The oak tree and the bird

Following a road to "home"

In the few days and the half-dozen times we traveled the road from Hartenstein to Zwickau, he only now mentioned it. “I have always admired that single standing tree,” he said as he looked out the window.

Almost perfect. Like a ball. (Illustration for BSR by Hannah Kaplan.)

It is an elegant road, leaning into its curves, bracing its villages, skirting pastures. Many roads here are purposely lined with trees, but not this stretch. Here there is only this tree, standing by itself in a large, worked field, 50 yards from the road. “It is almost perfect. Like a ball.”

Recognizing the end from the beginning

He is 85 and returns to this corner of Saxony every year. It is part of the old East Germany, tucked between Thuringia and the Czech border. With his wife now three years gone, he travels by himself or asks others to join him. He visits family here: cousins and a brother.

He grew up two miles from this spot. When he was seven, war started. When he was 12, Allied planes flew over his family’s farm. He saw two soldiers dead in a car in the village from the strafing. After the war, the soldiers kept coming, East Germans, Russians, sullen and hungry.

In 1953 he boarded a train to Berlin for a job. The Russians drove tanks into Berlin three weeks later. He bought a round-trip subway ticket. You could not buy one-way tickets to West Berlin after the war, even before the wall, and there were guards and wire barriers, but the U-Bahn under the entire city still operated. After the tanks came, he decided it was time. He walked to the subway carrying a suitcase filled with dirty laundry (if he was stopped, he could say he was bringing it home). He stepped out in West Berlin. No one checked his ticket and he kept walking.

He wrote to an aunt in America and declared himself to the U.S. embassy. They put him on another train, to a West German detention camp. A farmer picked the strong 21-year-old out of a line, and for the next few months he worked with fruit trees near Heidelberg. The aunt arranged his immigration, and he came to Philadelphia. When he tells his story, other Germans nod. They know these stories.

I asked him if the tree was here when he was growing up. He laughed quickly. “Oh, no, it is only 40 years old. Maybe. But every year it gets bigger,” he said. “It is an oak.  You can tell by the trunk. If nothing happens around it, it will live another 200 years, more.”

Home and away

This tree says home to him. It speaks to me in the same way now. Music speaks like this. Schubert gives us a home in “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.” The beginning and ending are the same music, so at the end we recognize the road.

Friedrich Gustav Schlick's 1834 'Illustration zu Goethe, Faust I, Szene: Gretchens Stube,' or 'Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.' (Image via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
Friedrich Gustav Schlick's 1834 'Illustration zu Goethe, Faust I, Szene: Gretchens Stube,' or 'Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel.' (Image via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Sometimes, though, as at the incomparable end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we have traveled far and the road is different. But if the music is good, we will have come home, the home we didn’t know was already ours. I experienced this foreign thing that is “home” on this trip, a day after the tree.

I stood on the steps of a restaurant watching people eat at tables on the wide porch of a large stone inn surrounded by forest. The day’s grayish sky began to clear as the sun set. This far north, even in August, daylight would soon disappear and the newly bright clouds soften into a darkening slate blue.

The tablecloths were white. People smiled and talked softly under iron-and-glass wall sconces. They lifted forks and held glasses in midair while they talked. Then, from not too far into the forest, a bird called a call I had never heard before. My head swerved up toward the trees, toward the sound. It was liquid, intense, remote. It sounded like a whistle or a child far away.

That’s when I knew I was in a foreign land. It wasn’t the language or the road signs that did it; it was this. I had never heard this. I have heard whistles and children and seen tablecloths and darkening skies. So this, too, could be home. The strangeness somehow made me feel at home.

Music ought to take you to a foreign place and then bring you home. But, like some dreams, you already know the foreign place and the home is new. The end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony does this. The “Spinning Wheel,” even, does this. The end is the same as the beginning, but after Gretchen’s despair from love forever lost, the new shocks itself back into the old, changes it. Home is an oak tree you have never seen in a place you escaped long ago, and a new bird call is something you have always known.

Music is both foreign and home. You may have escaped it, like a war, or you may not recognize it at first. But you will know that strange feeling of home, that dream of remembrance, when a bird calls to you like a child, or a road takes you by a field with a single standing tree, almost perfect, like a ball.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.