Recently by Bernd Brunner:

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The polar bear is not only the planet’s biggest land-based carnivore, but it also has a long and colorful, if often violent, history of interaction with humans, which is the topic of an illustrated new book titled Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon (University of Washington Press, November 2016) by Michael Engelhard. Michael Engelhard is both a cultural anthropologist and a wilderness guide. He is the author of two essay collections, Where the Rain Children Sleep and American Wild, and the editor of four anthologies, including Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North. Engelhard lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.

More… “Big as a Calf, White as a Swan”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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The past centuries, if not millennia, have been characterized by the unprecedented spread of certain plants to other continents. Crops such as bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and rice are classic examples. Many others did not require human help; their seeds were spread by wind and birds and encountered favorable conditions, as has happened since time immemorial. Some plant types are particularly aggressive, spreading and replacing other plants. They are usually called “invasive” types, and they sometimes succeed with the involuntary help of humans. Now, due to climate change, vegetation zones are changing: Conifer forests, for example, are spreading to tundras, and in the tropics, the rain forest is becoming denser. More… “A Fruit of Many Names”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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They kindly replied to my enquiry, but asked for my understanding that the design of a pill — including its shape and color — is based on proprietary marketing considerations. For this reason, they cannot tell me more about why the color blue was chosen. For Viagra. How could I have dared to think that Pfizer would have the answer I was hoping for? And this reply didn’t exactly encourage me to ask the company a second serious question: Why do some people see everything tainted in blue (cyanopsia) as a side effect of taking the drug? In any case, I guess the pill wouldn’t have been as successful if it weren’t this particular shade. More… “Encyclopedia Blue”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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In a letter to a friend, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) recalled how, as a child, he enjoyed “charming, graceful nature in such abundance” in the vicinity of Tegel Castle. Tegel, the Plattdeutsch word for “brick,” was still a small town northwest of Berlin on route to Hamburg in Alexander von Humboldt’s times. Here he spent the warm seasons of his childhood with his brother Wilhelm. Besides the castle, the family owned a townhouse in the center of Berlin, which was three hours carriage ride along sandy paths.

If you walk through the castle’s surroundings today, you can imagine him as a boy strolling around this romantic setting, perhaps listening to the hammering of a woodpecker, then walking over to the lake to enjoy the scenery. Nature made him curious and open to the world. This is where he started to collect plant specimens, stones, and insects, earning him the nickname “the little apothecary.” Objects of nature were his favorite toys. “Both brothers withdrew into their own worlds — Wilhelm into his books and Alexander into lonely walks through Tegel’s forests, great woods that had been planted with imported North American trees. As he wandered among colorful sugar maples and stately white oaks, Alexander experienced nature as calming and soothing. But it was also among these trees from another world that he began to dream of distant countries,” writes Andrea Wulf in her biography of Alexander von Humboldt The Invention Of Nature.

More… “Bricked In”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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One day artist Marina Lindemann noticed her neighbor Sunny O.’s mailbox was overflowing with bills, advertising brochures, and personal mail. As far as she knew, the man who was about 40 years old had left his apartment in the Hamburg suburb of Wilhelmsburg without saying goodbye to anyone. She took the contents of the mailbox to keep them for later.

Where had he gone? Did he decide to start a new life somewhere else? Or did something serious happen to him? After half a year the apartment was finally evacuated. The car that had been parked in front of the house was taken away. Marina decided to gather everything that had belonged to her missing neighbor. So she put on a wig and went in disguise to the auction of Sunny’s boxes, buying them for a few euros without having any notion of the contents. Out of practical considerations, she didn’t take the refrigerator and bed. She took the four big boxes home, inventoried the items, measured and weighed them, and prepared them for an exhibition. “I was hoping to come closer to the disappeared person, and to examine the relationship between things and personality,” Marina told me. “How much of a person is there in a thing?,” she asked herself.

More… “Losing Ourselves”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Dogs were “the first large creature who would live with men,” Barry Hulston Lopez writes in his classic of wolf-literature, Of Wolves and Men. But there are different theories as to when wolves and humans came together and how exactly the transition from Canis lupus to Canis familiaris came about. Did shy wolves approach humans because they found out that there was always something to feed on in their surroundings and slowly got used to their company? Or did humans find lone wolf cubs and rear them? Do our dogs derive from a line of wolves that no longer exists?

We don’t know. It probably took the wolves, now in the company of humans, thousands of years to slowly change their appearance. There is a big difference between tamed wolves and the dogs we know today — without selective breeding the genetic makeup wouldn’t have had a chance to change. While some wolves developed into dogs, possibly at different places on earth, the wolves in the wild continued to exist. Especially during extreme winters when game was harder to find they are known to have come close to human settlements to prey on their livestock and to attack humans — although this is extremely rare. A study by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, compiled by a number of leading wolf experts across Europe, states that from 1950 to 2002 there have been nine deadly attacks of wolves on humans in Europe and the same number in Russia.

There is hardly an animal that so often produces conflicting emotions as the wolf. The many stories about humans and wolves span the whole range from attraction to revulsion; they are inspired by both facts and fiction. The story of Romulus and Remus, for example, plays with the idea that there must exist a secret bond between the two species. Then there is the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which probably goes back to the Middle East. The girl walks across the forest to visit her grandmother and finds herself in bed with a wolf dressed up as her grandmother (he has devoured her). There are countless variations of the tale: some crueler, some tamer. There is the curious case of Misha Defonseca, who claimed to have run away from the home of her foster parents in 1940 during the German occupation of Belgium because she wanted to find her parents who had been abducted to Ukraine. To hide from the Nazis, she lived with a pack of wolves. In 1997, she published her memoir, Living with Wolves, which became a bestseller. Around the time it had been made into a movie ten years later, the story was uncovered to be false. Monique de Wael, her real name, was in fact enrolled in a Brussels school during the time.

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The wolf remains a mysterious creature. Barry Hulston Lopez also mentions some of the most common misconceptions about wolves: “Whenever I have spoken with people who have never seen a wolf, I’ve found that the belief that wolves are enormous is pervasive. Even people who have considerable experience with the animal seem to want it to be, somehow, bigger than it is.” But even where the biggest wolves are found in Alaska, a wolf weighing more than 120 pounds is uncommon.

Completely extinct in this country for about 150 years, wolves have reappeared in the lesser-populated regions of Northern and Western Germany since the year 2000. Genetic examinations have proven that they came into the country on their own from neighboring Poland and Austria. Ten years earlier, in 1990, a federal nature protection law came into effect that protected wolves from hunting. In fact, since this point in time, wolves have profited from the highest possible protection standard, which helped to pave the way for a return of these animals.

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As long as they find enough food, wolves have proven they can adapt easily to a new environment; they don’t need complete wilderness. On the other hand, they avoid areas that are developed or where they cannot find enough game (or livestock like sheep and goats), causing the population to always be rather uneven from region to region. And overall numbers are still so low in Germany — currently there are about 31 packs — that they are threatened with extinction in this country. More wolves from other populations are necessary to secure genetic variability and long-time survival, but whether or not they can be considered part of the greater eastern European family of wolves is debated. Scientists are surprised and even overwhelmed by some of the questions now coming up.

Wolves hunt the animals that are easiest to reach. Occasionally, there are reports about wolves killing flocks of sheep when game is not readily available. The examination of saliva samples, and sometimes video footage, then helps to determine the gender and origin of the wolves, data which is then passed on to the National Reference Center for Genetic Examinations of Lynx and Wolf. Farmers receive financial compensation for their killed livestock. In some instances, the predators were proven to not have been wolves actually, but dogs — as could be determined in an incident that occurred in late February this year in North Rhine Westphalia.

The return of wolves to Germany remains a challenge on several levels. In some areas of Germany, scientists, conservationists, hunters, foresters, and representatives of public authorities are developing concepts for how to best deal with the occurrence of wolves. There are various efforts to teach people how to deal with wolves when they appear in their neighborhood. While many people welcome the animals as an enriching environmental factor, others are uneasy, especially with regard to the danger to children. A tool called “flock protection set” has been devised by the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union. It costs a few thousand euros and comprises a motion-sensitive camera and electric nets with white ribbon that can be installed quickly when necessary, in places where no permanent protective fences that reach all the way to the ground have been built. Wolves are able to jump over ditches easily, which is another challenge for keepers of livestock. Some shepherds are getting donkeys, because their shouts are said to drive wolves away. Then the dogs whose task it is to keep wolves at bay can be dangerous to humans, too, which complicates the situation further. There are 500 so-called “wolf ambassadors” in Germany who try to help overcome prejudices, and there is educational material for use in kindergartens and elementary schools. There are 140 wolf ambassadors in Lower Saxony alone, who are also in charge of monitoring the tracks of wolves. That’s two ambassadors per wolf.

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Friends and enemies of the wolves face each other — there is the full range from naiveté to hysteria. Some exaggerate the numbers of wolves and attacks, some play the risks down. The discussion about wolves in Germany reached new heights recently when there were observations of an animal that behaved in a way it was not supposed to. The wolf attacked the dog of a family and by doing this already overstepped a boundary. How had he become so fearless? An expert called from Sweden was commissioned to explain the situation, to find a way to correct his unacceptable behavior — to no avail. There was a report of an incident where this wolf is said to have followed a young mother with her four-year-old daughter sitting in a stroller. However, this doesn’t mean that the animal would have attacked, and there is no way to know. Everybody involved in the process of “managing the wolves” realized that there was a lot at stake, because killing the wolf would mean the first such case of more than a hundred years in this country. A brief discussion on whether the wolf should be confined was responded in the negative — a wild wolf in a cage wouldn’t have made any sense at all. It was ordered to be shot. There is a commonly accepted rule that wolves that become habituated to people must be quickly removed.

There was consensus on the decision to shoot him, because otherwise the chapter of the return of the wolves in Germany might have been closed before it had really come under way. His fans called him “Kurti” — a diminutive of the somewhat old-fashioned German first name “Kurt,” and it may just be a strange coincidence that “Kurt” means “wolf” in Turkish. Just the fact that the animal has been quickly given a human name may be understood as indicating that it cannot be dealt with on its own terms, as an animal. Ten years ago, a somewhat similar case of a free-roaming brown bear in Bavaria — quickly dubbed “Bruno, the problem bear” — spurred similar fears before he was shot. He is now on display in Munich’s museum of natural history.

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The age-old story of wolf, human, and dog hasn’t come to an end yet. The relationship of humans and wolves remains a vexed one: Because it can never be totally free of conflict, it constantly tests humans’ understanding of what wildness means and how far it may go. If humans take up the challenge and discard the myths, this may teach people a more realistic and more honest understanding of nature. The return of the wolves to Germany is both spectacular and controversial. The animals are beautiful, smart, and usually extremely shy of humans. Europe would certainly be poorer without them. New cubs are expected to be born this month. New packs, new territories, new controversies lie ahead. •

Feature image courtesy of Bukowskis via Wikimedia Commons. Article images courtesy of Codex, Robert Ramsay, Philippe, Wellcome Images, Hartmann Schedel, and Granville via Wikimedia Commons and Robin Fabre via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Did Montezuma II, the legendary king of the Aztecs, really imbibe 50 cups of a special thick chocolate-vanilla-honey potion every day? We will never know, but we know for sure that vanilla flavoring in any of its many forms is one of the substances that people just cannot get enough of. It can be found in more obvious places like ice cream, cakes, liqueurs, perfumes, tobaccos, and soaps. It is an open secret that Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola buy the naturally produced substance in large amounts.

But vanilla flavoring is also where you may not expect it — such as in cough and cold preparations or pet food, where the cheaper, artificially produced substance helps to mask undesirable tastes. It makes most mouths water, which explains why it is also used as a supplement for fodder. Vanilla used to be extolled for its alleged aphrodisiac properties. Curiously, Chandler Burr, one of the world’s most renowned cologne critics, sees vanilla eternally associated with the oldest profession. “Men love vanilla, which is why whores the world over smell like it,” he told me recently. He didn’t tell my why women love it, too, though. More… “Vanilla Mania”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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The railway combined rapid movement and the possibility of transportation across large distances. As difficult it is to imagine today, in the age of jet travel, the transition from stagecoach to train was a rocky one. In 1843, after the railway lines from Paris to Rouen and Orléans had been inaugurated, German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine wrote:

What changes must now occur in our way of viewing things and in our imagination! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. … I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my doors.

In the words of cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the railway created “a revolutionary rupture with (all) past forms of experience.” His book The Railway Journey remains the eminent source. The railway freed travel from the constraints of human and animal muscle power (and stench) and — to the extent that the network expanded — from geography itself. It also introduced a number of new sensory and psychological experiences. In this context, the mechanical vibration from the engine was seen as particularly threatening, often inspiring fears that the train would derail. Drivers complained about “the trepidation of the machines, the regular but perpetual movements that it transmits to the entire body and to the lower extremities in particular,” as a French article about influences on the health of train conductors recapitulated in 1857. Some early drivers came up with arrangements to cushion the shocks and jerking vibrations, but over time they got used to them. First- and second-class passengers profited from upholstery, but for some time they still suffered from fatigue as a result of the unfamiliar movements. Train passengers also experienced a sensation of disorientation, but gradually got accustomed to the new mode of travel.

More… “Adventure and Pain…”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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Is there a place on Earth where people had to shovel snow from their roofs during winter every day? Where they lived like moles under the snow? Where there was never a question whether or not there would be snow at the end of the year?

In fact, there was: near the western coast of the Japanese peninsula, where weather conditions have always been markedly different from the coast of this country facing the Pacific Ocean. The seasonal winds coming from Siberia pick up evaporation from the Sea of Japan which helps to increase their humidity. Clouds form and as they pass the high mountains they cool and transform into masses of snow that almost defy description. Snow begins to fall towards the end of October. More… “Creeping Through the Snow Womb”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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The moon was shining on the night in January 1856 when Leopold von Schrenck, a Russian-German zoologist, geographer, and ethnologist, reached Tebach, a village in the barren Amur region in easternmost Siberia. He was traveling in the name of the St. Petersburg Academy of Science, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, who had made it all the way to the Chinese border. Von Schrenck is among the handful of Westerners who had the opportunity to participate in a bear festival with the Nivkh people (formerly called Gilyak). As he approached the village, the inhabitants were out and about. The women stood in front of the houses carrying babies and watched as the men and the older children held hands and spun rapidly in a circle. Once the dance was over, von Schrenck accompanied the group into a yurt — a kind of oversized tent. Three bears were bound to the two central support poles. Care had been taken to allow the bears room to lie down, stand up, and move from side to side. The visitor also had to take care “not to be struck by a bear’s paw.” More… “Bearing Witness”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His latest book (in German) is When Winters Were Still Winters: The History of a Season. His book Birdmania: Remarkable Lives with Birds will be published by Greystone Books in 2017. He is a fellow and nonfiction resident of the Carey Institute for Global Good in Rensselaerville, New York. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, Best American Travel Writing, and various German-language newspapers. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
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