Every fairy story needs a forest. It’s the untamed space, the protector of all possibilities and impossibilities. In Bohemia you really can ride through the forest and happen upon a castle; in spring every forest is enchanted. Birds, flowers, and hundreds of shades of green let you lose yourself, forgive the world a little for winter. I stay with Alena during a one-day school break, the equivalent of Labor Day. During our short bike ride (short bike ride in the Czech Republic = roughly 10k) through nearby villages, she points out huge piles of wood, tree branches, and even old furniture in the middle of a field. “Today is Witches Day,” she explains, the night for burning old brooms and symbolically banishing the spirits of winter. Some children are even in costume. As we cycle through a stretch of private forest, Alena points out a herd gathered at the other end of a cleared pasture. “White deer,” she explains. I thought white stags were mythical creatures that granted wishes when you caught them. But here they are, a whole herd of wishes caged in and waiting patiently.
The soul of the Czechs is in the forest. Extensive climbing, biking, hiking, or skiing are routine weekend pastimes; folk songs and even the national anthem praise the beauty of forests and village life. Though the communist collectives put an end to the patchwork of small village farms, every family has some kind of cottage, be it only a small shed or a trailer with a garden plot on the edge of town. The forest is guardian of a long, proud, heartbreaking Czech history, not to mention their wealth of songs, stories, legends, and heroes. Through centuries of losing and finding themselves, the forest is a wild place that keeps them safe.
The Czechs love their land in a very literal, tangible way. Spending the day in Alena’s village, I see residents on their knees in every yard caring for extensive gardens. Czech cooking staples are hearty vegetables that can be stored, dried, pickled or preserved: potatoes, carrots, leeks, onions, celeryroot, beets, and cabbage. They appear most regularly in soups, an essential part of every Czech lunch. “I feel like a witch when I’m making soup,” Alena once told me. Just a few weeks into the season, her orderly furrows already boast thriving sprouts of tomato, peppers, garlic, onion, and parsley. In the farmhouse built by her grandfather, only a refrigerator and electric stove supplement the original kitchen furnishings, including a large wood-burning stove and an abundance of beautiful old dishes. Seeing both her kitchen and her garden, I think she could hold her own against any witch’s caldron.
Witches and gardens make me think of Rapunzel’s story. After stealing cabbage from the witch next door to satisfy her second-trimester cravings, Rapunzel’s mother gives up her child in exchange. But no one rescues Rapunzel from her high tower, instead she escapes out of sheer lovelorn desperation, jumping out the window into a thicket of thorns. It takes ten years of wandering orphaned, homeless, blind and alone before the fortunes of fairy-stories consent to reunite her with her prince. There’s no princess and no hero, only tears of joy after suffering and searching so long. You can almost forget the witch and her garden. You can almost forgive what your mother did to you, for cabbage.