Swamp City

Paul Sullivan reviews two books that explore the city and its environs through its waterways…

Given that Berlin is famously built on marshland (its name allegedly derives from the Slavic word berl, meaning ‘swamp’), is surrounded by thousands of lakes, and threaded with so many canals, rivers and tributaries that it purportedly has more bridges than Venice, it’s something of a mystery that not much city literature has dipped into its aqueous aspects.

Most accounts of the capital, whether fiction or nonfiction, have focused almost exclusively on its built environment, quite ignoring the fact that together with the surrounding state of Brandenburg, the German capital has the largest network of inland waterways in Europe—some 6,700 kilometres by all accounts.

A couple of recent books have changed that, one of the most notable being Jessica J. Lee’s Turning, published in 2017 by Virago in the UK, and by Piper as Mein Jahr im Wasser in Germany. Although several guides to Berlin’s lakes (and wild swimming in general) do already exist, Turning is a much more considered project, blending the author’s quest to swim in a different lake each week with elements of personal memoir, her knowledge as an environmental historian, and her talents as a nature writer.

That said, the book emerged as a guide of sorts when Lee published a 2015 article on this very website by way of introducing her swimming challenge and generously profiling some of the lakes she had enjoyed swimming in. Not mentioned in that article, however, were Lee’s motivations for undertaking the project—namely, a broken heart and related period of depression—which Turning elegantly expands on. 

Cover of Turning by Jessica J Lee

The lakes in Turning are thus places of healing as well as natural phenomena to be investigated, and sites of cultural and regional history too. As she charts her weekly swims, Lee gradually reveals to us parts of her own background: growing up in Ontario, Canada; an early and misguided marriage (and subsequent divorce); the breakup of her parents’ marriage. The flashbacks also trace her personal relationship with water, including the trauma of a near-fatal drowning incident as a young child, and regular swims with family and friends at lakes and YMCA pools in Ontario as well as in Florida, where she spent family summer holidays as a teen.

“Water feels different in each place,” she writes. “The water I grew up with was hard, cutting, and when I go back to visit it now, I feel it in my ears when I dive in. something different, more like rock. The lake a whetted blade. The water in Berlin has a softness to it. Maybe it’s the sand, buffing the edges off the water like splinters from a beam. It slips over you like a blanket. There’s a safety in this feeling. In the lakes here, there is a feeling of enclosure and security that Canada can’t replicate. And it shouldn’t – the pelagic vastness there is entirely its own, and I’ve learned to love that too.”

Orankesee. Image by Jessica J. Lee.

After studying environmental history in Canada, Lee moved to London to undertake a dissertation (on the environmental history of Hampstead Heath), and then to Berlin, where she continued her research. It’s in Berlin that she meets Jacob, a soul-mate and a fellow waterbaby. Separated into four seasonal sections, Turning begins during a Berlin summer, at a point when Lee has already lost Jacob and the love he represented. This loss forms part of a more general depression that motivates her to towards the swimming quest as a kind of cure. “Naively, perhaps, I believed that if I could find that place in the middle of the lake where every feeling slipped away, I might undo the hurt.”

Lee’s lake trips mean that this is less a book about Berlin and more about its outskirts and boundaries. We are constantly leaving the city “into a world of pine and silken water,” where her interest in limnology (the study of lakes) transports the reader back to the Weichselian glaciation that formed the landscapes here ten thousand years ago, after ice advanced southward from Scandinavia, past the Baltic, reaching the edge of the North German Plain before retreating again.

While many lakes were created by these retreating glaciers, others are legacies of clay and sand pits, gravel quarries and lignite mines—testament to the industrial era that changed the landscape in more recent times. Delving into this local history, Lee recounts how Brandenburg’s formerly inaccessible, mist-covered malarial marshes were drained with the help of Dutch engineers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulting in a loss of flora and fauna.

This was also the landscape explored by the author Theodore Fontane, a guiding spirit throughout Turning, whose five-volume series on Brandenburg (Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg), published between 1862-1889, formed a major part of Lee’s research. She describes how Fontane’s work transported her “to a time when the wilderness of the east became the centre of the Prussian empire, to when Berlin industrialised and the state of Brandenburg emptied as workers sought jobs in urban factories, a century after the same had started to happen in Britain. The natural world he described – with birch and alder stands in sandy soil and marshes so thick that cattle would become mired in mud – remains visible in traces today.”

Flughafensee. Image by Jessica J. Lee.

The relatively monotonous post-industrial terrain of Brandenburg isn’t the easiest to repeatedly bring alive, and it’s true that the back-and-forth of Lee’s bike-and-bahn trips can get repetitive. But she does her best to infuse the landscape with an almost poetic sensuality, describing not only the endless pine forests, but sorrel and buttercups, mosses and ferns, beechwoods, alders and rowans, and “fly agarics in reds and yellows”. We meet exotic plants like the carnivorous Drosera, aka sundews, Swan’s-neck thyme-moss, “glossy brown bolete” mushrooms, and Himalayan balsam—an invasive floral pink snapdragon with labial flowers. The lakes too, are vividly described, ranging from turquoise to emerald, diaphanous and neon blue-green, brown and toffee-like, oily and slick.

The book moves steadily through the seasons, with the most masochistic scenes saved for winter when a hammer is needed to smash the layers of ice and it’s only safe to be in the water for a few minutes at a time (Lee’s rules for the swims include no wetsuits). But she finds a kind of cathartic beauty in these freezing dips too. “Between pain and numbness there’s a brightness, a crisp, heightened sensation in the cold: that’s the place to swim through. When it ends, when numbness arrives, it’s time to get out.”

Although it’s ostensibly a rural book, some murky twentieth-century history inevitably leaks into the pages. As well as regular traces of the GDR (the border ran right through certain lakes) and encounters with nudists and neonazis, she also dips into a lake near the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp. “This crooked wash of brown and blue, once maintained by prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp, will turn red and gold come autumn… But in the moments I get too close, I find it barbed. Himmler was here, and the Stasi.” 

Another recent book with a watery theme, Kirsty Bell’s Undercurrents, published in 2019 by Fitzcarraldo, is more focused on urban history than Turning. Using the Landwehr Canal as her aquatic inspiration, Bell’s book also begins with the end of a relationship. But where water helps Lee to heal her heartbreak, for Bell the constant leaks and blockages in her Kreuzberg home are metaphors for her dysfunctional marriage—and, eventually, the city at large.

Cover of Undercurrents by Kirsty Bell

While very different in style and focus, the two books work in a complementary way too, with Turning patiently attuned to the sights and sounds of the city’s surrounding forests and lakes, and Bell—a British-American art critic living in the city since 2001—weaving together cultural history with layers of collective trauma, feminism, and a dash of unfortunate new-age mysticism. 

Where Lee sets boundaries to her project by keeping to one lake per week and limiting the time period to a year, Bell’s own self-prescribed margins are tied to what she can see from her kitchen window; the canal and associated Tempelhofer Ufer but also the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof, the TV Tower, and parts of the Gleisdreieck and Tiergarten parks, all of which she uses to launch an exploration of the city

The canal proves a fertile starting point. Bell traces its history back to its a fifteenth-century defensive boundary (the Landwehrgraben), and how it was used in the 1700s to channel floods and high waters away from the “grand architecture of the new city centre”. It was later used to transport materials to build residential houses—the kind that Bell would come to live in, on what were then the city outskirts—making sense of the old saying that Berlin was “built from the barge”.

Rosa Luxemburg Memorial on the Landwehr Canal. Image by James Fancourt.

It doesn’t take long for the story of the Landwehr Canal to lead to death—Rosa Luxemburg wasn’t the only one whose corpse was dragged out of it—nor for this opening rivulet to overflow from its visual restrictions and encompass a much broader swathe of the city, and a century and a half of urban, literary and social history. Bell moves rapidly from Peter Joseph Lenné’s redesign of the canal (and the Tiergarten) in the mid-nineteenth century, and his admirable and ambitious blueprints for a green and pleasant city, to the death of those dreams at the hands of capitalist industrialisation and twentieth century urban protagonists such as Walter Benjamin, Franz Hessel and Christopher Isherwood.

So far, so Berlin. But while much of this cultural-historical terrain will be familiar to anyone who has read a few books on the city (or readers of this website), Bell’s idiosyncratic framing, wide-eyed curiousity and associative approach keep the narrative moving in a captivating way—as do the extra narrative threads she incorporates, not least her quest to also investigate the previous inhabitants of her Kreuzberg home.

While this idea isn’t new either (Jenny Erpenbeck’s wonderful Visitations springs to mind), the fact that Bell is investigating real lives, rather than fictional ones, and also lives that experienced remarkable times, lends a sense of drama and weight to the book; if nothing else, she deserves credit for having the tenacity to deal with multiple Berlin official institutions in hunting down fragments and clues about their various existences and fates.

Also successful is the author’s commitment to finding female ‘witnesses’ as a counterbalance to all the usual male observers. This extends to her excavations of the house’s history as well as the city, whereby a previous tenant named Melitta Sala becomes something of an obsession, as women artists and authors such as Gabriele Reuter and Marie von Bunsen are brought into the foreground and placed alongside better-known historical personalities such as Luxemburg, Christa Wolf, Clara Zetkin, Käthe Kollwitz, Hannah Höch, and Gabriele Tergit, a Jewish journalist who wrote perspicacious reports about life in Berlin before and after World War Two.

A stretch of Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. Image by James Fancourt.

Although she’s not a historian, Bell has clearly read some authoritative tomes for her research, including Alexandra Richie’s excellent Faust’s Metropolis, Werner Hegemann’s Das steinerne Berlin (“Stone Berlin”) and Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, as well as a number of relevant novels, including—in a neat overlap with Lee’s Turning—Theoder Fontane’s more urban works, such as On Tangled Paths and Cécile.

As Undercurrents moves into the well-trodden ground of World War Two and subsequent postwar period, Bell also draws on the pioneering work of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, whose 1967 book The Inability to Mourn shook the nation up by describing how Germans buried or dismissed their guilt, shame and grief, throwing themselves into the postwar economic miracle instead of confronting their Nazi past. The book threw fuel on the upheavals of 1968, and triggered the culture of remembrance that took hold shortly afterwards.

Unfortunately Bell carries this idea further, elaborating on an idea hinted at throughout the book, that the city itself might also hold some kind of trauma. She asks if the swampy nature of the city’s foundations, with their “capacity for swallowing evidence and closing up again after every action”, might play a role in the city’s “strangely amnesiac relation to its past”, and refers more than once to its “constant, subtle downward pull”, which she suggests has an effect on its inhabitants even today. 

Worse, she equates such material trauma with her own home, seeing in the leaks and blockages not simply the need for a plumber, but a metaphor for her broken marriage and for the metropolis more broadly. Here she plies less authoritative sources ranging from astrology to Stone Tape Theory, even conducting a “family constellation” session whereby a male stranger, playing the role of her apartment, breaks down and cries, apparently not realising that “his tears were raining into my apartment.” 

Given Berlin’s turbulent and emotive history, one can see how such theories might be tempting but—obvious woo-woo-style quackery aside—Berlin is hardly the only city to struggle with the murkier aspects of its past, and neither was German trauma restricted to swampy Berlin. Surely, too, the city—and Bell’s residential building, one hopes—have also been sites of happiness, contentment, and other emotional states, however fleeting. Then there’s the question of how a radically breakneck industrialisation process could thrive in such an apparently downbeat environment, not to mention how it could become an upbeat post-reunification beacon famous for its indulgent nightlife, start-up scene and alternative lifestyles.

Fortunately this discordant thread doesn’t detract too much from what is overall an interesting and well-compiled cultural-historical tapestry and decent addition to the city’s ever-growing collection of literary portraits—one that outlines a city infused not only with tragedy and trauma, but also blessed with extraordinary cultural greatness and fascinating lives. Indeed, taken together, Undercurrents and Turning form a mutually agreeable—and very readable—water-themed topography of the innercity and its rural surroundings.