Fear and Foraging in Brandenburg
Posted on November 1, 2015
Photography By Florian Knopf
We were late. Tired and confused, we woke in Berlin to realise that we’d failed to write down the exact details of where we were meant to be. I had to rely on keywords Pel had remembered. Only days before she’d been guessing German places so I wasn’t entirely confident.
‘I feel like if we walked this way we’d end up where we were yesterday…the strausenbargem.’ But that was after several silky IPAs in a trendy beer house. Now we half clearheaded and had to find our way out of the city and into the woodland of Brandenburg. Missteps around the underground cost us time but soon we could see sky and the tall buildings began to fade. We left Berlin rush hour behind and napped our way to Rheinsberg. Waiting patiently to escort us out to a camp by one of the many lakes in the area was our friend and guide, Jon Hamnett.
I first found Jon in my English degree class. He gave long answers full of information and colour. He wore touches of paisley and made more sense than anyone else in the room. Other than an exemplary Wiganer, I’ve barely kept in touch with any university people at all. I rediscovered Jon some years on in Berlin, lost in search of Kreuzberg. I wandered in to the Prinzessinnengarten, an innovative urban garden growing foods in the centre of the city, curious about the place. There I found Jon tending the garden – our meeting was pure chance but it still didn’t quite bring us back into regular contact.
At university Jon would read me passages from his novel, a tale centered on a rare plant collector. Much time having passed, and Jon’s words being fine even back then, I’d have thought he’d now be a published author collecting plants and acclaim. It turned out that it was Jon’s gardening streak and his love of wild things that would steer his life, rather than his literary ambitions. Our reunion came when we both began to admire each other’s writings again. Jon’s stories of gathering wild food caught my attention and helped me catch up on his life. My stories of catering and drinking and fucking about told the tale of my move to London and my wife and life beyond my university years.
Since getting back in touch Jon and I had made several speculative plans, ranging from starting a food business in Berlin to living in the woods for weeks at a time. When it came down to it we could manage a weekend at his new camp without any real pressure to do anything about anything. It was barely spring and there was little to collect or forage, we just had clear weather and a blank woodland canvas to create a home in for a couple of days. The added action came in the form of a Polish film crew who were making Jon the subject of a documentary. This added some weirdness but also convenience. When we eventually got off a bus in our destination, Jon met us in a car with a vodka-nosed DOP and whisked us out to the camp.
As first visitors to Jon’s camp, we had some work to do. Collecting firewood, fashioning seating and making a tripod for the fire, so we could cook with ease. There was a lot of wood around – lots of the tall, slim trees that make up the woodland had been recently felled in storm. We’d have to be careful where we put our tent. Jon already had a stone circle filled with ash from the previous evening and a selection of firewood set out as a template for us to follow. This left the tripod as a priority so we set out to find some hazel. This we could do unaccompanied as the camera crew were still getting their shit together. Jon led us to a hazel tree where we cut three equal lengths of wood using a folding hand saw, a fine piece of kit I want to buy but would have no use for in London unless I get my hands on George Osbourne’s genitals.
‘How’s it feel it Georgie? I bet this is the most emotion you’ve ever felt in your life, apart from when you’re spinning around whorehouses on gear, you pasty reptilian cunt.’
The severed hazel pieces were a couple of metres long but only 6 centimetres in diameter, perfect for our task, apparently.
Carrying lengths of wood across the countryside I felt like I was doing the first useful thing of my life. In the city everything seems removed, part of the turning, churning wheels of capitalism. Of course, we’re just tourists playing a fantasy of living in the woods, far from the constant spectre of corporate empires and industrial spying. I balanced the beams on my shoulder and enjoyed the mild pain of their rubbing on my skin through my clothes.
We met the camera crew on the way back to the camp, and a layer of the wilderness was stripped back. Jon seemed to be constantly forgetting and remembering that there was this extra dimension to the weekend. Reluctantly, he scaled up our involvement.
‘You guys cool with wearing a wire?’
A sound guy that looked like a skinny, young Paul Giamatti was waiting with his kit. My first experience of sleeping in the woods and I was to wear a microphone throughout.
At the camp we lay the hazel out and Jon talked us through the process of making the tripod. Now, however, we were under the gaze of the crew and their lens. It was weird being watched as we learned and created. Everything felt strangely staged, like we were doing it for the camera. The sensation soon faded and it became the task of the camera crew to keep up with us and to try to make sense of jokes, accents and anecdotes that made little sense to anyone not from Manchester. The tripod construction took the simple task of constantly wrapping and looping a length of strong thread around the tops of the three poles (not the camera crew), to instill tension and bind them together. With a final spin of the middle pole to crank the tension to maximum, we spread the legs into tripod formation.
With this construction we now had something to hang our Dutch ovens from to cook dinner over the fire. Jon had earlier attached a metal hook to a length of metal wire so these things could hang over the heat. Our one issue was how we make a winch to allow us the ability to regulate heat. Jon suggested a technique that would mean wrapping the cable around a small log that had its sides trimmed to create a short length with the profile of a triangle. This would allow it to sit between the protruding tops of the tripod without turning – when we wanted to adjust the height of the pot we’d be able to lift it out to wind it up or down.
The issue this created is that the metal wire would be rubbing against the thread that holds the poles together, gently eroding it through use leading to ultimate collapse. My solution here was to get a bone involved that Jon had come across in the woods earlier that day. The bone had a perfect groove that would’ve formed part of a joint. The metal wire would be able to rub against the bone for a long time before it caused any reasonable damage. We inserted the bone and strapped it in. The system worked perfectly though the winch was a little clunky. Given that we were in the woods with minimal tools we were pleased with our work. In our excitement the cameras had faded entirely.
The next crucial technique we learned was how to make a fire. It’s the thing everyone thinks they know how to do, but I needed to know the true technique. I’d lit fires in wood ovens and started plenty of barbeques but this wasn’t a case of going down the petrol station and buying some charcoal, this was catering in the woods. Jon had already laid out a circle of stones and the area had already seen a fire or two. There was already ample firewood in the designated area so all it took was some composition. Large logs for the base, medium sticks above, two lengthy, hardy sticks crossed above for control, topped with a litter of kindling.
Silver birch trees could be seen throughout the area and their peeled bark was littered about, easily identifiable and readily available. The bark contains a flammable resin that would be our ally. Using a sharp knife Jon taught me to scrape the inside of the bark to create curls and fragments of the resin. When there was a nice little pile Jon made a little hole in the bark to allow air through and set about creating sparks. This was done the modern way, by pushing the back of a knife blade as hard he could against a ferrocerium rod, creating a bundle of sparks that caught on the resin. Then the heat was incubated by bending the bark, with the airhole allowing the embers to be fuelled before they turn to flames. The whole bit of bark becomes a fire lighter and is introduced to the kindling where the obvious thing happens. By use of the control sticks the fire can be moved around to allow maximum air flow.
It turned out I would need to remember all of these steps to be able to make a fire when Jon was absent. We were prepping for dinner when an accident occurred that didn’t surprise me at all. As we settled in and decided what would be best for dinner and what tools we needed, Penelope went about carving a stick into something that may be useful. Using a brand new Swiss army knife she shaved bits of wood from the end of the stick, pushing them away from her. As a florist Pel is well used to handling very sharp blades but she broke a golden rule when trying to snag a little bit of stubborn wood – she cut towards herself. When the wood gave and the knife slipped, the blade plunged into the flesh between her thumb and index finger, slipping deep into the pillowy muscle.
I looked up to see her face. She looked apologetic and worried.
‘I’ve cut myself.’
I didn’t move. She peeked at the hand she had covered.
‘Oh my god, it’s bad.’ She re-covered the wound and started to panic. I wasn’t immediately sympathetic. In my mind, all I could think was ‘I knew this would happen,’ – accidents always happen to Pel.
As I sat and stared at Pel all I could do was let out a sigh. Whilst I was being selfish and male Jon sprung into action. He tended to Pel with care and warmth and armed with knowledge. I could only think that it was all a bit of a pain in the arse. Before I could really break my mood I was helping Jon steady Pel and escorting her out of the woods towards the farmhouse. The lady there was a former nurse who’d be able to help. The possibility of A&E loomed and my dinner plans were in tatters. Jon reassured Pel as she staggered and sobbed. We supported her weight as she grew light-headed with shock and Jon fed her water from his bottle. I had nothing to offer beyond doing as I was told.
At the farmhouse Pel was walked to the closest bathroom, one that opened onto the main yard. Barbara, the lady of the house, tended to Pel with arnica and soothing words. I watched as Jon cared and Barbara worked diligently. When the cut could be really assessed the pair decided A&E was necessary. Once again we relied on the car of the crew, enlisting their help for a ride to the local hospital. I decided that it was best to let Jon go with Pel as he could speak German. I stayed at the camp to cook as there would certainly be a need for food by the time everyone was back together.
A couple of hours passed and I prepped for dinner with the help of the film’s director. I chopped many things as small as I could with an Opinel knife we’d bought from a weapon shop in Berlin. It was doing well, but my only chopping board was the back of a Moleskine hardback notebook. Still, I had a good set up – a flat, wide piece of wood that formed a work bench, propped up by logs at each end. It had a gentle slope so allowed for a drainage area where I could clean vegetables with water from the lake. I chopped and chopped and worried about Pel. She’s a very hardy person but it’s a lot to take in when you realise you’re just no good in a crisis.
When they arrived back the pot was boiling over the fire. I’d used everything I’d remembered to get the fire going and various techniques to try to extract some flavour from basic provisions. I’d packed a small amount of necessities I’d gathered from a Turkish supermarket in Wedding, Berlin. I had a tin of harrissa and bags of sumac and Turkish chili – indispensable seasonings. Root vegetables had been cut small and sweated with spices for a while. It’s all I know about one pot cooking – intensify flavours before adding liquid.
We ate and drank were merry. Pel’s hand was ok but she’d had to have stitches that were thick. Jon told us about the strange, deserted hospital that seemed to be from some time in the past. I pictured the whole scene in shades of grey – nurses in those small hats, dark corridors and rusty implements. It turned out it was all very straight forward and Pel returned calm and bandaged. Her spirit wasn’t damaged at all, but she didn’t go for the knife immediately. We ate the vegetable and bean stew and it was acceptable for woodland eats. For a digestif we swigged some swanky liquer from the bottle. Pel and I did our usual tourism and bought our souvenirs at a booze shop – a Kreuzberg-made herbal liqueur caught our eye as a refined version of Jager. It’d help keep out the cold.
Night had fallen and tiredness was creeping in. Darkness began where the fire stopped. In the distance we could see light coming towards us, flickering as it passed behind trees, moving sideways as the holder navigated the woodland. We watched with curiosity as it came closer, only slightly fearful because we’ve been exposed to Hollywood. Though if the light would’ve gone out, never to return, we clearly would’ve worried. The spot of light clearly became a head torch and the shape of a tall man soon emerged out of the darkness.
‘Guys, this is Flo.’ Jon introduced us to his adventure partner Florian, another he’d picked up, charmed, and brought out to the woods. There was little time to get to know each other that night as we needed to rest. It’s integral to go to bed together – incubate warmth and create comfort. On the advice of Jon we took a stone from beside the fire into the tent as a natural radiator. The key is to roll out a little before you go to bed to allow to cool a bit for transport. And it’s a fantastic – the next night we took two.
I struggled to sleep and listened to Jon and Flo talk by the fire. Pel was out quick, as she always is. I drifted asleep in time but awoke feeling trapped, restrained and terrified. The boys and the fire were gone. My head was touching the inside of the tiny pop-up tent we were sleeping in. All I could feel was a sense of absolute, inescapable horror – a night terror without the shadowy figure. The panic was deep and unreasonable – I couldn’t push it away – no light to turn the page, to peel back the dark feelings. I eventually stirred myself and went outside to piss and stare into the dark. I shivered in the cold and the fear loosened. I got back in the tent and woke Pel. I aksed if we could move our heads to the other end of the tent. We shuffled and bedded back in. I eventually slept as the fear subsided; a strange case of claustrophobia in the great outdoors.
We heard the commotion before we saw it. We’d finished breakfast and everyone was busy with one thing or another. The film crew were back at the farm sorting their gear for the day whilst Jon and I tidied the camp. Rapturous bleating came from across the woodland – the sound quickly grew louder and closer. Jon knew what had happened immediately.
‘I told them to close the fucking gate.’
Jon started to move towards the grazing area with purpose so I followed. It wasn’t long before we started to come across sheep and goats in the woodland. Jon clapped his hands slowly and loudly, the animals retreating with the sound. As we got closer to the gate, we could see that it was actually a hole in the fence that had allowed them through. The animals funneled back through the hole with incredible speed and accuracy. We opened the gate to stop the crush and there was little resistance from the escapees.
Trouble struck when a particularly large beast couldn’t fit back through the hole. It was stuck and panicking, pushing wildly at the hole. Jon surprised me again by doing exactly what was required. He pulled the sheep free and wrestled it until it was still, almost sitting on the thing to stop the struggle. Then, in a moment of calm it seemed strange that Jon was sat atop a suddenly placid animal. It’s expression gave no sign of distress – it was just having a little lie down and this Manc was sat on it. Once it was settled Jon encouraged it back into the grazing area and quickly patched up the fence.
‘We should go and find the farm hand and let him know about this hole.’
‘I definitely thought the Poles had left the gate open.’
We’d shaken off terror and injury and were ready for a gentle forage in the woods. It was too early in a too-dry spring to hope for much but Jon was hopeful of finding some wild curiosities. Our wires were re-fitted and another car of guests arrived – a handsome man called Mario, his beautiful girlfriend and their tiny baby. They were so delightful it almost made family life seem appealing. We’re committed to a life without children because we care about the environment. If I never have a kid I can surely take as many cheap flights as I need to, safe in the knowledge that I’ve done my bit by not breeding on an over-populated planet.
We left the farm and passed a small house by a lake. It looked like the remains of a much bigger place, like the rest feel down and only the rooms clinging to the chimney remained. I pictured sitting in the central room, looking out over the lake and writing all of the things I thought of. Jon saw my stare.
‘An American woman owns that place. Only comes out here a couple of weeks a year.’
Some shit. Imagine having two houses! Or one! I suppose if you submit to the imposed conditions of the West you can have whatever you want. I’m braced to always have nothing – I’m not sure I bend the way I’d need to.
After we passed the hazel tree we’d took a kind donation from the previous day we found a patch of chives. Jon talked to the group and Pel listened closely. The group chewed the onion grass and nodded. As they moved on I gathered a bunch to put in everything at dinner. We moved out over an open field and Jon scanned the ground at his feet. He knew the pickings were slim but also had the knowledge to continually find something of interest. He’d put the question of identification out to the group whenever he came across anything – it was a seminar not a lecture. Pel was top of the class – correctly identifying most things and beaming with delight. Pel’s position as a florist and a lover of the natural world don’t always add up – she regularly points out that it’s her job to kill, not grow.
Jon explained each discovery in English and German – his knowledge base is incredible. I’m struck with awe when I see someone like Jon who has a willingness and capability to learn I’ve seen in few others. I’m always too lost with all of the noise already in my head to add any more.
Next we found Ground Ivy, also known as Ale Hoof due to its use in Anglo Saxon beer instead of hops. With each pause and crouch we learned more and more about the little treasures scattered beneath our feet. You start to get a sense that even walking on the grass is killing something incredible, something detailed and alive, a thing that’s evolved and adapted and survived. My favourite find is that of some Wood Avens or clove root. Jon gently disloged a small plant with yellow flowers and passed the roots around for us to taste. The flavour was insense, beautiful clove – a deep aromatic experience of an exotic spice found here in the woodlands of Germany. The natural wonders didn’t cease but edibles generally did. We walked the woods and admired the lakes as the camera disappeared.
As I prepped for our evening meal winds began to surge across the landscape, whipping across the lake and into the woods. I was busy carefully slicing a bulb of fennel into thin slices. I wanted a little sumac spiced salad to go with a stew that wouldn’t be a million miles away from the previous evening’s effort. It seemed a storm was moving in but I wasn’t overly concerned. Firstly, I was pretty stoned. Secondly, Pel had a lot of optimism. She’d seen storms before, she’s from the tropics, and was pretty sure that this one was heading away from us. I looked up from my chopping board and narrowed my eyes at swaying trees. As I pushed on, Jon and Flo tied a tarp above us, protecting us and the fire from rain.
‘The clouds are moving that way, we’re going to be fine.’ Pel pointed at bits of the sky and I returned to my chopping. It grew darker but the rain didn’t fall and the winds died down. The pot was back above the fire and it seemed like we’d survive this night too. The Poles carried on shooting as the almost-drama unfolded – we were the ‘characters’ in the story and played our parts perfectly.
Dinner was served in every available vessel. We spooned the distorted vegetables into cups and bowls and ate hungrily. I take a while to cook but I hope it’s worth it. A fresh salad of red onion, fennel, capers and sumac sat atop a dense stew of lentils and root veg. We got to some drinking and talking and all of the things good about a fireside. Jon and I laugh about the phrase “It’s always the last place you look,” ridiculing it as nonsense as these set phrases often are.
‘When I find things, I stop looking!’ We laugh and it’s like we haven’t been apart for the best part of a decade. University days were mostly spent pulling apart stupid phrases or repeating the nonsense of the Mighty Boosh or reveling in the accurate satire of Nathan Barley. Jon also taught me classic tales, most notably that of Plato’s Cave, of which I still have the diagram he drew somewhere. His most important advice on the final night was with regards how to use a head torch when you’re wandering into the absolute darkenss for a piss. The simple statement of ‘point it where you want to go’ cannot be underestimated in its accuracy.
By the fire drink was getting to everyone and camp decorum was getting lax. The film crew weren’t keeping a tidy house and also continually putting the wrong wood on the fire, with a ‘who cares?’ attitude. We’d learned not to burn birch because it smokes out the camp but these guys were getting pissed and trying to stay warm. Whilst we’re trying to learn, they’re just trying to make a film.
‘If it wasn’t that I’m absolutely pissed, it’d be well out of order.’ Jon was saying everything with a smile. We were getting good and loose. We’d started the evening with a Belgian-style beer I’d carried from London for this purpose. It was a mirror to the weirdness of it all. A Belgian beer made in London using Kiwi hops. It made Mancunians around a Brandenburg campfire seem natural. The Tripel had started us nicely and we saw off the Kreuzberg liquor quickly too. The Poles had made a trip into town and soon they’d prepared a serious party drink – a bottle of gin with fresh lemon juice as the mixer. The bottle swung around the campfire, each blast taking its toll. I passed it over to the DOP across from me – he raised his eyebrows and said ‘cool,’ like an excited teenager. I stared at his face – a mix of Gerard Depardeu and Bob Geldof – and smiled. I was pretty licked as I’d been gifted some weed for the trip by my friends Joe and Carli, who we’d been staying with in Berlin. The night before we left Carli asked if I had any weed. When I said no she looked worried.
‘You can’t go to the woods without weed. What will you do?’ Before we went to bed Carli presented me with a matchbox and I was eternally grateful as there’s nothing like having a burner around a campfire.
It turned out that the Polish pissheads really liked very basic humour. They’d lap up all of the dick and fart jokes you have. I started to think I could use all of my knowledge of Carry On films, move to Poland and get a sitcom made. Many ideas come and go as fire flickers and THC creeps about.
As the swirl got deeper, Jon launched into a very good joke. He promised a funny joke and started to build the narrative gently. The tale spanned various times and places, with a few recurring characters. Jon was with his grandfather in Ireland, but then also in Crete. A family history unraveled, scrambled but on theme. His literary excellence poked through the drink and smoke but the tale had to be grasped with both hands.
‘His teeth were like polished dolphin bones washed up in Japanese nowhere.’ This section was brilliant, but what did it mean? I was locked in, the Poles were getting lost here and there but Jon demanded their attention.
‘I thought this was a joke?’
‘It is, I’ve just not gotten to the punchline yet. Anyway that’s the alternative to saying you don’t like mice.’
The tale moved around and I learned a lot. My mind gathered image of the beauty of old age and the fears that come with it. I thought about life and love and I laughed. I think the crew missed the punchline but through everything I think I understood what was going on. When the tale concluded Jon ended with ‘period, or checkmate.’ He turned to me with a huge grin. He got them good. I hope his intention was to get them to listen to a nice story, scrambled or not, rather than nonsense jokes. Or he was just pissed and bringing fragments of thoughts together that I somehow stitched into something wonderful.
Morning hangovers clear quickly in the woods. There’s a fire to be lit and work to be done before any food happens. We woke up cold, the two stones we took to bed had cooled gently over the night. However, the booze and weed ensured there was no chance of a repeat of the terror of the previous evening. The only problem is the usual tent-based issue of having to do loads of shit before you can burst out of bed to have a morning piss. I put on all of my clothes and set about the breakfast porridge. We toasted nuts and fruit and oats before adding water and stirring with a stick. Porridge is fine morning food and easy to produce in abundance.
There was a cloud over everything as it was suddenly time to leave and I’d still not learned to fish. There was also a sense that this wouldn’t be the last time I’d visit so I didn’t worry too much. I had a morning joint with Flo to take the edge off the pack down and enjoyed coffee and porridge with the gang. Pel’s bandage was worn and dirty but the injury hadn’t stopped her doing a thing. Jon was tired and tested – an adventure weekend with an old friend stretched by an added complication. Flo needed a nap after a harsh night under his small shelter. We were joined by another guest who’d driven up the previous evening. The lady gave us a lift back into town in the back of her customised VW transporter. We lay on a mattress in the back of the van, watching the countryside pass by the window whilst the lady talked to her young son in the front seats. I clung to Pel. We’d survived the wilderness.