Thursday, February 17, 2011

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Sihlwald

I count myself very lucky to live on the edge of a beautiful forest, the Sihlwald.  Since 2008 this forest is an official National Park and is consequently protected from further development. Just a few steps from my house I can wander for hours without encountering another human being.  Sometime ago I wrote on this blog about the Sihlwald. Yesterday we walked over the forested hills and down to the Türlersee.  In the summer we swim here, but yesterday the lake was half frozen, deserted and enveloped in a cold fog.

The Türlersee

But though I love the peace and quiet, the birdsong and occasional sighting of a fox, I am also aware that many have walked here before me.  Woodcutters have supplied the city with its firewood since the middle ages, right up until the early 20th century.  In the 18th century poet and painter Salomon Gessner lived here during the summers.  Goethe, an indominatable hiker, as well as poet, playwright, novelist and scientist, wandered though these forested hills and visited Gessner in his house that still stands at the river's edge.

Salomon Gessner's house

In the 19th century Wagner walked, from Kilchberg down towards the River Sihl and along the wooded valley.  He conceived Das Rheingold while taking the waters at Albisbrunn, and Siegfried's magical encounter with a bird is based on birdsong that Wagner heard in the Sihlwald.  In the 20th century one famous visitor to the forest was Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of former President of the USA, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Until last week a small clearing in the forest had a sign to mark the place where she once stood that said "Eleanor Roosevelt Platz".  Not anymore.

Eleanor Roosevelt had always loved trees and on April 17th 1948 she made a quick visit from London to Zürich specifically to visit the Sihlwald.  Tens days later millions of Americans read her description in her widely syndicated column My Day:

"While I was in Zurich, Switzerland, I had the pleasure of visiting Sihlwald Forest, oldest commercially managed forest in the world. For 600 years this forest, which covers about 2000 acres, has been cared for and has been a source of income... Sihlwald was originally designed to provide firewood for the people of Zurich, and it still fulfills that function, but considerable wood is cut for marketing as lumber....
The forests are also used as recreation grounds for the people... people come with their lunch baskets and sit under the trees. Receptacles for trash are provided, and everyone is very careful to pick up their papers when they leave.

Children are taught in school how to conduct themselves in forests. That's why there is apparently no need for signs. I looked everywhere for directions such as we have—"Be Careful of Fire"—but there was not a single sign. Yet they rarely have a forest fire.
This particular forest is about a half-hour's drive out of Zurich, but there are others nearer the city. There are about 5000 acres of trees in the whole area. The beech woods are very beautiful, with a green carpet of little spear-like leaves which smell like chives and are, I think, some relation to the onion.
Not far from the entrance to Sihlwald is a very attractive guesthouse with a wonderful view. There one can have tea, either indoors or out on a terrace. The sunshine pours down in good weather and, at this season of the year, one looks out on a hillside with fruit trees in blossom and daffodils and forsythia in bloom."

The authorities who now run the new National Park have decided that nature has no need for historical memory.  Last week the old sign was removed and the name "Eleanor-Roosevelt-Platz" is no longer to be used. A spokesperson for the Zürich Wilderness Foundation explained: "The Roosevelt-Platz is not a part of the visitor's information concept. The old sign has no historical value".  Furthermore, "Historical information does not provide orientation during a hike".  So, the forest is nature and nature alone, and history has been banished.

The concept behind the Sihlwald today is a noble one - the aim is to leave the forest in its natural state - no houses, shops, cafes, roads will be built within the wilderness area.  I am not expecting nor calling for signs to be erected to point out where Goethe or Wagner once set foot. But the Roosevelt sign had been there for over half a century.  Its removal is, I believe, akin to official historical vandalism.

Eleanor Roosevelt in the Sihlwald

1 comment:

  1. that's such a shame, there needs to be a balance between the conservation of the wildife and natural landscape with the human history of the area!