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The forest that grew out of Berliners’ shit

Hobrechtsfelder Rieselfelder is a magical landscape that developed on Berlin’s sewage sludge. Maurice Frank takes us on his favourite nature escape.

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Hobrechtsfelder Rieselfelder is a magical landscape that developed on Berlin’s sewage sludge. Maurice Frank takes us on his favourite nature escape.

If you cycle a few kilometres north from Buch S-Bahn station, just outside of the north-eastern city limits, a typical Central European beech forest abruptly gives way to a magical landscape: dark stands of fir trees, strange quadrangular ponds, glistening bogs buzzing with insects, eerie copses of dead trees, totemic rock sculptures produced by obscure artists, not to mention lush pastures upon which diminutive, semi-wild konik polski horses and shaggy Scottish Highland cattle peacefully graze. And one of the really, really perversely interesting things about this peculiar landscape is that it’s all grown out of Adolf Hitler’s shit and Rosa Luxemburg’s shit and Christopher Isherwood’s shit.

In 1871, when the capital of the newly formed Kaiserreich was metastasising its way across the sands and swamps of Brandenburg and changing from a provincial capital into a sprawling industrial hellhole and “world city”, most city-dwellers performed their business in water-less outhouses. One can only imagine the stench and filth that permeated through Berlin. Deadly bacteria festered in the streets. Typhoid thriving on excrement killed hundreds every year. In short, Berlin was a sanitation basket case. The city’s chief urban planner at the time, James Hobrecht, was pressed to devise a master sanitation plan for the burgeoning city. He was partly responsible for the slum-like conditions of the new urban poor. It was Hobrecht who came up with the classist architectural model of most Altbau apartment blocks: fancy flats for the bourgeoisie on the street; multiple yards where the proletarian riff-raff were squeezed into tiny dank flats, with no sunlight and poor sanitation in the back. The Hobrecht Plan also incorporated 12 Radialsysteme, sewer networks that diverted effluent out of the city. The slick Radialsystem V performance space on the banks of the Spree was one of 12 huge shit-pumping stations. It’s always fun to imagine millions of litres of excrement flowing through the place while watching an avant-garde dance performance. The sewage would be piped out to 20 different Rieselfelder (literally “trickle fields”) out on the edge of the city. The shit flowed through purifying ponds, in which much of the toxic waste fell to the bottom. The remaining sludge was spread on “sewage farms” as fertiliser for growing grain and vegetables. The village of Hobrechtsfelde, named after the great man, was built in 1906 to house the sewage farmworkers. The houses are all built in the same Teutonic retro-rural style that was popular at the time, giving the village a slightly creepy uniformity – one can imagine a cult settling down here. Particularly creepy is the huge, abandoned grain silo with an unusual pyramid-shaped roof (which now houses a visitor center that’s open at weekends).

As with all interesting old places in Berlin, a frisson of past human misery hangs over the place. Petty criminals, prostitutes and beggars were forced to work on the sewage farms. Not surprisingly, prisoners of war laboured here in the 1940s. Fruit and vegetables, milk and meat were shipped back to the city, mostly to the hospitals in Buch. The idea of feeding the sick potatoes grown in toxic sludge wouldn’t fly these days, but if you think about it, this was the “circular economy” at its best, many decades before the term became a hashtag. Unfortunately, some of the industrial waste dumped on the Rieselfelder contained a nasty cocktail of contaminants such as cadmium and other heavy metals. Millions of cubic metres of sewage eventually destroyed the earth’s ability to absorb rainwater, making it a hostile environment for certain species of plants. East Berlin pumped its liquid waste out here till 1985. Today the Hobrechtswald, as it’s called, belongs to Barnim Natural Park. Signs advise against picking fruit and mushrooms. The earth is still toxic. This hasn’t stopped all sorts of animals from coming here, such as the pretty red-backed shrike, a bird that winters in tropical Africa, or the noisy “garlic toad”, whose breath actually smells like garlic.

For an ecosystem that’s been traumatised by having human shit sprayed on it for 100 years, the Rieselfelder exude a hopeful charm: Hitler’s shit probably ended up here, too, only to merge with the biotope and disappear forever in something fertile and good. That might be the best reason to love the Rieselfelder. Walking down their long, empty paths is like walking through a giant metaphor for forgiveness and hope.