Above you see a picturesque small town in central Germany. It is old, at least middle ages judging by the stone church in the center of town. The vineyards, utilizing steep hillsides, show that agriculture was innovative. It was from central Italy that the root stock for fine German wine was carried, in the packs of Roman soldiers, for their coveted drink. These grapes were planted any and everywhere Rome conquered. In Germany, growing grapes is a challenge, unless you happen to have a large river with hillsides. which hold in the heat. and create a perfect micro-climate.
Rivers gave Roman’s a place to grow grapes, and the waters to transport any material need to colonize the known world. Every great city sits on the banks of a port, and inland country utilizes rivers as veins to the greater ocean trade zones around the world. River driven micro-climate agriculture interests me because Leafhopper Farm is located on the hillside of one of America’s rivers; The Snoqualmie.
Most major settlement on this planet revolves around water. Recently, I had the pleasure of exploring one of the most famous and ancient river systems in Europe; The Rhine. Along it spans a history of human civilization and engineering that shows the world how management of water can create one of the busiest trade routs on earth, and support cities that were unmatched in their day.
Koln (Cologne) in West Germany, is a wonderful example of metropolitan settlement made possible by rivers. It’s similar to that first settlement picture in this article, on steroids, but the same basic principals of settlement exist. There’s a central church, surrounding homes and places of commercial trade, then agriculture on the outer edges. In the case of bigger cities like Cologne, the agriculture is outside of town, but easy to transport along the river into industrial areas where it can be processed.
The mill below is a great example of this food distribution. If you recall the first picture in this article again, you’ll see two silos further back from the river’s edge. Chances are, that village used to be closer to the water, but canal building, which began on The Rhine in the 1820s, moved the river in many places, straightening it to ease transport and encourage strong flow year round. Before this, in summertime, it could be impossible to navigate the waters in many places due to sediment buildup in the river bottom and a lack of water in the rivers themselves. Once the canals were made safe to travel, predictable supply lines for major cities could function, and agriculture on and near The Rhine exploded.
With all the wealth being generated in shipping trade along these waters, fortifications sprung up to “protect” merchants by demanding a toll for safe passage. In what is today Germany, along The Rhine, there are countless castles and derelict forts which once controlled the river. King Louis XIV is credited with burning most of them to the ground. Many were destroyed and rebuilt again and again, as the wealth of Rhine life was too good to pass up. Sadly, agriculture suffered greatly through these times of conflict, and cities that relied on these rural goods often went hungry. Urban people suffered bouts of plague and starvation due to overcrowded conditions and little sanitation; while rural peasants lived in fear of marauding armies.
A few families with money and influence got wise to river conflict and chose to remove themselves from central action. Families like the Eltz formed a conglomeration “Ganerbenburg” and the three family branches built one big castle near rich farmland on a plateau above The Moselle River, a tributary of The Rhine. The castle is surrounded by The Elzbach River, which is un-navigable, but flows year round and could support three families and their extended household. Not a commercial river, but flowing water none the less. One branch of the family still lives within its walls today and is the 33 generation to do so.
Back on The Rhine, along with The Moselle, vineyards abound, as these river micro-climates are the only places to grow grapes in Germany. All the hillsides are utilized, and the grapes must be harvested by hand, as heavy equipment cannot move along the incline. It makes this wine today un-affordable outside Germany and little is exported. You’ll have to make your own trip to the region to enjoy its hard earned drink.
The Rhine River is totally controlled now by bulk heads along its banks and locks with large dams to control it’s flow while still allowing ships through. No salmon swim in it’s current any longer, though before industry, fishing was the main source of economy in most villages. Today this large river is a major shipping lane, ending in Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe, considered the continent’s gateway.
My home town river, The Snoqualmie, has wild banks and no dams. It floods seasonally and winds its way around the landscape, even creating the famous Snoqualmie Falls. Leafhopper Farm sits 400 feet above the river on south facing slope towards the valley. Unlike The Rhine, my little corner of Duvall, like much of Western Washington, retained huge evergreen trees which do not offer quite the same direct river micro-climate warm up, but there is still a warmer atmosphere in winter, more to do with Pacific marine winds and The Cascades.
These two comparative photos say it all: wild and curvy versus straight and engorged.
The parting shot accompanying this narrative is one I took from the bow of our ship heading up The Rhine on our final day of travel. Both banks are cemented and rocked, straightened and widened for boat traffic. It’s a river crafted into a highway by the hands of man. I’m so thankful that this day and age, people understand what the cost of river development means for the water and surrounding life on its banks. The Rhine still struggles with massive flooding and erosion, challenges brought on by an engineering feat of navigational achievement.