The new year begins as the leaves begin to turn, and those last warm summer evenings switch to an autumn chill, the smell of wood stoves in the village or small bonfires in the allotments of the city. We call it a new year because autumn is a time of beginnings as well as the beginning of the end. A new school year. A new football season. New projects after the lull of the summer. More so than January, September and October has always felt like a time to start something. When the slate has been wiped clean.
In summer we walked away from familiar territory. In the hills and vineyards above Lake Geneva. Across the heath between the juniper bushes of the Luneburger Heide. Along city streets and riverbanks, in the high mountains and down in the valleys. But in autumn – back to work, our schools, our desks – it is a time to become reacquainted. Walks in Berlin. In Brandenburg. Through the edgelands where they meet. Walks we know. Walks that tell us we’re home.
From our apartment we follow the Panke river north, through the Soldiner Kiez with its softening reputation, under the bridge where the Berlin Wall once stood. Berlin is not exactly a pretty city, the appeal comes from someplace else. But it is at its most attractive in its autumn dress, when you realise quite how many trees this city has at the very moment they begin to carpet the ground in all the shades of red and yellow and brown.
In the Pankow parks through which the river travels, you can smell winter is coming but the Berliners are not yet ready to give in just yet. Cafe terraces are complemented with woollen blankets on the backs of chairs. Each open-air coffee or beer is quietly celebrated as a stolen pleasure.
When the sun shines, low in the sky, casting the long shadows across the parkland paths or the pavements of wide streets, it stirs memories of early morning walks to school, looking east down the end of the street to where the sun would rise above the railway bridges and chestnut trees.
In Brandenburg, we take the familiar path from the house and out the back of the estate to where a sandy track leads across marshy fields to the old houses clustered around the church. Fishermen – and they always seem to be men – sit apart along the banks of the pond, less in competition with each other than the heron who stalks the shallow. Overhead, a red kite surveys the scene above the rooftops.
The storks have flown and the swallows too, but the rough-legged buzzards have yet to return. These comings and goings mark the seasons, as does our cherry tree and all that is grown in the neighbour’s gardens. The woods between the manor house gardens and the railway line are mixed, giving it a very different feel than in the pine plantations elsewhere in Brandenburg.
To the north, patches of beech forest between the pines and the silver birches cling to low hills formed in the Ice Age, all of it offering up a memory of what came before, as the fallen leaves rest on those of past years and mushrooms push their way through to be claimed by men and women with short, stubby knives, inherited wisdom, and soon-to-be bulging plastic bags.
In Karow, where the city meets the countryside, where Berlin rubs up against Brandenburg, we walk the old sewage fields of the Industrial Revolution between fields where hairy cattle graze and the ponds that offer long-distance avian travellers a place to rest a while. Wind turbines turn against grey skies. An old rubbish tip has been landscaped into parkland, out of bounds until the ground settles and the grass grows on what will become the city’s tallest hill.
We come to the Panke again, making space for the weekend bike riders and joggers, the active walkers with their Nordic poles and the Sunday strollers who are in no hurry on this day the weather seems to have forgotten. Dulled sky, little wind. Autumn moves ever closer to winter. The air is sharper, the morning chill deeper. Down by the river, the water level has recovered a little after the drought of the summer.
We walk and we talk. New teachers and new projects. A slow start to the season. A much awaited album release (not every swift has flown away). A tree, leaning out over the river, is down to Coleridge’s final leaf…
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton