Silent Slightings - Caroline Adler
The term ‚bivouac’ (or ‚Biwak’ in my native German) originated in the 18th century describing the small camps - under canvas or the open air - of soldiers on manoeuvre. Whereas the military term of ‚Bei-Wacht’ (bei – additional, Wacht – guard, watch; an auxiliary patrol intended to warn of approaching enemies) had been in use centuries before, the fleeting character of Biwaks only developed in the Napoleon wars. When it became common (and necessary) to ,slight’ – to deliberately destroy – even one’s own forts, rendering them unusable to the oncoming enemy, Biwaks remained as last, or first bastions in a field of ruins. Makeshift housings for leftover soldiers, tiny dots on an abject landscape.
Other than those demolished castles and forts, the word Biwak itself somehow survived its own slighting and tenaciously carved its way into the everlasting summers of my childhood.
If one admits that children’s time is measured in images rather than by the ticking of the clock, we spent half of our kids-lifes in Biwaks; In small tents, bigger tents that turned into tiny sheds the bigger we grew, under canvas cover, in little wooden housings and sometimes, on special occasions, under the clear black sky. Wrapped in our sleeping bags, we would lie next to each other like fat nymphs, wiggling excitedly as if we could not wait to hatch. Following our father’s instructions, squeezing one eye shut, tracing his finger from the Big Dipper’s rear edge to the North Star and back to the Little Dipper’s towing bar. Cassiopeia became our favourite star sign, it seemed as if someone had signed the naked sky with a bold and childish ‚W’ – in a distance of almost ten light-years. Everything seemed so close, we never wanted to go to sleep.
We were not scared of the dark, the hisses and whispers of the lurking forest and the unknown depth of the lake, its innocent gurgle, – was it hurting? Their silent competition for the blackest of blacks made the meadows ulcerate, the limbs weep, trunks hollow, the sporadic waves lethargic, eerie and strange at times, uncanny but not unfamiliar. After all, the darkness of the forest and the water at night had kept our childish secrets; the stories we would have whispered into the ears (if they had any) of beetles and butterflies, but instead scribbled on squared paper – one wish at a time – and buried in the mud of the lakeshore. We came back, year by year, forever, to water that was already water, to hope for what was already wished for, had we not all grown up and told everyone our once treasured secrets with an almost apologetic smile. In our memory, it was mostly night, and the weight of the naked sky warmed like a heavy duvet.
What felt like an eternity lasted no longer than one or two days until – as every year – we would pack up our tents, squeeze our sleeping bags back into their casings, pick up any trash we might have left behind, extinguish the last of our fire and set sail to the next Biwak. Was it hurting? A sense of last goodbye, a vague suspicion I might grow up in the following year - grow out of the last one - accompanied these accurately rehearsed performances of ‚leaving no trace’. The emptiness of the damp meadows, the apparent indifference of the limbs, the trunks, the mud, the shore to our yearly goodbyes only confirmed our lingering sense that plants, rocks and water did not need to care about our childish initiation.
Set up by the government in the early nineties, the so-called Biwaks had been a reaction to the increasing commercialisation of water tourism in the lake districts of Mecklenburg and Brandenburg. These little camping spots were intended to serve as quiet places for private paddlers seeking refuge from motorboats, caravans, vocational campers. Almost invisible to the tourist’s eye, Biwaks provided a convenient entry-exit point for their canoes, foldable Klepper boats or kayaks. A rudimentary fireplace, logs serving as seating, a wooden pit latrine, in best cases access to drinking water were its demarcations of civilisation, while its secludedness made us at times believe we had escaped exactly that. Almost every year, our world started at the tip of the furthest trees, its end at the opposite lake shore, the slippery catfish at the bottom, silent Cassiopeia above.
In my memory, the makeshift Biwak places of Brandenburg got demolished in 2004. It was the summer we went to France, ate things called ‚Parfait’ and ‚Moules’; hot winds in greasy hair and easy smiles captured by digital cameras. While bulldozers dug over the dark green meadows, we were allowed to stay in a real hotel, crickets singing us to sleep. The sky seemed very far, nothing was familiar and the excitement of the new made our cheeks turn red.
The slighting that had taken place was thorough but quiet. Abandoning our emplacement, we heard no warning. The brittle logs that used to form a square around the small fireplace had disappeared as had the wooden shelter, the latrine, the racks to keep the boats dry, the little makeshift railing we used to hang our towels on. The bulldozers had cut deep gorges into the green meadow, digging over every last bit of grassland. Mounts of shiny black soil bordered the edges of my shattered memory. Was is hurting? Between the lakeshore and the lurking forest our eyes measured a silent field of ruins, a quiet place of origin, a healing wound.
In 2004, the area of 645 hectare, spreading from Densow to Lychen was turned into a nature reserve. Human intrusion - however temporal and fleeting - was made impossible through the deliberate destruction of picnic areas, resting places, hidden bathing spots, rendering them unusable. For too many years, the biwaks themselves were intruders - however respectful and polite - in a world of stoneworts, sundew, alder, trees, meadows, limbs, leaves – indifferent to our yearly hellos and goodbyes. Would they know if we had been the rearguard lost in-the-field or the vanguards bound to remain?
There’s nothing in the books. The traces of this slighting move through rippled photographs, bits of memory, single pages of diaries we never finished writing. Sometimes we doubt whether this place has ever existed. My father sets our stories straight, corrects the geo-data, the specific year; he is still tracing star signs in the sky. We don’t mind as long as there’s a handwritten wish-list buried in the mud of the lakeside, the slippery catfish at the bottom, the deaf bugs and butterflies in our clumsy palms and Cassiopeia high above, somewhere in the dim leavings of our memory. There, it is mostly night and the naked sky warms like a heavy duvet.