Under the Kraichgau Sun


Rambles with students

After nearly a week of daily 15-kilometer hikes, the group has its routine down: We park the vans at the courthouse of the small town of Wiesenbach, divide up the group lunch items, truss up our packs, duct-tape blisters, and head out. Our goal today is to circumnavigate a watershed carved by the Biddersbach, a knee-deep stream just too broad to jump over. Walking upstream, we leave the town and encounter a new earth and rock dam that seems ridiculously large for the stream it is meant to keep in check. It is a detention basin, allowing the water to flow unimpeded through it during normal flow, but backing it up during high water to prevent flooding of the town downstream. This stream, like so many in the Kraichgau, floods during prolonged periods of heavy rain thanks to the relative impermeability of the soil, extensive deforestation for the sake of agriculture, and the proliferation of impermeable roads, sidewalks, and rooftops. Hundreds of such dams in the Kraichgau not only protect nearby towns, but slow the flow of water to the Neckar River, thus easing flooding there and on the Rhine downstream. The students’ college town of Sewanee, TN has a similar issue with its tiny streams, most notably the stream that flows through Abbo’s Alley, due to a watertight sandstone bedrock and ever-increasing man-made surfaces throughout campus. A lesson for Sewanee from German engineering. The path quickly runs uphill through an open forest of tall beeches, oaks, and maples. At 49 degrees north latitude, there are far fewer tree species to learn than in Sewanee — good news for a geologist. We make good time on the immaculately maintained cinder-covered forestry track. Where the sun reaches the ground in small clearings, the path is lined with tall stinging nettles and Tollkirche, a plant in the nightshade family whose fruit was consumed by women in the Middle Ages to dilate their pupils, thereby enhancing their beauty. In higher doses, the plant has a hallucinogenic effect formerly interpreted as madness.

A German Tuscany

No one writes travelogues about Germany or its Kraichgau region in the southwest of the country. A search of the Barnes and Noble travel section reveals no titles like A Year in the Kraichgau or Under the Kraichgau Sun. Yet it was this little, tourist-free corner of Germany that led Mark Twain to state that “Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful.” It has often been called “Germany’s Tuscany,” in reference to its relatively warm climate, fertile soils, and rolling hills. About the size of the Smoky Mountains National Park, the Kraichgau is bounded on the west by the Rhine River Valley, a great rift in the Earth that opened due to stretching of the continent caused by the northward thrusting of the Alps some 30 million years ago. On the east and north it is bordered by the Neckar River, which winds it way northward from its southern headwaters before making a great westward loop to its confluence with the Rhine. To the south rise the dark heights of the Black Forest. The geologic construct of the Kraichgau is remarkably similar to that of the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. A sandstone-capped plateau in the southeast corner gives way to a rolling plain of limestone below that defines most of the region. The plateau top, like Tennessee’s, is forested, never having been extensively farmed due to thin, dry, infertile soils. Beneath this cap the plateau slopes expose layers of shale, which have been cleared of trees to make way for endless rows of grapes. Farther down, the limestone plain is blanketed with a layer of very fertile yellow silt, called loess, which was blown into the area 20,000 years ago during the height of the last ice age. This fertile plain is a mosaic of woods, wheat fields, orchards, and small towns tucked into the folds of the land. For me, the area holds a special significance. Since childhood, I have lived here off and on, going to school, hiking the land, doing geologic research while a student at the nearby University of Heidelberg, and attending gatherings in the family vineyard. Ancestors on both sides of my family are from the Kraichgau and many still live in the region. Now a long-held dream has become reality — that of bringing students from the US to the area to study its watersheds, learn its natural history and to feel the powerful sense of place given to those who spend time walking this land. The character of a stream flowing through a watershed is given to it by a multitude of factors operating in the watershed — climate and rainfall, rock and soil type, human alteration of the land. Cut a forest on a watershed and you increase stream flow. Change a stand of trees from oak and beech to pine and you reduce stream flow. Increase hard surfaces like roads and rooftops and you increase flooding potential.

Evening light in a modern vineyard.

Villa Rustica

Soon the forest path crests the hill and we find a suitable spot for lunch. Later, we follow a forest path now lined with the occasional carved boundary stone from the 18th century. Each stone shows a carved shepherd’s staff and the letters “CL,” indicating that long ago this land belonged to the cloister at Lobenfeld, the town we are making for. Soon the track becomes ever more deeply incised into the loess, hemming us in with vertical walls of silt three meters in height. These sunken roads are an icon of the region and have their origins in the Middle Ages, when erosion from foot, wheel, and hoof led to ever deeper  incision by rain water. Suddenly we exit the forest through a portal of trees and stand before a sea of yellow rapeseed and wheat fields.

Transition from forest to rapeseed fields.

The path moves up and down over the land and is lined with walnut, cherry, pear, apple, and apricot trees. Finally we see nestled in a fold of the land, like travelers hundreds of years before us, the church spire of the Lobenfeld cloister along with a dozen or so rooftops. We haven’t seen a person since beginning the hike. The forest and fields have been ours alone. Even Lobenfeld seems deserted. The cloister church is locked, but a sign by the door says that the key can be borrowed from the proprietress of a local tavern. I retrieve the key and hand it to a student. In her running shoes and sorority T-shirt, she seems quite out of place under the stone archway above the immense wooden door. Inside it is cool and quiet. The great Romanesque arches form a distant roof over us. On the walls, Gothic frescoes bring color to the uniform red sandstone. A five meter- high St. Christopher looks down at us. Students find a strange attraction to a grotesque version of the 10,000 martyrs, all hanging limp from a tree, impaled by its thorns.

Cloister Lobenfeld’s spire greets us.
Entering the cloister.

For the first time on the hike, we must cross a road and witness one of the more interesting contradictions in German culture. For a country so obsessed with environmentalism, this parade of Mercedes and BMWs going at top speed makes little sense. Several mass transit buses pass, zipping between towns. At this time of day, all are empty. Back in the forest, our way leads along a former Roman road toward the remains of a Villa Rustica, or Roman country estate, which was overrun by Germanic tribes in the third century. The foundations and red roof tiles protrude from a cover of leaves on the forest floor. Romans, and Celtic peoples before them, built their roads high on the edges of watersheds to prevent them from being washed away by stream flooding. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, when society became heavily agricultural, that people moved their towns and roads to stream areas to be near mills. As I walk behind a student near the end of our hike, I notice that the sore ankle that developed a few days ago has turned into a limp — we still have the Austrian Alps ahead of us. “How’s your ankle, Murphy?” “No problem, Dr. Knoll, I’m expecting it to be back to normal in a day or two.” My main concern on this trip was not injuries or logistics, but whether the students would respond to the Kraichgau the way I do. Was I just in love with the Kraichgau because it is my second home? “What do you think of this place, now that you’ve walked a fair bit of it?” I ask Murphy as we again pass from forest to field. “It’s like walking through a dream,” he says. I am content.

Lunch in the forest.



The Family Vineyard

Think of German wine, and Riesling comes to mind, for good reason. It is Germany’s most commonly grown grape, dominating the slopes of the Mosel River right down through the Rhine Valley into Alsace. The Kraichgau has its share of it, but here is also Germany’s largest red wine producing area. Light- to medium-bodied trademark wines of the area like Trollinger, Lemberger, and Black Riesling are seldom heard of in the United States. Another day takes us on a quest for grapes and terroir on the flanks of the Stromberg at the southeastern margin of the Kraichgau. As a stream’s character is given to it by the nature of its watershed, so, too, a wine’s character is determined by the interplay of myriad tangible and intangible factors collectively referred to as terroir. Some factors, like slope aspect and angle, rainfall, temperature, bedrock, and soil type are easily quantified. More difficult to define, but equally important, is the human element involved in growing grapes. Our small family vineyard in the Kraichgau town of Nussloch produced 600 to 900 liters of wine per year, about as much as the extended family could consume, while my uncle Wolfgang was still alive to work it. The vineyard was our gathering place, the only place where all the aunts, uncles, cousins and the like could be assembled at once. Adults conversed, retold family history, and laughed over glasses of wine late into the night while children ran among the grape vines and fruit trees, and played house in the small vineyard shed. The vineyard, although passed down through the generations, had the distinctive mark of my uncle’s handiwork upon it. From the way the grapes were tied to the trellises to the arrangement of the wine glasses in a cupboard in the shed, it was his creation. The grapes were planted in long rows on the gentle slope of the eastern Rhine Valley, facing southwest toward France. The soil was rich yellow loess. A mere sip of certain wines from this slope immediately transports me back to this vineyard.

Family members at the grape harvest, 1980’s.

Our path begins by winding back and forth up a steep slope on the flanks of the plateau upon which grapes are still planted in an old, pre-20th-century way. Dozens of eight-foot-high retaining walls of local stone create terraces that hold back a small number of rows of grapes, all planted along the contours of the slope. This hillside seems to be more about rock walls than grapes. Every so often, the retaining walls reveal a narrow, steep set of stone steps that give access to the vineyard above. No motorized equipment can possibly be taken into these orchards. All work is accomplished by hand. Fruit trees are mixed in with the grapes at intervals. The walls are alive with insects, lizards, large snails, poppies, and sedum, all finding shelter in the joints between the rockwork. An arched stone recess in a wall once gave shelter to men whose job it was to drive birds away from the vineyards with a noisy wooden ratchet. As we pass by a church in a small village, we stop before a stone war memorial. Below a statue of a helmeted soldier comforting a fallen comrade are the names of more than 50 men killed in World War II from this village, along with the year they died. It seems that for a village of this size there would hardly be any men left. In the village of Nussloch a few kilometers away, the name of my grandfather is etched on a similar memorial. He crossed the Russian steppes with the 6th Army to disappear in the cauldron of Stalingrad. His detailed letters home show a shift from the details of war early on to the intimacies of family life — and food. He is preoccupied with a Christmas package sent to him that never arrives. Could he at least know what its contents were? In early 1943, his letters stop. Yet there is hope. Some 100,000 German prisoners were taken after the battle of Stalingrad. Surely there is a good chance that he was among them. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, only about 6,000 of these prisoners make it back to Germany. He is not among them. My grandmother, like so many other post-war women in these small towns, is left to raise the children, rebuild, and write the family history.

Visitation Stones

Now we traverse a gentle corner of the plateau and are confronted with the modern way of grape growing. Over the last 100 years, most of the old terraced vineyards were torn away, every rock removed. In their places came endless rows of grapes planted vertically up and down the slopes. Behind us is bird song and the noise of insects, ahead silence, except for the hum of a tractor moving somewhere in the rows. This radical change in grape growing was done to save a wine industry on the brink of collapse. Manual labor was replaced by highly efficient tractors narrow enough to move between rows of grapes, spraying, tying up loose sprigs, and collecting the harvest. The cost of this shift is a decrease in biodiversity, an increase in runoff, and a loss of tradition going back over 1,000 years. We head to the dry forest atop the plateau. On the southern horizon, where things are faint and blue, we see the dark silhouette of the Black Forest. I ask the students to stop and listen to the bird song in the distant tree canopy. None of them has seen this bird before, but they all recognize its call — the European cuckoo. Legend states that if you jingle coins in your pocket when you hear the first cuckoo of the season, you will have money all year. Sadly, fewer cuckoos now complete the spring migration from central Africa to Germany because of increased hunting of the birds in Africa. After descending from the plateau and emerging on the edge of the forest, we come to an unusual sight in Germany — a walled cemetery with gravestones that seem to be quite old. Graves in Germany are usually used for only 20 to 30 years so that room can be made for the recently deceased. The gate is open and we enter. The tall stones are of carved sandstone and heavily inscribed in Hebrew. Small pebbles called visitation stones sit atop many of the gravestones. The graves in this Jewish cemetery are mainly from two centuries ago and give witness again to the maelstrom that engulfed the country during the Third Reich. This cemetery served the Jewish population of the nearby town of Freudental, which numbered almost 400 people in the 1860s. By 1933, only 70 Jews remained, and in 1942, the last 14 were deported to concentration camps. Although it’s peaceful and still here, one feels the heavy burden of history. Set apart from the other stones is a single headstone from 1970. Julius Marx, who fled Freudental in the 1930s and ultimately died in New York, chose to be buried here. A single line from a poem he wrote about the town, and his flight from it, is carved beneath his name: “Oh, my little village.”


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