Who is Oder?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of anthropomorphization when we want to talk about the Oder as a person. Try to recognize the river as a being of a different quality than a human. Forget how it is managed, stubbornly treated like an object. To break the perception of the river as a domesticated creature obediently moving in a designated channel from point A to point B, it is good to think of it as a free person and ask, what does it need? Humans have the right to access clean, drinking water. What does the river have access to, and what does it want to have access to?
It is impossible to capture the river at once in its flow and full length. The river does not stop, it is alive, dynamic, wild, carries life, provides life, and above all sustains it.
Although the basis of the river’s existence is its functioning in space, humans usually perceive it in terms of passing time (flowing water). As an individually passing being, and a species that regenerates itself according to a natural rhythm, it carries with it a different type of heritage to its offspring beyond genetic material. This is a testament associated precisely with seeing oneself in the aspect of temporality and with the mission of passing continuity and material and immaterial values on to future generations.
Our coexistence with the Oder is a heritage from which we draw lessons today, and the conclusions we pass on to future generations. The heritage of the Oder is not a national or economic history, as historical reflection requires a time aspect. The heritage of the Oder occurs in two dimensions. In the first dimension, it is a mirror, inspiration, relationships with the Nadodrzan’, our perception of it over the centuries, the history of its treatment, physical traces of human transformations, material hydro-technical objects – bridges, engineering monuments from the entire regulatory concept. It is also about riverside culture, literature and folklore, Oder mythology, and dreams of free inland navigation.
The Oder is not the sum of its constituent parts, not just water along with the organisms and gravel, sand that are necessary for its movement from the source to the mouth, and the history of its relationship with humans. The river is a complicated system, an ecological corridor, a branch of life. And finally, the river is a living person who needs free space because that is precisely what its value is.
The second dimension is the Oder’s ability to create and destroy, arising from the nature of its element, the natural kingdom of its valley, riparian forests, a water chestnut drifting on the water, habitats of red foxes, and the winter song of ice. We choose from this list what we want to inherit, in what we want to participate, and what we want to nurture. Because we are heirs of the Oder.
WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
In Polish and Czech, her name is Odra, in German Oder, and in Upper Sorbian Wodra. For thousands of years, people living nearby have called her similarly, which has been fixed in dialects and later in individual national languages because her name has roots in Proto-Indo-European.
Other variants of her name are attested in writing from the mid-10th century (including Odera, Odoram, Oddere, Odir, Ader, Uder), and later records, depending on the language in which the document was drawn up, established the Polish-Czech and German version. Odra also appeared in chronicles or on maps under other Latinizing names: Gutallus, Suevus, Viadus, Viadua, and in modern Latin Viadrus (hence Viadrina).
The names of the great rivers of our continent reach back to times so ancient that they sometimes constitute a remembrance of long-extinct peoples, and the oldest hydronyms simply mean “water” or its properties. So, some linguists derive Odra from Proto-Indo-European *Ad-ra “flowing water, stream,” which we find in the name “Adriatic,” and even in the common word “bucket.” Under the influence of Slavic languages, Ad- changed to the Od- we know today. The Slavs themselves began to translate the word “odra” as “stripping the banks,” “a river flowing swiftly, rushing and dangerous, changing its course, meandering.” This is how Jan Długosz described the Odra and its tributaries: “The Odra, as if stripping, for in its swift course, it carries off loot from fields and forests.”
WHAT IS YOUR PATH?
To trace the course of the Oder River, one must embark on a journey with it from its source in the Eastern Sudetes, where it originates, to its mouth at the Szczecin Lagoon and follow how it flows through its valley, laying the foundations for the wealth of ecosystems.
The sources of the Oder are located in the Czech Republic on the highest peak of the Oder Mountains (Oderské vrchy), on Fidlowy Hill, where it flows at an altitude of 634 meters above sea level. In the initial section of its upper course, the river flows swiftly towards the Moravian Gate depression, where it meanders freely and naturally. The Proodři protected landscape area with alluvial meadows is the only practically unchanged place along its entire course. Further on, the Oder is enriched by several mountain rivers and streams, passes Ostrava in the Ostrava Basin and serves as a border between the Czech Republic and Poland for a certain stretch – the Oder Border Meanders are part of the protected landscape area. Then, by taking in the Olza River, it travels to historic Silesia, to flow through the Racibórz Basin (tourist brand: Kraina Górnej Odry).
In Koźle, it is joined by the artificially dug Gliwice Canal, and from the water gauge profile, the course of the Oder changes to the middle section. The river flows through Opole, receives the Nysa Kłodzka tributary, and before Wrocław, follows the first glacial valley on its route, the Wrocław-Magdeburg valley. Between Brzeg Dolny and Głogów, the Valley of Oderian Riparian Forests stretches, a naturally flooded river valley with riparian forests. After the Ścinawa Depression, the Oder flows into the Głogów Valley, is fed by the Barycz River, heads towards Nowa Sól, and then flows through the Kargowa Basin. The river leaves Silesia with the passing of Krosno Odrzańskie and the acceptance of the Bóbr River tributary, heading towards the Middle Oder Valley (Natura 2000 area). Within the Krzesiński Landscape Park in the Lubusz Land, the Oder turns north at the point where the Lusatian Neisse River flows into it. Thus, the continuation of the border between the Republic of Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany is marked on its course. In the Lubuskie Mesoregion, the Odra Gorge rises on the western bank in Frankfurt on the Oder. Within the Freienwalde Basin, at Kostrzyn, the Warta River flows into the Oder, and this naturally rich area has been protected as the Ujście Warty Landscape Park.
From this point on, the Oder continues its course in the lower part, through the historical lands of the New Marchia (together with the Cedyński Landscape Park securing wetland areas) and Pomerania. At the height of Krajnik Dolny, the Lower Oder Valley is protected as a national park on the German side (Nationalpark Unteres Odertal). North of Widuchowa, the Oder branches off into a western and an eastern branch, and the Międzyodrze area has been established as the Lower Oder Landscape Park. The right branch (Regalica) flows through Lake Dąbie, and the left branch (Western Oder) flows into the Szczecin Lagoon, where its waters flow into the Baltic Sea.
The Odra River is formed by what has shaped it. It combines with its tributaries, grows, and feels the full power of the river basin, often likened to the circulatory system. Memories of being free, of old riverbeds, of wet meadows, swamps, peat bogs, and floodplain forests. But also a reminder of the hydro-technical shackles of old locks, weirs, dams, sluices, and drainage ditches. Once the Odra River flowed for over 1000 km, but it was shortened, straightened, civilized, and brutally disciplined. Almost its entire length of 855 km has been heavily transformed, and this changed river will never be able to accompany or serve us well enough because it breaks free to act according to its free and healthy nature.
All it takes is a walk by the river and opening your senses to the Odra landscape, with its abundance of sounds and smells. In those places where the natural landscape with its riparian forests has been restored, the greatest richness awaits us. Biodiversity also favors the occurrence of rare, endangered, or particularly demanding species. They say that once in the Odra River, you could encounter sturgeon, salmon, or crayfish.
What are riparian forests? They are open or wooded areas that are regularly flooded. Riparian forests create the richest belt of vegetation with diverse habitats, which in the past covered entire river valleys. In the Land of Riparian Forests, the willow-poplar riparian forests are closest to the water, followed by the elm-ash-oak riparian forests and oak-hornbeam forests. Water from major floods floods meadows, fills in oxbow lakes and river branches, and eventually reaches the forest. High waters can cause damage to the riparian forest, but over time, the forest regenerates even more luxuriantly. That is the secret of the richness of riparian forests.
As random representatives of plants from the Oder region between Brzeg Dolny and Głogów, we can find: Yellow Archangel, Wild Garlic, Greater Butterfly-orchid, Lady’s-slipper Orchid, Water Hemlock and Marsh Thistle. From the world of insects: the oak longhorn beetle, stag beetle and scarce large blue butterfly. Among birds are the black kite, red kite, shrike, crane, kingfisher, whooper swan, white-tailed eagle and the Eurasian Bittern. From fish we have the ide, chub, asp and common bream, while the mammals include otter and beaver. This is just a glimpse of the floristic-faunistic spectacle that nature offers in those regions.
The true star of riparian forests, oxbow lakes and a symbol of this region is the walnut-leaved cotoneaster. This plant floats on the surface of the water with its drifting stems. Its leaves look like birch leaves, and the white flowers turn into nuts with a hook-like finish reminiscent of an anchor. Although it seemed that this species would not be able to survive in its natural environment, the riparian forests of Lower Silesia have allowed it to stop being threatened with extinction: it covers the water surface.
The one who lives by the river and is connected to it on a daily basis, like ferryman or in the past washerwomen, fishermen, millers, and raftsmen, understands the river the best. Rafting, which is floating on a raft usually filled with wood, was one of the oldest professions practiced in today’s Poland. Before self-floating was completely replaced by barges, tugboats, and pushers transporting goods on the river, some of the rafting culture was preserved, partly continued by inland Oder sailors, and celebrated in the form of a festive rafting event during the annual Oder Flis Festival.
Many beliefs and superstitions from the Oder region come from the accounts of “matackourzy” (in Silesian dialect, the raft is called “matacka”). For example, the categorical prohibition of leaving between 12 and 1 PM is the aquatic equivalent of the compulsory break in fieldwork (under the threat of encountering the Noon Witch). Watermen had a peculiar system of ritual behavior and superstitions, such as the ban on leaving the harbor stern first, which stemmed from their respect for the river. Water purity was maintained by prohibiting spitting, pouring slops or urine into the Oder, as well as washing clothes and bathing horses. Not adhering to these prohibitions could have serious consequences for the reckless.
Folklore from Silesia is familiar with stories about water demons, drowned souls who misled raftsmen, tangled ropes, or destroyed equipment on barges. The drowned soul also took the form of a handsome young man courting girls. The dangerous and violent aspect emerging from the riverbank was called the female water demon, the Oder Rusalka, who resembled a mermaid and blinded fishermen with a mirror. The flooding was said to be caused by the god of the Oder, Viadrinus (or Viadrus).
The figure of the god Viadrus probably found its way into folk tales from the “salons.” Viadrus appeared on maps as the name of the Oder in Renaissance Latin, and Jodochus Willich, a sixteenth-century professor from Frankfurt on the Oder, may be responsible for popularizing this Latinism. The University of Frankfurt is also called “Viadrina,” meaning located on the Viadrus-Oder. A half-naked Viadrus with reeds on his head, an oar in one hand, and a vase of water in the other became an allegory of the Oder River and joined such depictions as Tyberinus, the god of the Tiber. In iconography, we can find the figure of the Oder deity on, among others, Martin Opitz’s copperplate engraving from 1625, on the frieze of the Brandenburg Gate in Szczecin, or on the ceiling of the Leopoldina Hall in Wroclaw, where he lies next to the personification of Silesia.
Inspirations from the water folklore of the Oder region continue, as evidenced by “Tales from the Oder,” a series of radio plays for children co-created by Michal Zygmunt (Odra Sound Design), a promoter of the Oder and its acoustic curator.
People came to the Oder for water, but not only that. The river valley fed the people. Fish were caught, plants were gathered, and ice was used in the winter. The river marked out communication routes for them, and a path led through the Moravian Gate along its valley, the only lowland among the mountain range that made it easier to travel from south to north (and also the Amber Route ran through it). Therefore, cities naturally appeared in the easiest crossing places, creating centers and axes of trade and cultural exchange.
The river valleys, often flooded areas, were very fertile and encouraged settlement in the river valley for agriculture and cattle grazing. Forests were cleared. Mills were built. Rafts and boats floated along the Oder, carrying various goods farther and farther, as far as the river allowed. Life was drawn to the river.
The first agricultural settlements therefore appeared at the edge of the valley, but over time, people moved closer to the river and began to protect themselves from the elements. Already in the Middle Ages, protections were built on short sections of the river. The excess water was to be kept as far away from human settlements as possible, while at the same time there was a need for river transport on the Oder, which was not fully navigable, especially in summer. In both cases, action on a larger scale was needed – improving the river under the control of one authority and centralized action.
It was not until the time of the Brandenburg Electors and the so-called Bogumin Protocol that the Oder ceased to be treated as wild, as a person, and was truly subjected to control. The great flood in 1736 became the direct cause of the river’s regulatory processes carried out on a large scale practically until World War II.
Efforts were made to narrow the channel and eliminate river bends, build so-called groynes (perpendicular ones), and weirs. The banks and bottom were also deepened and reinforced to achieve a minimum depth at low water. The effect of the river’s regulation was the straightening and shortening of the river channel by about 177 km, at the same time, the river was canalized from Koźle to Brzeg Dolny over a length of 186 km, and 22 water steps were built there. Wetlands in the lower Oder were drained. Despite all these actions, navigation on the Oder was still largely dependent on the water level.
Inland navigation is a subject that raises many emotions. Before land transport took over the communication role completely (especially in the case of coal transport from Silesia), the 20th century belonged to barges and boats on the Oder. The river landscape with pushers, tugs, which sailed up and down the river, is a typical illustration of the industrial phase of river development. However, the Oder is a shallow river, sometimes heavily silted, and at least twice a year it has low water levels. The desire to regulate the river in order to use it for national transport is clearly thinking from previous eras. The Oder will never become a navigable Rhine with a concrete bottom.
To this day, no water step on the Oder has a functioning fish ladder, allowing fish to migrate up the river.
Border to be respected
The course of the river that marks the axis of Silesia connects three countries: the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany, but this article will not discuss how state borders were established on the Oder and Neisse rivers. Rivers have an extraterritorial character, flowing freely across borders imposed by humans to demarcate their territory, and are perceived as natural barriers themselves. They can act as a border, separating what is on either side of their banks, as well as bringing together what is different. Rivers can also prevent natural phenomena such as rain and storms – who hasn’t encountered that?
Throughout history, the river served as an exclusive and naturally dividing function for the nations living on the Oder, delimiting foreign territory. People turned away from the river if they associated it with a lack of safety and approached it if they were attracted by its lively flow. The Oder both unites and divides, acting as a border and simultaneously as the core, an orientation space and visualization of relationships. The historical Silesia developed precisely around the river axis.
The borders set by the river are limits to our bodies and our understanding, a summary of our experiences. We live in the river’s territory, its basin, and we depend on its body – its water and its inhabitants, groundwater, riparian forests, and ecosystems. Where there is a border, there is also unity.
As noted by the editors of “Czy płynie w nas Odra?” ( ‘Does the Oder flow within us?’), the “flood of the millennium” in 1997 struck the inhabitants of the Oder with a sense of loss, damage, and pain, while at the same time achieving unity and laying the foundation for a “new Oder society” that seeks to understand the river, to rediscover it, but with a certain humility and understanding of the strong Oder current.
The lesson of the river as a boundary, a part of nature, is not a continuation of the school of domination, but an approach that respects nature itself, respects the rights of the river, and restores its causality. Humans, thinking and feeling creatures, can think prospectively – they accept the risk of building in flood-prone areas and accept the consequences of their actions in terms of ensuring water safety. Humans can be responsible and learn. And the Oder, freed from its previous regulations, with its space to absorb swollen waters, free from the activities of man that previously restrained it, with a restored rich riverside landscape and forests that temper its temperament, this pure Oder bestows prosperity and well-being.
SO WHAT WOULD THE ODER WANT?
Progressive industrialization, one sugar factory after another along the river, lack of wastewater treatment plants, and the 1970s became synonymous with stinky water for the Oder. But what were they for life in it? The Oder can actually regenerate to some extent, but continuous strain on its immune system leads to disasters like the bloom of golden algae. Now we also know that weirs and locks prevent or restrict the free movement of aquatic animals. We know much more.
The Oder should have a guaranteed ability to regenerate and maintain biodiversity without unnecessary and harmful human interference. It is normal for a river to rise and cleanse itself from time to time according to its regimen. A naturally flowing lowland river once meandered and flowed with bends. During major floods, the water carried masses of rubble, soil, and wood, causing its bends to clog, and the river sought a simpler path of flow. It repeatedly changed its course, winding within its valley and moving the body of water from one side to the other. Over time, the bends cut off from the main channel became overgrown and shallow backwaters. Free flow means the possibility of movement beyond the channel, rising and flooding the surrounding floodplain areas.
“Flood, flood is good water, both humans and nature benefit from it” – sing Siostry Rzeki – the River Sisters, who during the celebration of removing the embankments from the river between Domaszkow and Tarchalice represented, in their wide skirts, the space that rivers need. This space is reserved for the restoration of nature, a paradise for endangered bird and plant species, for riparian forests, which also results in increased flood safety.
How to respect the boundaries of the Oder, how to give it independence and agency? The beginning is awareness and recognition of reality: here is a living river. And to protect it, and therefore us, who use the river, it is necessary to recognize it in words and law as what it truly is: a person.
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