On an autumn afternoon in Brandenburg, one of those days when the light has just a hint of silk to it, my son Lucas and I are in the village of Linum with some friends, waiting for what is, in these parts, one of the natural world’s most beautiful and oddly moving events.
At first, nothing happens. We stand by one of the many ponds that dot this marshy area, staring up at a rose-tinted sky while, behind us, the moon rises through a stand of birch trees. People have come from far and wide to see the show, some armed with deckchairs and huge cameras, and though nobody can predict which pond the birds will favour on any given evening we know that, eventually, the sky will darken as wave after wave of common cranes (Grus grus) fly in to take shelter for the night.
On a good day, they come in their thousands and the sound is deafening (our friend Bernhard describes the cry as being “like a wheel that needs oiling”) – and, as it happens, this turns out to be a pretty good day. They are not as numerous as they were last week, Bernhard says, and they do not choose to settle on our pond but the cranes do come and soon we are dumbstruck, gazing up at the endlessly varying formations as groups of 50 to 100 birds at a time pass overhead, their ragged flight patterns reflected in the still, silvery water. This lasts for around an hour as darkness closes in until, finally, the sky quietens.
A few days from now, these cranes will leave, moving on to their winter grounds in Spain. They gather around Linum for only a short time, to feed and recover their strength during these warm autumn days. But with the first cold they are gone and the fish restaurant by the pond closes for the season. Tonight, though, it is still open and the staff are jolly, cracking daft jokes while they serve up delicious platters of grilled trout and carp, most of the catch coming from the surrounding ponds. One of the cooks, a large, florid man who wouldn’t look out of place in a Frans Hals painting, wipes his hands on his apron and shows Lucas the mounted head of a catfish that, so he claims, was two metres long when one of the old-timers caught it, using a whole chicken as bait. This catfish, he says, may well have been the one that, according to legend, swallowed whole a toddler who had been paddling in the Fischteich. My son shakes his head gravely, a natural sceptic at 14. At his age, I would have believed every word.
By the time we leave the Zur Fischerhütte restaurant, I am suffused with a quiet happiness and I sense that same contentment in everyone I meet as we make our way back to the town, where pumpkins and squashes of every description (some of them made to grow into the shapes of long-necked birds) are piled high outside the farm store on the main street. There is no doubting that this happiness comes of having shared a remarkable event.
The birds have restored something in us and the people of Linum know how important that is. Come spring, there will be more birds: cranes, geese, storks. Outside one café, a sign is updated every year, showing the numbers and success rates of the storks that breed within the village limits in summer: 2001, three fledged young; 2005, five fledged young; 2013, a sad year, one unsuccessful pair. Clearly, the lives of the birds and that of the village have become wonderfully entangled. Linum’s name for itself is Storchendorf, or “Stork Village”, and its seasons are governed not by calendars but by the lives of the birds and the patterns they impose. What happier form of government could there be?