Of Walking In Ice … from Berlin to Paris via Athens (Ohio)

I’m wading through a dreary winter rain, bound for Paris with Werner Herzog. Today dripped into existence more than dawned. From the cabin window, I watch water course through the diamond-patterned bark of a nearby ash that’s slowly succumbing to boring insects. More distant trees are a jumble of twigs floating in a cloud crowning invisible Peach Ridge Road.

Through the fog I hear Herzog’s voice, that iconic, unemotional German-accented English, while I read Of Walking In Ice: Munich-Paris, 23 November-14 December 1974. He was hiking toward the winter solstice 46 years ago, days growing shorter, world growing colder, while this morning I’m on the other side of the darkness, perched on the last day of February after a brutal cold spell, welcoming warmer temperatures and longer days while sodden with the knowledge that winter likely isn’t done with us. I picked this book up for two reasons: (1) It was highly recommended on the Backlisted literary podcast, which I’ve become a big fan of; and (2) I’ve been devouring nature books since feasting on Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek a few years ago. And there’s a third reason: (3) I love Herzog’s films, those strange mixtures of fact and fiction hybridized into an alternative reality at once recognizable and completely foreign. Whether he’s slogging through the Amazon jungle with a bat-shit leading man or slicing and dicing the video testimony of a nature nut who became grizzly food, his films never fail to leave me deeply affected as they bubble up in dreams and random thoughts for the next several days or even weeks afterward.

Of Walking In Ice is a nature book, sort of. It’s also a pilgrimage that he embarks on in the belief that his ailing mentor, Lotte Eisner, will not, in fact cannot, die until he arrives by her bedside in Paris and grants her permission to do so. It’s vintage Herzog in that regard.

I said that this must not be, not at this time, German cinema could not do without her now, we would not permit her death. I took a jacket, a compass, and a duffel bag with the necessities. My boots were so solid and new that I had confidence in them. I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot. Besides, I wanted to be alone with myself.

His ambling meditations pull you along, pull you in, refuse to let you come to solid answers about the veracity of what’s being reported. He breaks into houses along the way, seeking refuge for the night. Is this metaphor? Is he really shoving open dilapidated doors, hoping no one is home? Or is this just his forced entry into some small village’s consciousness as he plods from Munich to Paris. Imagine, coming home to a soggy German filmmaker dripping all over your threadbare carpet …

And it is a nature book in its way, paced by diesel fumes and lumbering trucks, populated by ravens, jackdaws, crows, sparrows, livestock, vagabond dogs. Wild nature is kept at a distance. The forest appears far off, on the horizon, but he doesn’t enter it. Not physically. It’s more of a mental construct, a preserve where his mind is free to range and rage in reaction to his current environs.

When I looked out the window, a raven was sitting with his head bowed in the rain and didn’t move. Much later he was still sitting there, motionless and freezing and lonely and still wrapped in his raven’s thoughts. A brotherly feeling flashed through me and loneliness filled my breast.

In this Appalachian winter rain, I find a like mind, 46 years removed. I struggled with Walking in Ice initially, trying to get into the flow as it bobs and weaves while walking through the ice and rain. Once I realize it mirrors the way I think while hiking, I fall in step. The rapid bursts of non sequiturs, the fragments and fleeting thoughts. It is sometimes sublime, sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, as when he starts obsessing about the words “millet” and “lusty,” convinced he never could find a sentence that would accommodate both. Then he shoots off in another direction before landing the following punchline several sentences later:

“My output of sweat is prodigious, as I march lustily thinking of millet.”

Bang. There it is.

The conclusion is incredible, a warm embrace of Lotte Eisner’s impact on German cinema and acknowledgement that this movement is now ready to fly under its own power, carrying forward a fledgling rebirth of a tradition that had been ripped apart by Germany’s Nazi era. Eisner, in fact, lived several more years after Herzog’s arrival at her bedside in Paris, and the book provides the text of a speech he delivered in 1982 when she posthumously received the Helmut Kāutner Prize for her contribution to German film. It’s the perfect coda.