January 6th, 2020
All I remember was existing on the line between fear and excitement. First, there would be an 8-hour journey by bus from Berlin to West Germany; the destination was Hambacher Forest 30 kilometers outside of the city of Cologne. My camera, a backpack with some basics, a sleeping bag, and not much else is all I carried, and I was prepared to sleep outside if need be. The only contact I had made was with an anonymous individual on twitter (only to learn later that almost everyone in the forest prefers to remain anonymous); otherwise, I was going in spontaneous and blind.
What followed was a week of brutally honest experience that I have yet to wrap my mind around. The whole social clash in this region is centered around the twelve thousand-year-old Hambacher Forest. Years ago, the energy corporation RWE purchased the rights to the land, which was a whole debacle in itself, with the German government to blame.
RWE is looking to expand its brown coal mining operation, and the forest, along with a couple of old towns, are merely obstacles in their path. The activist has sacrificed the normalcy of their lives to confront RWE by any means, even taking to the trees and fashioning temporary houses within them. They told me stories, most of them refused a photograph, some are reeling from recent trauma, some having been injured, and some had died.
The towns Kerpen-Manheim and Morschenich are now scheduled for demolition and are in the process of extermination. While I walked through these towns — with their windows boarded up, trees and landscape in total upheaval, and residents on edge — there was a deep feeling of hopelessness and suspicion. The gray clouds and near-freezing temperatures sure had an influence on that too. Shifting eyes from the locals caused distrust to linger. Everything here would soon not exist.
I later learned another detail: all of the remaining structures in Kerpen-Manheim are being used to house a growing number of refugees. So, this place facing imminent destruction is being used as temporary housing for people who had only recently fled the total destruction of their homes. One could argue this a generous gesture from the authorities in Germany, yet a house being torn from under one’s feet is anything but a sanctuary.
The moments that made it all worth the trip I discovered around the fires in the cool blue evenings at the settlements. Sharing stories, speaking German and English, enjoying meals together with groups of relentless strangers, being human. Everyone gave their fair share at the settlements, a couple of times we cleaned dishes together, and one night I cooked pasta for a group of us.
There was a moment in particular that I will never forget, the moment I encountered it, the beast of the machine who eats up the earth towering at 100 meters or so. I was lying prone on the edge of the human-made cliff, my body dividing the line between the border of the open-pit mine and the ragged, bright green grass that held me. To say I was at the edge of the earth sums up that feeling, while the wind ramped up the wall of the cliff and brushed against my face. Tears came to my eyes for no particular sadness but because of what was before me: the progress and destruction of our world.
What I witnessed that week was pure resistance, were people who will not take no for an answer and give everything they have to seek truth and understanding. Maybe the forest will face destruction, perhaps not. If any of their activism accomplishes anything has yet to be determined, yet the activists have, through their pushing, made it known that they will not submit blindly to unjust authority. I returned to Berlin at the end of that week emotionally and physically broken down. If there was anything to take, I had taken it through my camera and in memory.
The conflict at Hambacher is only one instance in a vast fight against our climate crisis, and it only increased the prodded of the question in me: what will you do against the dismantling of our climate?
To that, my answer continues to evolve and change. Within my immediate, I began experimenting with salvaged materials in my sculptural work or thinking of ways to use less within my lifestyle. Yet, all of that feels so minuscule in scale. The correct answer for me continues to shape-shift, and I am ok with that. Hambacher will remain on my conscious, along with everything we constantly see in the media, and I will continue to seek an answer to our burning question.