Yet they suddenly change their position and no longer want the scandal to be uncovered. They see their future as threatened.
Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of the play poses the question: what chance does truth have in a society where the economy comes before all else?

The students were given the following task: have I even been opportunistic? When? Why?

It was interesting to hear my classmates’ “confessions” and observe their facial expressions at the same time.

 

SONY DSC

Who is stronger? Who is more powerful? Who is more convincing?

The students were given instructions by Wiebke Nonne, the Schaubühne’s theatre educator, in how to make proper use of their bodies in theatre acting.

 The workshop was funny and interesting, but also demanding.

SONY DSC

Many thanks to the Theatre Education team at the Schaubühne in Berlin!

The workshop helped me internalise the play more!

 

Plastic Sea

The thin ribbon of water that flows
down to Hamburg beneath
locusts and ash trees, but mainly
old birches, where ducks live and coots
that dart off mutely, smelling of the swamps
in the quiet old woods of Stormarn and Holstein,
is called the Alster, and is and always was
a river. It was made into two lakes in the middle
of the great Hanseatic city only when Adolf
III returned to the city from the crusade
in the Holy Land and ordered a miller
to dam the stream with mighty dikes
that would have stopped even the Elbe’s
flow. Then a northern sea spread out
amidst the wooden town; all the Holstein waters
of the Wöddelbek, Rönne, Wischbeck and Lankau,
the Sielbek and the Tangstedter Mühlenbach
flowed and could not drain; within weeks
the relentless element, flowing
on and on, grew vaster and
broader, grimly unstoppable,
until first the Outer, then the Inner
Alster (not cut off until much later), became
two lakes, turquoise green today and turquoise
blue tomorrow, and almost always roughened by
the west winds, hemmed by belts of dense reeds and
by now beloved for more than eight hundred years.

Die Alsterseen

So it winds its way, the darkly glittering water-
adder, past bushes and paths, through
the banks’ red-branched thickets. And
is utterly silent. A trickling, a softly purling
whisper is faintly heard when it has wood in its
mouth, stones in its bed, polystyrene panels washed
from a construction site somewhere or a spindly
bramble bush that got in its way and that it
drags along for a time as though
the winter-Alster claimed that
none need die as long as
they can play. It is black and half
a man’s height higher when it floods.
Over Christmas 2014, after weeks of heavy
rain over the Feldmark and the last scraps of
deciduous woods between Kaltenkirchen, Bad
Oldesloe and Duvenstedt, the Alster’s tributaries,
otherwise so idyllic, poured into the river with
unprecedented force and transformed it
within hours into an unpredictable
flood necessitating barricades
of sandbags to protect
the housing estates, and crowds of
rubberneckers were sluiced onto the shifted
shore of the Alster exactly like, as cynics said, flotsam.

Die schwarze Welt

Each black meter of water, rolling past ominously
mute, had the momentum of over three
hundred stacked-up fuel tankers,
by someone’s calculations.
Meadows, playgrounds, riparian
woodlands, the paths and many streets,
as well as bridges, lots, docks, a big shed at
the foot of the railway embankment holding God
knows what long-forgotten junk were
submerged and sank for days
and for weeks. Children
asked whether the water would
stay like this now, so high, so dark, and
so, so bad. Yes, I said to a little girl
with an eye patch, it looks like
it’ll stay like this from
now on. Ah well.
The world is
turning black.
And the neighbor,
arm in arm with his wife,
dog invisible, gazing at a bend in
the Alster where the river used to come
around the curve and fling its gold-brown
glitter at the bank, eyed the nightmarish
immensity of water and said hollowly
that never in his life, since he
sailed boats here as a
schoolboy, had he experienced
the like on the Alster, never had it
happened before, not even in a dream,
in which everything is possible, was it
possible. Too quickly for the darting pupils
to follow, the river rolled under the Fuhlsbütteler
railway bridge southward to the Free and
Hanseatic city. I saw three plastic
canisters and pictured a raft
you could build with them.
High water, said the stunned
neighbor. Floods. They’d always
happened, summer or winter,
in the fall or especially in the spring,
as soon as the snowmelt descended on Stormarn.
But this here, the black water masses, such
a draggled park, never, really, no.

Der Alsterlauf

Forced into stone embankments, the Alster
flows past the Rödingsmarkt and the Herrlichkeit
and joins the Elbe between Hamburger Neustadt and
the Portugiesenviertel. Six hours it takes for steamers,
freighters and tankers to reach the sea along the
deep-dredged channel. The three canisters,
a raft that will never be built, since I am
not Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn
and my favorite river is not the Mississippi, but
a stream by which I often linger to gaze at the water
and reflect on the meaning of poetry, these three
pathetic empty plastic containers drift for
weeks from the railway bridge into the
brackish Elbe between St. Pauli,
Finkenwerder and Glückstadt.
Their plastic, cast, molded,
punched and glued in a factory in,
let’s say, Hangzhou, before being shipped to
Hamburg along with millions of identical milky white
canisters, requires, unless it’s ground to bits,
around 850 years to decompose and
vanish from the earth, as long a span of time
as the two Alster lakes have existed in the middle
of Hamburg. Though no doubt what is true
of the soul is true of plastic. Never,
never does it vanish for good.

Plastikmeer5

In a poem in his collection Rare Earths,
Arne Rautenberg, from Kiel, transforms the
oceans’ infestation of plastic into art, into his art,
for which he expresses his thanks (to the tides, the
motion of the waves, and to the ultraviolet light, as well
as to the plankton and the great ocean gyres), his
thanks for being an artist who can play upon
all the continents. Long live art. Long live
the one and only, eternal joy that is
artistic freedom! This means, too,
that everything wants to be art, just as
everything that is at all alive wants to be free.
Plastic, in the year 1800, for Friedrich
von Hardenberg, who called him-
self Novalis, the one who clears
new land, was an aesthetic term,
when he wrote that music, plasticity
and poetry were inseparable elements,
existing together in every free art, just combined
in different proportions. Novalis thought these thoughts
in Burgenland, in Weissenfels on the Saale, which
together with the Mulde, the Müglitz and the
Vereinigte Weisseritz forms a river-land
that he loved, and where he spent
his whole life. All four rivers
flow into the Elbe,
and so, at Barby,
does the Saale, where
Novalis went swimming as a boy,
naked, and often long into the night.

Plastikmeer4

In his whole life Hardenberg never once
held a thing made of plastic. No wonder! There
were no synthetic materials, not even in the hair-
band of a tiny little doll, nowhere in the entire old
world filled with the murmur of the endless
forests, the stillness, the ringing of
bells and the stink of cloacas.
Yogurt cups; lids; clocks; cling wrap;
shopping bags; bags of all colors, sizes and
shapes; toys of all shapes, sizes and colors; cigarette
lighters; disc jackets; pens; car mats; disposable
razors; hub caps; combs; clips; ballpoint pen
cases and cases for cases; bottles; bottle
caps; automobile, tractor, truck and
harvester tires; bowls; plates;
eating utensils; bread bags
and card cases; cases for card
cases; cases for mirror frames; canisters;
disposable chairs; disposable bowls; disposable
tables; plugs; sockets; disposable socket boards; endless
lengths of wires, wires, in sacks and bags, stuffed into
disposable cases; nothing, nothing at all, not the
least little bit of it existed in the as-yet
undestroyed, unwired quiet world,
when Novalis swam in the Saale
without a thought for burning fat,
building muscles or steeling his
chest, but perhaps instead reflecting
whether the bosom is the breast elevated
to a state of mystery, and physics
nothing but the teachings
of the imagination.

Kupferstich Alsleben an der Saale

For the most part, the plastic
trash which the Elbe sweeps into
the North Sea vanishes there in the sea’s
dark abysses. The sediments of the long-since
ravaged sea floor contain inconceivable
quantities of tiny bits of microplastic
particles, mainly fibers, the sum
of which, according to the British Royal
Society’s trade journal Open Science, exceeds
by ten thousandfold the larger fragments of plastic
that drift in polluted water gyres, agglomerating
into veritable continents of trash, larger than
Central Europe. If each square kilometer
of the ocean floor were a lake, all
these lakes would be clogged,
one could almost say: shat full of
quadrillions of plastic fibers, all the way
up into the tallest treetops on their shores.

Plastikmeer2

Nowhere on this Earth, at the North Pole,
in the Black, Red or Dead Sea, the
Caribbean or the Antarctic, is there a
large body of water, a coast or a beach with-
out plastic residue, report London scientists
headed by Lucy Woodall from the Natural History
Museum, outside whose façade of noise-insulating
windows the Thames sloshes past, regulated and
polluted. Floating in the world’s seven seas,
according to calculations, there are nearly
two hundred and seventy thousand tons
of plastic trash, a horrendous number,
but well-nigh absurd, for it is mysteriously
small compared with the galactic quantities of
plastic trash that all of us actually dump into the sea,
namely an estimated six and a half million tons, for
who can calculate the true weight of the plug
with which we are stopping the world?
Where does it go, all the crap of
affluence, you have to ask. Only
a fraction of the trash, it seems, floats
on the surface in the form of visible particles.
Larger particles break up in the swells, are ground up,
shredded, in part by UV light, into microparticles
that can barely be seen. If algae or microbes
settle on them, they go under, sinking
like ships, airplanes or a corpse
down into the dark
at the bottom.

Plastikmeer1

Lucy Woodall’s team analyzed
twelve sediment samples from the ocean
floor collected over the course of twelve years,
up to 2012, in the southwestern Indian Ocean and
in the northeastern Atlantic. Four coral samples, too,
were studied under the microscope and in the
infrared spectrometer. All the sediment
samples contained microplastic
particles, mostly fibers, generally two to
three millimeters long, but often less than tenth
of a millimeter thick. The samples contained
an average of thirteen and a half particles
per fifty milliliters of liquid. More than
half of the particles were viscose,
which is not a plastic, but an
artificial fiber made from
cellulose and used in cigarette
filters, and increasingly in clothing.
Fish, skates, sharks, wales and turtles have
no use for the stuff; for them viscose is poison
from which they will perish, like anyone
who finds nothing left to eat but
plastic. The second most
common material found in all
marine creatures across the globe
was polyester; indeed, one could speak of
polyester fish, polyester water snakes,
polyester octopi. And perhaps,
once the particles are ground smaller
and smaller, until they condense
with the seawater vapors
and rise into the air, one will speak
of clouds of polyester or viscose: plastic clouds.
Due to the small number of samples, it was
impossible to compare the frequency and
composition of the sediments. But fibrous
microparticles seem to be found through-
out the deep sea, ten thousand times
more prevalent in sediments than
in the contaminated ocean gyres.
According to projections, just
one square kilometer of sediment
from the Indian Ocean’s deep-sea mountains
contains around four quadrillion plastic fibers. And
studies of the deep-sea valley, the sink for the whole
world’s plastic trash, have not yet been undertaken.
Darkest night reigns there. It is lightless and void
of stars. Nothing sparkles. And yet even there
breaths the vast world of the restless stars
that float in the sky’s blue ocean.

*

Photos: Inner and Outer Alster (lakes) in Hamburg (1), a black swan in a blinkered world, the Alster in Hamburg-Klein Borstel (3), the plastic pollution of the oceans and coasts (4, 5, 7, 8), copperplate of Alsleben an der Saale in the 18th century, as Novalis knew the town and river in his childhood (6).

(Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole)

Hello from Romain-Rolland School, Germany

You can find Romain-Rolland-Gymnasium (RoRo) in the northern part of Berlin (Germany) which used to be the French district before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its European profile is reflected by the variety of language classes offered to the students who learn English and French as their first and second languages. Additionally Spanish, Chinese or Latin classes can be attended. The second core theme is Sciences. At a young age, students learn how to experiment by working on special projects in cooperation with Berlin universities and national education foundations. The school community appreciates social commitment, gives the students a chance to develop their creative skills and teaches them social competences based on tolerance, peace, and considerateness.

RoRo had its first encounter with the Weather Stations project at the ilb International Literature Festival Berlin 2014 when a group of students attended a reading by Mirko Bonné from Hamburg (Germany) and Tony Birch from Australia. The students are in the age of 17 years.

Students from RoRo say:

“I really like the idea of connecting the aspect of climate change with literature so that there is an incentive even to people who might not be interested in this topic. I think in the project we will get to know a bit more about climate change from different perspectives; from the authors and from the other participants. I hope that we will learn how to express topics like climate change through literary texts. I am looking forward to getting more information when Mirko Bonné visits us.”

“I think that climate change does influence all of our lives and that we, as the young generation, should try to make the world a better place. It is not easy to draw attention to this subject, because everyone knows about climate change and its consequences. The problem is that just a few people help to prevent it. That is where the Weather Stations project comes in. They want to reach more and more people, the elders and the youth, and want them to know that with a little help from anyone, things can be changed. By using poems, short stories and promoting our school, we get a chance to take part in it.”

“I think the Weather Stations project will be a great project to learn about climate change and nature in a different way than just by watching TV or reading newspaper articles. I think it is great that we will get to know authors from different parts of the world.”

“I expect to learn more about the problems of climate change and the issues it causes around the world. I am particularly interested in the different opinions of different cultures toward that topic. In America, for example, I have even heard people say that climate change is not a real thing, and just made up by the media or environmental activists. I am excited to discuss these issues in class and with authors from all around the world who are interested in the same thing.”

Kathrin finds beauty

Tempelhof Airport, in the middle of Berlin, feels like a relief. It ceased running in 2008 and thanks to engaged communities fighting for public access, it became the city’s biggest park in 2010. Whereas Berlin has swallowed me up in the past, I can choose to vanish in its fields. My ears hear layers of distant sound, people are flying kites, rare birds suddenly give company. Its beauty derives from being an industrial ruin; a vacancy in the middle of city life. Though I have always loved the atmosphere of functioning airports and the promises they hold, their symbolism has become more difficult to embrace in our age. Maybe Tempelhof seems comforting because Germany feels like a big productive machine, eating its way into our last quiet places, unstoppable. Climate Change will bring about more of these ruins, I expect.

[Kathrin Bartha is a PhD candidate at Berlin. Her hometown Frankfurt houses one of Europe’s biggest airports.]

[Photographer - Veronica Bartleet]

[Photographer – Veronica Bartleet]

A Thousand Words for Snow – Part three

 

Continued from part two, which you can read here.

7.

The evening passes for Tekk without any significant moments. He is in some grand restaurant, with the most beautiful seafood and meat before him, with luminous candles on the table and inky red wines and golden beer. But Tekk only manages to eat two pieces of roast beef. He feels depressed, although many friendly delegates are trying to hold a conversation with him. But he has no vocabulary for the cultured white Europeans. Nor can he involve himself in any sophisticated discussions about carbon dioxide emissions or levels of acidity in the oceans. He misses his family, his favourite dogs, his igloo, and most of all, the freedom he can only feel in his natural environment. He asks Hans to walk back with him to the hotel, while everyone is having wine and gooseberry cakes.

Later, alone in his hotel room, Tekk feels a little better. He removes all of his clothes, stripping down to his shorts, although he leaves his walrus fur hat on. He loves his fur hat. It reminds him of all those great times when he and his father went hunting for walrus, and watching his father skin animals with his knife. He misses his father, though he knows his father’s dead body is lying there senselessly deep in the snow by their house. Suddenly, tears run down his face.

He lies in the bed, pressing the remote control, flicking through TV channels.

On one channel there’s a cooking programme, on another some soap set in a rich family’s house somewhere in Europe. On another is a police story with car chases and gun fights. Tekk watches this for a while, but it’s in German. He soon grows bored, and his feeling of lonesomeness returns.

He switches off the TV, lying still, trying to sleep.

Through the thin wall, he hears the noise of two people making love next door. The noise grows louder and louder.

He lies there, eyes wide open, listening to the noise.

The next day, Tekk asks Hans to take him to the zoo again. This time, Hans only accompanies him to the entrance, and tells Tekk that he will come back to meet him by the gate in three hours time, because he has to work at the conference. Tekk is happy for this three hours by himself in the zoo. He walks straight to his friend’s enclosure, and in no time, he is standing in front of Knat, the lonely polar bear. He watches the creature’s every single move, but is careful to remain obscured, so that the bear doesn’t see him.

Today, around the enclosure, there is a television crew from the BBC reporting on the famous polar bear. Tekk watches a blonde woman presenter, speaking in front of the camera in English:

‘Welcome to the BBC World Service! Right now I’m in the Berlin Zoo, standing in front of Knat, their famous polar bear. I want to give you some insight into why Germans are worried about him and what is the real problem. We were told by the zookeepers that Knat has been leading a very reclusive life and stays in his cave for most of the time. He’s also been showing some signs of losing his appetite. Usually polar bears would eat raw meat, but recently he’s los interest in that, and instead he’s begun to eat human food like vegetables, cooked food – even croissants and bread which the tourists give him. We wondered if the famous carnivore could become a vegetarian. In a week’s time, Knat will cerebrate his fifth birthday with the zookeepers and I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of cute photos of Knat’s birthday party…’

The bear in the background roars towards the camera, which frightens the television presenter slightly. But she adjusts her smile and continues her report. But then a group of animal rights activists swarm in front of the camera, raising their banners and shouting together: ‘caging is a crime!’. The bear seems to be getting more and more disturbed. But at this point, Tekk steps out from behind the tree, and into Knat’s field of vision. After a few moments, Knat notices his friend. Then he gradually grows quiet. Tekk is chanting words in his Inuit language, louder and louder. His chant seems to pierce the noise of the protesters and the crowd of tourists. The bear seems to sway back and forth in time with his chant. And then the eyes of bear and man lock again.

It’s at this point that everyone else begins to notice the strange scene happening between the bear and the fur-clad Asiatic man standing by the fence, who’s producing a resonant song from deep inside his chest. Knat releases a long sad groan in response, and raises his head, stretching his whole back, as if waving his head to Tekk. Suddenly, there is a silence, only punctuated by the background sound of traffic, and the occasion animal noise. Tekk and the bear stand frozen, gazes locked, as the crowd and zookeepers look on. But then, like a string breaking, an air of hopelessness comes over the bear, and their mutual gaze is broken. Knat, as if releasing some heavy weight, turns to go back into his cave, dragging his paws over the concrete. Tekk leaves quickly before anyone can question him.

 

8.

The week-long conference is heading towards its climax. It’s the morning Tekk is going to give his speech. He has a text Hans helped him to write. Over the last few days he has been practicing it and he has learnt to read it quite well. This is his speech:

Dear delegates of the 5th Global Warming Conference,

My name is Tekkeit Qaasuitsup and I am from a village in Greenland. I feel honoured to be able to present the story of my family and my people to you here. I must admit that I know nothing of global warming or climate change, but still, I want to thank the organizers for inviting me to come to Berlin.

Here is my story: I am from an Inuit tribe. We are hunter-gatherers. I am indeed a Nanook, that is, a good hunter. Originally, Nanook in my language meant the master bear. In our culture, polar bear is the master of all bears. Only he can decide if hunters deserve success in finding and killing bears; he will also punish the bad hunter who violates the rules. My father was a bear hunter and so am I. We have to hunt for our food. We have no shops near us. The nearest supermarket to our house is three days away by dog sled. So we have to do fishing and hunting to keep our life going. We always listen to the calls of the bear master when we hunt. After arriving in Germany, I was very surprised to see our master was caged in the Berlin Zoo. So, while I have been here, I have had to go there everyday to worship him. I am worried about his condition. I hope he is not going to punish me one day.

The last thing I want to do is thank my friend Hans. He has taught me good manners and I have learnt through him something of the European way of life. But I am not sure I will become a vegetarian like Hans, because if we eat the good animals from the sea and we only eat what we need to eat, then there is no need to be a vegetarian. We can’t eat three seals in one week. We can only eat so much food everyday. It’s strange then, for me, that there is so much food in the supermarket. What happens when they can’t sell it all by the end of the day? They throw it away, or let it rot? Anyway, I know big cities have more opportunity for living, but I prefer my hometown and I already miss being there. I hope to fly back as soon as possible. This is the end of my speech. Please excuse my English and thank you for listening.’

After this speech, everyone applauds and agrees Tekk is the most charming guest in the conference. He is instantly asked for photographs by his new fans. A few minutes later, a man in a nice suit approaches Tekk. He introduces himself as Werner Vidoni and he is the head of Berlin Zoo, specialising in animal behaviour.

‘What do you want from me?’ Tekk is a bit surprised.

‘Oh, we need your help, Tekk, if you don’t mind my direct approach.’ Werner explains.

‘What sort of help?’

‘You already met our polar bear in the zoo, and you know he is very precious for our city. Indeed, I have witnessed your power with our Knat. I was there the other day, when you calmed Knat down.’

‘Yes, I know Knat.’ Answers Tekk somewhat enigmatically.

‘Knat was born in our zoo and his mother died shortly after his birth. So he has lived a somewhat lonely life for a bear. Now in the last several months he has grown more and more reclusive, and he eats less and less. We are quite worried about Knat’s health. Since you are from Greenland, the native land of polar bears, I wonder if you might have some good suggestions for us. And if you like, we can invite you to accompany our bear keepers, so you can get closer to Knat and tell us what you think about his diet and his behaviour. ’

This is a surprising appeal for Tekk. He is lost for words. He nods his head in earnest.

‘Tekk loves Knat, I am sure he will be very happy to have an opportunity to get closer to him.’ Hans hears the conversation and answers for Tekk.

Next day, Tekk is picked up by the zookeeper from the hotel. On the way to the zoo, two documentary filmmakers with a camera and recording machines also join them. They want to make a ‘Reality TV Show’ about how an Inuit trains the bear and they believe the whole of Germany will love to watch the show. The team is received in the zoo by the enthusiastic staff. Before Tekk enters a back door leading towards the inner enclosure occupied by Knat, he kneels, facing the cave where the bear is, and prays silently. When the ritual is over, he wipes dust off his trousers and says: ‘now we can go in.’

The zookeeper is curious about Tekk’s ritual, he asks: ‘Tekk, what do your believe?’

The young Nanook answers with an old saying from his Inuit culture: ‘We do not believe, we fear.’

‘You fear?’ The zookeeper repeats: ‘what about God? Do you have some kind of god like we do here in Europe?’

‘God? Everything is god. Seal is god, walrus is god, fish is god, and polar bear is god too.’

‘So do you fear these gods? I mean, if you don’t believe in them, you wouldn’t fear them…’

‘Belief is not important for us, but fear will protect us. We fear nature’ says Tekk.

The documentary filmmakers record Tekk’s speech. Soon Tekk’s mysterious answer will become an enigma for the Berlin media. Soon the genial Nanook will become a celebrity, as famous as Knat. Tekk’s photo will appear in Bild and Süddeutsche Zeitung alongside that of the polar bear Knat, with the headline: WE DO NOT BELIEVE, WE FEAR.

The day passes by with Tekk inside the enclosure, along with the bear and the animal specialists. Tekk has been talking to the zookeeper about his and his father’s knowledge of polar bears. ‘You know, polar bear is the great long distance swimmer. But here in the zoo, he can swim nowhere and he can’t do any excise really.’ The Zookeeper nods his head. He knows the problem well, but he doesn’t think they can change Knat’s living space.

 

9.

‘We can’t return our Knat to nature, because he was born in captivity and never lived outside of the zoo. He won’t even have the ability to secure his own food. He will just die if we let him out’. The zookeeper explains to Tekk.

Tekk has no more words to offer. Before he leaves the zoo, he suggests: ‘Knat needs a friend, his own kind of friend to live with.’

‘Yes, that’s the right thought.’ The zookeeper says. ‘We have decided to raise 500,000 euros to buy another polar bear – a female one from Norway, to be the mate of Knat and to conceive future baby bears. We have already secured some money and we are confident that we can raise the rest of fees to host our new Mrs Knat.” Says the zoo keeper.

But only our young Nanook knows that his friend inside the fence is reaching the end of his life. The bear is short of breath, and he hasn’t eaten half of what he is supposed to eat in the last few days. He has no more strength, not even bringing himself out of the cave to meet the public.

Next day, when Tekk is accompanied by Hans to the airport along with his orange suitcase, they find hundreds and thousands of people gathering in front of the television news in the departure hall. Everyone is watching the direct live broadcast from Berlin Zoo: Knat is dead! He died from a mysterious disease, apparently a tumour in his heart. Both Tekk and Hans freeze in front of the news report. It said Knut’s sudden death caused an international outpouring of grief. Hundreds of fans are visiting the zoo, leaving flowers and mementos near the enclosure. The mayor of Berlin, Mr. Herzorg is speaking on the television now: ‘we all held him so dearly. He was the star of our city. But he will live on in our hearts. We will create a monument for coming generations to preserve the memory of this unique animal.’ The report also says that Knat’s remains may also be stuffed and put on display in the Museum of Natural History. The news ends with a song performed by children: ‘Knat – The Dreamer, we love you forever’.

Alone on the plane, Tekk contemplates the floating clouds outside his cabin. The scenes from the last few days are like a film playing before his mind’s eye. He falls asleep as the plane makes its way north. In sleep, he returns to the dream he had a week ago, on the night after he arrived in Germany. He is swimming with a young polar bear in the arctic sea. But the bear is such a good swimmer, he soon leaves Tekk far behind. In no time the bear is nothing but a small, bobbing head on the swell far ahead, and then, slowly it fades, becoming indistinguishable from the grey sea surface and the dull sky. Tekk scans the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse. But there is nothing. He is alone, far out in the ocean. Then, suddenly, the sky to the north, begins to change its form. The light and clouds merge to form a smile – a smiling bear head hovers before him in the fading day’s rays, and the grey waves are touched by a shimmering whiteness.

 

 

EPILOGUE

A great iceberg is drifting on the water. If you were a bird or a fish, and if you followed this iceberg long enough, you would arrive somewhere in Greenland. There you might see a dead seagull frozen on the snow, or the skeleton of a large musk ox on a hillside. Or, you might meet this Inuit family in a small igloo house. Our story continues from within their igloo.

So what’s this Inuit family doing? As is not unusual for any family, they have gathered around, engaged in domestic activities. The mother is cooking. Her three sons are feeding their dogs. Occasionally they help their mother prepare the food. Their father is dead long ago. He died in a snow storm while out hunting. And now their youngest son, Smart Tekk, is telling his family of the adventure from which he has just returned:

‘I said to the German people, we call aput – the snow that is on the ground; and qana falling snow and pigsipor drifting snow; mentlana pink snow; suletlana green snow. And that kiln is remembered snow, naklin forgotten snow, and so on. The Germans were intrigued, so they asked me what is “remembered snow” and what is “forgotten snow”. I said you can’t remember all the snow you have encountered in your life. You only remember some of the snow. For example, the snow that lay on our dead father’s body, motela, that snow I will never forget…’

 

END

A Thousand Words for Snow – Part Two


Continued from part one, which you can read here.

4.

The press conference is held in the morning. When the general delegates arrive, a line of important speakers are already on the stage. Tekk is on the stage too with a nametag on his chest. He is given a place at the side of the table, next to Hans.

The chairman makes a welcoming speech and emphasizes the deep importance of research into climate change. His speech is long. Tekk starts to doze, slumping in his seat. Then the chair begins to introduce the delegates on the stage: scientists, professors, activists, and so on. When he gets to Tekk, he announces Tekk as the ‘last Nanook from Greenland: the ice melting community.’ The audience applauds with excitement, while cameras click frantically. Hans hints to Tekk that he should stand up for photos.

Then the chairman continues: ‘Tekkeit Qaasuitsup, one of the last Nanook from northern Greenland will be making a speech in the next few days about his family’s traditional way of life, and what we can learn about the Inuit culture. Now, without further ado, let’s begin the conference…’

A few hours later, a huge close-up of Tekk’s face under his walrus fur hat has appeared everywhere in Berlin’s media. The headlines above the photo say things like: ‘LAST NANOOK IN TOWN!’ or ‘WHAT ESKIMOS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT OUR MODERN WORLD’.

The conference moves along smoothly, and soon all the delegates are having their lunch break. They are in the dinning room next to a very lush garden, enjoying a buffet. A number of people come to shake hands with Tekk, asking him about his family and his trip. Tekk’s attention is drawn by something in the garden.

His eyes are following a young woman in a red dress passing through the garden. Hans follows Tekk’s line of sight, and sees the black haired young woman, carrying a caged raven across the flower bed.

‘Did you see that? Hans? That black bird?’

‘Yes. A raven, actually,’ Hans answers, curiously. ‘A raven in a cage. It’s the first time I’ve seen a raven as a pet.’

As they watch the woman, she seems to sense their gazes and looks back. She smiles to them mysteriously. Just when Tekk runs into the garden, she disappears.

‘Sedna! I found my Sedna!’ Tekk cries.

‘What is Sedna?’ Hans follows him out.

‘Sedna! Our Inuit sea goddess!’

‘You mean the raven or the young woman?’ Hans asks.

‘The young woman! Her name is Sedna!’

‘Okay, calm down, Tekk.’ Hans says: ‘Do you want to tell me who she is?’

‘Yes. She was a very beautiful Inuit girl with long black hair, just like that woman.’ Tekk is still walking around restlessly in the garden, hoping to encounter the scene again. ‘Everyone in our region knows the story. Because Sedna was so beautiful, she was always turning down the hunters who came to her house wishing to marry her. But Sedna’s family was very poor, so her father wanted to marry her off. Her father said to her: “Sedna, we have no food and we will go hungry soon. You need a husband to take care of you, so the next hunter who comes to ask for your hand in marriage, you must marry him!” One day a hunter covered in smooth black fur arrived before their igloo, and asked Sedna’s father if he could marry his daughter. Sedna said yes, though she didn’t even see the man’s face. She was then placed aboard the hunter’s kayak and journeyed to her new home. You know what a kayak is?’

‘Yes, I know what a kayak is. So what happened to her and her strange husband?’

‘It was a long way on the sea. It was snowy and windy. They covered themselves in their heavy robes. For the whole tripe, Sedna never saw her new husband’s face. At last they arrived at an island. Sedna looked around. She could see nothing. No hut, no tent, no cooking pots, just bare rocks and a cliff. Her new home was a few tufts of animal hair and feathers strewn about on the hard, cold rocks. As they stepped onto the rocks, the hunter stood before Sedna and pulled down his hood. He let out an evil laugh. Guess what?’

‘Sedna’s husband was not a man but a raven! Is that the story?’ Hans smiles.

‘Yes, you Germans are clever people! He is a big ugly black crow!’

‘So then what? Did she live with that evil bird for the rest of her life?’ Hans asks impatiently, aware that everyone around them is finishing lunch. Yet Tekk and Hans have not started eating yet.

‘Of course Sedna didn’t want to live with that ugly black bird. But it was a long way home. She couldn’t just go back by herself… ’

At this point the conference organizer comes to them and interrupts Tekk’s story. ‘Hello Tekk, hello Hans, I hope you are enjoying the press conference this morning?’

Tekk shakes hands with the organizer. He then realizes how hungry he is. He rushes to the food table, grabs a plate and serves himself some food.

‘Indeed. I just hope our friend from Greenland can take a whole week of conferencing!’ Hans greets the organizer, heaping salad onto his plate at the same time.

‘Don’t worry. If our Inuit friend gets bored with all the talks, you can take him sightseeing. There is lots to do in Berlin – the Holocaust Museum, the Checkpoint and so on. What do you think, Tekk?’

Tekk’s face cracks into a dry smile. He is busy with his deep fried schnitzel.

‘How did you find Berlin, Tekk? Have you seen our famous bear yet?’ the organizer asks.

‘Bear?’ Tekk swallows some schnitzel, startled. ‘You have bears in Germany?’

‘Yes,’ the organizer answers, ‘we have our own famous polar bear. His name is Knat.’

‘You are teasing me!’ Tekk stops eating, and is exasperated. ‘Where is he? Can we go to see him now?’ He turns imploringly to Hans.

Hans laughs. ‘Not now,’ he says, ‘but maybe later if you are not too tired.’

Journalists crowd around them, urging Tekk to pose in his fur hat and to smile at the camera. Tekk poses with the hat, but he cannot summon a smile.

 

5.

Tekk and Hans are queuing in front of Berlin Zoo. Like them, there are lots of people waiting to enter. Eventually, Hans gets hold of two tickets.

As they pass the entrance, Tekk is already impressed by the scale of the zoo, with its lush plantations and artificial hills. He asks lots of questions.

‘So people find all sorts of animals and then put them here, not killing them?’

‘No. That’s why we can see them, I mean, to be able to see a live tiger eating and running before our eyes.’

‘A tiger!’ Tekk exclaims: ‘I saw them on TV. Very scary animals! I don’t want to see them. Please don’t take me to meet one.’

‘Okay, no tigers then.’ Hans smiles, leading him further into the zoo. ‘I will make sure you don’t meet any animal you don’t want to meet. But you haven’t finished your story yet. About Sedna! What happened after that beautiful girl married the ugly raven?’

‘Yes… Sedna discovered her husband was only a black crow. Frightened and saddened, she tried to escape, but the big bird would drag her to the edge of a cliff, threatening to push her off. The bird also begged her to be his companion, as his life was too lonely to endure. So she became the raven’s wife, living on bare rocks. Everyday, the raven would fly out and bring back home raw fish. And that was the only food she could eat. She cried and cried and called her father’s name. The howling arctic winds carried the sound of Sedna’s weeping cries all the way to her father’s ears. Sedna’s father recognized the call in the air and knew it came from his daughter’s weeping. One day—’

Tekk stops narrating the tale. He is distracted by some big animals in front of him. His face is anguished and frightened. They are in front of some gorillas. Apparently Tekk has never seen a gorilla in his life. He is crying and laughing at the sight of such large, dark, human-like animals.

‘Maybe they are also men, don’t you think, Hans?’ Tekk asks with a trembling voice.

When a gorilla comes towards them, Tekk becomes very still. Then suddenly he drops to his knees, facing the fence and praying to the gorilla.

Hans observes Tekk’s strange behaviour, raising an eyebrow but saying nothing.

They move towards the enclosure where the giraffes live. Tekk carefully observes the towering animals, impressed by their long necks.

‘I wish I had such a long neck, so I could see the enemy coming from a far distance.’ Then he kneels down again: ‘Hans, we must pray. Otherwise they will revenge us one day.’

Hans shrugs his shoulders, watching Tekk pray to the animals while murmuring a string of inaudible words.

Finally they walk towards the zoo’s most famous tourist attraction: the polar bear. The area is surrounded by tourists. Everybody is waiting by the fence with their cameras and smart phones. According to the news report, the famous bear has made no appearance for a few days.

But as soon as Tekk gets close to the fence, things change. From behind some large rocks, a huge white body gradually appears. All the visitors hold up their cameras with anticipation. Tekk stares at the great bear, the famous Knat, who is now sitting on a rock by the water, looking bored and lonely. Paying no attention to the tourists and constant clicking cameras, the polar bear surveys the shallow water around him.

‘Oh Tekk, you are lucky to have a chance to meet our city’s super star. He has created about 2 million euros annual income for us.’ Hans says with some excitement.

‘How?’ Tekk asks.

‘How? You see all these people here? They bought tickets just want to see the polar bear.’

‘Knat…’ Tekk murmurs. ‘In Greenland we don’t wish to see bears face to face. We would wish them the best of luck, but don’t want to invite them any closer.’

A team of school kids arrive. They push Tekk to the side and jump around, trying to catch a glimpse of the super star animal.

‘Well, Knat has not been very happy in the last few months. Some animal experts say he is missing his native land, or he needs some companion. He does look a little sad. Sometimes he refuses to come out to bathe in the sun. He just hides in his caves, so no one can see him.’

Tekk seems to understand this situation very well. He says; ‘I would be the same, if I were put in a big cage. I would die, I think, probably in three days. ’

The more Tekk watches the bear, the more he is affected. As if caught by some magic power, Tekk is rooted to the ground. His hands grip the fence. His eyes follow every movement the bear makes. And he speaks as if in a dream: ‘I think he knows me…’

Under Tekk’s gaze, Knat finally seems to respond to Tekk. The animal’s eyes shine with sadness and hope. Tekk is in trance, and keeps murmuring. ‘Oh Hans,’ he says, ‘he is watching me. I think he knows me…’

 

6.

A gust of wind blows above the zoo, carrying the sound of sirens and city traffic. Knat suddenly makes a sorrowful and angry cry. Slowly, he walks back to his cave, and decides to hide himself away for a little while. He shakes himself as if from a swoon, rubbing his eyes. Hans asks if he’s alright. Tekk says nothing, pulling at the fence, his head down. Then, suddenly, as if snapping out of a dream, Tekk resumes his black raven story.

‘So I was telling you that Sedna had to become the raven’s wife, and cries her eyes out on the cliff every day. Then one day, Sedna’s father heard his daughter’s cries through the snowy wind. He felt very guilty for what he had done to his daughter. So he decided it was time to rescue her. He killed a big walrus, preparing food to eat for the next several days. He loaded up his kayak with food and water, and followed the sound of the crying. He paddled for three days through the icy arctic waters to Sedna’s home. As soon as he approached the island of Sedna’s husband, he saw a red figure standing on a cliff. He recognized his daughter, wearing the same red dress she had had on when she left home. She was so happy and surprised to see her father, she ran towards him and quickly climbed into his kayak. They paddled away without hesitation. After many hours of travel, Sedna and the father turned and saw a black speck far off into the distance. They knew it was Sedna’s angry husband flying to chase her.’

At this point the polar bear inside the cave howls twice, as if he can hear the story and understands it well. The bear then emerges from his cave. Tekk stops speaking: he cannot help but be drawn in by the bear. The bear seems to meet Tekk’s gaze.

‘Maybe we should walk around the fence, in between the tourists,’ Tekk suggests. ‘So I can see if the bear really recognizes me.’

As they walk around the enclosure, at first the polar bear loses sight of Tekk. But after a few moments, the animal finds Tekk again amongst the crowd. It’s like some electric current passes between their eyes. But then suddenly two zoo keepers distract the bear by throwing a large rubber seal into the enclosure, their hope being to get the depressed bear to do some exercise. Knat seems to be roused into an angry state, leaping from his rock, and starts to tear the rubber seal apart.

Tekk turns away in disgust. He drags Hans away from the enclosure to a bench near a tree. With a sigh, he continues the story: ‘So the big black raven chased after his wife, steadily gaining on her, riding on the wind. Finally he swooped down on the kayak. Sedna’s father took his paddle and struck at the raven, but missed it. The huge bird continued to harass them. Finally the raven swooped down near the kayak and flapped his wing upon the ocean. A vicious storm began to brew. The calm ocean soon became a raging torrent, tossing the tiny kayak to and fro. Sedna’s father became very frightened. He grabbed Sedna and threw her over the side of the kayak into the ocean. “Here”, he screamed: “here is your precious wife. Please do not hurt me. Take her!” Sedna screamed and struggled as her body began to go numb in the icy arctic waters. She swam to the kayak and reached up, her fingers grasping the side of the boat. Her father, terrified by the raging storm, thought only of himself, as he had always done. He grabbed the paddle and began to pound against Sedna’s fingers. Sedna screamed for her father to stop but to no avail. Her frozen fingers cracked and fell off into the ocean. Gradually, all her fingers turned into seals and swam away under the water. She tried again to swim and cling to her father’s kayak, but again he grabbed the paddle and began beating at her hands. Sedna’s hands froze and cracked off. The stumps slowly drifted to the bottom of the sea, this time turning into whales and walruses. Sedna could fight no more and began to sink.’

‘What a sad story,’ Hans gasps. ‘The father is as bad as the raven.’

‘In Sedna’s desperation,’ Tekk went on, ‘she turned her body parts into sea creatures – her hair became millions of shrimps and little fish, her intestines became lobsters and octopuses, her sorrow became seaweed and her longing became a sand dune on the beach. Finally her red dress became the Mara Mountain towards the North Pole, protecting people from the icy wind. Now all the hungry Inuit families could get their food from the rich sea which had become filled with sea animals. They could now build their huts at the foot of the mountain. It is for this reason in our region that after a hunter catches a seal he will kneel towards the direction of the Mara Mountain and drops water into the mouth of the mammal before he kills it, a gesture to thank Sedna. Sedna is our sea goddess.’

‘But what happened to that horrible father and the evil bird?’ Hans asks.

‘Both the father and the evil bird were taken by a polar bear. Actually the polar bear was the master bear of that region and he knew all this was going on. So he punished the raven and the father.’

Tekk has finished his story. They both grow silent, as they gaze back into the distance. Inside the fence, the bear has already retreated into his cave. Hans sees this as an opportunity to leave. He promises Tekk that they will come back to see Knat tomorrow.

 

Read part three of this story