Guest post: “Saxony’s Arboreal Curiosities, or: How to Root (Hi)Stories” by Solvejg Nitzke

Trees are trending, in novels, nature writing, and politics. Take, for example, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, “Two Trees Make a Forest” by Jessica E. Lee, and here in Germany the protests to protect the Hambacher Forst from open pit coal mining. Of course, trees have been objects of historical research for a while, especially at the intersection of colonial history and the history of botany. When I came across memorialised trees in the source genre of the European festschrift, they were of two kinds. Either trees on a plantation, counted objects, to be reproduced as commodities for global commerce. Or the representative of a tree species in a botanical garden, biographically intertwined with the botanist who grew it for his research. Over time, a specific tree then might become a colonial monument – but one that is alive, and able to exert agency over decades, perhaps even centuries. In the following guest post, part of the translation drive #dehypo8 on the platform de.hypotheses, Solvejg Nitzke presents a case study of localised memorialisation around two trees in Dresden. In light of the current and urgent discussion of colonial monuments, how could we apply her findings to trees in botanical gardens and their hothouses? (eha)

Between 1883 and 1899, the German family magazine Die Gartenlaube published a series of tree portraits. These portraits appeared in loose order and combined – in a reflection of the magazine’s general approach – information and entertainment, while adding a good portion of homeliness. “Germany’s curious trees” (Deutschlands merkwürdige Bäume) presented thirty noteworthy trees in and around the (then) German states. Four of them were to be found in Saxony and one, who would have guessed, in Dresden. Of course, such “arboreal curiosities” are not unique to the state of Saxony. But these trees show how narratives which focus on trees can help locate societal and natural belonging. This is particularly true for the trees which are located in what is now the city of Dresden – the lime tree of Kaditz (Kaditzer Linde) and the English Oak known as the “Splittereiche” (splintered oak) in Dresden’s Großer Garten.


Wikidata-Query: Orte der Gartenlaube-Artikel in der Serie „Deutschlands merkwürdige Bäume“, w.wiki/4A3 (Christian Erlinger).

These “curious” trees are more or less evenly distributed across Germany – somewhat less so in Southern Germany, which is usually known as a stronghold of the Gartenlaube’s patriotic imaginations, but that doesn’t need to concern us.1 A loose series such as this one was not an unusual feature in the magazine, which was founded in 1853 and was first published in Leipzig by Ernst Keil. The potpourri of topics written for the family circle and often published in serial form not only account for the magazine’s success, they have also shaped the image of a somehow village-like community of German speaking readers – and continue to do so, perhaps now more than ever.2 These “curious” trees, which are described as “noteworthy” as well as “strange” play an important role in this, extending well beyond the magazine’s place of publication. The articles on “Germany’s curious trees” lend themselves particularly well to exploring the question how natural conditions are realized in a publishing project such as this one, as well as in the narration of and with natural beings. This is precisely what the field of Literary and Cultural Plant Studies is about, a field of research which pays special attention to our fellow green creatures. Researchers in Literary and Cultural Plant Studies do not view plants as merely decorative or useful, they bring their particular capabilities to the fore. In so doing, they investigate which role plants can play in shaping what we call “our” culture.3

At first glance, the trees portrayed in Die Gartenlaube seem inconspicuous in this regard. The short articles which portray the special trees are reminiscent of postcards or vignettes. It would lead too far to assume that they constituted an early example of ecologically conscious thinking in the sense of today’s political ecology. And yet, these image-texts find themselves in a web which not only connects them to other texts and narratives. It also thrives on the fact that its object, the tree, is (still) alive.

Germany’s curious trees: Die Kaditzer Linde, in: Die Gartenlaube (1890).
Germany’s curious trees: Die Kaditzer Linde, in: Die Gartenlaube (1890).

The Kaditz lime tree4 stands, as befits a „thousand-year-old” lime tree, next to a church in the village centre. It is of little consequence whether this large-leaved lime (Tilia platyphyollos) really is a thousand years old or whether its real age is rather somewhere between seven and nine hundred years: When Die Gartenlaube published its vignette on the tree in 1980, the tree was both “thousand-year-old” and “widely famous”:

“The amazing coloss of a tree measures 11 Meters in girth, the inside of the trunk is completely hollow and for this reason has long needed support. On one side, the bark has broken off; its supporting stake had become rotten, the bark could no longer support the strong branch and broke off along with it. What is particularly curious is that the bark has formed anew on the inside.”

This tree, it quickly become clear, was not only noteworthy for its size and its (assumed) age. It also showed a remarkable resilience. Various fires and injuries typical for trees, such as a branch breaking under its own weight, have severely damaged the “tree monument”. And yet, it is still alive and continues to green. The fact that these features contribute to its “particularly curious” and “amazing” nature reinforce an effect which very old trees have on people. Because trees live much longer than humans (perhaps with the exception of birch trees), but at the same time have a much shorter lifespan than the seemingly eternal mountains, they become objects of a – so to speak – meso-deep-time. Long before the “geological insult” (Georg Braungart) of the mid-nineteenth century confronted people with the fact that the earth had long got on quite well without their existence, people were fascinated by the longevity of trees. It is a longevity which connects generations and centuries, but which is nonetheless familiar in the sense that, for instance, within one’s lifetime one can observe a sapling growing into a tree. It is no coincidence that the lives of humans and trees have so often been brought into analogy. (See Alexander Demandt: Der Baum. Eine Kulturgeschichte, Köln/Weimar/Wien 2014 [first published as: Über allen Wipfeln. Der Baum in der Kulturgeschichte, Köln/Weimar/Wien 2002]). In this particular tree, the traces of time have inscribed themselves unmistakably. These traces take their significance not from the fact that they are visible and tangible, but from the fact that they are connected to (his)story(ies):

“It is said that the Kaditz lime tree has also served as a pillory for gossipy women and similar evildoers. Indeed, an ingrown piece of iron is found shortly above the ground, which is said to be the remainder of the neck iron. The evil-tongued women sat, with their necks in the iron, leaning against the trunk, while churchgoers passed. But nothing has been preserved on the incidents in documents and so we can only console ourselves in wishing that it may really have been so!”

This story on the lime tree featuring as a pillory (not unusual for a tree), which is mentioned repeatedly in Die Gartenlaube, is used here in a remarkably specific way: The tree, Die Gartenlaube reports, served to punish (mainly female) slander. This task, which is legitimized by the “ingrown piece of iron,” testifies to a moral imperative which says less about medieval or early modern customs than about the magazine’s own imperatives. In fact, the magazine itself does not conceal this agenda. Rather, the tree is not just the article’s object but is used as a stepping stone for providing the magazine’s position, which is legitimized not just historically, but by pointing to a naturally grown witness.

Sachsens Kirchen-Galerie. Inspectionen Dresden, Meissen und St. Afra (Dresden: Hermann Schmidt 1837)
Sachsens Kirchen-Galerie. Inspectionen Dresden, Meissen und St. Afra (Dresden: Hermann Schmidt 1837)

But admirers regard the fact that neither rot nor fire could bring down the lime tree – even though the giant tree needs support, which is provided by humans – as a sign of its own endurance. Thus, the lime tree continues to attract international attention today:

“The ancient lime tree in Kaditz, near Dresden, too, already monumental when Goethe visited it, has survived fire and bombardement to become a local gathering point for carol singing, folk festivals and, in 2010 an outdoor screening of the World Cup.”
(Fiona Stafford: The Long, Long Life of Trees, New Haven 2016.)

The lime tree – thus ennobled by Goethe’s visit – seems to have always stood at the centre of its thousand-year-old history. Despite all political and ecological catastrophes, it is no exaggeration to say that it has participated in life. This is an important perspective on the life of a tree, which characterizes narratives of individual trees: It is not just the traces which both time and history leave on the trees that become the fabric of stories. On the contrary, it is the “curious” trees themselves who become agents in their own history.

This is especially true in the case of the “splinter oak” (Splittereiche) in the Großer Garten. Saxony in general and Dresden in particular have a large number of “special” trees, many of which are protected as natural monuments (for instance the Flatterulmen – fluttering elm trees – on Sachsenallee). But this oak is not distinguished by age (it is no less than 250 years old) nor by its rarity, but by its survival. This tree’s “body” also contains pieces of metal, but these pieces don’t lend themselves to humorous moral tales. Instead, they commemorate the traumatic night of February 13/14, 1945, which this “legend … has survived despite great damage.”5 Precisely because it bears the traces of this catastrophe, which are visible from afar, but continues to live, the oak becomes a symbol of survival, a lasting monument of the evils which war and tyranny have brought onto the city’s people. Unlike the man-made memorials and the reconstructed buildings of this city, the Splittereiche cannot be reconstructed. It can only be preserved, and that, too, comes at a cost. But this is what makes the oak a witness, a witness which cannot narrate the story herself, but which becomes an agent in itself which can be pointed to in telling the story(ies) of this night and the many people who lost their lives. It does so in a different way, and, quite possibly, in a much more convincing way:

“To this day, I, the son who survived, have not made a single visit to the Heide cemetary to stand at one of the mass graves and conjure up an image of my parents. Instead, I go to the Great Garden, across the meadow on its western edge, and stand under an English oak for which Dresdners have a special name: The Splinter Oak. … for years a fungus has been spreading through the inside of the stricken tree, a late consequence of the bombing. It survived that night, but eventually it will be destroyed by the sulfur shelf mushroom. At the Splinter Oak I have a memory, my parents are standing there in front of me.”
(Marcel Beyer: Kaltenburg. A Novel, Boston/New York 2020, p. 25-26.)

To remember deceased loved ones on the basis of a living being establishes a special relationship between the one who remembers and the one who is remembered that is neither imaginative nor merely material, but which assumes in a certain way the living one’s ability to remember. It is about the continuity of a life lived, about people and trees, a continuity which becomes materialized in memorial plaques6 planted to memorialize; natural monuments which are preserved for their uniqueness; or trees which memorialize (something? themselves?): Trees not only belong to the natural history of the city of Dresden, the state of Saxony, Germany, and Europe, they tell these (hi)stories. If not in their own words, then as the culmination of narrative work. In this way, they connect humans and non-humans over centuries in a cultural and ecological way and thus become living archives and agents in an equally living history.

About the author:
Dr. Solvejg Nitzke joined the TU Dresden in November 2017 as an Open Topic Postdoc. Associated with the Department of Media Studies and Modern German Literature, she researches ecological narratives and (proto)ecological knowledge in German literature and culture of the nineteenth century. Before coming to TU Dresden, she worked on catastrophes, science fiction, the history of knowledge and climate (in) literature in Bochum, Charlottesville (USA) and Vienna (Austria). Together with Dr. Stephanie Heimgarnter and Dr. Simone Sauer-Kretschmer, she edited the collection “Baum und Text. Neue Perspektiven auf verzweigte Beziehungen”, which will be published by Christian A. Bachmann.

German original “Sachsen’s arboreale Merkwürdigkeiten, oder: Wie man Geschichte(n) verwurzelt” published on Saxorum. Blog für interdisziplinäre Landeskunde in Sachsen.
Translation by Ulrike Stockhausen.

  1. This article reflects in itself a history of successful cooperation, which combines Jens Bemme’s and Martin Munke’s (Saxorum/SLUB) work in indexing and linking historical sources in Wikisource and Wikidata (https://saxorum.de/aktuelles/beitrag/2019/02/08/kollaborative-query-und-modulentwicklung-fuer-sxrm-mit-wikidata-und-wikisource/) with the author’s own research interests. I would like to thank Jens Bemme and Christian Erlinger for providing the data on the “curious trees” in Wikidata and for programming the query for their graphical presentation. []
  2. See Claudia Stockinger: An den Ursprüngen populärer Serialität. Das Familienblatt „Die Gartenlaube“, Göttingen 2018. []
  3. More on this can be found at the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network, which hosted its first international conference from June 6 to 8, 2019, at Deutsches Hygiene-Museum in Dresden: https://tu-dresden.de/gsw/vegetal-poetics-conference. []
  4. Deutschlands merkwürdige Bäume. Die Kaditzer Linde. In: Die Gartenlaube (1890), H. 4, S. 130 []
  5. Jochen Leimert: „Splittereiche” im Großen Garten wird kontrolliert. In: dnn.de, 13. November 2018. URL: http://www.dnn.de/Dresden/Lokales/Splittereiche-im-Grossen-Garten-wird-kontrolliert. []
  6. Gerrit Menk: Gedenktafel an Splittereiche im Großen Garten Dresden enthüllt. In: dnn.de, 26. Februar 2018. URL: www.dnn.de/Dresden/Lokales/Gedenktafel-an-Splittereiche-im-Grossen-Garten-Dresden-enthuellt.)), magazine articles, church registers, botanical testimonies and, as seen above, in literature. Be it commemorative trees ((https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_der_Gedenkbäume_in_Dresden []