Here follows a piece I wrote for BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Travel Writer of the Year 2013. Having drafted the piece for 2012’s competition before running out of time, I polished it for 2013 entry only to discover rather last-minute that the comp’s word limit had been cut by a hundred words. Hasty readjustments ensued!
A few weeks post-submission I received an email telling me my piece had made the shortlist. It was a little while before the magazine article came out – but when it did, I found my piece hadn’t quite made it into the select handful published in full.However, I found the Beeb judges had helpfully renamed my piece, from the somewhat clichéd ‘Home’ to the relatively apt and more distinguishing ‘Bananas.’ I hope, then, you enjoy ‘Bananas,’ whether or not you’ve read it before.
I become aware of the squashed banana progressively. My hand had entered the rucksack with silent urgency, trying to retrieve a camera quickly yet stealthily. It now leaves slowly, clutching a sticky, slush-coated, camera-shaped something. Throughout the operation, my eyes haven’t left the shrike I want to photograph. Now, they wander down. My guess is correct: a banana-covered camera.
Wiping off sweet, squelchy gloop, I clean its housing with some kitchen paper. The shrike has flown – not all that far, but too far for a decent picture. Laughing, I gradually proceed to investigate what further mess my lunch has made. With those revulsive, gingerly movements employed by custard pie victims, pant-wetters and fruit-squashers the world over, I retrieve and tactfully relocate a split black banana skin and what remains of its contents.
I’ve been to Nationalpark Unteres Odertal before. Back then, the highlight was a moment of blue sky and sunshine, of bold White Storks and graceful Black Terns – a moment I shared with my uncle. This time, I am alone.
I came from Berlin, a land of trains: smart red double-deckers with leather upholstery pass immaculate S-Bahn carriages debuted at the 1936 Olympics. Leaving Berlin eastwards, mile upon mile of colourful graffiti sings hymns of liberation joy. Once this urban exuberance passes, bright skies and vigorous cornfields dazzle the eye instead. Alighting at Schwedt, just outside the Nationalpark and nearing the Polish border, I find the world appears to have been drained of colour.
Schwedt’s skies are neither leaden nor slate-coloured: they are merely grey. The majority of Schwedt, too, is grey – a sad town, indwelt by a haunting post-Communist deadness. One in three of the grown female population dyes their hair red – presumably to try and make life less unbearably drab, but simply making things feel all the more despairing.
Unprepared for streets that form cross-roads with themselves, I spend a long time looking for my guest-house. This makes me grumpy, but nothing worse – at the age of 14, being lost abroad is already a familiar feeling. When I find the guest-house, the landlady listens in on my phone-calls and provides no evening meal. I’m not impressed.
Next morning, I follow a streamside walk into the Park, catching pasta-dish aromas from distinctly Continental restaurants, the sort that will form a backdrop for teenage heartbreak some months later. A deer shoots past, then the birds begin – little River Warbler, scolding Savi’s Warbler, murderous Red-backed Shrike oh-so-handsome in its seductive livery of silver and ruddy and rose.
Back in the aftermath of the banana incident, I spend an hour high on birds. Most are unfamiliar, and while my inner birder becomes frustrated by my failure to identify many of them, this feast of avian coquetry is exhilarating enough. Touches of the commonplace – a distant rooster, two budgies overhead (what are they doing here…?) – make the unusual all the more surreal, like being paired with Johnny Depp at drama class, perhaps, or agonising over cheese offers at the local Sainsbury’s with Heston Blumenthal. I see one or two people, possibly three – I don’t recall. Rounding a bend beyond a tree with a kestrel in, I stumble through a gap in the reeds and over some boggy ground.
It’s one of those movie-screen moments. As my eyes adjust, the cranes – two of them – notice me and take off. The mighty birds fly silently through the damp air, shrouded in hanging mist and intense quietness. Powerful and mysterious, their curious forms begin to shrink with distance, but still look colossal. My gaze follows their slow wingbeats, controlled and purposeful, as they near the lofty poplars flanking our broad glade.
No reaching for a camera: my thumping heart is the only muscle moving. No ill-stationed fruit mars this enchanted hour. A privileged interloper, I stand in awe as the priests of tranquility noiselessly flee their gatecrashed cathedral. I might as well be by the lotus-pools of the montane Orient for the serene, artful magic of it all.
All too soon, I lose sight of the cranes as they leave the glade. Intoxicated by our encounter, I press on along the muddy track. It, though, ends in a small lake, so I head back the way I came. In the process, I lose a pencil somewhere between a hunting female Marsh Harrier and an alarmed Redshank. The latter sounds acutely forlorn – and with good reason. Marsh Harriers lunch on nestlings, not bananas.
Being lost in a wet wilderness is bracing – refreshing – soul-calming. Being lost in suburban Schwedt is not. Why the difference? Out here in the marshes – here is life, lived more fully. This is where the wild things roam. Here I commune with God and with fish-eagles, care-free and unburdened save for a banana-stained rucksack. This, in a sense, is home.