Looking out from the rocky ledge of the “Sleeping Beauty” castle in central Germany, the countryside stretches out in a mosaic of light and dark green forests before stopping.
At the center of this lush landscape is a strip of dry and barren land.
The ground is empty save for a few ghostly white trunks pointing skyward.
Seen up close, this scene in the Reinhardswald Nature Park is just as bleak.
Brittle sticks creak underfoot and tree stumps dot the empty landscape, which stretches for about 20 hectares.
The fir trees here have been killed by a bark beetle infestation.
Insects thrive in the hottest and driest weather conditions that occur most frequently due to climate change.
"Once the bark has come off, the trees look like bones," explains Peter Meyer, head of forest nature conservation at the Forest Research Institute of North West Germany in Göttingen and Hann Münden.
Bark beetle infestations are made worse by drought conditions, as once the tree has been weakened from lack of water, it cannot produce enough resin to fight insects.
"Then the beetle can pierce the tree, lay eggs under the bark, and the larvae feed on the tree, interrupting the water supply, and that causes the tree to die," Meyer explains.
"Drought is the trigger for bark beetle infestations."
Germany has faced a historic drought in recent years and 2018 was the warmest since records began 140 years ago.
In other parts of the country, this summer the rains have fallen hard and fast, causing deadly floods.
Floods like those in China and Germany, where else could it happen?
All these events have put the climate crisis at the center of the electoral campaign ahead of the federal elections in Germany this Sunday.
They are the first in 16 years that Chancellor Angela Merkel has not run, and all the candidates vying to replace her are presenting their climate credentials.
The crisis is evident in many parts of Germany, and the country's "fairytale" forests are no exception.
Sababurg Castle is said to have inspired the Brothers Grimm's tale "Sleeping Beauty".
Climate choices in Germany
Rose bushes cling to the ancient walls of the 14th-century Sababurg castle, said to have inspired the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty."
On a cold September morning, a steady stream of tourists is visiting.
His route is lined with towering piles of logs, all that remains of the damaged trees of the Reinhardswald, cut down to stop the spread of the beetles.
The winding road is also dotted with election posters;
the smiling faces of political candidates adorn street lamps and road signs, marking national elections in which environmental issues have taken center stage.
Germany's next chancellor will face a long list of climate challenges to steer Europe's largest economy towards its carbon neutrality target by 2045, including the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the replacement of combustion cars. for electricity and the completion of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which carries gas from Russia to Germany below the Baltic Sea.
The Social Democrats (SPD) distribute leaflets in the main square of Alsfeld.
The elections come just months after devastating floods in western Germany engulfed entire cities and killed more than 180 people.
At the other meteorological extreme, the Germans suffered two years of extreme drought in 2018 and 2019 and saw vast areas of southern Europe ravaged by forest fires this summer.
Scientists have warned for decades that climate change will make extreme weather events more frequent and intense, but this summer's floods created a new sense of urgency, prompting Environment Minister Svenja Schulze to testify. that: "Climate change has reached Germany."
All of these events have led many to wonder how Germany will meet its emission reduction targets.
The country has committed to reducing emissions by 65% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. There are also questions about whether Germany is doing its part to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to much less. 2 degrees centigrade.
The planet is on a "catastrophic" trajectory of global warming, according to a United Nations report
Germany is not on track to meet its emissions targets.
This year it should be 40% below 1990 levels, but an increase in emissions as it recovers from the pandemic means it will miss that target.
It's a negative note by the time Merkel leaves office, once dubbed the "Climate Chancellor."
Although he has supported ambitious emission reduction targets, his government had only planned to phase out coal by 2038, which is considered late for a developed country.
And financing natural gas, a climate-changing fossil fuel, through Nord Stream 2 is a sore spot.
Merkel's replacement will play a prominent role in shaping European climate policy at a crucial moment in the fight against global warming: in November, world leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the well-known international climate talks. as COP26.
What will life be like after Merkel?
The Germans are preparing to decide in a tight election
"The approach taken by the next German government can have an important multiplier effect for Europe's climate action, and the European Union's climate leadership on the world stage," said Rafael Loss, coordinator of Pan-European Data Projects at the Council of Europe. Of Foreign Affairs.
But just days before the elections, it is far from clear who will be the next chancellor.
Polls place the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), led by Olaf Scholz, slightly ahead of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led by Armin Laschet.
Whatever the outcome this Sunday, lengthy coalition negotiations are expected, and the Greens, led by Annalena Baerbock, are likely to be very influential for change, according to polls, meaning the climate has turned into a key electoral issue in the country.
The presence of the Greens in the government would undoubtedly force the next German government to be more ambitious on the climate.
Election campaign posters in Holzhausen.
A bleak story
Baerbock's recent political announcement was filmed in the forests of Germany, a place of great ecological and cultural importance to its inhabitants.
"Your voice decides on the last government that can actively influence the climate crisis before it is too late," says Baerbock, as a drone camera soars over the Harz Mountains in northern Germany, another ravaged region. by the bark beetle.
Forests are one of the crucial solutions to the climate crisis: they absorb much of the world's carbon and store it safely underground.
In Germany, they are the green lungs of the country.
Forests cover 4.6 million hectares, about a third of the country, and capture about 62 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, according to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
They are also a source of wealth, providing 76 million cubic meters of wood per year, used in all kinds of applications, from construction to papermaking.
Over the past seven years, the average market value of German roundwood production amounted to more than € 3.5 billion (US $ 4.1 billion) annually.
But by some measurements, German forests are at their worst in decades.
More trees died in 2020 than in any other year on record, according to the government's annual report on the state of the forests.
The study examined 10,000 trees across the country and found that only 21% had an intact crown, an indicator of a tree's health, the lowest percentage since the studies began 37 years ago.
"The state of the canopy is like a medical thermometer; it shows how the trees are. The survey shows it: our forests are sick," said Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner.
The main culprits are bark beetles.
These insects mainly attack fir trees, which are the most common tree species in Germany and constitute 25% of the country's forests.
Last year, some 43.3 million cubic meters of wood damaged as a result of the bark beetle infestation had to be cut, according to the Federal Statistical Office.
Germany's spruce forests date back to reforestation efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries, when degraded forests were repopulated with this fast-growing tree species.
The hardwood forests also became fir forests.
Peter Meyer shows an area where the trees were completely destroyed by the bark beetle.
Meyer estimates that this decimated patch of fir trees in the Reinhardswald Nature Park, a short distance from the “Sleeping Beauty” castle, is about 80 years old.
To the average passerby, the fragile landscape looks like a graveyard of skeletal logs.
But Meyer, who has studied trees for more than three decades, sees signs of poor new growth;
says that if left to its own devices, the forest can heal.
A short distance from the castle of “Sleeping Beauty” is also the lush virgin forest of Sababurg.
Among the trees here, the temperature drops as the sunlight disappears behind a thick canopy of leaves.
Towering oaks, some of them 600 years old, spread their tangled branches wrapped in a brilliant layer of green moss, towards the sky.
Unlike the decimated spruce forest nearby, this forest has been spared the devastation caused by bark beetle infestation.
Experts hope that forests like this can offer clues as to which tree species may be more resistant to rising temperatures in the future.
So far, they've found that "oaks appear to be more tolerant of drought and flooding, extreme weather conditions, than beech, for example," Meyer says.
Meyer shows a photo taken about 100 years ago of the oak tree behind him.
An enchanted forest of the 21st century
Forests are not only the lung of Germany, they are part of its cultural heart.
The country's forests are the centennial setting for fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood", "Snow White" and "Hansel and Gretel";
the ideal and spooky setting for encounters with mythical creatures.
The tales were collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century.
Since then they have been translated into more than 160 languages and are still being read to children around the world.
The brothers' childhood home in Steinau, central Hesse, has been transformed into a museum.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, tourists stroll through the imposing building where the family lived in the 1790s. Young children cheer when a goat-clad storyteller knocks on a small wooden door in the pretty gardens;
nearby, seven stone dwarfs stand guard by the rose bushes.
A storyteller disguised as a goat leads a visit to the House of the Brothers Grimm.
According to the museum's curator, Burkhard Kling, the forests appear in at least a third of the roughly 250 tales collected by the brothers.
One of the museum's rooms is devoted entirely to forests, with dozens of small dioramas showing familiar characters in wooded settings, facing off with wolves or nibbling on candy houses.
Kling explains why forests inspire storytellers so much fear and amazement: "It's dark. You don't know what's behind the next tree ... You don't know if there's an animal that wants to catch you," but: "When you see the light behind the trees, you can find hope. "
The picturesque towns of Germany
The effects of climate change are also being felt at other stops on Germany's popular fairy tale tourist trail.
Alsfeld is known as the "city of Little Red Riding Hood", because of the traditional red hats worn by girls in the region.
This picturesque place is presented as a must-see for story enthusiasts, attracting about 90,000 visitors a year.
Its 14th century bookstore is stocked with copies of "Little Red Riding Hood" books in various languages.
Nearby, a crooked half-timbered building has been transformed into a story house, with a long Rapunzel braid hanging from the third-floor window.
The local church grounds become venues for outdoor performances of the Brothers Grimm tales.
When not playing grandmother in one of these "Red Riding Hood" performances, Jenny Wagner works as a tour guide, thrilling visitors with tales set in deep, dark forests.
But in the last three decades, he has seen the nearby forests of his childhood radically changed.
"When I was a kid, we used to go hiking in the woods and there was a bed of leaves on you," says Wagner.
"That is almost gone. If you go into the forest, there are many trees that have no leaves."
The forests around Alsfeld are a great draw for visitors;
Mayor Stephan Paule says that without these recreational spaces the city, and its economy, would suffer;
An important source of income for the city will disappear, he warns.
Representation of "Little Red Riding Hood" in the church garden.
An ancient tale
The challenges facing German forests have changed a lot in the last four decades.
So have your environmental activists.
Meyer, a soft-spoken scientist with a knack for spotting tiny apples or mushrooms hidden in foliage, began studying forestry in the 1980s, at a time when acid rain was wiping out German forests, a known phenomenon. as "Waldsterben", or death of the woods.
Climate change: a project that seeks to protect and restore forests around the world
"It was kind of a catastrophic impression of the forests, and we really had to act to do something," he said.
Efforts were made to clear the coal mines and the forests were revived.
But the environmental calamity left its mark on the Germans, who saw forests as part of their identity.
The "Waldsterben" of the 1980s, along with concerns about nuclear energy, became the center of activism for the fledgling Green Party.
Kristina Kuethe, Peter Meyer's partner, finds herself in a rejuvenated forest.
Decades later, Germany's new generation of environmental activists have a broader view of the climate crisis.
"The emotional connection that my parents 'generation, my grandparents' generation, has with forests is very different from mine," explains Helena Marschall, a 19-year-old economics and politics student at Leuphana University, who is part of the "Fridays for the Future" school strikes against global warming.
Marschall says that while he is concerned about the state of German forests, "the climate crisis is fundamentally a matter of my life, and not so much an abstract concept of nature."
Merkel is the only chancellor Marschall has ever met: these will be the first national elections in which she is of voting age.
Marschall says the so-called "Climate Chancellor" has fallen short, and sees this election as an opportunity to "build a different kind of politics."
Just days before Germans go to the polls, the "Friday for Future" movement plans massive demonstrations across the country, in which millions of people are expected to participate.
Germany's fairytale forests have survived for hundreds of years: the next chancellor's challenge will be to ensure their protection in the future.
Photographs by Helena Schätzle and video by Sofia Couceiro and Nina Avramova.
Photographs by Helena Schätzle and video by Sofia Couceiro and Nina Avramova.