Monday, June 11, 2012

Sustainable Lifestyle in the Black Forest

They worked hard, they lived sustainably, and they lived well.

Black Forest house built 1599.
(Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbaurerhof, Hausach, Germany)
That's my conclusion after getting acquainted with the pre-industrial lifestyle of the Black Forest region (Schwartzwald) of Southwestern Germany.

It was only a short visit (in space, not time!), but I was quite impressed. My cousin, Franzjörg Krieg, was born in 1948 in Rotenfels, a small town in the Black Forest. His father Heinrich was a Master Wagner (wagon-maker), and Franzjörg learned much of the craft as a boy in the old-fashioned, hands-on manner. And not just wagon-making, but the whole life-style that went with it: raising animals for food, growing fruit and vegetables, processing them for preservation, and making good food and drink from them. His Dad made great schnapps (trust me - and there's still some left!), but that was actually a normal part of life in the Black Forest - most families made a wide variety of tasty food and drink.

Farm wagon
(Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbaurerhof, Hausach, Germany)
The tools, the clothing, the animals, the machinery, and especially the houses - all are lovingly preserved in the Freilichtmuseum (Open Air Museum) at Hausach. It's a lot like Greenfield Village.

Perhaps the houses are the most impressive, because they were crafted for sustainability, efficiency, and comfort. The earliest one was built in 1599, and continued in active use through the mid-20th century - nearly four centuries. Completely made of local materials.
Storehouse and main building
(Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbaurerhof, Hausach, Germany)
The term "house" is misleading. These are more like compounds. Typically, they were three stories high, built on the side of a hill (there are plenty of hills in the Black Forest!) so that each story had a ground-floor entrance. Very practical when you have animals on the lowest floor, people on the second floor, and a combination storage-workshop on the third. The walls were build of thick, squared logs joined with mortar; roofs were of wooden shingles, often with thick straw thatch over the top. One of the houses at the museum had a double wall for insulation, with a passage-way between inner and outer walls that was used for storage. The climate in the Black Forest region is very similar to Michigan's, so winters can be quite bitter (or they could...).

Running water was provided by drilling out logs with a huge, hand-operated drill. This pipe, which was usually buried, ran from the nearest spring to a point near the kitchen (second floor), where it was used not only for drinking and washing, but also to keep milk and butter cool.
The kitchens were in the center of the second floor, so the heat from the stove would reach as many rooms as possible, but there was normally a big stove in the dining/living room, too. And the heat from the animals on the lowest floor would also rise to provide warmth to the floors above.

Speaking of animals, the manure - of course - was used as fertilizer. Even the human waste was used: the "toilet" was in a small room that protruded a little from the second floor, and the waste dropped into a barrel outside, near the place where the animal waste was channeled out of the barn.

Wood shingle + straw roof
(Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbaurerhof, Hausach, Germany)
Though there were a lot of conveniences - or at least efficiencies - there was still a lot of work to be done. Animals need care, gardens need cultivation, fields of wheat, barley, other grains need plowing, harvesting and threshing. And though we might consider this "low-tech" living, there was actually a lot of specialized technology that needed "technicians" to produce as well as maintenance at the farmhouse. Working with animal hides to create shoes, leather aprons, harness for the draft animals - this was often done by specialists (tanners), but was also done "at home" on many farms. Iron tools, of course, were the province of the smith, but when they broke on the farm, they were usually repaired on the farm. Even straw (the stalk of a grain crop that doesn't provide nourishment for animals) was used: the bulk of it for roofing (and re-roofing), but slippers and other articles were also made from braided straw.
Golden slipper from straw
(Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbaurerhof, Hausach, Germany)

Clothing was made of wool sheared from the farm's sheep, carded, spun, knit and woven in the house. Flax was another source of fiber for clothing. Of course, there were rough work clothes, but there were also fancy clothes for special occasions. Sunday was always a day for church and rest; most Black Forest residents were observant Roman Catholics.
In her Sunday best
(Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbaurerhof, Hausach, Germany)
Always, there was something that needed to be done. Like any farm life, it was hard work. But these farmers lived well: they had warm clothes, sturdy warm houses, plenty of variety in their diet cooked into savory dishes, and a wide variety of strong drink with which to relax after a hard day.

Not a bad life...and it was sustained for many centuries. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two about sustainability from them.
To learn more:
  • Schwarzwälder Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbauernhof (Black Forest Open Air Manor Museum) - English - German
  • The Wagon-Maker, a site dedicated to the Krieg wagon-making shop in Rotenfels, illustrates one particular "medium-tech" craft.

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