This story is part of our feature series called "Overland," in which nine local reporters write stories for ZEIT ONLINE about their regions. The series is part of our section called #D18, in which we are seeking to explain Germany to Germany.
Every spring, Matthias Müller laces up his hiking shoes on the weekends and drives to the outskirts of Jena in his red Volkswagen Golf. He then hikes his way up the mountain, past the old, decaying fortified church and up to the meadow beneath the chalk cliffs, above which buzzards can sometimes be seen as they circle on the search for prey.
This is where the valley opens up. And up here is also where an orchid can be found – one that Müller considers to be a miracle. Its Latin name is Orchis purpurea, known as the "lady orchid" in English. Ten thousand years ago, during the last big ice age, the Orchis purpurea made the long journey from the Mediterranean to the center of Thuringia. Since then, it has been growing here, proud and beautiful with its lavender flowers.
Traffic Jams Used to Be the Norm
There are lots of different orchids to be found in the Leutra Valley near Jena: the lizard orchid, so named because of the appearance of its flowers; the elegant lady's slipper; the military orchid, whose flowers gather in a bunch shaped like a helmet. Indeed, up to 30 of the 60 orchid species found in Germany grow in the Leutra Valley. For Matthias Müller, who works for the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), that's one of the two miracles he enjoys each time he visits the valley.
The other is the silence. Finally, he says, he can hear the birds singing once again.
Because something is missing. There is no longer the smelly, noisy stream of cars that used to speed through the valley before heading up and over the mountain. In some sections, the grade was 6 percent, making it a tough climb for older trucks, and there were plenty of accidents in the winter as semis lost control and blocked the roadway. The section of highway between the Jena-Göschwitz and Schorba exits was frequently mentioned in the traffic reports.
That, though, is now over. It is a recent day in May and Müller is standing where the autobahn once was. Today, it is nothing but a wide and extremely long meadow. What used to be asphalt is now thick, 1-year-old grass along with a few rapeseed flowers introduced from elsewhere. Hunters have built a raised blind to take advantage of the excellent visibility.
It was the mid-1930s when the labor brigades showed up in the Leutra Valley to build the autobahn leading from Dresden to Frankfurt – for the Führer, the German nation, the Fatherland. From that point on, the road cut through the valley, and the course of the river also had to be altered to accommodate it. But road planners at the time did think of the orchids. Before workers installed the prefabricated concrete slabs, they dug up the flowers and moved them to a meadow not far from the roadway – and it was declared a conservation area.
But it was protection in name only. Even during the decades when the region was part of communist East Germany, the noise and exhaust levels rose constantly. Thousands of inefficient Trabant cars and smoke-belching, East German-produced W-50 trucks wheezed their way up the steep grade. Following reunification in 1990, traffic increased exponentially, to the detriment of both nature and local residents. The roadway, known as the A4, became the most important east-west arterial in the country, and it seemed as though half of Germany passed through the valley each day. Often, when yet another traffic jam halted the flow, vehicles could only ascend the mountain at a snail's pace.
Particularly in the village of Leutra and in the tiny settlement of Pösen, both of which were located right next to the highway, normal life no longer seemed possible. "It really was quite extreme," says Matthias Müller. Before retirement, Müller had worked at the university as a chemistry professor. In his free time, he began making regular visits to the orchids. He says he often found himself pitying the people in their exhaust-gray homes. "But they didn't know any better."