Coun­try di­ary

Deis­ter, Lower Sax­ony

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

Among the whale­back forested hills of north Ger­many, where my fa­ther grew up and where hik­ers may walk for hours at a time with­out com­ing out from un­der the cover of trees, there are words that speak to Bri­tain of gain and loss. On an early-morn­ing rise into the for­est fringe, I be­gan to check and re­cite the names that scarcely need trans­la­tion – beech, birch, hazel, oak:

. The Saxon set­tlers who crossed the Chan­nel to colonise Bri­tain more than 1,500 years ago found leafy fa­mil­iars in their new coun­try and at­tached la­bels from their own lan­guage that have stuck to this day. Even their word for tree –

– sur­vives in “beam”.

One species of tree scat­tered on the slopes here had not made it across the wa­ter when the An­gloSax­ons named the trees in their new home­land. It is what Ger­mans had called, with ad­jec­ti­val cor­rect­ness, the moun­tain maple. When it was in­tro­duced to Bri­tain, around 500 years ago, our an­ces­tors mis­tak­enly dubbed it “syco­more”, think­ing that it was a Mid­dle Eastern species of fig.

When I last walked here in spring, the whole for­est floor was a wash of white stars. Leg­end has it that slum­ber­ing bears woke fam­ished from hi­ber­na­tion and gorged them­selves on the pun­gent leaves of the first plant to flush green in the for­est. The Ger­mans call this flower – bear’s gar­lic. An ap­pel­la­tion that is steeped in ro­mance and dates the plant’s emer­gence so mem­o­rably has sunk into the sed­i­ment of ob­scu­rity for us. Yet our pre-em­i­nent ti­tle “ram­sons” is it­self of Saxon ori­gin, as the pla­ce­names Ram­sey and Rams­bot­tom tes­tify.

I sheared off the flat track that skirted the for­est edge to climb a snaking sliver of a deer path. A sharp scuff of leaves gave me just enough time to look up into a ru­fous elfin face with pointy ears peep­ing out from be­hind a trunk, be­fore it van­ished. Ger­man cap­tures both the habi­tat and the char­ac­ter­is­tic glimpses hu­mans snatch of the an­i­mal they call , the “lit­tle horned one of the oak”. In me­dieval times, we plumped for Nor­man French “squir­rel”. It’s quirky, but did it per­haps sup­plant richer, more evoca­tive names of Saxon ori­gin?

Derek Nie­mann

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