Sylvia has a background in biomedicine, and specifically in climate and environmental health. Throughout her life and work, she has been committed to pursuing a path of learning about holistic, nature-based knowledge systems of different cultures. Sylvia has also been involved in diverse collaborations with artists and architects. This journey led her to collaboratively develop participatory models for partnerships that can help build climate resilience in marginalised communities. These projects use digital media for witnessing, reporting and documenting lives in a rapidly changing world by those most affected. Sylvia has acted as an advisor for the United Nations (UNITAR-UNOSAT) on community-based disaster reporting using digital media to map environmental destruction and support relief efforts in an acute crisis.
My mother Lizzy was emerging from the scrubby undergrowth in a small stand of fir trees. Her normally very smart hair style was ruffled, autumnal yellow and red leaves had got caught in her chestnut curls. She was wearing a simple cotton dress with a flower pattern that would not mind getting caught by branches and thorns or stained by the juices of crushed berries.
Lizzy was holding her roomy wicker basket on one arm, triumphantly waving a large porcini mushroom with the other hand. She called out excitedly: “Look what I’ve found, a whole lot of these, my basket is almost full!” My mother was in her heaven. She was in the forest!
This forest in Bavaria, far from her homeland, was still the same European forest as the one she had lost. She was happiest among the trees, remembering her own parents, her sister and brothers, and the life close to nature they had enjoyed. The forest was her, it expressed her soul. It was healing her memories.
My mother knew her forest very well, and knew the places that most nurtured the soul. And she wanted to share the beauty and peace of these places with her daughter. So, when I was as young as three years old, my mother would sit me down on a plump, brilliantly green pillow of moss, and gave me interesting things picked up from the forest floor to play with, while she and my father Kurt went exploring together to find mushrooms, not too far from me. Her forest also became a place of safety and joy for me.
Porcini with their full, nutty flavour were the most highly prized mushrooms, but my parents collected a wide variety of different species, as they had grown up with the Central European passion for ‘going mushrooming’ in the deep, evergreen conifer forests covering extensive parts of the land, and among deciduous beeches, larches and oaks that grew where the dark forests met the open meadows. These trees were transformed into a celebration of life’s rhythms when their leaves turned red, orange and yellow in autumn.
There were many kinds of mushrooms living in symbiosis with the different tree communities, one just needed to know where to look. My parents had both learnt the age-old lore of which mushrooms were the most delicious to use in the kitchen, and which were poisonous, as young children from their mothers. They shared a deep love for the forest.
Lizzy also loved to prepare a picnic basket, covered by a red and white checkered cotton cloth.
She would pack a large garlic sausage and a sturdy knife to cut thick chunks for my dad, herself and me. For our present outing, she had gone to the butcher who made these sausages the day before. The butcher came from her birth town in the Ore Mountains in Central Europe and created authentic small goods, faithfully following traditional recipes for Silesians displaced by the Second World War. This sausage tasted like no other to my mother, like home. There was also potato salad with gherkin pickles, hard boiled eggs, whole tomatoes and cold sweetened lemon tea. A real Silesian picnic.
When Lizzy and Kurt had gathered as many mushrooms as they could carry, it was time for a celebration picnic. On the way home, Lizzy made a bouquet of branches with autumn leaves and berries. Back at the house, she put them into a Silesian stoneware vase in our living-room.
The vase was decorated with the famous blue and white peacock eye design which had evolved in a shared Polish, Czech and German ceramics tradition over several hundred years. Through my child’s eyes, and with an interest in the earth and the planets from an early age, I imagined the pattern as many Earth planets, protected by their atmosphere, floating in space.
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