While studying in Hamburg and taking a mix of classes at the university and also ones taught by Smith professors, I took a class called “Landscapes of Northern Germany.” The class was taught by Professor Kai Jensen, who, although employed now by Uni Hamburg, used to specifically teach the class for Smith JYA students. Kai also spent a year or two teaching at Smith in Northampton with his family.
Our semester was spent in the classroom listening to students giving presentations on landscape types of Northern Germany and the issues surrounding them. At the end of the semester though we took a five-day field trip and drove around Northern Germany.
With a few students from Germany and the handful of us from JYA Smith (Caitleen, Priscilla, Sanda, Otari, Nora and Me), we romped through marshland, discussed grass types, looked at leaves and learned about how the glaciations have affected the landscapes of Northern Germany.
Gray skies threatened to give us a normal Hamburg shower as we left the university’s natural sciences campus west of central Hamburg and drove the back roads and saw how far below sea level/ Normalnull we were before tromping through seven-foot grass/reeds and seeing some sheep on the banks of the Elbe. We stopped for lunch in the tiny city of Brunsbüttel and continued on to St. Peter-Ording before calling it a day.
We stayed in a small, local youth hostel the first nights in Friedrichstadt. The town is a charming one, with old narrow streets, canals, and an old town square. After living in the city for the past eleven months, and even in my travels only seeing major cities, the small towns and cities of Schleswig-Holstein was refreshing and exciting.
One of the amazing things about the beaches and shorelines we visited is that most all of them are protected as national parks. If you see the map below, you can see the green strips on the coast. They’re open to the public but protected just as national parks in the US are.
We walked and walked and walked.
After the marshes and beach at St. Peter-Ording we hopped into our two VW vans and headed to Nationalpark Wattenmeer [mud flats] to see Westerhever, the most iconic German lighthouse. We had to walk over the tidal marshes, which are used for grazing sheep. On our way we collected and counted the plant species of the area; there were surprisingly few species.
After Westerhever, we made a stop at Multimar Wattforum aquarium in Tönning; a nice cool break from walking around in the hot sun.
On our way to the Baltic coast, we stopped at a park and learned about moors. The area is characterized by lots of heather, relative wetness, and its (acidic and, therefore) not-so-great soil. The protected land we visited had a raised boardwalk and overall looked the most foreign out of all the landscapes we visited. The ocean and wooded areas are very similar to those back home in New England, but I had never seen a moor before. The ground was soggy and prickly like a salt marsh is.
After our teacher thought we had absorbed enough of the landscape, we moved on to a beech forest in Lehmsiek. The forest was big, cool and oh-so buggy. The whole trip we talked about the flora and fauna, had competitions to see who could find certain species first, and just enjoyed nature.
For the first time all semester, learning really felt easy. In the classroom learning about plants was memorization and German-style papers and presentations. In other classes, it was more of the same and even stricter. I realized the full benefits of contextual learning and remembered how fun it can be.
For the second half of our excursion, we stayed at Schloss [palace] Noer. The property had been converted to a youth hostel with a main “palace” and a carriage house, where we stayed. We stayed four to a room and it was like a middle school sleepover, different than the single dorm rooms back in Hamburg that we were used to. For breakfast, we ate in the main palace building – the ceilings were easily 15 feet tall with tables served family style. Lunch was on-the-go in the woods and dinner was back in the palace. And on our last night, we celebrated as Germans tend to. This meant grilling, beer, and also celebrating with the adults who were on the trip with us. We sat outside until late, drank, and made friends with the German students who were in our class.