The Ecoretreat at the Rhenish Brown coal area by Svenja Hollweg (2022)

Bearing Witness to the Earth (1/3)

The Ecoretreat at the Rhenish Brown coal area

21.August 2022 in the Spirit of the Zen Peacemakers
A report from Svenja Shinsen Wildflower, Zen Peacemaker
You can download a german language version of the report in PDF-Format here.
lack and white photos by Harry Aaldering:
Colored photos: Wildflower

I always seem to find it a bit of a challenge to put a Bearing Witness retreat into words. Every time I remember the Ecoretreat the atmosphere comes up – filled with the experience, the direct encounters with and around the open pit mine. I feel a tremendous respect for meeting the place as it is as well as for the whole issue connected with it. Complex and confusing crises are threatening. They are lurking to dart at all our life with all their force and stir it, to rattle the very basis of our existence. They are already doing this in the global South.
Was I afraid to go to the edge? I was. To be honest the fear had not settled due to the retreat – how could it in the view of the violent extent? But everything in my life has changed since the Ecoretreat. Since then I have been feeling the immense power and the subtle vulnarability of the earth, as simultaneously in a new way. Above all I experience this synchronicity even closer, directly an radically right under my skin.To stay present with it seems to me to be the real challenge of bearing witness. I even dare to say that it is exactly about to stand this immediacy of power and vulnerability, to be with it, to stay with it, to let it live through us. And that’s the reason why we need each other, why it’s time to create warm places of life-serving gatherings: life wants to be heard, doesn’t it?

May be urgency invites us to slow down. To listen. To see who is here with us to give us advice. And then to respond to insights of the possible that shine through the fabric of the moment.”
Bayo Akomolafe

Probably a local resident or people who have been dealing for years with the complex topic of climate justice could write a more substanciated report about the incredible situation. What I risk here is simply to share my bearing witness as I experienced the days around the brown coal field. Preceding were almost two years of preparation, some visits to the place, getting to know people and circumstances, a “deep diving”. The ecoretreat grew out of me as it were. It was not something “thought up, which could be done some time”. Already in my childhood and youth the fact of the immense destruction of our livelyhood drove me. And I know I am not alone. The again and again appearing enigma how we humans are really in relation with the beauty and the destruction of our natur became the guiding question for me.

I wrote this report over 5 month piece by piece. Meanwhile it is 14 January 2023. Today was and still is the big demonstration in Lützerath. 35.000 people were there. The village is being cleared for days under partly devastating circumstances. But better I start with the ecoretreat in August 2022. A retreat that lasts longer for me than five days.

On 17 August 2022 the time had come. A small group of 17 people was courageous enough to engage together into something I am still grateful for. We were a wildly mixed bunch of people from the Zen Sangha Gent, from the Netherlands and from Germany. New and familiar faces. Among us were two activists from the organization “Kirchen im Dorf lassen”, a catholic minister from Krefeld and two young people from the activist resistance, who lovingly cared for us by creating nourishing vegan food for us, partly from saved groceries. That was really good. Two gifted musicians were part of our group – I still see them with their violin and guitar always at hand, have their special voices in my ear and how they interwove the landscape, of which more later.

Our accomodation was the “Feierabendhaus” a simple guesthouse mainly used as lodging by workers employed in the pit or a power plant. It was situated handy only one kilometer from the Hambach hole. There we spent the nights, cooked, ate in the mornings and evenings and had our meditations and council circles every morning. We all got involved with the diversity of the group. At least it seemed so. We experienced a familiar and peaceful togetherness. But familiarity and peace was not all we got involved with: There was also the destruction of our natur immediately before our feet.

There is the Hambach forest a 700 years old old-growth forest – especially worth protecting because of its primeval beauty and biodiversity. Due to Europe’s biggest surface mine it is already destroyed to a large extent. When we arrived the heat was baking. Drought was steaming from the dusty soil as it were. The blackberries were producing fruit in abundance this summer – what a stubborn will to live! Though the fruits withered before ripening and hang shriveled on dryed up twigs. The forest gets the existential groundwater extracted by the surface mine. The energy company RWE is pumping the groundwater away to prevent it flooding the pit. Whereas 2018 the remnant of the primary forest was saved by courageous activists it is dying of thirst now – that was perceptible.

Two of the activists who are living in the forest, Stick and Omega were their forest names, gave us an extensive tour through the forest up to the edge of the pit. They had substantial information and background knowledge for us. For some of us it was the first encounter with the complex topic of climate justice, ecological and political contexts. I often feel outrage, when I read about the hard facts about the state of our planet. This familiar outrage turned into something best described as holy anger. It feels good to give home to this holy anger inside of me and to nourish inner clarity with it. To look into the faces of Stick and Omega and to listen to them kindled an almost shaking clearness and at the same time something I would call wild originality… may be even a wondrous seed of lively hope.
It’s not at all comprehensible what all this has to do with hope. Some experiences are deeply disturbing. Like the visit to the little memorial for their friend Steffen Meyn. Steffen fell to his death during an attempt to evacuate the forest by the police in 2018. We stood there, sounding together with our musicians accompanied by violin and guitar, offering flowers and incense. To pause at such a place, to give the situation time and space, interweave it with sounds and listen to what there is to listen to changes everything. It is an Acknowledgement.

“That a gentle thing might happen to us,
when heaven touches us,when its breathing nearnessseduces us completely into being here.”
Jean Gebser

Hope? Beneath one of the numerous photos of Steffen was told his birth date. I realized that he had the same birthday as I only another year. We had celebrated birthday on the same day for 27 years.

Later Stick and Omega invited us into their treehouse settlement, from ground perspective of course. We sat around the fire pit, that had probably warmed many an activists hands and served as campfire hearth. A good place to eat our brought along food. Living hope!

Humans need cultures and structures of living together, common good. School pathways for kids, community centers, bakeries baking fresh bread – humans need good places to live. For everyone. In short: humans need villages. These villages are destroyed by the open cast mines. People are (forcibly) relocated. In total 300 settlements were devastated and about 100.000 people were relocated for open cast lignite mining alone in Germany. We visited the almost totally extinct village Alt-Mahnheim. There were only the street lights of the old streets left. Houses already torn down or, if still standing, with barricaded windows. As the former church. Here we stayed in silence. At the church, or better, it’s hull, we celebrated for the first time the “Gate of Sweet Nectar”. This Buddhist ceremony, which I am devoutedly fond of and which Zen Peacemakers use to do at hungry places like Auschwitz. May it nourish all hungry ghosts, suffering from greed, hatred and ignorance, within ourselves and all.

One evening we went to a soldiers cemetary close to our accomodation. It was a resettled cemetary of soldiers killed in World War II from all the villages dredged away for the Hambach pit. It was a silent place beneath old oak trees. The trees had a calming peaceful air. Maybe because I knew that they would be left alone.

We also visited Keyenburg at the Garzweiler pit, a village still populated but mostly  abandoned  already. Here I started to realize the uncertainty the people are living in here concerning their whole existance: one time its decided to dredge Keyenburg. Another time they say it will survive.  What a fragmentation in the history of the village and its inhabitants, animals and plants. But there are more incredible stories about other villages and existential back and forth. To recount them all would fill a book. Maybe it shoud be written one time.

“May all places be held sacred.
May all beings be cherished.
May all the injustices of enslavement, oppression and devaluation be redressed, remedied and healed.
May those who are imprisoned by hatred, be liberated to the love that is their birthright.
May those bound by fear, be released into the safety of understanding.
May those weighed down by grief, be released to the joy of being.
May those lost in delusion, find relief on the path of wisdom.
May all the wounds of forests, rivers, deserts, oceans,
All wounds of mother earth lovingly be healed again.
May all beings everywhere rejoice in the song of birds and the blue sky.
May all beings dwell in well-being, awaken and be free.”

A prayer from the One Earth Sangha

To destroy the environment means to take creatures the basis for the taste of god.”
A. M. Karimi

What remains anyway when you walk through these villages is the profound brokenness, the forced displacement. Even the churches don’t provide refuge any longer – desecrated, profaned. I ask myself up to this day: How is it possible to violate sacred soil? Isn’t this the core of a multiple crisis – a radical spiritual crisis? Have we taken leave from our senses? Have we totally lost our connection to the really life serving.





Exactly here our violinist unpacked his instrument and gave sound and voice to all the dissonance. It reverberated while we were sitting in silence in front of the Keyenburg church. If there were a word it would be re-ensoulment.

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