“But what I can say is that it has to do with thousands and thousands of years of love for this forest, for this place. Love in the deepest sense, as reverence. This forest has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning. And you are taking all this away, not just from us, but from everyone on the planet, and from future generations.”
This story is about a journey. A journey into the inner and outer worlds of a forest and the corresponding experiences of our minds and hearts. When we set out on this journey, we don’t know what to expect. It’s the pictures we have seen that are calling us, of treehouses high up in the treetops, wild and adventurous yet at the same time signs of fragile existence, lives above a battleground. We’ve read stories in the news about a forest protected from further mining after decades of protest and conflict. What remains is a question that guides us: “Why are the treehouses still there when all is won, when the forest is saved?”
The earliest historical information about the forest originates from the 8th century, the Early Middle Ages. The Bürgewald, a lush ancient woods area located between the cities of Aachen and Cologne and one of the largest mixed forests in Central Europe, is mentioned as the centre point of a famed myth. According to legend, Arnold von Arnoldsweiler, a singer and harpist at the royal court, was gifted the woodlands by the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne. The musician then allocated the Bürgewald to the surrounding villages to help fight the poverty that prevailed there. For centuries, the woods became part of the commons, a widespread system in Europe at the time (1). Commons lands, forests and lakes weren’t privately owned but under the supervision and stewardship of the local villages. For many centuries, the commons system provided for a regenerative relationship between peoples and the woods.
When we first arrive at the forest at the height of summer in 2020, the situation is dramatically different. Of what was once majestic woodlands, an old-growth forest that covered over 4,000 hectares up until the late 1970s, only a meagre 10 per cent is left. On our way there, we are greeted by draining pumps scattered over the surrounding fields, barricaded ghost towns, political banners dancing in the air at a land defenders’ campsite at the edge of the woods. Once we step inside the forest, we notice that the air is disturbingly warm and dry, as is the soil beneath our feet. It’s only a short walk until we reach the brink of the mine. We climb a small earthen wall that serves as the border to widen our view. The striking feature of the land is no longer a forest brimming with life but a gigantic hole in the ground for as far as our eyes can see. A desert and death zone that is hard to un-see.
Still to this day, the forest, with its characteristic common oak, hornbeam and lily of the valley plant species, is a retreat for rare animals that are protected under European law, such as the middle-spotted woodpecker, the agile frog and the hazel dormouse, and a precious habitat for over 100 different kinds of birds, around 1,400 different beetles and various species of bats, among them the critically endangered Bechstein’s bat. Since the last Ice Age retreated, it had become an ecological treasure – until 1978 (2). The privatization of the woodlands came about in the late 1970s when the adjacent municipalities sold them off to a private energy corporation. Lignite had been found in abundance hundreds of metres underneath the old-growth forest, and the ancient Bürgewald became a focus of interest for the extractive industries. The clearances started shortly afterwards, and with them also came a change of name. While the old “Bürgewald” derived from the Old Saxon term “borgian”, which means “to protect”, the new corporate ownership established the name “Hambach Forest”, a term closely associated with commercial forestry rather than with a vibrant habitat deserving of protection and care.
When the care no longer came from the ones who owned the land, new guardians stepped up from the outside, trying to save the forest from its fate. Resistance against the mine formed almost immediately and lasted for decades, involving people of purpose, patience and passion, finding new forms of organization, strategy and expression throughout the years. Since 2012, some of the guardians have crossed over from the outside to the inside of the forest and built houses high up in the trees, putting their bodies on the frontline. Several live permanently in the woods, others come for the times of the uprootings. The ones we meet walk barefoot when we wander with them through the forest. Once in a while, they stop to pick up a beetle, black and shiny, to move it away from the footpath into safety. They are fierce, with wild hearts, creatures from an otherworld. We need to gain their trust first. Environmental activists have a long history of becoming an endangered species themselves when being called to shield their more-than-human kin. “A record number of people  were killed last year [globally] for defending their land and environment, according to research that highlights the routine murder of activists who oppose extractive industries driving the climate crisis and the destruction of nature.”(3) Hidden inside this forest, there is a memorial for the dead. These woods, too, have lost their innocence.
During the days that we spend in the forest, I contemplate the nature and origins of violence and the stories that we hold as people, as a society. How have we come to see the natural world as dead matter, open for our exploitation and extraction? As separate from us? How have we come to see our plant and animal kin as objects, not subjects, with no inherent right to live and freely express themselves? How is it ok that we cause such excessive harm to them and each other, simply for an increase in profit for a few? People violating trees, people violating people, creating a cycle of violence. For what? What is it that truly matters to us in this world? Shouldn’t we celebrate the magic of aliveness and the awe of creation above all else?
The scars are everywhere. And even though the birds sing, my heart aches. The forest is an open wound. According to Friends of the Earth, there is no greater impact on the environment than an open-pit lignite mine, it is the ecological worst-case scenario (4). Over the past decades, the Hambach opencast mine has turned into the largest one in Western Europe – about 40 million tons of coal are extracted every year. Lignite is known to be the most harmful of all energy sources: for every ton of raw brown coal burned, one ton of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is released (5). In the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, 90 million tons of CO2 are emitted yearly by the coal power plants. Other air pollutants harmful to our health such as particulate matter, mercury and radioactive isotopes are released during the extraction and conversion of coal, further contributing to the acidification of soils and surface waters, to eutrophication and to the destruction of the ozone layer (6). To prevent the mine from flooding, the groundwater level has to be constantly pumped down to a depth of 550 metres. For decades, the draining of the entire region surrounding the mine has caused immense destruction of groundwater, with severe consequences for the future. Rivers and wetlands are drying up, and water shortages are bound to increase with the climate crisis accelerating globally. Not only the forest but also the surrounding villages with their old farmhouses, churches and heritage sites have been destroyed, their close-knit communities relocated in newly built rural housing estates.
“Two years ago all hell was loose in Lórien, all hell was loose,” a fellow forest rambler tells me excitedly. At the entrance to the woods he points to the trees before us. Lórien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Elven woodland and Earthly Paradise, was the name of one of the treehouse villages that no longer exist. In the 2018/2019 clearing season, a large part of the remaining forest was to be torn down, which culminated in the rampant demolition of 50–60 treehouses by the mining operator and the police, and weeks of protests and resistance. “Tens of thousands of people stood up for the forest – so that the trees remain and the coal stays in the ground. The symbolism and attraction of the Hambach Forest have an impact far beyond our national borders. This local struggle shows the international significance of the conflict: if this forest were cleared and the coal burnt, then people all over the world would suffer from it,” says Bastian Neuwirth of Greenpeace. On 5 October 2018, following a request by Friends of the Earth, a temporary clearing stop was imposed by the Higher Administrative Court in Münster. It marked something of a turning point. The clearances came to a halt, treehouses were rebuilt, a new generation of activists moved in. The so-called “coal compromise”, passed in January 2020, states that the Hambach Forest should be preserved. In July 2020, a highly controversial coal phase-out law was adopted. Despite its immense environmental impact, inevitable breach of the international Paris Agreement and increasing lack of economic viability, coal extraction is allowed to continue in Germany until 2038 (7).
“But is the forest saved?” you might wonder, and so do I. It is the question that I pose to the biologist, forest researcher and professor for nature conservation Pierre Ibisch, who published a study on the well-being of the remaining Hambach Forest in August 2019 (8). His answer is prompt and clear: “In English, one would say ... It is a perfect storm! The Hambach Forest is now a small relic, an isolated forest island. Many of the forest’s species populations lack the interconnection that is necessary to exchange genetic information. There is a pronounced edge of the forest – wind and heat, which emanate mainly from the opencast mine, lead to the death of trees. The forest is now shrinking even without the clearings. The lack of water caused by the groundwater draining of the mining operation converges with the extreme weather conditions of recent years.” His study shows that the opencast mine heats up to extremes, especially in the summer months. “With average surface temperatures of over 45 degrees Celsius, it is the region’s heat pole. Owing to the lack of a buffer zone, the forest is exposed to the hot opencast mine without any protection. Its rising, heated air sucks moisture from the forest and the entire area,” adds Bastian Neuwirth. For the forest to be preserved in the short term, further excavation has to be stopped immediately. The study also calls for a “thermal buffer zone”, a 500-metre wide reforestation zone surrounding the forest to cool down the land and prevent it from drying out (9). In the long term, the forest has to be integrated with the other remaining woodland areas in the region, forming the core of an area-wide network of biotopes (10). Sound plans for how to save the forest exist. The question is – will they be implemented?
After we say goodbye to the precious remnants of the forest and its untamed guardians and breathe in the earthy scent of the woods for the last time, we head for our final stopover at Terra Nova. The “New Earth” is a sparse landscape park and observation platform designed and built by the mining operator. It sports a small and surreal outdoor fitness area with bright green exercise machines and red deckchairs. From here we can take in an extensive view of the vastness of the mine. Everything we see in front of us was once ancient woodlands, an intricate ecosystem, abundant and alive. What remains is contaminated ground. It’s a disturbing and humbling view. I close my eyes and send my blessings to all the brave guardians of the land, here and all over the world. As I listen within, I feel a wild longing for a new paradigm, marked by great sensitivity and care for the Earth and each other, and a deep love of our shared aliveness. I feel a quiet hope breaking through.
1 Nemonte Nenquimo, “This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth”, The Guardian, 12 October 2020.
2 “Arnold von Arnoldsweiler”, Wikipedia, last modified 30 December 2020.
3 “Hambacher Wald, Kristallisationspunkt einer verfehlten Klimapolitik”, Greenpeace, 2 October 2018.
4 Patrick Greenfield and Jonathan Watts, “Record 212 land and environment activists killed last year,” The Guardian, 29 July 2020.
5 Dirk Jansen and Dorothea Schubert, “Zukunft statt Braunkohle. 30 Jahre Widerstand gegen den Braunkohlentagebau Graziler II”, BUND NRW, April 2014.
6 Dirk Jansen, “Braunkohle und Gesundheit”, BUND NRW, August 2019.
7 Ute Welty and Felix Matthes, “Der Kohlekompromiss wurde verwässert”, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 3 July 2020.
8 Pierre L. Ibisch & Jeanette S. Blumröder, “Hambacher Forst in der Krise 2020: Aktuelle Beurteilung des Entwurfs einer neuen Leitentscheidung ‘Neue Perspektiven für das Rheinische Braunkohlerevier’”, Centre for Econics and Ecosystem Management an der Hochschule für nachhaltige Entwicklung Eberswalde, 26 October 2020.
9 Ortrun Sadik, “Hambi braucht Schutzzone”, Greenpeace, 14 August 2019.
10 “Eine Zukunft für den Hambacher Wald”, BUND NRW, 27 October 2020.