June 16, 2012:
Bats swoop inches from my face as I sleep under the bridge, close enough to create wind. The sound of rain comes in the pre-dawn hours, prompting me to get up and build a small fire to dry wet laundry and warm the last of the hamburger patties that the owners of a Greek restaurant gave me yesterday. With the last of the meat also goes the last of the water in the bottles that they filled. I fall back asleep for some hours.
This two-week-old dark, damp and cool weather pattern just won’t break, although no soaking rain falls today. I walk through the three small villages of Sindorf, Heppendorf and Mulheim, separated from each other only by vast farm fields and grazing horses with young colts. Bright red poppy flowers dot the landscape, seeming too silky smooth and fragile to be real. Parts of the villages have an intense Hansel and Gretel atmosphere, with flute music and church bells sounding simultaneously at one point.
‘This is just too much if that’s real flute music’, I think to myself, hearing the sound stop and start again after a mistake.
I eat the last of the bread and smoke the last cigarillo. Bottle collecting in Cologne had been so good as to even have a luxury. Not anymore, only a single aluminum can and two bottles today, one of which I’ve lost.
An older woman working alone at a bakery in Mulheim refills the water bottles. This appears to be the only business open in all of the town. The woman is courteous but I sense a slight bit of fear. She steps out of her way to hand the water bottles back over the counter instead of taking the most direct path. People alone with large backpacks are not to be trusted.
Much of today’s route offers no walking path or even as much a narrow shoulder to the road. It’s all or nothing for pedestrians here. I walk against traffic and step onto the grass whenever a vehicle approaches. There’s no villages for some miles after Mulheim. The most direct route west is blocked by a giant mysterious brown spot on the map. Whatever this brown thing is, it appears to swallow dozens of square kilometers, a massive dead zone mapped without even a single road or path.
A little black car pulls over in the middle of nowhere, absolutely covered in activist stickers. The passenger doesn’t miss a beat in responding to my simple “Hello” in English.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?”, he asks.
“No, just walking from Cologne towards Belgium. I’m tired of German police harassing me for having a backpack, so I’m leaving.”
“Well we have a squat right back here in the woods if you want to check it out.”
“OK, we will come back here and find you along the road in 20 minutes then. Bye for now.”
I sit down on dead-end pavement leaned up against a construction fence until the black car returns. The driver, Ulf, has a bit of a Frankenstien appeal and knows only a few words of English. The passenger, Erde, is smaller, wearing all dark colors and a stocking cap. These two men would be a highly suspicious duo was it not for all the stickers, which speak loads to the contrary. Conversation immediately verifies their authenticity.
“Are you from Germany”, I ask.
“You could say, but nation states are just man-made fabrications.”
The highway comes to a dead end, blocked with orange fencing and surrounded by forest. The scene is a barren wasteland of nothing in the far distance down the highway, with a single white truck truck sitting idle several hundred meters past the fencing.
“Is that security?”, Erde says to himself as we turn off into the woods down a bumpy dirt road. “This is the last little bit of a 12,000 year-old forest that the RWE company is trying to mine for brown coal. We have squatted here for two months to try and save it.”
My interest peaks as the little car bumps along. Could this be that I’ve stumbled onto a camp of actual German tree squatters? Initially meeting the two men I’d expected just a tent in the woods, not a full fledged activist community.
We stop and walk down a muddy dirt path. Sure enough, there are makeshift structures tucked back in the woods and high in the trees everywhere. A ten-meter banner hangs down a tree trunk displaying the text, “Wald Statt Kohle”. The central area of the camp is a small clearing that contains a kitchen tent, fire circle, display boards and supply tents. A couple young men stroll around and a few more emerge from the woods one-by-one.
“Are you hungry”, Erde asks, pointing to a pot of unknown leftovers sitting on a grate by the firepit. Starving, I waste no time in rekindling fire from the hot ashes. All of the delicious rice-like substance is gone minutes later.
“Is there any coffee or tea?”, I ask, noticing that the kitchen tent looks fully stocked with goods.
“Yeah, right here. Make a whole big pot if you want and we will all have some. Everything here is for everybody to use, and feel free to look around anywhere you want.”
“Is there any milk?”
“You mean from cows?”
“Or from any animal is fine I guess.”
“No, this is a vegan kitchen. There is another kitchen in the back with everything else.”
A local newspaper reporter and his 11-year-old son arrive. “I’m not here on business”, the father explains, “my son wants to be a reporter so he likes to come out here to interview people and take pictures.”
“Does he have a blog?”
“No, his mother says that he’s not allowed to do things on the Internet like that until he’s 12.”
A man and wife arrive, also from a local village, to deliver many containers of fresh water and other supplies. “Most of the locals here support saving this forest from the power company”, one of the activists explain.
A young street juggler with a Polish name offers me a camp tour. The structures visible so far were only a fraction of the community, with various projects spread out over some acres of forest. One of the tree houses has glass windows, looking professionally built so high up that it’s barely visible at first glance.
The most impressive structure is the new 3-story log “kitchen”, still in the early stages of construction. “This is kitchen 3.0. It’s being made from a pile of logs we found that the power company already cut down nearby.”
It’s what’s under the kitchen that comes as even more of a surprise, a cold-storage cellar shaft dug some 15 feet down straight into the earth. The shaft width is no more than 2×2 feet, barely enough space for a ladder. The cellar shaft then leads another 6 feet or so back under the ground, with enough room to stand. Smartly, the ceiling is reinforced with lumber.
“Do you hear that?”, my juggler tour guide asks down in the hole. “Listen”.
I place my ear up against the dirt. He’s right, there’s a constant low hum in the earth, so soft as to go completely unnoticed except in total silence.
“That’s the machine.”, he says.
The tour continues down the dirt road on a rainbow painted tandem bicycle to the location of the original camp, now mostly abandoned. The move must have been a big decision considering that this old camp contains a well-built composting toilet with 4 stalls.
The location of this old camp was legal but the new one is not because the coal company has leased the rights there from the government. It has been unofficially agreed upon that the company will not ask the police to remove the campers until work is scheduled to begin this fall.
Already having decided to stay here for more than just overnight, I settle into an unoccupied tent that contains a mattress, then do all the many dishes piled up in the kitchen. The vegan cooks prepare a delicious vegetable soup.
“Do you want to go see the hole?”, the men who had picked me up earlier ask after dinner.
“Is that where the machine is?”
At sunset I follow them and a jolly young blue-haired man through the forest a short distance, then through a chopped down forest where the freshly cut trees still lie on the ground. We continue past that down a series of dirt paths containing track marks from large bulldozers, then there it is, the biggest hole I have ever seen in my life. This can only be the gigantic mysterious brown thing on the map that had been blocking my most direct route earlier today.
Measuring some 8km long, 10km wide and up to 500 meters deep, this is the hole that wants to grow and eat the forest. The base of the hole is perfectly flat and brown to the horizon in two directions, while straight ahead it descends to its deepest points. Relatively not too far away is the machine that never stops digging day or night, rising 100 meters into the air. The trucks and equipment that move alongside it appear tiny in comparison. Surrounding the hole in the distance all around are conglomerations of power plants so massive that they form their own weather patterns. The clouds emanating from the stacks combine into dark grey blobs stretching in the wind for miles. “Whole towns are complaining because they never get any sun”, Erde tells me.
Sirens sound down in the hole, echoing strangely against the step barren sides of the pit. A whir of motor noise then a miles-long conveyor belt starts moving, transporting soil from the machine to somewhere else off the horizon.
Mapping my walking routes over the past days I’ve come to notice a complete absence of any large forests in this entire region. Some areas appear as complete forests at first glance of satellite maps, but zooming in reveals that they are in all heavily disturbed. It would seem very obviously regrettable to allow the last little bit of intact forest to be be removed. This is a noble fight which must not be lost, or some people here may grow up without ever knowing what a real forest feels like. I will join this battle for a bit. If only Sarah was here. She would love this too.
June 17, Forest Squat Day #2:
Erde is the only one at the center of the camp when I arrive there this morning. He’s lighting a fire for toast and coffee. Ulf appears next, soon having to depart for some days so that he can earn money cleaning houses. More faces appear one-by-one over the coming hours, then they disappear again to work on projects elsewhere in the camp or to travel into the towns nearby.
The dark weather pattern has finally broken! Sun all day! I do what I always do when starting or joining a new project, cleaning and organizing the things that appear to need it most. First it’s a couple hours in the kitchen tent then at least 4 hours in the supply tent, which has devolved into just a huge pile of stuff. Among many highly useful items are piles of molding clothing and thousands of outdated flyers and pamphlets.
Several locals start appearing as I’m putting the finishes touches on the supply tent. They all carry big pots and bowls of food. Now I understand the “luck” in pot luck. For a month now I’ve had such an irregular eating schedule, even going nearly a week with only bread and butter, so this seems very lucky.
There’s still a couple hours of daylight after all the guests have left. Full darkness doesn’t fall here till nearly 11PM. I assist the campers to add two big logs to the third story of the new kitchen. Two people first prepare the logs on the ground, patiently cutting notches with simple hand tools. A rope and pulley are then used to lift the logs up to the third story.
With no floors yet in place this is potentially a very dangerous task. Each person has taken up the part of the work that they are most comfortable with. The guys working on the ground stay on the ground, and the up guys stay up. Having spent much time carrying heavy objects around unfinished roofs, I help with the up work, carrying the logs across the floor and then lifting them into place. The pine sap is a bit obnoxious, but a little lamp oil from the supply tent easily removes it.
June 18, Forest Squat Day #3:
There’s a covered hammock stretched across the path this morning as I make way to the kitchen. The hammock wasn’t there late last night. There’s nobody by the fire pit or in the kitchen, no trace of anyone anywhere. The hammock rustles, revealing a previously unknown Lithuanian hitchhiker.
“I’m hitchhiking back to Lithuania from London and I heard about this place on the way, so I just had to stop and check it out. I barely found it after dark last night and then I couldn’t find anybody when I got here, so I just sat around the fire by myself. Where is everybody?”
I give the Lithuanian the best tour I can, including the Hole. He talks of the absurdities taking place in London because of the Summer Olympics. The city police have special powers to kick down doors without a warrant and destroy any “unauthorized” objects hanging from private windows and balconies near event locations. This includes protest signs. All “unauthorized” use of the term “London 2012″ and the Olympics symbol have been banned, because they are copyrighted by the Olympic Commission. A woman who owns a floral shop was threatened with lawsuit for making a window display of Olympic rings out of tissue paper. I don’t think this is what the Ancient Greeks had in mind. We’ve even managed to ruin the spirit of the Olympics.
The Lithuanian hitchhiker is on the move again after just a couple hours here. He puts on a colorful shirt, “You need to be wearing a little color to get picked up fast”.
“How long will it take you to get from London to Lithuania?”
“Usually just two days if I hadn’t stopped. Hitchhiking is easy here.”
He wants to smoke a spliff with the other campers by the fire before he goes. But one of them objects, “Actually we don’t use alcohol or pot at this camp. It is something that we agreed upon before starting here, because we had another camp before and there was a problem with people just hanging out and doing nothing.”
“Even at night, you don’t smoke pot here?”
This may be the only forest squat of its kind in the world, and it just so happens to be in a country where you can smoke your joint and drink your beer just about anywhere you want, usually even in the subway station.
After doing more dishes I install a support cross-beam on the third floor of the new kitchen, following the lead of another camper who is doing the same thing. At least a dozen of these beams have been installed already, which keep the tall structure from swaying so much. The construction is quite good overall, and the man who appears to be doing the most work has built smaller versions of this before.
Everyone retires to the fire circle earlier than last night. I sit there quietly with them for a few minutes and decide to leave tomorrow morning. My EU tourist stamp will expire in two-weeks. I don’t mind becoming an illegal alien, but only if there’s no simple way to avoid it. I’ll hitchhike to the nearest capital city, Brussels, tomorrow and see if there’s anything that can be done.
Hopefully I’ll be back to join these guys, because they truly are one-in-a-million. Never before have I met activists who are so disciplined yet lighthearted, and who get along with each other so well. The protest scene I’ve become accustomed to over the past year is light years different, with sobriety rules rarely followed, groups dominated by controlling individuals, and constant confrontations distracting everyone from the original goals. The locals here are so lucky to have these men in their forest, because with this attitude they just might be successful at saving it.