At the site of the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, man-made life and wildlife happily coexist. Photo: Reuters
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Temple to nature: the disused runway that became a communal wonderland

After a rather shaky start, the old Tempelhof Airport has come to be considered one of Berlin’s greatest success stories; it is certainly an inspiring example of direct democracy in action.

I’m standing beside the south runway of the old Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, the city where my family and I will be living for the next 12 months. To my left, a vast meadow of wildflowers and false oat-grass provides shelter for skylarks, whinchats, red-backed shrikes, tawny pipits and other songbirds, as well as a surprising variety of insects (the rare cuckoo-wasp species Anteon flavicorne has been recorded here, for example). To my right, the runway itself has become a river of gliding, elegant bodies at play: cyclists, kitesurfers, joggers, go-karters and people of all ages on various types of in-line skates (including my two sons, who are already missing their St Andrews Scorpions roller hockey team-mates).

It’s a diverse and oddly fascinating mix of pleasure-seekers, from athletic skateboarders to the old man in a string vest and extremely baggy shorts who is guiding a radio controlled Sturmpanzerwagen in a zigzag pattern across the tarmac, driving it up to one group after another in an attempt to provoke a conversation, much as dog-walkers will do. In fact, it is clear that he feels the same pride and affection for his machine as any pet owner feels for his or her best friend.

After a rather shaky start, Tempelhof has come to be considered one of Berlin’s greatest success stories; it is certainly an inspiring example of direct democracy in action.

When the airport closed in 2008, the entire site (the vast, more or less brutalist, Speer-designed buildings as well as the 386-hectare field – imagine an area the size of Central Park) was threatened with a series of commercial and prestige developments. But it was then rescued by what can only be called people power, when public pressure forced a referendum on its future.

On 25 May 2014, over 60 per cent of the city turned out to reject the luxury development plans, sending a message to the Berlin city authorities that direct democracy can still work – despite a campaign of misinformation, scare tactics and an ambiguously worded ballot paper – and establishing an exemplary space for people and wildlife to coexist.

People and wildlife: how often they are discussed in terms of conflicting interests, and how unreal that conflict is. Given the right information to help them decide, people will opt for conditions that benefit our creaturely neighbours, even where they have no particular interest in larks or cuckoo wasps – because those conditions benefit us.

Officially, I am here for the roller skating (only as a spectator), but it’s not too long before I’m gazing off into the meadow, scanning for birds and insects – and I soon notice that, as a kestrel begins to hover over the nearest section of field, quite a few of the skaters have also paused to watch. Within minutes, we are all rewarded with a dazzling display of flying skills, as the bird hovers, dives, then rises once more to scan the ground a final time before dropping down for the kill.

This is a drama we all understand and, as the Turmfalke glides away, its prey clutched in its talons, I cannot help but think that we are all equally moved, both by the grace of the hunter and by the predicament of the prey. For a moment, even though we are mostly strangers, this has been a communal experience, one that could not have happened in the same way in a less democratic space.

It may seem naive, but I choose to believe that such experiences remind us of our fellowship, not only with other human beings, but with other animals, too. I believe that whenever we are lucky enough to witness these instances of grace, or pathos, whether alone or in company, our sense of the creaturely deepens – and with it, our understanding that what is good for the wild world is also good for us. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses