Germans turn to the woods for mindfulness
Of all the German words without a direct English equivalent, one has seen a resurgence during the coronavirus epidemic. Waldeinsamkeit - which translates to “solitude of the forest” according to Google Translate - can be best described as the sublime feeling that can come from being completely alone and at peace in the forest.
With more free time, flexibility, and pressure at home - without many other options to occupy free time - Germans are visiting forests to find that kind of solitude in greater numbers than before.
Recent research by the European Forest Institute has confirmed it, finding that visits to a monitored tract of woods in North-Rhine-Westphalia experienced an unprecedented jump in visitors during the first and second lockdowns. The authors concluded that forests were a critical infrastructure for national public health and society at large, with the German people once again seeking forest solitude during the pandemic.
“In our recent study, visitors said finding tranquility was by far the number one motivation to go to the forest,” European Forest Institute researcher Jeanne-Lazya Roux said. “Another new study we are working on shows there is a renaissance in valuing forests for their spiritual attributes, or re-spiritualisation of the forest, as we call it.”
Professor Nikolaus Wegmann, a Germanist and literary historian at Princeton University, told the BBC waldeinsamkeit is seeing revalidation as people absorb the philosophy of the word in their post-pandemic lives.
“On one level, waldeinsamkeit is a simple compound of the word ‘forest’ (wald) and ‘loneliness’ (einsamkeit), but on another it represents the soul and deeper psyche of Germany,” said Wegmann.
“Nowadays, the term is taking on a new meaning because of coronavirus: the isolation and loneliness of the forest, in contrast to the world of the city, is increasingly attractive.”
With 90 billion trees, 76 tree species and about 1,215 species of plants within Germany’s forest, which cover 33 percent of the country’s land area, it’s not hard to see where the attraction comes from.
“The concept of going into the woods is part of everyday life for us Germans,” Wegmann said. “Even though we’re one of the most industrialised nations in the world, you don’t need to go looking for a forest here. We are forest people, even as far back as the Roman empire when the Romans described us as such.”
Over time, the term has come to represent Germany’s culture too, with many throughout history citing the practice as a cure for stress.
“Waldeinsamkeit is a visible strain throughout German culture and history and the term might have fallen out of favour, but it continues to convey a very romantic notion of the country,” said Austen Hinkley, a doctoral candidate at Princeton’s Department of Comparative Literature.
“The claim the term is untranslatable and indescribable to non-Germans is also important. It can only really be explained by first-hand experience - total immersion in the German landscape.”
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