If there exists such a thing as tiefes Deutschland, like France profonde, it might be here, one of the claimed birthplaces of the clown and fool Tyl Eulenspiegel; close to the family seat of the fantasist-cum-fabulist Baron von Münchhausen; within sight of the totemic witching mountain which we irreverently call Fuji, the Brocken, on the southern horizon (Heine’s Harzreise, Goethe’s Faust), a perfect pimple hairy with antennae (it was and still is a listening post); and not far from the old German-German border. Though fairly much in the middle of things these days, it feels like border country. Because of the phenomenon known as Grenzflucht – a tendency to shrivel within one’s frontiers – the region is still underpopulated. It hasn’t really knitted together; the timetables still make it hard to go east, to Halle, to Magdeburg. You can still tell which ‘side’ you are on, even thirty years after unification when there are supposedly no longer sides. There was historic emigration from the little, no-account princedoms of Lower Saxony and Sachsen-Anhalt. It took the importation and cultivation of the potato to keep people from starving, and the sugar beet to make a very few of them rich, the nineteenth-century sugar barons in their ostentatious, so-called ‘beet castles’, their Rübenburgen. George III’s mercenaries, known as ‘Hessians’, were recruited from here: the place names Hanover and Brunswick still have a ring in English. It was repeatedly fought over, in the Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars. If Robert Lowell can be believed, Frederick the Great exhorted his men into battle by calling: ‘Move, you bastards, do you want to live forever?’ The implicit answer: ‘No, sir!’
From the States it took us three flights to get to the city, then from the city three trains and a bus that stitched a kind of right-angled Cretan wave-pattern among the villages. North of us is the Elm, a wooded ridge bearing supposedly the largest contiguous beechwoods in Germany, and to the south is the Asse, more wooded hills, but more especially also the old salt mines where a now fully de-nuclearised Germany in its wisdom stored nuclear waste in thousands of salt-corroded barrels. The Green movement started here in the seventies, with its wonky yellow crossed-out capital A (for ‘Atom’ and ‘Asse’), and its sunny badges atomkraft? nein, danke! Wim Wenders shot part of his haunting early film Kings of the Road not far away.
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