Eco Pilgrimage in the Ahr Valley September 2023

A Report from Ulrike Great Trust Berlage

From 8 to 10 September, with eight people, we spent a weekend together in the Valley of the river Ahr in the German region called the Eifel. In July 2021 this valley was hit by massive flooding of the river Ahr, due to prolonged and intense rainfall. Where the Ahr normally is a small, peaceful river, meandering through a landscape of wide planes alternating with steep hills, it suddenly became a huge mass of water, in some places rising up to 7m above it’s normal level.

We wanted to see and hear what had happened in 2021 and experience how people, animals, the land and other beings are doing, two years later and at the same time there was the wish to see if healing could be done, otherwise than rebuilding houses or offering psychological help. The Ahr Valley was chosen because of concern about our changing climate; the idea being that the massive rain and flooding were a result of global warming and increasing unpredictable weather. Maybe no coincidence that because of this theme, the weekend we walked, brought exceptionally hot weather for the month of September with temperatures rising to a blistering 34 Celsius in the afternoon and causing us to pause and take a dip in the lovely cool water.
One group member who has family roots in this region, told us that in the second world war, the Ahr Valley had been used to train fighter pilots because of the steep hillsides along the river, causing many families to leave.
To the people we met on the road, we said we were on a pilgrimage, this word easily being understood, we noticed.

The first night we slept in the parish hall of the church in Schuld. The church sits high above the village, which during the flood had been completely shut off from the outside world, being divided into three islands due to the river becoming many times its normal size and overrunning bridges and roads. This was told to some of us by the lady who opened the building adjacent to the church for us. Her husband and son are local carpenters and lost all their machinery during the flood. Her story was still full of unresolved trauma and rage about people from the local community not being honest in the relief goods being delivered after the flood.
The first morning sit outside, in front of the church of Schuld, before breakfast, was beautiful; the sun rising from behind the mountain ridge across the valley and the fresh green carpet of grass and herbs that we sat upon.

There are many perspectives from which to look at the aftermath of the flood; my personal perspective being always to look at plants, especially the flowers. What I saw was the recovering of existing trees, shrubs, greens; perennial wildflowers like comfrey and malva. In the lower plains I saw pioneering flowers like poppies, wild amaranth, thornapple, evening primroses, various thistles. Among the butterflies only cabbage whites, but that isn’t any different from elsewhere in Western Europe this summer I guess. What we didn’t see, but what we were told by people living very close to the Ahr, were the big old trees that had been torn loose by the flood and were transported further on, damaging houses and bridges on their way. For this reason it isn’t allowed to plant new trees close to the river, but the people who told this, had planted new trees anyhow, saying the old chestnut tree in their garden was an essential part of their garden they didn’t want to miss.
Al along the bikers way we followed though the valley blackberry bushes were growing, giving us their ripe, sweet berries. One of the group members saw spiders everywhere; saying she’d never met so many spiders along the road in all her life. We saw a kingfisher and some big birds of prey circling high above. I wonder what stories nature, the rocks included, could have told us about their experience of the flood and I regret not being able to hear them speak.
To me one of the most powerful rituals we preformed along the road, was the naming out loud of the species that are going extinct or already have become extinct. They might be lost, but are still remembered this way. What would happen if humanity would focus its attention in this way to all living beings around?

All along the way there were damaged bridges, some being temporarily reconstructed so they could be used, some still in ruins making detours necessary. As we came closer to the village of Altenahr, the effect of the flood on buildings, roads and railways became increasingly visible. Things culminated in seeing how a railway bridge, under which previously cars and caravans had passed (the indication of the height of the vehicle still visible in paint on the bridge) had been lifted by the water, carried on some length and then had been smashed down so hard upon the ground, that the previous car openings were only about man high.
During the whole walk we passed several beautiful little whitewashed old chapels and churches, nearly all of them situated higher up the slopes of the valley, leaving them undamaged. Did people in earlier centuries know that from time to time the Ahr could rise and that therefore it was wise to build their most precious buildings so high, the rising river would never be able to reach them?

Walking into Altenahr by dusk where we intended to spend the night, we took a shortcut, using yet another damaged (and actually barred) bridge . In the village the annual “Weinfest” was going on with music and people walking the streets in their best clothes carrying a glass of white wine. If this gave us a slightly surrealistic feeling, this became even greater when we discovered we could walk straight into a previously flooded, and afterwards abandoned hotel. Exploring the empty building as a possible place to sleep was spooky; the ground floor being entirely empty, but on the second floor all the furniture was still in place in the hotel rooms covered under a layer of dust. One room was full of empty bottles as if someone was using as a hide-out sleeping place. We were saved by a man calling us back downstairs, telling us about the danger of collapse of the building and the three people who died there during the flood. After that encounter, finding a place to sleep that wouldn’t become too damp and cold during the night took some time, but we finally settled on a small sloping parking lot in an residential area behind the village church higher up. Although not sleeping very much, this turned out a magical night for some of us: the night sky full of bright stars, forever changing throughout the night; first the quietness, later in the night hearing two owls crying at each other (they sounded like Uhus) and in the early dawn a small bat flickering low above us (I must admit the bat intrigued me but also frightened me a bit). To my frustration I also saw airplanes in the morning sky flying over every two minutes – someone later said they were taking off from Frankfurt airport.

We left the parking lot shortly after sunrise and before the inhabitants of the houses around us started to wake up on Sunday morning. After a quick sanitary stop we sat down on an empty lot in front of a café being renovated with the sign “Saloon” on it. It was a dusty place, in the middle of town, windswept and swiftly changing from cold to very hot during the time we spent there. Meditating here, made the freshness of the morning for me suddenly change into gloom and despair. The place didn’t just feel sad; it felt devoid of any form of livelihood, very empty in a deeply unsettling way. At the same time after we’d finished breakfast on the same spot an Atlanta butterfly emerged out of nothing, fluttering around the damaged building. Later on that morning, behind a house being rebuilt and close to the Ahr, we did a ceremony to feed the hungry spirits. After that the gloom lifted a bit, but it felt as if there still needs a lot work to be done, to make the place truly alive again.

A friend of Svenja’s and member of the regional green party joined us in the final circle before leaving. Her presence was a bridge reaching from the world of pilgrimage on the road we had been in for nearly two days, to the everyday world of talking a taxi back to the car in Schuld and driving home to the Netherlands.

Although being familiar with sitting outside at home in my garden, the practice of sitting and sleeping outside in the middle of where things happen, was new to me and truly a deepening of practicing outside of a zendo or my own place. I’m curious about a possible next time.
As for the pilgrimage: a documentary film maker walked with us, almost unnoticed doing her filming work, so hopefully somewhere in the future it will be possible to watch some images of the weekend.

Gassho to Svenja, Dieter and Patrick for organizing the weekend!

Ulrike Great Trust Berlage

Fotos by Svenja Wildflower Hollweg

Eco Pilgrimage in the Ahr Valley by Ulrike Great Trust Berlage (2023) Read More »

Day of Refection near Lützerath - 30.4.2023

A report by Kathleen Battke, originally published in German at the Website of the Zen Peacemakergemeinschaft

It was a moving scene and time a few months ago when the last residents and solidarity activists had to abandon the old village of Lützerath in the Rhenish lignite mining region. In “contractual loyalty”, something was carried out here – the destruction of an entire village, and it was not the first – which is not good for the climate, which is against better knowledge and understanding.

Friends from of the Belgian sangha of Frank de Waele Roshi, as co-initiator and organizer our companion Svenja Wildflower, bore witness in the region in August 2022 as part of a eco-retreat – to the wounds inflicted on the earth by our civilization’s energy gluttony, but also to the strength and passion of the people fighting for their homeland.

On April 30, some of the retreatants returned to the field. Four members of the Peacemaker community from Bonn and Tilburg – Dorle, Claudia, Reiner and Kathleen – joined them for this day of reflection. So on this enchantingly beautiful last day of April, 20 peace friends gathered at the Holzweiler cemetery: People from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, four of whom live in the region and have been involved locally for years.

A short round to get to know each other – then we set off in silence. Not with a destination this time – not “to Lützerath”, “to the edge of the precipice”, but “into the void”. The disappearance of Lützerath opened the gates to the void. We honored this by setting off without knowing, letting ourselves be guided by the paths, step by step, in silence.

We found ourselves at a red and white barrier again. Behind it was Lützerath. Now: torn up earth, a hole, a shovel excavator in operation. The barrier couldn’t stop the former inhabitants of the village who were walking with us; they went into their village and settled down in places they still knew when they were full of life. Some others from the group went with us, the others settled down on this side of the barrier to meditate. – The plant security guard, who was responsible for guarding the site, immediately became active and asked everyone to come back outside the barrier. When this did not happen, they called for reinforcements. So the meditation of those expelled from the village was guarded in their old places – and allowed. In brief conversations, we were able to maintain the unbalanced peace. During the meditation, many of us felt the heartbreaking tension of simultaneous beauty and destruction: skylarks sang their cheerful melodies into our silence, while the bucket-wheel excavator tore up the earth with a stoic bass tone…

Finally, we were all gathered in front of the barrier again, and one of the local representatives recited the lament she had written about the disappearance of the village into the silence of our meditation. The skylarks accompanied the words of helplessness, pain and anger with a crescendo.

After the next section of the trail, we settled down for lunch – once again we were amazed at what comes together when each brings just a little something…

Back to Holzweiler – here we sat down on a piece of grass to listen and share our thoughts in the council. Two six- or seven-year-old girls immediately appeared, put their hands in their sides and asked loudly: “What are you doing?” – we explained it as best we could, and in the end they generously let us. Between numerous motorcycle excursionists and the beginning festival fair on May 1st, this was, according to Frank Roshi, “the loudest council I have ever experienced”. Nevertheless, the quiet tones, tears and gestures reached our hearts.

We ended the day at our starting point, the parking lot at the Holzweiler cemetery, with the Gate of Sweet Nectar ceremony, in which we make ourselves a great meal for all hungry spirits with chants, recitations, sounds and symbolic offerings.

Source of the Report and photos by Kathleen Battke: https://zen-peacemakergemeinschaft.de/2023/05/04/30-4-oeko-besinnungstag-da-wo-luetzerath-war/
Translated with the help of deepl.

And an impression of the Day of Reflection in form of a photo slideshow by Svenja Hollweg

Day of Reflection near Luetzerath by Katleen Battke (2023) Read More »

Bearing Witness to the Earth (3/3)

The Ecoretreat at the Rhenish Brown coal area

The camp was established by activists over 2 years in the middle of remaining houses. It had a livable infrastructure with everything heart, mind and body need. To explain the outer and inner structures, remarkably growing at this place, would fill another book – again one that should be written! A woman by the forest name Schildkröte (Turtle) guided us openheartedly through the village, enriching us with background information, experiences and later with her enchanting singing voice.

I have deep respect for what was created in Lützerath. The people living here are using their bodies right now to prevent the village being excavated. Already for two years they have been making sure that Lützerath lives and thrives inspite of the daily uncertainty. Here an exerpt from an email a friend wrote me from Lützerath on 22 October 2022:

At the moment I am in Lützerath. It is beautiful, too warm and too dry weather. A peaceful saturday. I kneel in the memorial on the mattress in front of my laptop. From afar I hear some guitar music, light hammering, from time to time a passing car and flying by flight object. A child’s voice, other voices and laughter. Beneath me it is tinkered in the Bicycle Castle and the wind is rusteling through the poplar leaves glimmering in the sun.
 (…) In the morning we had prepared vegetable beds. They have brought seeds and sowed spinach, radishes, bulbs and mache. Knowing that with some luck we will see these living
creatures germinate but not grow. Up to the highest “realms” they say it is now sealed that Lützerath, the plants, the earth, the insects, the worms, that all of us here must give way to the coal.(…)
 RWE keeps excavating in depth in front of
Lützerath. They started to dismantle wind turbines now. I ask myself how it can be more obvious, more visible what is happening here right now. All the beings preparing for the winter as it was field tested for them for millenials or even millions of years. All this will be a manmade nothing. A non-livable space. And it is also a place of music, full of conflict and life and something new, surprising and touching. Almost every day people come by who haven’t been here at all or for a long time. It is nice to be in the shit brigade with them, to swear for night watches, clean vegetables, be asked where help is needed. It is also a space of many expectations and disappointments, a place of finding yourself again, standing up again, of reconciliation and rest.”

How to respond to so much beauty? I am left with the words of Václav Havel..

“Hope …
is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.”
Václav Havel

Here we were now at the edge between deadly destruction and self-effectiv created aliveness. In Lützerath. Everything at the same time. Split and Wholeness and the rhythm in between. Here in Lützerath I could here it. Especially in the Yew Chapel.
From the Yew Chapel, the remnant of an old wayside cross chapel, I watched a bird. It left from a tree and flew towards the hole. I don’t know what happened to it. Was it a wall of heat rising from the hole and let it bounce off or a sudden change of heart because it realized that it was approaching a territory hostile to life without a landing spot in sight. For a while it faltered, then bobbed up and flew straight back to its known tree. What made the bird turn around? Was it by habit from a time when fields and trees used to be on the other side of the road – not too long ago presumably. Or was it out of a shock or simply a thermal updraft because the heat is more extreme at the hole. Or a combination of all of it. I gave myself a treat by imagining a contest among the birds: “Who dares to go the farthest?”. What tricks your own mind is playing, particularly at the edge.

May the bird and its tree giving shelter and all the others in Lützerath facing the clearing right now be well

“You have dreamed me, God.How I practice walking upright and learn to kneel downmore beautiful than I am nowhappier than I darefreer than allowed over here.Do not stop dreaming me, GodI don’t want to cease to rememberthat I am your treeplanted at the watercourses of life” Dorothee Sölle
(During the retreat a friend wispered this poem into my ear, heartwarming)

Later we listened to an inspiring service held by our KiDl friend, celebrated our Gate of Sweet Nectar ceremony in front of sceptically marveling people. Before we could start we were surprised by an Attac demonstration of 300 people in red. With a lot of noise and vigerous resistance they walked along the red line, the line marking the 1,5 degree climate goal. A total A total contradiction? Yes and no – just life.

Life channeled through our guitar player. He flooded our heart and minds with Jewish songs we celebrated. Yes really, we celebrated life at the very edge. He also sang a song by Rabbi Shir Yaakov. We got to know it at the Zen Peacemakers Bearing Witness Retreats in Auschwitz. Good to sing it also at this place. Here an exerpt from the text:

“Healer of the broken-hearted
binder of their wounds
Counter of uncountable stars
You know where they are
Healer of the broken-hearted
Binder of our wounds
Counter of uncountable stars
You know who we are
Ha·le·lu YAH
Ha·le·lu YAH”
Shir Yaakov

We stopped off at one of the rural storage houses formerly used for harvests or machines. It was dark, silent and empty. Only a couple of straw bales and a big selfmade swing in the background. Together with our violinist we played with our voices. The halls acoustics resounded superbly. A space for voices. Later when we wanted to leave, a part of the group stayed and seesawed in intense joy. It looked like they were on the high sea. Frank Roshi shouted into the hall: “Come peacemakers! Come!” – this sentence reverberates. Even after the storage house was knocked down yesterday, “Come peacemakers! Come!”.

At the very edge, in the Yew Chapel, we celebrated later that evening my Jukai, a traditional Zen Buddhist ceremony to receive the bodhisattva vows. I got my second dharma name, Wildflower.
A Zen friend gave me later a broken, painted thin piece of wood she had found at the Yew Chapel. Maybe it was once a tinkered sign from the camp. There is so much lovingly and colorfully painted in the camp.
The wood was a fragment of it. She presented it to me with the words: there is the color. It reflects the color of your eyes, the patterns of wildly climbing flowers, the Wildflower. The white dots are the stars that shone above us and bore witness to everything.

This journey as well as this report can only be fragments of the whole. But everything is included in this fragment.
Yes, the stars at the night sky, the depths of the naked earth and every single human, bird, tree and beetle who were with us witnessed this.

“Sometimes you must look.
Otherwise you don’t see.
Sometimes you must listen.
Otherwise you don’t hear.
The glaring pictures, the piercing sounds don’t suit me.
I come quietly.
Love always comes quietly.
Unlock all senses!
Unlock your heart!
For I am here.
And I’ll stay”

Jürgen Werth

Sign in Lützerath „I stay“

This is a piece of my raku, a traditional Zen Peacemaker “robe”, which I stitched for the Jukai ceremony and will wear from now on during my meditations and pilgrimages. The small embroidery represents a green broken pine branch: A green broken pine branch:

“This is our life
The length of our days
Day and nightWe meditate upon it”

From the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy

In deep respect and gratitude to Roshi Bernie Glassmanfounder of the Zen Peacmakers with whom I experienced the Bearing Witness training & Roshi Frank De Waele spirit holder of the ecoretreat and my Zen teacher

Information about us:
Zen Sangha Gent with Roshi Frank De Waele: www.zensangha.be
about myself: www.svenjahollweg.de
black and white photos by Harry Aaldering: www.harryaaldering.nl
colored photos: Wildflower
drone picture of Lützerath: www.lützerathlebt.info

The Ecoretreat at the Rhenish Brown coal area 3/3 (2022) Read More »

Bearing Witness to the Earth (2/3)

The Ecoretreat at the Rhenish Brown coal area

Then there is the so called “Sophienhöhe” (Sophie’s height), a 300 meters high huge hill protruding from the flat landscape. I am reluctant to call this artificial hill Sophie’s hill, not only because its very existance has nothing to do with wisdom at all. But also because my daughter’s name is Sophie, something to do with future and beautifully aliveness!

Once here used to be villages, forests, fertile fields. Then brown coal was extracted and a huge pit emerged. Finally the pit was filled with the overburden of the next excavated hole. Especially the Belgians and Dutch delt a lot with the word “Abraum” (overburden, mining waste – The German verb “abräumen” means to clean up, to clear away, to strip off.). We met the alienation expressed by this very word during our whole hike. Everywhere shreddered earth and stones, of no use any longer. There was something absurd about it to walk this ground. It was hot at that, abover 30 degrees, blazing sun, rarely shadow.

I had not even mentioned that I was present with a broken foot, mostly in a wheelchair. So there I was, learning devotion, especially showing up as a visionary & organiser so vulnerable and in need of help, really challenged me and was put to the test especially on the climb to “Sophienhöhe”. With broken foot on broken, shredded ,injured (earth)body. 4 people (!) pulled and pushed me up the monotonous, graded path along small freshly planted trees. Remaining in the wheelchair on this path, I got a tiny taste of what enormous power and energy it takes to manage these gigantic earth movements, as they happened on and under this hill. A huge reshuffling of huge masses of earth – a reshuffling of the earth’s history that has grown in peace over thousands of years. Slowly matured by the growth and decay of organisms and life.
As a friend said: “A brainwash for Mother Earth’s brain”. Once here, it only hurts.


At the same time, we have gathered on the artificial hill at various stations during the ascent. Huddling together in the little shade available.
The trees are simply still too small to provide ample shade, as perhaps the old village lime tree of Alt-Lich-Steinstraß would have done, one of the first villages to be demolished because of open-cast mining “under the Sophienhöhe”. Yes, I know, it sounds confusing, with the consequences of the earth’s re-layering, the under and over – it is! 
Here we listened to each other, argued, sweated, did small ceremonies and made music again with guitar, violin, voice and landscape.We said the Thanksgiving Greetings to the Natural World prayer of the indigenous Haudenosaunee tribe and interwove it with some violin playing.
Our Catholic priest gave a short devotion, with reference to the prophet Jeremiah and the great drought….we listened, prayed and we sang “Heaven Rises Above All”.

“To stand in front of the hole has something attractive, almost beautiful.”, a friend told me, “The earth shows her inside. She is naked, 400 meters deep, thousands of years deep. This is rather intimate, isn’t it?”The hole is huge, to big, reaching to the horizon. It is inconceivable to stand in front of it. It needs a lot of inner space to get to grips with the ungraspable. But not to try to apprehend the real and global extent, the connection of life and death involved in it, would be dire and life-threatening denial in my opinion.

I realized how the denial feels at a place called “Terra Nova”, New Earth, created by the energy company RWE. What an ignorance and mockery made of the injury of the earth: to create an observation deck with permanently installed beach chairs and sunshades, plus event location where you can even celebrate your wedding. “Enjoy the view” a sign invites at the entrance. Are they serious, new earth? This is disaffection! How can I stay in relation to it? That’s why we need each other, I sense now. Because it is so big, too big. A wound area on so many layers. It needs the contribution and care of all of us. This wound area is not only at the Rhenish mining area. But here it is absolutely acute and open. The wound is gaping.

In the villages around the Garzweiler hole I experience exactly this devotion and care for one another and the earth. Especially in Lützerath, the next village on the coal companys list to be dredged away. While we visited Lützerath the last farmer of the village spent his last weeks in the heritage-protected house his family has inhabitated for 4 generations. Meanwhile, on 13th January 2023 the farm was knocked down. It is different when you were there, got to know the place. How must it be now for those who used to live there? A friend wrote to me: “Peoples memories hang around homeless between here and there.”

To make connections where they are broken, to enter a relationship where alienation prevails: between humans and landscape. A little bit further, step by step along the edge of this enormous, unfathomable hole of the brown coal opencast mine. Here alienation is reigning, absolute unrelatedness. Instead the lignite excavators, removing and shifting the soil, are mechanistic monsters enough.

The Ecoretreat at the Rhenish Brown Coal Area 2/3 (2022) Read More »

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