Bavarian Forest & Šumava Field Trip

Graham Huggan

One of the pick-up pamphlets available at the administration centre for Nationalpark Bayrischer Wald (Bavarian Forest National Park) in Grafenau carries the title ‘Grenzenlose Wald: Wildnis entdecken’ (‘discover the borderless wild forest’). The title is misleading in several respects. Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) occupies a large expanse of mixed forest, some of it quite remote and parts of it strictly protected, but it is by no means borderless and, even allowing for discrepant understandings of the never-easy-to-translate German term ‘Wildnis’, it is arguably only selected areas within it that qualify as ‘wild’.

As is clear from existing scholarship, the political as well as ecological complexities of BFNP are writ large, not least because BFNP forms part of a transboundary protected area that includes the even larger Šumava National Park, which is located on what used to be the other side of the Iron Curtain in the Czech Republic; and which, like BFNP, is divided into distinct (if not always immediately recognizable) ecological areas that are managed according to different principles: principles, moreover, that necessarily adapt to changing circumstances in and across the two multipurpose national parks.

‘Complexity’, then, is probably the most appropriate term to describe the two parks as well as their relationship to each other, and the best way of grasping this complexity is to see or, even better, walk the parks for oneself. It was therefore fitting that the second of our Corridor Talk excursions, in late May this year (2022), should take place in the border zone of BFNP/Šumava, an area crisscrossed by boundaries (not all of them visible) of different kinds. The Corridor Talk team, composed as it is of geographers, historians, and literary/cultural scholars, might seem well equipped to negotiate this multivariate terrain. But I think it’s safe to say that all of us discovered, albeit in different ways (and I freely confess here to my physical as well as intellectual unfitness), that it’s one thing to cover the ground, but quite another to be able to grasp its geographical and historical details: walking in these particular parks is more – a great deal more – than just a walk in the park.

Multiple border zones. Photo by the Corridor Talk team.

It was fortunate in this respect that our outstanding Czech guide, Pavel Bečka, whose work bridges the two parks, was on hand to provide a wealth of local as well as historical information during the two extended hikes we took on both sides of the German/Czech border. Both hikes were memorable, if for different reasons, and both illuminated what might loosely be called the ‘troubles’ that continue to affect both BFNP and Šumava National Park.

All of us knew about the bark beetle outbreaks that have periodically devastated whole sections of the two parks, and about the different management strategies that have been used to contain them. Few of us, though, least of all myself, were prepared for the stark beauty of the denuded treescapes which, dotted about both parks, create zones within zones, bordering off one ecological area from another, or for the contrast between these hyper-visible spaces and the invisibility of the creatures that helped fashion them (as Pavel told us, in the worst bark beetle infestations the gnawing creatures themselves may be barely visible, but they can certainly be heard). Meanwhile, the handiwork of another troublesome gnawing creature, the beaver, was made evident to us, while Pavel entertained us with stories about various attempts to control the beavers or, sometimes, to give the impression of controlling the beavers – for park management, like other forms of management, has its own elaborate PR mechanisms and dark arts.

Treescape on the “Großer Rachel.” Photo by the Corridor Talk team.

Similarly, few of us were prepared for the remnants – a low wall here, a sunken roof there – of the ‘disappeared’ villages in those areas of Šumava National Park that mark former sites of the notorious Sudeten expulsions: a deeply troubled history which, to this day, fractures public opinion in Germany and the Czech Republic alike. Many of those forcibly removed were victims of borders as much as those who would later attempt and fail to cross the Iron Curtain – suppressed histories made only partly visible, if visible at all, but all the more affecting for that. Such history lessons, of course, are not separated from the ecology of the parks, and it was instructive for the team to see evidence for themselves of what would probably now be called their ‘multispecies’ dimensions: the entanglement of their human and nonhuman histories; the historical underpinnings of their ecological problems; the political ramifications of multiple movements across multiple borders by multiple actors, from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (which paradoxically led to greater human traffic in both national parks), to the recent bark beetle infestations, to the not-entirely-forgotten Cold War.

In a break between the two hikes, the team also took the opportunity to hold an AGM, in which two of our advisory board members, Jamie Lorimer and Sabine Hӧhler, were able to participate online. Jamie and Sabine helpfully pointed out that, while our project was still largely going to plan, we might make more of its public dimensions, for example, by playing on the double meaning of the term ‘corridor talk’. The term is most obviously indebted to the mobility imperatives of connectivity conservation, which – in and across the four European national parks that are the ostensible objects of our research – have been at the heart of our work so far. However, ‘corridor talk’ in its dictionary sense refers to casual conversation, acting as a reminder that further borders need crossing: between academia and other publics, and between circumscribed and less guarded forms of professional discourse – of which one example is this blog. The team was not exactly, like proud Edward’s army, sent homeward to think again (even if two of us, ironically enough, are Scotsmen), but in the year that remains for us in this project, it is worth considering new ways of communicating our research, and new ways of presenting it to the wider world. In the meantime, our excursion to BFNP/Šumava has certainly shown us the value of meeting face to face, and of communicating freely; it has also shown us how borders, which are rarely what they seem to be, may take us prisoner, but are just as likely to take us by surprise.

All photos by the Corridor Talk team.

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