Johannes HuckeClaus Geiss

Of forests, dunes and mussels

In the summer, an excursion into the heart of the Bienwald begins with a typical sound: Psss! Psss! Psss! It sounds like a modern piece of chamber music for spray cans. And it’s true: only the uninformed dare to enter the 12,000 hectare forest in the south of the Palatinate region without first spraying insect repellent on themselves.

“There are tours which I prefer to guide in March,” the certified nature and landscape guide Norbert Rapp confesses – and at once goes on to explain the cause of the trouble with the mosquitoes. The many little brooks, streamlets and wetlands covered with alder trees in this unique forest. “When this area floods again,” Norbert Rapps tells his colleague Michaela Stöhr, “it will look a bit like we were somewhere in the Everglades!”

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However, once you have made it into the Palatinate Everglades, your mind will no longer be focused on those little stinging insects buzzing–not when Heidrun Knoch, first chairperson of the Bienwald nature guides, starts one of her truly creative tours. There are “Natural Historical Homoeopathic Tours”, or tours for criminal investigative minds like the “Arsenic and Common Spindle” tour about wild plants, or even others that focus on otherwise unknown herbs like the “Würzwisch” tour, about the herbs used on Assumption Day, or a historical tour like “Nature conquers the ‘Westwall’ (Siegfried Line).”

Restricted area with a clearing

Once you have seen how the little brooks of the Palatinate Forest turn the forest into a swamp and imagined how the Rhine in the past merrily and yet also churlishly meandered from here to there, it is easy to understand that there was no way for our early ancestors to even think of permanent settlements in the Bienwald area.

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In spite of a few burial mounds, and what is presumed to be fortifications, Celtic and of course Roman remnants, the Bienwald is not able to compete with the land cultivated and settled by man since prehistoric times–and neither does it want to be, nor does it have to. It looks after its unique characteristics in a different way. That masses of water have great difficulty draining off, is due in no small part to the thick layers of marl and clay underground, which were very useful to the Romans for producing the fine “Terra Sigillata” tableware in Rheinzabern.

Yet, there is no shortage of history. War-related finds from the distant past through the most recent history point to permanent conflicts between the Germans and the French. One of the most striking places nature guides frequently head to is the “Rodungsinsel Büchelberg,” a clearing located almost exactly in the middle of the forest. Tours typically arrive by bike to navigate the not entirely insignificant distances.

“In the beginning there were eight of us.”

Deep inside the Bienwald forest, Heidrun Knoch likes to give an in-depth account of how the forest received its name. Etymologically speaking, the prefix “Bi” was derived from the old word for “bee.” Some people, however, point to the Celtic word “behe” meaning “forest,” although– and let us be very honest – a “forest-forest” does not really sound particularly nice.

Another nature guide, Norbert Rapp, provides another explanation. A French member of a tour group pointed out the meaning of the syllable “bien” in her mother tongue, which would make it a “good-forest.” That, you might find, would be a very plausible explanation after the third “Schoppen”-the local term for a half litre of wine– in front of the beautifully located Kandel Friends of Nature House.

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This hospitable house is one of the places where the nature guides traditionally go. You can even stay the night here—we will refrain from mentioning the price here, as no-one would ever believe us. “Our visitors come here for some R&R, and we want to make sure they get what they came for.” Michaela Stöhr says.

School classes, companies, wedding guests and private groups of all kinds like to follow the nature guide teams. “We teamed up in order to share our knowledge with others,” Heidrun Knoch says with a smile.

That, however, is easier said than done. A certified nature guide has to cram 240 hours into nine months, hand in a 20-page paper and display initiative in other ways, too, in order to get the coveted certificate.

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The landscape guides: Heidrun Knoch, Michaela Stöhr und Norbert Rapp

The first course about the Bienwald and the Southern Palatinate “Rheinaue” wetlands took place in 2008. The success has been tremendous: initially, there were only eight participants, and now there are 40. The association was officially founded in 2009. The team has been assembled in a modern fashion with interdisciplinary members: biologists, pedagogues, agriculturists, horticulturists, geologists, engineers, lawyers and private scholars complement each other. They cooperate frequently with all important institutions for local and long-haul tourism, first of all with the regional academic instituition, Regio-Akademie, in Neustadt and with the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). The variety of topics is quite impressive: ranging from the migration routes of the peregrine falcon to the living conditions of mosquitoes and ticks, from royal fern and orchids to all kinds of mythical topics.

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A little cube of bright wood

Nature awareness and environmental education are atop the list of the association’s goals. To meet these, the nature guides come up with all sorts of ideas. How can you make the rather dry topic of wood growth come alive? Norbert Rapp always carries a wooden cube with him: Its volume corresponds exactly to the growth of the entire forest in Kandel in one second! No child will ever forget this.

Norbert Rapp describes the development very vividly: “When we make children go fishing with their nets in the forest stream, their first reaction is: ‘Oh, yuck!’ Half an hour later these same kids splash about in the water with bare arms and legs.”

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Norbert Rapp

And in the end, the true treasure of the Bienwald for all visitors is its incredible biodiversity. For a long time, you look up in amazement at the top of more than one hundred-year-old giant trees; you breathlessly listen to the stories about the activities of wildcats; take in the fact that the 15,000-year-old dunes are only perceptible when unearthed; and you even doubt your own sanity when you hear that crayfish are alive in this magical forest: primeval crayfish and even river mussels, incredibly rare and almost impossible to find without a nature guide.


www.naturfuehrer-pfalz.de

Tel. 07225 – 617436