The Poor Man of Toggenburg

Whitmonday 2016, Landschlacht, Switzerland

Night has fallen and yet so much to write, yet so little time before I must face another work week…

In my last post I wrote of comparing this past weekend´s travels with my wife with solo adventures and discoveries unmentioned between March and May…

Easter Monday 2016, Mogelsberg, Switzerland:

It had been a busy and productive few days…

I had strolled along the Sitter river, seen Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, completed Ben Elton´s thriller Time and Time Again, worked at both Starbucks Arena and Starbucks Bahnhof in St. Gallen, said farewell to beloved co-worker Augustin, and somehow peacefully co-existed with the wife the entire weekend!

As my wife had worked on call all weekend and needed her rest, I went a-walkin´ yet again…

As I begin my account of both my Toggenburg walk and discoveries made, I am reminded of my former post Underdog University wherein I talked about the value of self-education, or independent scholarship:

“I am stuck in business and routine and tedium.

I must live as I can, but I give up only as much as I must.

For the rest, I have lived, and always will live, my life as it can be lived at its best, with art, music, poetry, literature, science, philosophy and thought.

I shall know the keener people of this world, think the keener thoughts and taste the keener pleasures, as long as I can and as much as I can.

That´s the real practical use of self-education and self-culture.

It converts a world for those who can win at its ruthless game into a world good for all of us.

Your education (i.e what you learn, regardless of how you learn) is the only thing that nothing can take from you in this life.

You can lose your money, your wife, your children, your friends, your pride, your honour and your life, but while you live you can´t lose your culture, such as it is.”
(Cornelius Hirschberg)

“Knowledge must sit in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others and not up in the isolated seats of power.

Only if the adventure of knowing and understanding is shared as widely as possible, will our civilisation remain viable.

In the end, it is not an aristocracy of experts, scientific or otherwise, on whom we must depend, but on them and OURSELVES.”

(Jacob Bronowski)

“The potential in you is new in nature, and no one but you can know what you can do, nor will you know until you have tried.”

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“Never underestimate the power of one individual to make a difference in the world.”
(Margaret Mead)

Autodidactism, or self-education, is the act of learning about a subject or subjects in which one has had little to no formal education.

Many notable contributions have been made by autodidacts…

Leonardo de Vinci was an autodidact as were James Watt and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Autodidacts have appeared often in history, philosophy, literature and television:

In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, a tribal boy denied formal education goes into the forest and trains himself.

Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl in his novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (or the Self-taught Philosopher) has a feral boy master nature through instruments and reason, discover laws of nature through exploration and experiment and reach enlightenment through meditation and communion with God.

Heather Williams, in her account of African Americans during slavery, the Civil War and the decades before Martin Luther King Jr., tells of individuals teaching themselves because racial discrimination denied them access to formal education.

Jack London´s Martin Eden embarks on a path of self-learning to win a woman´s affections.

Jean Paul Sarte´s Nausea depicts an autodidact.

Jacques Ranciere´s The Ignorant Schoolmaster discovers that he could teach things he didn´t know.

Batman / Bruce Wayne was an autodidact for many aspects of his crimefighting skills and education.

Good Will Hunting follows the story of autodidact Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon.

In the TV series Suits, Mike Ross possesses a highly competent knowledge of the law, despite not having any formal legal education.

Again following Herbert Mayr´s Bodensee Süd walking tour book, I took an early afternoon train to Mogelsberg.

The first glance of Mogelsberg does not inspire.

The station and railroad below the town is, like much of the SBB (Swiss National Railways) of late, under reconstruction.

The railway station felt like an abandoned ghost town depot, yet both its WCs and its waiting rooms were surprisingly open.

After a late lunch of lamb curry, basmati rice, steamed veggies and cold cola at the Gasthaus Rössli, I walked for 5 hours up and down hills, through fields and forests, across and beside the Neckar river and the Ruer stream, from Mogelsberg to Rennen, Aachsäge, Anzenwil, Herrensberg, Dieselbach, Nassen and back to Mogelsberg.

The steep ascent to town shows that the good folks of Mogelsberg are avid fans of Football Club St. Gallen and horseback riding.

Entering town I meet a black and white cat clinging to a sunny log by the side of the road, a log he would abandon when I came close but return to when I retreated.

It would prove to be a theme of the day:

Cats would run from me and dogs would run after me.

Despite this I have to admit that my first visit to Mogelsberg was a positive experience.

Mogelsberg has a kind of a Wild-West-meets-Greenwich-Village-with-Swiss-overtones feeling.

I passed house after house offering all sorts of therapies behind brightly coloured facades and eclectic yards.

A shrub made to look like a ball of twine has a peeping Tom, complete with binoculars, emerging to peep out at passers-by.

The local Volg grocery, with its distinctive blue and yellow flag and Blick newspaper boxes, has a large ceramic Indian elephant guarding its jungle wall mural.

The weather was warm and comfortable and, for the first time in an eternity, I strode about without a sweater.

The trail would lead me out of town, up and down, over and across, another covered bridge over quiet spirited waters.

The Toggenburger land is a region where civilisation is barely felt, for here beavers still give a dam and lynx still hunt where wild mushrooms grow.

Here by the quiet Neckarmühl (Neckar mill) one barely notices the asylum centre for immigrants from farflung corners of the world, for this forested region envelops everything and keeps secrets of life in myriad forms.

And though this region produces its fair share of heroes, culture and industry, Toggenburg casts a spell of benevolent amnesia about itself as a protective blanket so the outside world cannot coldly disturb nor see itself exposed.

Here its highest mountain is Säntis (2, 502 metres high) yet few outside of the Wild Wild East know even this.

Toggenburg created the great Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli who left his village of Wildhaus for the big city of Zürich and brought the Reformation dramatically into Swiss consciousness.

Yet only the devoted remember his Toggenburg origins.

And outside of Zwingli, who knows of Toggenburg´s champions?

This region has had mathematicians, writers, linguists, politicians, musicians and athletes all spring from these tiny Toggenburger villages, but the spell of forgetfullness these forests cast remains.

Only today do I learn of a remarkable man, long since dead, who sprang from the humblest hills of this secret region seeking through sheer determination to understand and learn about the world.

A true autodidact, Ulrich Bräker (1735 – 1798) was a prolific writer and diarist, known for his autobiography (1789), The Poor Man of Toggenburg, which was widely received at the time as the voice of an unspoiled “natural man” of the lower classes.

Bräker had little formal education, starting his working life as a humble herder of goats.

After involuntary military service in the 13th infantry regiment of the Prussian Army was completed, he returned home, married, built a home and traded in cotton.

In 1761 he began writing a diary – a touching human document containing pearls of true pragmatic wisdom, combining an intimate familiarity with the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare with keen observation of nature, from the point of view of a man of the lower classes, which at the time was truly a rare perspective seen.

Despite his best efforts Bräker remained a poor man all his life and was always heavily encumbered by debt.

He hated his wife, though they produced seven children, three died in their youth.

He had only a rudimentary education, but all his life he was an inveterate reader and writer.

In 1776 a friend prompted Bräker to enter an essay competition set by the Moral Society of Lichtensteig, a society of middle class men dedicated to the improvement of their homeland.

Bräker won the competition and was admitted to the Society.

He immediately set himself to read his way through the Society´s entire library and to associate himself with educated men, though in their company he always felt like “the crow who wanted to fly with the ducks”.

Bräker´s diary includes lively accounts of journeys he made in northern Switzerland, for business and pleasure, and he tried to fit in amongst the most distinguished men of German-speaking Switzerland.

His writing shows how the philosophical, moral and scientific ideas of his time filtered down to meet the eager curiosity and thirst for learning of a self-taught scholar.

He lived to see and report on the start of the Swiss Revolution, which resulted from discontent with the new system of government the French revolutionary army enforced on the Swiss Confederation, but by the time it reached Toggenburg, Bräker was seriously ill and in a desperate financial situation.

Bräker´s life story is unusual in that few documents remain from members of the lower classes of his time.

There were, for example, plenty of poetic accounts of herding goats in the forest, but Bräker actually had done so.

He lived the tedious, sordid and dangerous side of a goatherder´s life as well as its poetic delights.

There are many accounts of life in the Prussian army and the Battle of Lobositz, (1 October 1759, near Dresden), but Bräker writes what it was like from the point of view of a homesick, terrified private soldier.

Bräker was often weak, frustrated, inconsistent, anxious or overconfident, but never boring.

Often unsuccessful in business and in relationships, Bräker never stopped doing his best in both, remaining both optimistic and humourous.

Toggenburg, then as now, remains a remote region which does not attract that much attention.

There are still goats in the fields, but now the pastures are shared with butterscotch-coloured cattle and numerous ski resorts.

Much like my wife and I, Toggenburg is beautiful but not spectacular.

It is a land of fields, pastures and forests with few towns, a quiet place in the shadows of more well-known locations, much like Bräker, forgotten for the more famous.

Bräker is a quiet whisper in history compared to his contemporaries like Casanova, Catherine the Great, Edward Gibbon, Goethe or John Paul Jones.

The places and events he witnessed carry little impact when compared to the Great Earthquake of Lisbon, the Seven Years War, Captain Cook´s visit to Australia or the American Revolution, but Bräker´s life reminds us that life continues outside newsworthy events and away from places heavy with dramatis.

Common folk then had little chance of leaving their birthplace and the world that Bräker knew was, and some say still remains, an intensely conservative one.

Toggenburg is not a land envied by its neighbours, for it is seen as a rough uncultivated land, inhabited by rough uncultivated people, but for the sons and daughters of this land Toggenburg is seen quite differently.

“It has mountains of the finest harmony and charming variety.

Winters are long, but that creates health and good harvest.

Nowhere does the sun shine more beautifully from behind the mountains.

Nowhere does the sky look so lovely and blue.

Nowhere does the moon roll more serenely through the silent night.

Nowhere do the stars sparkle more finely.

Nowhere are air and water so refreshing, so healthy and so pure, as here where I dwell.

Nowhere do the blackbird and the lark sing so clearly above hillsides in shadow and in sunlight, interspersed with stands of all kinds of trees.”

(Ulrich Bräker, Gerichtsnacht, 1780, translation by Keith Sayers)

I feel the same way about the lower Laurentians area of Argenteuil County where I grew up in Canada.

I pass a signpost declaring that hither lies the free republic of Herrenberg. a mystery for another day, an undiscovered country yet to be explored.

It was a day of peace, love and happiness.

I gained only knowledge.

I left only footprints.









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