Do you know that in the volkspark in Freidrichshain you can walk up a hill created from the rubble of Berlin left after the Second World War? Sit on the grass beside the soaring fountain, enjoy a beer, admire the mandarin ducks and the mallards sailing on the water of the pond: then make the climb. The paths are cobbled, curling; the plants and trees have claimed this place, though here and there you can still see signifiers of the past: bricks emerging from soil where the earthworms crawl, rusted metal, a steep wall to sit upon and hang your legs and see the ground below swim in and out of focus til you pull yourself away to safety.
At Grunewald Forest, there is a similar place – though much steeper, and at its peak a listening station left over from the Cold War.
Tuefelsberg (Devil’s Mountain) rises about 80 metres above the surrounding Teltow plateau. Just like the hill we walked up in Friedrichshain, this artificial hill was built from the rubble of the city left after its decimation in WWII. As the city was cleared and rebuilt, these mountains rose and over the decades have been grown over with trees and grasses. Nature rolls over: unknowing, unseeing, unaware of where these bricks stood and what they saw and what the world cannot forget.
After Germany and Berlin were divided, the US National Security Agency built one of its largest listening stations on top of Devil’s Mountain. British and American spies intercepted Soviet and East German communications throughout the Cold War. When the wall fell the spies left, but the domes stayed. On our third day in Berlin, James and I headed south from the tower blocks and wide roads of the city to the forest and the lakes that lay not far beyond.
We took the U-bahn to Yorckstrasse, then a bus through districts filled with designer shops (Prada, Chanel, Hugo Boss) until the bus turned and we were taken down winding roads lined with mansions of every architectural design you could imagine – austere and modern, traditional lodges, fairytale pink palaces – and the gardens were beautiful, filled with tulips, and all of it all shimmering and golden under the sun. It is important to note that the day was hot - about 25 degrees - the wind was minimal and the sky was clear.
We hired bikes and cycled through the glorious forest, sheltered by the soaring trees that cast cooling shadows across our path. At last we saw the tower and the radar dome from the bottom of a hill and dragged out bikes to the top- only to discover the cost of a tour was 15 euros per person and we had only a few euros between us. We cycled back to the town hoping to find a cash point, passing a nudist lake on the way, but no luck. The nearest cash point, we were told, was way back in the town, a good forty minute round-trip, and so our only option was to return to Devil’s Mountain and circle the perimeter with the hope of glimpsing the decaying towers through the trees.
Another steep climb. We fastened our bikes to a tree by a concrete shelter and climbed the last few metres. The gates were closed, as we had expected, so we walked round the double perimeter fence and found the huge white radar domes rising above the trees, presenting graffiti covered walls. Bulbs (spiked), running lines: a film set from a 60s sci-fi movie shuddering with paranoia but tinged with hope. Within and without, the inner rooms opened up, exposed, and the heavy sheets of torn white fabric whipped in the wind, jagged at the edges, like washing long forgotten on a line. A skinny black cat sat washing her paws just beyond the fence. From the interior, footsteps echoed on the metallic steps and dogs barked from somewhere on site. The gates were closed firmly shut, and I don’t know who was spending their time in that haunted place.
There was no one around as we walked away from the buildings. But the birds struck up their evening song: a hundred tweets and whistles and trills all at once; competing, calling, marking territory, and the flying insects multiplied in the air around us, safe to come out now, in these hours before dusk.
So we left this memory void, the domes echoing only with the wind now, and the creaks and cracks as the old structure crumbles down. Not listening in anymore, no more signals, no more words.
Only the sounds the earth and her creatures makes, and the movement of the air, under the open sky.