Rügen Romantics

July 2021

Did you know Central Europe was once essentially a contiguous beech forest? Through farming and forestry, we humans have evicted this ecology from both the land and our consciousness. Today, there remain only small, isolated pockets of old-growth forests uninhibited by human meddling. One of these pockets is on the island of Rügen, where the beech trees make their last stand on the white chalk cliffs on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Despite their widespread retreat, the battered beeches of Rügen stand proud in their primal grandeur.

I cycled the 200-something kilometers from Berlin to the northern tip of Rügen in one day, but today I wouldn’t be dictating the pace. At the crack of dawn, I ride to the entrance of the nature preserve where the ancient beeches have been relegated to. The cliffside path is officially off-limits to people with bikes, but ignore it and press on, figuring at this early hour there'll be no other people to hassle. The beech trees would soon put me in my place.

Wandering among the still giants, I feel my body and mind relaxing. The high canopy grants space without exposure and I sense instinctual safety in this ancestral living room. It's like feeling small and watched under the tall, vaulted ceilings of a cathedral—except here I feel no judgment. My thoughts are free to evaporate in the soft morning air. These wise old fellows have seen nations rise and fall and I receive their comforting message: life will go on.

Perhaps compelled by the whispers of the forest, I'm not riding but carefully pushing and carrying my bike. I find myself going slower than walking pace to avoid eroding the narrow trail, and I stop frequently to give the snails and slugs their natural right of way. Young beech seedlings on the edge of the path are eager to get their chance at life, and who am I to trample that renewal? The trail in front and beneath me seems magnified; it’s taking up my entire awareness, and then some. Examined closely, even the dirt is alive. I inevitably roll over some of the smallest, most vulnerable inhabitants of the forest—so much for the supposed low impact of bikes.

The silence in the forest hints at the presence of everything. This place draws its power from the equitable conversation between all beings that call this place home, a conversation that will hopefully continue long after humans have vanished from Rügen. In the gentle rolling and intermixing of young and old and tiny and tall, the forest is so unlike the concrete Cartesian mono-cultures we carpet the planet with. Recalling the former extent of these ecosystems evokes the same sadness I feel when seeing an endangered wild animal in a zoo—beautiful caged potential.

Nearing the end of the trail, I meet a couple of early risers walking in the woods. They comment on my bike, noting the ban. Their faces light up with understanding when I explain I'm not here to ride but to experience the forest. With our mutual wonder established, our voices instinctively drop to a low hush as we wish each other a pleasant morning.

We often think of cycling as an inherently sustainable and inclusive mode of movement, but in places approximating true nature, such as this old-growth forest, this naive conception meets its limits. Even if it were possible to ride the steep, undulating terrain, I was made to understand how wrong it is to barge in on a machine without consideration for those living beings that already exist there. And are we being inclusive of future generations when our destructive habits contribute to the degradation of all ecosystems, including these rare pockets of original magic?

I can't deny the incredible hypocrisy in preaching more considerate land use when I blatantly violated a restriction intended for its protection. My morning in the forest made me reconsider my attitude, and I'm thankful for the valuable and enduring lesson: cycling is a wonderful privilege that comes with the responsibility of respect and care for the places we ride. Unfortunately for the planet, the most poignant opportunities for noticing our often extractive relationship with nature are as few and far between as the pockets of old-growth beech forests in Germany. I think the old fellows of Rügen will forgive my transgression—and I hope you will too.

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