It was a perfect afternoon for a walk in the Alps, or to be more precise, in an alpine setting with the Alps as backdrop.  Up the last bit of suburban street and on up into the foothills, the undergrowth in the cool woods carpeted suddenly with bär lauch (bear leeks – a kind of garlicky chive great for soup), we walked up as the other German hikers came down, all lederfosen and Bavarian hats – ‘Servus’ and the more all-German ‘Gruss Gott’ (Greet God – very Buddhist concept) – clacking determinedly along with the ski pole-like walking sticks.

A week ago this was all snow, but now we pass only patches moldering in the shade, breathing in that rich but inescapable shit smell – it’s been everywhere since I got here – as the farmers fertilize the greening fields.  The ice is out of the ponds and the snow-drops and crocuses abound.  The woods – like most German forstry – are farmed to the point of manicure, the long straight trunks with bushy tops, evenly spaced, no tumble-down.

My German friend – as they do – follows the paths and we wind up around the corners of farms houses and along the muddy edges of the fields to a bench high on the hill, where we sit to enjoy the pastoral scene: Down the pasture to a line of woods, the successive valleys softened by vapor from yesterday’s rain and the smoke of spring brush-pile fires, green swards with mossy patches of orange-roofed villages stretching to the alban snow still clinging to the negran northern slopes.  The sun darts playfully among the clouds, reaching out its rays like children’s arms as the mountains come to claim it, to bring it in for supper, a story, bed.

The cattle are still all inside below until the fields are dry enough and grown in enough to withstand their hard feet and incisors.  I wish I could persuade the girls at home to do the same for our fields – keep the horses in until the grass has at least a chance to get ahead a little.

In the last of the sun we climb some more for a quick beer to assuage our walking thirst at the Stadberg Alm, maybe ten of us sitting at benches outside, most speaking Bayrisch – all leaving at once with the first chill that sternly shoos the sun inside. “Kim guat obi” (sp?) is Bayrisch for “Come down well” – good phrase for the mountain-top. The deciduous trees have not even budded yet, so they are etched in ink tracery against the sky above the tiny summit chapel.

As we pass down again amongst other farms in the gathering dimsky dusk, I think: Most American or English farms I visit – absolutely including my own ‘farm’ – seem behind the curve: fally-down buildings, thrown-together piles, rotting equipment; so much to be done, never enough time.  Almost every German farm appears ahead of the game, ready and eager to jump on the season, tractors humming, fences mended, yards in apfel-strudel ordnung.  Yes, it’s been going on for many hundreds if not thousands of years, and yes it’s a national characteristic, but could we not emulate?

OK, so the neatness is a bit overdone: a badly stacked woodpile – surely not a sin – sticks out like a sore thumb.  But having just been in Japan with those lovely cultivated Zen gardens, and now here with these farms that are both comely and productive, America seems ramshackle, improvised (and not in an entirely good way), and (I speak of myself here) just not dedicated enough to be in charge of its own destiny.

As we pass a couple, a woman leading a large black horse and a man leading a white pony behind her, I hear from my friend the other side of the orderly farms: They had to get permits via a complicated process even to put a new window in their house, even to take down a tree in the yard.  It’s the eternal question between freedom and order.  I am glad to go for a walk in the eye-pleasing layered cake of a valley, but I prefer to live in the freedom of my own decisions, even at the cost of appearing more disorganized than my Germanically inclined neighbour or seeing my jumbled house and scruffy grounds through the reproving eyes of my German friends.


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