With the first frosts of winter I have explored the forest of Baden-Württemberg and Alsace either side of the southern Rhine. More precisely I have scratched around the dead ground, for that is the ground that the spiky blackthorn loves best. One way of finding blackthorn is to look for fly-tipping. In England, Scotland and now in France and Germany I have noticed that fly-tippers throw their televisions, fridges and their black bin bags of ‘God knows what’ only into blackthorn thickets, be they beside car parks, bridges or turning places. Exceptions to the blackthorn litter rule are rare.
The French/German border has plenty of dead ground or on a planner’s palette, brown field sites, but so far the blackthorn is proving to be thin on even the dead ground.
I have searched disused border customs posts and lorry parks, old army bases, roads that have been bypassed where the surface is now covered in moss and is being opened up with new shoots and engulfed in brambles and many kilometers of overgrown towpaths along boatless canals.
There is no obvious history of walking stick making that I have discovered in these parts, and this is surprising given that it is rare to see a hiker without two clicky-clacky carbon fibre or aluminium poles.
In the British Isles I have most frequently found the blackthorn that I use to make walking sticks on rough uncared for ground, in disused railway cuttings, in the denes on the coast of Durham, in the glens and on the raised beaches of the Isle of Man and South West Scotland. But the blackthorn can be chanced on anywhere among the more common hawthorn in the hedges.
However they don’t do hedges in these parts and so the most likely locations are edges of rivers, canals and forests. The Rhine has many long thin strips of forests along both banks between river or levee and roads. But here the ground is low, and is retained as an overflow for the exceptional flooding and is favoured by scrub oak, willow, birch, hazel, hawthorn and many others new to me that I have yet to come to terms with.
I have still to consider my approach to the landowners, private or public on the German side of my territory. I suspect at best, forms, stamps, passport photographs, a weekend course followed by both theory and practical examination, insurance cover and taxation. I may yet persist simply for the craic.
For now I search across the border and many of the patches of blackthorn that I have investigated in Alsace are on ground where I believe it would be difficult to determine ownership, at least that is my story. My attempts at explaining in schoolboy French to those in the nearest farmhouse why this shell of a man dressed like a tramp wants to cut sticks have failed. As a result where I am unable to obtain permission or identify anyone interested in stopping me I am forced to semi-clandestinely cut a few sticks. Until this week my tactic has been to not draw attention to myself. I had understandably not chosen to advertise my presence by wearing a bright fluorescent yellow waistcoat. But this week I discovered Alsace’s many small communal forests to be loud with the gunfire from chasseurs, and not with shotguns but with what sound like high powered rifles.
The past few years have seen a rapid increase in the numbers of wild boars probably as a result of the mild winters and the high availability of food. The chasseurs are encouraged to reduce the number of wild boars because of the damage they cause to crops.
On Sunday as the light was starting to go I chose to advance backward away from the edge of a communal wood and its hunters and into the long thin Rhine river bank forest where I knew I would not come under attack, or at least not from the watery side.
But I was not alone in choosing this haven from the hunters. I worked my way into a tortuous blackthorn thicket, and here there is a trick not unlike the way a cat knows that if his whiskers go through then the rest can follow. The best approach with blackthorn is to only worry about a finding a clear thorn free gap for your face. For once your face is through you can generally take the hit on the rest of the body with Barbour jacket, thick trousers, boots and gloves and a stout cap. I suspect an alternative approach would be crash helmet and leathers.
Blackthorn grows from a sucker and often has a tap root at 90° to the stem and just under the surface and it is this root that becomes a very strong handle to the vertically growing stick. I found a fine root stick and kneeled down to began to dig out the root.
Now, in spite of the hunters, or because of the tradition of hunting the forests in this part are busy with wildlife. Woodpeckers are often heard and seen, an early morning or late evening will often bring sightings of deer. There are wild cats in the German forest near Breisach and there are over 30 Lynx in the Vosges mountains.
But what was in this blackthorn thicket with me was ‘none of the above’.
There is so little breeze in these parts that when not working or moving the forest is incredibly quiet and particularly so after the leaf fall, None of the roaring, creaking, swooshing of the more exposed coastal woodlands I am familiar with.
I was gently clearing the soil around the root when I heard that I had close company. Most animals are pretty sneaky and lay low like the hare or melt away like cat or deer, but this was a noisy neighbour and only a few stick lengths away through the undergrowth. The chance of getting a photo in bad light with my one pixel camera was not great and no sooner had a reached into my pocket than the un-timorous beastie decided to move. It crashed through the bush towards me and then just before making a full appearance on stage dived off to the side onto what turned out to be a well trodden tunnel through the thick undergrowth. It could best be described as a wooden barrel unceremoniously crashing through everything in its way and travelling at the speed of a whippet.
This time, no photo of the wild boar, and next time the camera will be under yet another layer of clothes, the Hi-vis yellow waistcoat that I have been advised to wear so that I don’t meet the same fate that some unfortunate walkers, mushroom collectors and other hunters meet each year in France at the hands of the chasseurs.