In 1992, a landscaping intern was assigned the tedious task of searching aerial photos of German land for irrigation lines. What Ökoland Dederow found was nothing short of shocking. In the midst of a dense forest populated by evergreen pine trees was a large group of deciduous larches with a secret message revealed with the change of seasons; the trees were planted in the shape of a swastika.

Since then, other forest swastikas have been found in Germany; but their mysterious origin remains unknown.

Günter Reschke, owner of the landscaping company from which the original discovery was made, measured the trees and calculated that they had been planted in the late 1930s. It’s suspected that the trees were never noticed earlier because the window for which they were visible (autumn) is relatively short; also, they didn’t fall in the flight paths of planes low enough for passengers or pilots to see the pattern.

Not surprisingly, upon their discovery numerous rumors took root as to how the trees got there in the first place. According to an einestages.de article republished by ABC News, a local farmer claimed that he had planted the trees as a child, having been paid by a forester for the work. Some locals said that the symbol was put there as a sign of loyalty after a villager had been taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp by the Nazis. Another story tells of a local Nazi leader who devised the scheme on the occasion of Hitler's birthday. And then there’s the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, which reported that the trees were planted in gratitude to the Reich Labor Service for building a street in a village nearby.

Whatever the case may be, the discovery was obviously a situation that needed to be dealt with, and in 1995, many of the trees were cut down in order to render the symbol unrecognizable. But in 2000, Reuters published images of a bright yellow, slightly shaggy swastika in the location; apparently, the federal office in charge only ordered state forestry officials to cut down 25 of the trees since there were disputes over property ownership. In 2000, forestry workers finished the task.

However, there were more.

State agriculture ministry spokesman Jens-Uwe Schade explained that forest swastikas had become "a fad among National Socialist foresters" during the Nazi period. Planted in forests in Asterode, Jesberg, Wiesbaden and other locations, the exact origins of these remain a mystery as well. Legends run the gamut from an exiled Nazi sympathizer to a mysterious "professor" to German POWs pressed into forestry duty.

We may never know the source of these enduring arboreal relics of a dark past; but fortunately, workers armed with chain saws can erase them, making way for new life to fill the forests' scars.

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