BENEATH THE FOREST FLOOR
photographs and text by Jack Laing Aiken
Borders have played a very minor role for the younger generation of Europe. Brought up on the bread and butter of free movement within the union, it was hard to imagine how it would have been for our parents and their parents when the continent's conflicts were much more apparent. That was, of course, until the world was cast under the shadow of the virus which shall not be named.
During the summer of 2020, I set out to investigate a small portion of what was once the ‘Iron Curtain’, separating the Czech Republic and Austria between Leštnice and Fratres. Walking along the Czech side, looking towards Austria I photographed the border in a continuous stream which was later stitched together forming the panoramic image displayed above.
THE SCATTERED TRACES OF LEŠTNICE
If you were to search for Leštnice on a map of South Bohemia, you would be met with an unassuming patch of forest, hugging a dirt road along the Czech-Austrian border. Even visiting by foot, you would think to yourself that the mapmakers must have made a mistake as you navigate further through the ivy-ridden forest floor. As you question what you are doing on your seventy-somethingth step, you stumble upon the floorplan of a forgotten kitchen, being swallowed by the encroaching foliage. Suddenly, the canopy around you transforms, pointing you towards the scattered traces of the lost inhabitants of Leštnice.
As is characterised by many of the settlements in Sudetenland, Leštnice was once a thriving township with a strong intercultural heritage. As Europe was being sliced into its spheres of influence following World War II, Leštnice fell under the knife's throw and was lost almost instantaneously, being left for the forest to reclaim.
In order to consolidate the new agenda, many of the townships along the border met a similar fate. It was seen as a security imperative to vanquish these lands of their peoples and culture, leaving only scattered ammunition shells and abandoned cooking pots in their wake. The so-called ‘Iron Curtain’ would dominate the landscape for the following forty years.
Since the Velvet Revolution, a handful of those settlements have been restored, although nothing close to their original form. Leštnice, however, sitting just a stone's throw from the border was well and truly destroyed; its dreams and history remaining encapsulated in the forested floor.
Having been founded on an intercultural exchange characteristic of the region, the naming of our organisation came through a desire to pay homage to this little slice of history. Leštnice - whose culture and history have been intertwined into the local environment - encompasses our core philosophy: that cultural heritage and local environment are not separate entities, but a mutually reinforcing duality, which when balanced, allows for the flourishing of Life in all its forms.