Monopteros at Munich's English Garden

Heribert Pohl

Monopteros at Munich's English Garden

Letter from Munich

American Landscape and Wilderness ‘Exceptionalism’?

Monday, August 4, 2014
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Having lived in Munich, Germany, and with close family relatives still there, I visit often and have come to love this exceptionally “green” Bavarian city of 1.3 million (over four times the size of the greater Santa Barbara area). Munich supplies a stimulating comparison to life in our much smaller U.S. city, with our very close access to actual wilderness and near-wilderness areas. Bavarians here have an amazing daily access to several green belts in the form of enormous public parks scattered throughout the ubiquitous high-rise apartments in which most inhabitants dwell (very few have cars). Among them is the queen of parklands, the 900-acre English Garden near the city center and encompassing the mighty Isar River.

Dan McCaslin

Apartment-bound Muenchners also enjoy the myriad pocket parks, which are ideal for parents of young children. Since close connections to green spaces also afford the chance for outdoor exercise, Munich beggars Santa Barbara in its complex system of 1,200 kilometers of biking lanes; 17 percent of all Munich traffic is by bike. I observe all kinds of people cycling here, from older matrons in their nice dresses to scads of parents with their young kids in tow. Munich styles itself a Radlhauptstad (Bicycle Capital).

After living in Santa Barbara for over 40 years and developing a connection — okay, obsession — to our glorious nearby backcountry wildernesses, from the Munich viewpoint, I can see there are unique advantages to our hybrid lifestyle here in the western U.S.A. Noted California historian Jared Farmer’s key point in Trees in Paradise is the unique juxtaposition of heavy urban concentrations right next to wilderness zones. While we are dependent on our autos for getting to jobs, stores, the beach, and schools, this form of transportation can also carry us swiftly to adjacent backcountry trailheads — examples are Upper Oso near Red Rock, Nira Camp, and the Matilija Wilderness (near Ojai), all in less than 90 minutes. There we engage with genuine wilderness, and these transformative experiences are crucial for us, and particularly for children. Wild nature presents an ideal place for mindfulness practice and quiet introspection. Almost every one of my 42 Hiking the Backcountry columns includes appropriate ages for the hikes for taking kids “out there.”

Click to enlarge photo

Gabriel McCaslin

When waxing eloquent — or tedious — to my German friends, extolling the enchanting possibilities and proximity of wildeor for Santa Barbarans, I get a very cool reception. They quickly respond, “Look at how completely ‘green’ our cities are, especially Berlin and Munich!” And more fundamentally, “Isn’t this simply another form of your parochial and hubristic ‘American Exceptionalism’ now in a landscape variation?” Ouch.

One of the beauties of travelling is facing the exhilarating cognitive dissonance and intellectual challenge that questions like these pose. I actually consider backpacks into our local wildernesses another form of “travel” and practically as stimulating as foreign travel.

Germans also hammer me with “Ach, you’re our supposed allies in NATO yet the CIA/NSA spies on us, and even taps our Chancellor Merkel’s personal phone. What arrogance!” They are correct, of course, about the NSA, and it means nothing to them when I meekly counter with “Hell, they spy on us all the time, too!”

It’s tough to disentangle these issues, and impossible in a short column like this. However, dwelling as I do on Santa Barbara’s densely populated Westside, with only Bohnett Park as a nearby green space to take our many children, the car access to adjacent wild nature is more essential — the Upper Oso trailhead is just 30 minutes away. Take yourself and your children out there!

A pool on the Manzana Creek
Click to enlarge photo

Eric Vizents

A pool on the Manzana Creek

These compelling über-green wilderness zones are rare and simply not available to 99 percent of our German allies. When Bavarian friends protest, “Well, we have wild nature, too,” I have to covertly chuckle. Let’s imagine a beautiful, natural spot near a fantastic lake, say the famous Koenigsee in the Bavarian Alps. I’ve hiked there and waited in the huge lines to ride on the cool electric boats — and, say, one locates a sylvan spot near the lake amid tall conifers and then begins to commune with nature and … oops, here come 25 day hikers; just over the next rise stands a rustic Gasthaus where you can quaff the best beer in the world and munch on sausage and cheese. With your iPhone you connect with family back in Berlin.

It’s wonderful and a worthy experience — but hardly wild nature. How can I explain this to German friends without summoning up a sort of “Hey, look how exceptional is America!” They respond, “At least our government doesn’t spy on us every day”: beside the point, but angst ridden. How can I clarify to lovely people something they have never known? There are wondrous “diamond mines” beyond their sacred silver mines, so to speak.

American poet Mary Oliver writes, “Poetry is a product of our history, and history is inseparable from the natural world. Now, of course, in the hives and dungeons of the cities, poetry cannot console … [We must] take the first step — away from [our] materially bound and self-interested lives, toward the trees, and the waterfall.” I contend that we need at least a few hours of regular immersion in wilderness to remain mentally and spiritually vibrant, and it’s critical we take our children along. A unique advantage to Santa Barbara living is the extreme closeness of our five federal wilderness tracts (as Trees in Paradise describes).

The Germans are correct that the U.S.A. has a multitude of failings, yet they fail to appreciate our easy access to wild landscape. We have inadequate biking lanes here in S.B., our government attacks foreign lands, we aerially assassinate thousands, the NSA spies on us, our infrastructure is collapsing, and some foolish politicians want to starve government and privatize public schools. At least we can easily drive to the nearby hills with our kids from time to time and temporarily escape this madness.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Munich urban center "high-rise dwellings" are rarely more than 5 stories high on tree lined streets that mask their bulk. They retain a human scale only because of the urban forest that is part of the equation, along with the accessible parks as you point out that includes even surfing on a special river run in the English Garden. Interesting to note Munich was vitually rebuilt after the war by the Americans for those who enjoy this well planned city today. But it is a city. Santa Barbara is a town and long may it remain so.

JarvisJarvis (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 2:48 p.m. (Suggest removal)

For better or worse, SB stopped being just a town long ago.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 3:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Good point. WIKI explores the difference between a city and a town.

I'll settle on Munich being a big city and SB being a small city, and more power to her to always remain so.

JarvisJarvis (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 4:32 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Unless they bulldoze the mountains, your wish shall be granted sir.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 5:07 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Grüßen aus California. Die bild ist sehr schön. Ich möchte gern mehr bilden sehen.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 6:44 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"Die bilden" nicht wahr?

billclausen (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 6:44 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The picutres are very pretty. I very much would like to see more pictures. Bitte.

JarvisJarvis (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 6:55 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Interesting essay. Good points regarding the differing perceptions of Germans regarding their access to "nature" and how, ultimately, it's often the political perception that seems to trump all. You're fortunate to have connections and opportunity to visit Munich as I'm sure you know.
I wonder if you've made it over to the Black Forest region?

zappa (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 8:02 p.m. (Suggest removal)

If you click on "enormous public parks" in the article, Jarvis, there are more pictures of Munich green areas.

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 5, 2014 at 10:35 p.m. (Suggest removal)

” And more fundamentally, “Isn’t this simply another form of your parochial and hubristic ‘American Exceptionalism’ now in a landscape variation?” Ouch.

haha.....actually, i think that reaction is not that unusual from non Americans.

lawdy (anonymous profile)
August 6, 2014 at 8:01 a.m. (Suggest removal)

agree, lawdy, and while the author focused on a kinda insignificant hubristic 'American Exceptionalism' in terms of urban landscape/real wilderness, agree there are much more excruciating examples of gross American Exceptionalism. The Israelis' imitate this version of "we're SO special" when they illegally colonize lands in the West Bank THAT ARE NOT THEIRS. Oh, but they are so special, they are "settling" the area, and they are so 'exceptional' that it's really OK.... (and I write this as a supporter of Israel's fundamental right to exist).

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 6, 2014 at 8:15 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I personally prefer the Rhine River above Bonn, Cologne which was 99.9% destroyed during WWII, except for the Cathedral, is magically rebuilt with the view across the Rhine and the constant traffic on the water going up and down the water way, people living on their cargo barges free of the urban zoo, so close but so faraway.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
August 6, 2014 at 9:56 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I also feel fortunate to have such easy access to the local backcountry. But Muenchners might have it better in a sort of mathematical way ... while the level of "wildeor" may not be as high in their urban parks compared to our backcountry, large numbers of them live in the midst of those parks and can access them very easily on a daily basis.

So if you were to look at a metric based on this product:

(#daily visits) x (Ease of access) x (Level of Wildeorness)

I'd bet Munich would score higher than Santa Barbara even though our backcountry is more "wild" than their parks. I like to think this metric would be appreciated by the German engineers I've worked with and would appeal to their social democrat points of view.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
August 6, 2014 at 10:43 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Great point, EB; and really how can their be a "metric" or a quantification of the aesthetics of "Beauty"? Nietzsche would have plenty to say here.... A mutual friend, "guru Franko", backcountry hiker extraordinaire and fluent in German with many visits to Deutschland and many German friends, writes:
"it's true that few Europeans really grasp the concept of wilderness. On several occasions when I've taken visitors up to Figueroa Mtn. or even to La Cumbre Peak, once you turn your back to the Mediterranean oasis of our coast, you are faced with the endless crenellated ridges, the savage escarpments, and the trackless chaparral of the back country, and at least one German admitted that it was frightening."

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 6, 2014 at 9:31 p.m. (Suggest removal)

How can THERE be... oops...

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 6, 2014 at 9:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Mean While. Germany the poster child of the Modern Socialist Utopia has just a few problems to deal with as the leader of the EU.

Germany's DAX stock index has plunged once again, to the same level as in October 2013 as European economic realities (coupled with sanctions retaliation fears) miss expectations drastically. The DAX is now in "correction", down 10.235% from its June record highs as it appears the more the US sanctions Russia, the more Europe crumbles...


Germany's Largest Bank headline WSJ, August 7, 2014

"Regulators Cite Risk-Control Deficiencies at Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche Bank is facing a barrage of criticism from U.S. regulators over what they say are weak reporting systems and risk controls, including under a confidential pact that formally orders the bank to make far-reaching improvements, according to people familiar with the agreement."

All is not well in Utopia, is it.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
August 7, 2014 at 9:53 a.m. (Suggest removal)

@DavyBrown, thinking outside the box, I think, is what makes threads like this fun.

Quantifying a subjective experience does seem like whimsy. Yet demographers, sociologists, and pollsters try to do this all the time. I can imagine a system where the Park Service gives you a hat that records the output of your brain's pleasure centers ...

Another subtheme is ... if you were a planner or public lands manager, what provides the most public good, a very wild place where only a handful of people enjoy the experience, or a less-wild place where many more people can benefit? This is obviously an unrealistic question because there are always more factors to consider (e.g. habitat and wildlife preservation). But it's a fun thought experiment.

As for German tourists, I just came back from exploring southern Utah. They are all over the place out there. Even in the more dry & desolate lower plateaus. But I also heard German being spoken in more "lush" settings like the main canyon @Zion NP. They seem to love hiking the Narrows.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
August 7, 2014 at 11:11 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Europe has been adding human infrastructure for centuries, while our beautiful neck of the woods was being managed by people who built recyclable homes, recyclable boats, etc. Thus Europe in some places is wall to wall (outside) grass lawns, magnificent sculptures, wonderful old buildings, but the wilderness tamed to such an extent that it can mostly be found in zoos.

We are fortunate that the Chumash looked after this area to such an extent that one can take many short trips N, S, E and W, and find amazing flora and fauna. The impact that the white man has had on the land is well described in a "parable" in the first chapter of "To you we shall return: Lessons about our Planet from the Lakotas".

I think tourists who travel to the "New World" seek to find that connection with nature that is only possible in countries that still have wilderness. Some of the music from Europe was inspired by the interactions of composers with nature before over-development. I guess there are lessons to learn. Large areas of wilderness have to be preserved to preserve our sanity.

tabatha (anonymous profile)
August 7, 2014 at 4:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

We have the wilderness, but a very high percentage of Americans never set foot in it. I have known people who have lived here all their lives and never driven on the country roads, much less hiked in the hills.

dewdly (anonymous profile)
August 9, 2014 at 2:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)

@HowGreen re. Aug. 7 comment criticizing "socialist Germany" -- on June 9 Germany produced 50.6% of the electric energy the entire country needed that day from solar power panels: !
Thus, while you off-handedly slam Germany as "the poster child of the Modern Socialist Utopia", and it has many problems (over-reliance on coal as e.g.), it's a true leader of the EU. The USA could learn a lot from Germany's example in the area of non-fossil energy and a non-aggressive foreign policy; and Ger IS the engine fuelling the entire EU. Think about it...

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 17, 2014 at 8:24 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The only way mainly cloudy and dark Germany can rely on solar energy is because their back-up power system is mainly nuclear. Try it, you will like it.

JarvisJarvis (anonymous profile)
August 17, 2014 at 9:42 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I think they rely more on "new" coal; they have shut half their reactions and now rely on nuclear for ca. 10% of their energy. What Jarvis, you WANT a country to be dependent on fossil fuels? That is somehow a good thing? I know you are No on P, but...?!

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 17, 2014 at 11:24 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I pesonally want us energy dependent upon cockroaches turning fly wheels. Great renewable resource with eons of built-in sustaniability. Or model our economy on energy-efficient North Korea. Both could work.

JarvisJarvis (anonymous profile)
August 17, 2014 at 12:24 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I wonder what Dr,Dan would think of Davy's comments>

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
August 17, 2014 at 4:43 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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