Quiet work amidst the reeds

February 9, 2012

By Herwig Prammer

The light is soft and warm, yet I am astonished at how cold it is. The thermometer says minus 15 degrees Celsius, but it feels far lower. In the car I did not recognize how strong the wind was blowing from the north.

Ernst Nekowitsch makes thatched roofs from reeds that grow along the shore of Lake Neusiedl, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Vienna, Austria. He tells me to have a look around. I will find his workers out in the reeds, he says.

So I climb up on the roof of my Land Rover and try to position myself in reeds higher than my vehicle. When I see the harvesters with their machines on the expanse of frozen water, I wonder why I cannot hear them. It is so quiet here. There is just a swoosh of reeds swaying in the wind. I take my cameras and walk along the grooved lanes the harvesting machines cut through the reeds. It is more difficult than I expected. The ground I cover is a 15-centimeter-thick layer of ice as smooth as glass. Sometimes you can even see the lake bed.

A young woman stops her small tractor with balloon tires and welcomes me. Julia, the daughter of Ernst Nekowitsch, explains that she is actually a beautician, but in the winter she helps with the harvesting and in the summer she joins her father roofing. Her father has leased more than eight square kilometers (3.1 square miles) of reeds at the lake, and usually they harvest two to three square kilometers (1 square mile) each year – assuming it is cold enough and the ice on the lake is thick enough to bring on the harvesting machines. Nearly all of the reeds are exported, most of it to the Netherlands. Here on Neusiedlersee we have the largest reed belt in Europe besides the Danube delta – always enough work, she laughs, as she starts her tractor again.

With its unique fauna and flora, Lake Neusiedl was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001.

I ask the harvesters if it is okay to take pictures of them working, but they just smile and continue with their business. Hungarians, they do not really speak German, although it seems they do not speak much at all. Thick parkas and gloves keep off the cold. Some of them have their faces covered to protect themselves against the wind. They work deftly but without hectic rush.

Although I am wearing gloves it does not take long until I cannot feel my fingers any more. Holding the camera in position for a long time is really exhausting. I cannot remember ever having such problems when shooting winter sports. The lunch break comes at the right time. Hot tea is offered to everybody. The workers sit on bundles of reeds and eat their Hungarian sausages. They do not talk, a very archaic scene.

At last a young harvester asks me if I would give him the spare gloves he has seen in my bag. He lost one of his. I haven’t used them anyway as they are too unsuitable for handling cameras.

More reeds are cut, more pictures taken, all in all an unexpectedly silent story, and nearly in just one color. After intensive efforts to get some feeling back into my hands, I look forward to my car’s heater. The harvesters will proceed in the days ahead – as long as the ice stays safe.

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