Through Time and Space with Johannes Klaus
My childhood dream came true.
We’re travelling to the South Pacific.
I grew up just a few miles outside Ohlstadt. On a visit home, I see an article in the local paper about a competition they’re announcing as the ‘Forestry Triathlon’. Never heard of it. Finger-wrestling and whip-cracking I know about, of course, and I’ve even seen ox-racing and fisherman’s jousting. But a forestry triathlon?
The event is taking place the evening before Gaujugendtag – a traditional celebration for local young people – begins, functioning as a kind of warm-up for a whole week of festivities in Ohlstadt, complete with beer tents, carousels, stalls and church services.
I have got to go!
I borrow a dirndl from my mother, which she had sewn with the money from her first apprentice’s fee. It’s five years older than I am and it fits like a glove, as does the apron.
Blue-and-white flags are hanging from the ceiling of the marquee in Ohlstadt. The musicians, members of the Näbeloch Boys band, are joking with each other on the stage, setting up their music stands and cheerfully accepting the tankards full of beer that the trumpeter brings them. Outside, where the swing boat, shooting gallery and stand with the roasted almonds are set up, the temperature – at around six in the evening – is still twenty-seven degrees. More and more visitors are streaming into the tent. It looks like the whole village is turning up to the jamboree. They’re all wearing traditional dress.
On the stage are tree trunks of varying thicknesses, all very neatly numbered. Some are secured with lashing straps.
To the left hangs a Bavarian flag, to the right an electronic board used for timekeeping.
Beneath the stage, sitting sternly at a desk with a laptop, are the judges, all former winners of the competition. The three-man team keeps a watchful eye out, making sure the rules are not infringed. The men taking part, their biceps and triceps bulging, check their axes, hatchets and saws, occasionally spraying a bit of oil on their tools. These magnificent objects are their owners’ pride and joy.
Fascinated, I gaze at the array of tools, which in another context might require a weapons permit. There’s an atmosphere of cheerful suspense in the air.
The host takes to the microphone to explain what’s about to happen: ten two-man teams will approach the stage to test their strength. First they will use a kind of hook to move an unevenly shaped tree trunk from one end of the stage to the other, then they will chop through the trunk of a spruce tree eighteen centimetres in diameter, and finally they will use a ‘wiagsog’ – similar to a large bucksaw – to cut off a cross-section (or ‘radl’ – the Bavarian word for a wheel or slice) of spruce. Up on the stage, the announcer explains the rules.
The gamsbart on his hat – a traditional decoration that looks like a large tuft of hair – trembles resolutely.
I wonder whether the tradition of the Forestry Triathlon dates back to the Neolithic Era, and whether these rules underlie a centuries-old heritage.
It’s hardly more than the blink of an eye in terms of Bavarian history. Getting down to brass tacks, there are two main reasons for this competition: the young guys want to test their strength, just as they do all over the world; and the village wants a party. Here romantic liaisons blossom, elderly people wax lyrical about the past, beer flows in rivers, and by the time dawn rolls around, there might even be a good old-fashioned punch-up.
* * *
An unevenly shaped tree trunk is being manoeuvred with some difficulty across the ten-metre-wide stage. Now it hits me why there’s such a dramatic distance between the stage and the audience – very atypical for Bavarian beer tents. If the wobbling monster starts heading in the wrong direction, it could come crashing down off the edge.
There’s no need to travel to Timbuktu or Southeast Asia to witness displays of manual skill, raw strength outside of the gym or sheer brute force. We’ve got plenty of exotic traditions on our own doorstep.
‘Be careful!’ warns the wife of the contestant currently labouring onstage.
She introduces herself as Ottilie, and can see that although my dirndl’s real, I myself am completely clueless.
His face contorted with effort, her husband Sepp has his eyes firmly fixed on the end of the approximately ten-metre-long stage. His proud wife is explaining things to me conspiratorially, like a professional coach: muscular strength alone isn’t much help – years of experience in using a sappie, however, is. A what? It’s a cross between a hammer and a cant hook, used by men who still work in the forest instead of buying their firewood at the hardware store, she says.
Whether by chance or careful dramatic design, tree trunk rolling is the perfect way to fire up an audience at the beginning of a show. We egg the competitors on: ‚go, go, go!‘ It’s pure excitement: will the trundling colossus roll off its imaginary tracks, or find its way smoothly across the stage to the partner waiting anxiously on the other side?
We applaud until our palms are so hot we have to cool them on glasses of freshly drawn beer.
* * *
After the tree trunk rolling is over, the two contestants perform the next discipline – chopping through the trunk of a spruce tree – at the same time. How does this peculiar custom strike an outsider? I blink, and Ottilie says:
‘Doesn’t matter! There aren’t any foreigners here anyway, apart from you lot!’
My two friends, both photographers, run for cover as fragments of spruce shower down onto the onlookers‘ tables. Several children pick up bits of wood and hold them aloft like trophies. We’re all cheering happily: up on stage, everyone’s a favourite, and down here on the benches everyone’s a fan. There’s no hint of rivalry.
‘Topple it!’ bellows the chorus of onlookers.
There are so many fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, cousins, brothers-in-law, school friends and club mates involved that there’s always a competitor to spur loudly on. The audience’s faces are nearly as red as the contestants’ are. My dirndl is clinging to my body with sweat, as if I were the one doing the endless sawing and chopping. I keep having to order more shandies.
Ottilie makes one thing clear: this is nothing like that ‘Stihl Timbersports Series’, where the men are hacking away at soft American poplar wood. She wrinkles her nose a little. Here they use nothing but hard, local spruce trees. Regional, seasonal and honest. Right, I say, holding my smartphone under the table and surreptitiously googling ‘Stihl Timbersports’. Immediately it brings up dozens of links to YouTube videos of chainsaws. Then I try googling the Forestry Triathlon.
There’s only one hit: ‘The local society for traditional dress is organising the Bavarian Forestry Triathlon for 4 July in Ohlstadt.’ That’s it. There’s no Wikipedia entry either. I put my phone away. After all, I’m already right in the middle of things – I should be paying attention rather than messing around on my mobile.
Tree trunks and sharp handsaws – it doesn’t get more analogue than that.
There’s no ‘like’ button here, just a crowd of people cheering until their voices are hoarse. Nobody’s asking you to share a link, just a beer. There are no friendship requests to respond to, just people clapping you on the shoulder. Exactly as Ottilie does to me, when I buy the next round of shandies. Somehow I’ve ended up among the little coterie of wives. There’s a lot of shop talk about the logging scene. I chime in too, agreeing – of course – that the Stihl show is a load of dandyish, gimmicky claptrap. Absolutely.
Poplar wood is for wimps.
Happy and dripping with sweat, Sepp, Ottilie’s husband, stumbles off the stage. He and his partner have scored an excellent time. Ottilie passes him a towel to wipe his face.
* * *
After the tree trunk rolling and the chopping comes the ‘wiagsog’ cutting: the last of the three virtuosic displays of skill. This is what it must have felt like in Kinshasa in 1974, when Ali and Foreman threw down for their Rumble in the Jungle.
To end the competition, contestants must saw off a reasonable slice of the spruce trunk with a wiagsog, a kind of bow-shaped saw not much used today. As soon as it hits the floor, the timer is stopped. For centuries across the Alpine region, men have used this sawing technique to fell trees.
I feel moved by these rural, regional traditions, and by how passionately the attendees here in the marquee strive to uphold them. I think about how tough life must have been in the pre-modern era, exposed to the harshness of nature. Anybody as good with tools as the guys on stage would definitely have had a competitive advantage with the village beauties, if not as marriage material then at least when sneaking in through the window.
These days trees are felled with chainsaws. Only a few specialists, like old lumberjacks, know the secrets of this elaborately sharpened and dangerously keen-edged tool, perfectly designed for cutting. Everybody competing in Ohlstadt today has one of these historical implements in their family, and takes very good care of it. The Forestry Triathlon is also, therefore, an opportunity to preserve the knowledge of their forefathers and pass it on to the next generation.
Nobody in this part of the world in the twenty-first century still fells trees by hand, but it’s important to know how, says Markus Michl, who has already won a Forestry Triathlon earlier this year, on 19 March – Saint Joseph’s Day – in Reutberg. He gives a mischievous wink. The biggest advantage, he continues, is that he doesn’t earn his living at a desk job. All of his rivals in the competition work in fields that involve manual labour of some kind – they’re butchers, plumbers or carpenters.
Markus Michl, known as ‘Kusl’, refers to his colleagues as ‘gwoitdadig’, the Bavarian term for ‘gewalttätig’, meaning violent. He doesn’t mean that in a negative sense at all, but rather as a sign of quality. They all know each other. Many of them, like Markus Michl, have already won prizes at other competitions, or at finger-wrestling (when you have to try and drag your opponent over a table using only your finger). One thing connects them all: these men know how to make sure there’s enough firewood for the stove back home.
* * *
The victors this evening are Jakob Miller from Leibersberg and Sepp Finsterwalder from Aidling, the latter being Ottilie’s husband. This is their first time at the competition, and they couldn’t be more proud if they were a football team who’d just been promoted to the Bundesliga and won the league in their first season. ‘It was the adrenalin,’ says Sepp with a happy sigh, explaining his success. Kusl, who took third today, makes it clear that he and his partner can claim some credit for their victory: ‘They trained with us – we taught those boys everything they know!’
As well as a certificate, each person who took part gets to take home one of the donated prizes, taking turns according to how well he did to choose whichever one he likes best. There are mountain boots, tools, a garden bench, a crib and many more.
And what do the winners choose? The chainsaws.
Keep going, Sepp! Ottilie clearly has her heart set on the crib. But she takes it in good part, even though the prize isn’t really to her liking. In any case, she says, the bit she liked best out of the whole evening was how quickly and diligently the men swept the stage clean between each round. They didn’t miss so much as a single wood chip. And yet she had always thought that men who cleaned were contravening the laws of nature.
As the beer glasses are emptied one final time, the spectacle and euphoric party atmosphere in the tent evaporate as quickly as they developed. Those in the know are celebrating at the bar at the end of the marquee, where unmarried Bavarian gentlemen treat their beloveds to a cocktail. Or two. The bar is as integral to the marquee as calf-socks are to lederhosen. Anybody expected to cut a fine figure at the parade the next day, or who’s supposed to be handing the priest the communion wine in church, is better off going home early. Of course, the whole village is marching in the parade, and those who visited the bar will be visibly incapacitated to varying degrees, from slightly rumpled to completely hung over.
I keep having to pinch myself as a reminder that something happened today in Ohlstadt that resulted in two master sawers standing on the winners‘ podium. In a very, very short space of time, a giant log was hauled back and forth across the stage ten times, twenty spruce trunks were chopped through at lightning speed, and ten cross-sections of trunk were cut off with a tool you haven’t been able to buy for years, creating a good deal of firewood in the process. And all without electricity, petrol or a motor.
I need another shandy. Or maybe a cocktail at the bar. It’s not like I’m marching in the parade tomorrow.
Or am I? I’d better ask Ottilie.
* * *