The Viking Tree

Rob MacKillop

Edinburgh Correspondent
When I was in Berwick last month, on the last morning I had breakfast with two new guests to the Bed and Breakfast house. They were German, not very talkative, especially as it was early in the morning. But we exchanged pleasantries. I soon went on my way.

Just yesterday I received an email from one of them, who had researched me online and found my photos. His name is Heinrich Rathje. Although German, he is clearly a Dane at heart, and looks every inch a marauding Viking.

He gave me a link to a page of his website where he has photos of a tree he first photographed in 1972, a lone tree in a remote place. He went back every year to photograph the tree. As you look through the images, a story unfolds...Have a look:

Today he sent me a rough translation of some associated text:

A bloke like a tree

Since more than 40 years a sailor from Kiel travels year after year to an uninhabited Danish island – just to take a photo of a whitethorn

By Arne Rautenberg

We listened to Frank Zappa on our way to the island. In Heinrich’s car radio is anyway just one single musician stored – more than 120 hours of Frank Zappa.

The journey to the island Æbelø is adventurous. You have to leave your car on a parking ground and then walk by foot through calf deep water. For us the way is very arduous today. Exactly at our arrival at 12 o’clock the water has reached its highest level. And in addition to that a fierce westerly wind presses the shallow water along the poles, which are rammed into the ground for our orientation, into the bay bar. And on top of that it is raining the whole morning.

We are looking for a tree. This very tree, this special tree, which occupies Heinrich for more than 40 years. Heinrich, Viking type, with curly blond hair, scraggy beard, golden earring and large, freckled hands has been here for the first time in 1972. At the age of 23 with a Pirate dinghy, a boat for “wild blokes” as Heinrich says. At his home, near Eckernförde, he often had been standing at the coast, looking over the open sea and asking himself, how it would look like on the other side, behind the horizon.

So one day Heinrich put his girlfriend into the Pirate dinghy, which was rather designed for inland waterways and lakes than for the open sea, fetched a road map and sailed around the Danish south sea. They also sailed around the island of Fünen. Up in the north of that island he discovered the small moray island Æbelø, about ten kilometers east of the picturesque fishermen’s village Bogense. He laid the pirate at anchor and looked for a place for his tent. “You could not miss the tree. It was a solitaire.” Close to the cliff he stood. The tree. A whitethorn with a split trunk which reunited a bit further up just to split again and finally found together again. The crown had been exposed to such fierce westerly winds that it, like a bizarre flag, completely grew away easterly.

“I had just a very simple camera with me,” Heinrich says. “And so I thought: I must come here again next year. With a better camera.” So in 1973 Heinrich sailed again to Æbelø and took a photo of the tree. And he did so the following year. And so the story of Heinrich and his tree took its course.

With the years the whitethorn gains appreciably more character

Every year comes the time when Heinrich goes to Æbelø, focusses his tree in the finder of his camera and puts his finger on the trigger. Sometimes end of April, when the tree is blooming, sometimes in September when the tree is bearing fruit, but mostly in the summertime. Each time a new photo is put to the wood paneled wall of the study in Kiel-Schilksee. How do they all look quite similar, you think at first go, but they don’t. Aside conditions of light and leaves also the photographic esthetics changes depending on decade and development of camera technique. In addition to that, the harsh weather conditions thin out the dead branches and twigs of the white thorn over the years. By this the tree gains more and more character and contour. Longer and more and more ludicrous grows the crown.

Then, in 1997, the tree suddenly had vanished. “I thought they had come around with a chain saw”, Heinrich says laughing. In deed the roots of the white thorn finally had lost their hold at the edge of the cliff. The tree fell down the bluff. In the first years at the bottom the tree produced new shoots but then the tree submitted itself to the decay. But Heinrich would not be Heinrich if he would let himself get down by that.

Since a long time there is more about that outing than just a visit of the tree. Heinrich is by the way “danophil” – he speaks Danish fluently, loves country and people. Heinrich knows where to buy the best Fuchsias, which car dealer sells the quaintest roadsters and where the most beautiful bakery sales girls are
selling the most delicious pastries. He knows at which bend of the country road wild cherries are growing and of course he knows where to park the car to get to the island of Æbelø. We slip into bathing trunks and mackintosh. Then we wade for three quarters of an hour through mud and hip high water. You don’t really feel it instantly but it is truly arduous. After the arrival on the grassy part of Æbelø-Holm you continue on a gravel rambling path to the shingle bank that you have to pass to get to the wooded main part of the island. Shoes off, shoes on, shoes off, shoes on.

Up to the middle of the 20th century a few families found their subsistence on Æbelø with fishery, livestock farming and lumbering. There were some small farms and even a school. Today the island is uninhabited. Vast expanse and pale light. The wind is sweeping over the salt marshes and sea holly, marram grass and rugosa rose are nodding to that. Except the home of the light house keeper and one other edifice all the other buildings on the island have been demolished. Æbelø is left to itself.

But where is the tree now? Heavily soaked we are scanning that part of the bluff. “Normally it’s here,” Heinrich mutters. But we can’t find anything. Just boulder flint clicking below our soles. “Let’s keep on searching.“ Just as we were about to give up, move off, frustrated in the drizzle, we finally find him: a round piece of wood with the familiar, distinctive winding, drifted away some 100 meters southwards. Between all kinds deracinated driftwood. For a ceremonial moment the sky breaks open and the sun glares, shines on the scenery. Heinrich takes the fortieth photo of the tree.

As we turned away after some moments and began heading back, I turned round once again. And precisely now and precisely here the story will presumably come to its end, the story of Heinrich, the man with the Viking’s heart, the man who visits his tree year after year. Who knows where the driftwood will float to next winter? On the way back home we are listening to Frank Zappa. Of course.
What a story and the final images are very sad. After it's death the tree sort of took on the shape of something resembling the Lough Ness monster and hiding in the grass. Up to then the tree did not seem to change too much over the years but it did seem to withstand the many forces of nature.
Heinrich has a good taste in music too.