The ‘Dicke Marie’. All we know about Berlin’s oldest oak.

A sign leading to the 'Dicke Marie' (Berlin-Tegel, November 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser.

The boulevard with restaurants direct me to a boardwalk with ferries. This week I’ve headed to the Tegeler See, a lake in the north-west of Berlin. Inlands of the Große Malche, a bay in this one lake, a peculiar oak looses its leaves at the current of the year. That means, the leaves it still has: after a bunch of centuries, the Dicke Marie (Fat Mary) has remarkably less crop than the younger vegetation that surrounds her. Writing down the history of a single tree, that sounds like a parody on La Méditeranée – as the classic tripartite history by the French historian Fernand Braudel is called. Nevertheless, this update won’t be about the effects of the Weichselian on Berlin’s and the Havelland landscape, nor about the different political regimes that this old and wise oak has witnessed.

This oak’s history starts in the spring of 1107, when an acorn came ashore in the bay of the Große Malche. Anonymously, it listened to growling bears and the songs of minstrels during the middle ages. In the middle of the 16th century, it was the first tree outside the domain of the Schloss Tegel (Tegel Palace). As a result, his fellow trees were cut and turned into a garden. By the end of the 18th century, the nearby town of Tegel already talked about the old oak. In 1778, Johann von Goethe -world’s most famous contemporary German- honoured the oak with his visit. Some few years later, the tree was given its nickname: Dicke Marie. A certain Alexander and Wilhelm -the tads from the Von Humboldt’s, living by that time in Schloss Tegel– named the oak after their obese kitchen-maid. In the meanwhile, sand slipped slowly on the banks – so Dicke Marie stands about 30 meters inland by now. Needless to say, the nine-century old oak is enlisted as a natural monument.

This is the story of how an oak grew up and lost its, or even her, anonymity sounds pleasing and satisfying. But what is true of it? The most exotic about the Dicke Marie is her prehistorical prevalence. The first question to arise is what her age is and how we know this. I’ve not been the first one to try and answer this rather impolite question. The answers though, have been more confusing as clarifying.

The age of Marie has been guessed more than once by editors of various newspapers. Some journalist in 1956 overestimated Marie’s age – and wanted to celebrate her 1000th birthday. I am sorry if this comes to you as banal, but I can’t ignore my impression that this particular estimation was made by a certain nostalgist, projecting the idea of a Tausendjähriges Reich (Thousand Year Reich, which lasted from 1933 till 1945) on this single oak. For who dons’t know yet, oaks were popular among Germans in the first half of the 20th century. Nazi’s turned it a little too much a national symbol out of it. Their admiration for the oak and its eternity didn’t go by Dicke Marie; she has been given a monumental status in 1939.

In 1986 however, an article in the Berliner Morgenpost estimated Marie’s age to be 700 – while their competing editors from the Berliner Zeitung thought she was another age older. In this article, it is also told that a five centuries old oak close-by, as well as a tree stumpf between them, may have functioned as a borderline between two counties back then. This slightly confuses me, because that same article says that the Dicke Marie should be two-hundred years older as its fellow landmark. The most recent article about the Dicke Marie, dating back from March 2009, is again written in -again- the Berliner Zeitung. Here and now, it states that the tree can celebrate its 900th birthday – something that seems to be generally accepted by now.

Although we get confused by these different estimations, there is hope. At least we know that the Dicke Marie must have been full-grown in the late of the 18th century, when the young Von Humboldt brothers played in the forest – right? When an article about the Dicke Marie is written in 1996, we couldn’t find any prove of this – ‘in despite of extensive research’. Actually, the name of the tree was forgotten – until Berlin’s authorities for environmental protection looked for a fitting name for the tree by the end of the 1980s. All there was were nicknames which survived the decades time by being remembered and told, such as ‘Mutter Dossen’ and -with more success- ‘Dicke Marie’.

Taken the oak into account, I have the impression that little is really known about Dicke Marie’s history. I’ve noticed that people like to celebrate its some-hundredth – up to even her thousandth birthday. I guess that the only way to find out the oak’s real age will be by cutting it and counting the annual rings – a rather fatal solution for this problem. But Dicke Marie’s age is not all there is to question. According to the little words which are written about this tree, the oak has been enlisted as a natural monument for three times. And still, people rewrite the false history of this tree. Why can’t people live with the fact of not knowing? As I see it, the case of ‘Dicke Marie’ covers up the little that most of us actually know or understand about nature – albeit based on urban myths once again. Don’t get me wrong: the bay of the Tegeler See and the Große Malche are surely worth a visit, but realise that the chance for an acorn to be sprouted in the year 1107 is minimal. There is one relief for Mary though; during her life-time, no one will be able to see her age by her appearance!

Dicke Marie (Berlin-Tegel, November 2013). No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

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