The great American president Theodore Roosevelt once said that we should preserve a grove of magnificent trees just as we would a beautiful cathedral. To lose our natural wonders, he said, was “like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.”
I agree now as I stand in the preserved leaf-darkened red beech primeval forest of the Kellerwald-Edersee National Park near Kassel, Germany. Just last year it was designated one of five beech forests in Germany to be declared a United Nations World Heritage Site. Members of the committee of experts described these lands as having “outstanding universal value.”
As artists from all over the world converge on Kassel from June 9 to Sept. 16 to participate and view one of the world’s most famous art shows, many will enhance their visit by walking the trails on this ancient natural earth and allowing it to impact their imaginations. It is the perfect place for new ideas to take root.
Trees can live more than 400 years
Manfred Bauer, manager of the National Park Authority, explains on his website that the red beech (Fagus sylvatica) is found only in Europe. And more than a quarter of the total number of red beech forests in the world are in Germany. The tree normally stands for at least 200 to 300 years, but in this area, it has been known to reach the age of 450 years. Its amazing life cycle, from germination to growth to dying and decay plays a decisive role in the life of the beech grove.
For most of Germany’s history, the red beech was its dominant tree species. But with over-forestation and the steady march of settlement and civilization with its accompanying land-clearing for agriculture, the tree’s habitat was reduced. Although the tree itself is not considered endangered in Europe, its habitat is critically endangered.
Best for firewood and framing
The beech tree’s usefulness accounts for its popularity since the days of the Romans. It makes excellent firewood and is good for furniture framing, flooring, and plywood. Beech logs are burned to dry the malts in old-fashioned German smoked beers, and it is also used to make some cheeses.
With its slender, light-gray trunk, the tree grows up to 160 feet (49 meters tall) and its trunk extends 10 feet (three meters) in width. Besides protecting the ancient beech forest, the Kellerwald-Edersee National Park prides itself on offering visitors every opportunity to relax and educate themselves in nature. According to Bauer, the park’s motto is “Experience wilderness with all your senses,” and the programs and hiking trails reflect that feeling of being a special guest of Mother Nature.
Storks and salamanders share wilderness
Hikers are apt to catch sight of red deer, eagles, black storks, woodpeckers, honey buzzards and beautiful black and red kites. In the evening, the forests are populated with bats on their nightly search for insects. The most common creature in the forest, however, is the “fire salamander,” with its yellow spots or stripes on a black background. It is cute but avoid picking it up since some have a toxic skin secretion.
Unusual flora in the park includes a rare wild daffodil, monkshood, marsh orchids, early purple orchids, Cheddar pinks and maiden pinks. The park’s name refers to its area attractions. Kellerwald is a low mountain range that stretches throughout northern Hesse county. Edersee is a man-make lake that abuts the mountains.
Hiking trails cater to all skills
The park offers visitors a variety of short hiking trails, and these are marked clearly with animal and plant icons. There are also two more challenging trails. The first is the Kellerwaldsteig, which runs about 167 kilometres (103 miles) through the mountains. It is marked with a “K.” The second is the Urwaldsteig Edersee (Virgin Forest Trail) which is a 68-kilometer (42 mile) route through the oak forests on the lake’s north shore. It is marked with a “UE.” Both offer magnificent scenery.
The national park is accessible by car and train from Kassel. It is open April to October from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and from November to March from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Edith Robb)
About the author: Edith Robb is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in travel and culture. Canadian by birth, shenow lives half of each year in the United States and travels extensively, including making several trips to Germany in preparation for dOCUMENTA13. She has worked on many travel publications, including Back Roads and Getaway Places for Reader’s Digest and Guide to Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada for Fodor’s Travel Guides. She has a Master of Arts degree with a major in cultural studies.