An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of June 27, 2009
issued from the Siskiyou Mountains west of
Grants Pass, Oregon, USA

WANDER BIRDS

During my German years I learned about a very interesting moment in Germany history. The Wandervögel movement from 1896 onward involved German youth groups in a culture of hiking, adventure and nature-based romanticism. Wikipedia describes the movement and movements arising from it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wandervogel.

The term Wandervögel (VAHN-der-FEUWG-gull, more or less) can be interpreted as "migratory birds," since "wander" means the same in English and a "Vogel" is a bird (Vögel is plural). However, the verb "wandern" also means "to hike." Calling someone a Wandervögel is sort of humorous and cute, especially applied to young people, so I think of the term as meaning "someone wide-eyed, especially someone young or thinking young, on a hike or at least moving about exploring things, feeling good, hungry for new experiences, having a really good time and thinking about the meanings of things" -- a wander-bird.

The movement was very influential for a time and what fascinated me was how an entire culture -- not just youth groups -- could get excited about such things as being outdoors, hiking, eating nourishing foods, and getting involved with nature-rooted spirituality. Tragically, Hitler's propagandists hijacked many of the movement's methods and symbols, morphed it into the Hitler Youth, and outlawed the Wandervögel movement itself.

One offshoot of the historic Wandervögel movement and movements arising from it is that today Germany is crisscrossed by an amazing network of bike and hiking trails. You can go wherever you want on a bike or on hiking trails that take you through woods, along fields and through towns. Hiking trails are formalized as historical, cultural treasures and when using them there's no problem about trespassing on private property. The biking/hiking infrastructure includes fabulously detailed guidebooks and maps. Hikers often proudly bear passport-like booklets adorned with stamps documenting that they have finished certain well-known hikes. Trails are well marked with their own symbols and hikers' walking sticks often are plastered with little metal souvenir plates from past hikes. You can check out Wikipedia's page with links to about forty of Germany's most interesting hiking trails.

Among the many trails I've hiked (twice) is the Westweg, a 260-km (160 mile) trail from Pforzheim in the north, through the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) to Basel in Switzerland, always following red-diamond markers tacked onto trees along the way, even on the sides of buildings when the trail passes through small villages and farmers' backyards. A wonderful system of rustic huts, farmers' bed-and-breakfasts and small, hiker-oriented hotels provides overnight accommodation, though during all my years there I just tented wherever I found myself at day's end. Wikipedia has a page describing in detail the Westweg.

What a wonderful thing if something like the Wandervögel Movement should arise in our culture today.

Some would say that the Boy and Girl Scouts provide what I'm suggesting. These organizations are too blindly nationalistic (German history informs us on that matter), too religious in a world needing honest spirituality, and too conservative and exclusive on cultural issues. The whole idea of the Wandervögel is to be curious, to explore, enjoy the shared natural world and to grow stronger, smarter and more feeling during the process.

If you're intrigued with the idea of helping something like the Wandervögel movement take root in our own society, review the German phenomenon (you can start with the above Wikipedia links) and begin organizing hikes and programs in your own area. The Wandervögel movement continues in Europe today, though it's hardly a shadow of what it used to be. It's very decentralized and informal, so if you start thinking and behaving like a "Wander-Bird," you can simply start calling yourself one.

Here is a translation from the German of an old Wandervögel hiking-song by Otto Roquette:

You wandering birds in the air,
in the ether-shine,
in the sun-aroma, in blue sky-waves,
I greet you as journeymen!
Also I am a wandering bird,
and my gift of song
is my dearest possession.

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