Reflections of a Rebel – A day at Hambacher Forst
Wednesday morning. Waking up in Cologne. The bed and duvet feel so comfortable is the first thought on my mind. The second one is how strange the last 48 hours have been, like a window into an alternative reality, a present day dystopia neatly hidden away from our collective consciousness. My body feels so weak, luring me down under the duvet again for another 5 minutes, or 5 hours, or an eternity; but I feel an impulse and a responsibility to write, to recollect as much as I can before this window closes itself up again.
48 hours ago I was waking up in Wuppertal, West Germany. I visited a good friend and a soul companion for the weekend. But now it was time to leave. A brief stop in Cologne for buying a tent and one last cappuccino before departing from civilisation as I know it.
I took the S-bahn to the small town of Buir and Waffel, my contact person from Hambach, was already there waiting to pick me up from the station. He asked if I speak Dutch because of my phone number’s area code. He then told me how he is actually Flemish but was raised in this area of West Germany. His father was an official for the Belgian Army which had a military base here since after the war and until the early 2000s.
As we were driving he showed me the Vigil for the camp on the left side and the Hambach Forest on the right. Continuing a bit further we reached the town of Morschenich which housed the Hambi Camp. It felt like a ghost town; most of the houses were abandoned and the windows shut with wooden bars. Apparently the area of the town was bought by RWE, the second largest electricity producer in Germany, and was to become part of the coal mine after relocating most of its residents. Neighbouring towns have either undergone or are scheduled to go through a similar process.
The Hambi Camp was very small; several tents for people to sleep in, a kitchen, a library, a workshop for building things, and a room for people to come together for weekly deliberations. It was also the only legal place for activists to stay in and the only place with running water. This meant that forest dwellers had to come here occasionally or have the water brought to them in small containers.
Waffel has been staying here since after the forest evictions in 2018. I didn’t ask him why he doesn’t go back to the forest nor do I think he would have given me an answer. He said I could stay in the camp and put my tent not far from his. But I had a will to go into the forest. He then said that I should go to the Vigil and ask for more information there on how to find a barrio in the forest that could accommodate me. There are several barrios, or small neighbourhoods in the forest, where people live in community.
Before I left he gave me some tips on how to talk to people, which questions I could ask them and especially which ones I shouldn't. As the police have been collaborating with RWE they were monitoring the activists regularly, and so it was important to have a security culture where sensitive information is communicated as little as possible. At that point I couldn’t imagine how deep this culture goes, and how almost anything was considered sensitive. And so I left my backpack at the camp and headed out on foot.
There was a young guy just outside the Vigil. He said his name was Moli. I asked him if he was staying at the forest. After a short stutter he replied “kinda” and went inside to go back to his business. I followed him in and tried to explain that I was looking for information on how to find accommodation in the forest.
Another girl was there and picked up on the conversation. She showed me a map of the forest and told me that I should try to go to Lluna, a barrio that is mostly international and welcoming to new visitors. I tried to continue the conversation, even admitting that I felt a bit clueless and hesitant as to what I can and cannot ask. She said I should just try and if she doesn’t feel comfortable with sharing then she will say so. I asked where is she from. “I’m not answering that”, she replied, followed by an awkward silence.
A minute later and she and Moli started back towards the forest without any additional word towards me. Their hostility was penetrating. Why are they so harsh? Don’t they want other people who care about the forest to join and help them? I almost wanted to give up and leave but the will to go into the forest was stronger. I followed the directions to Lluna: straight all the way, then turn right at the Jesus Point and continue a bit further until I see The Tower.
Only now, in retrospect, I can appreciate or even be amused by the names of the barrios, which seemed to have been taken from The Lord of The Rings and other fantasy worlds. At that time I was far too focused on the goal, and far too anxious to think of anything else.
I reached Lluna and saw The Tower, a magnificent tree house spanning several trees and three floors tall. It was relatively not too high up the tree so one could climb it with a ladder that was built into the structure. On the top of the ladder there was a sign which read “Vegan or Jump!”
A person was sitting on a couch under the tower. He, or I should rather say they, were all dressed in black, including a mask that covered all of their face and left two holes for the eyes only. Since they were eating, they occasionally pulled down the lower part of the mask, so that their mouth could access the next bite, and then pulled it back up again. I approached them and said hello.
“Hi”, they answered.
“I’m coming from the Vigil. I was told to go to Lluna and ask if I could stay here”.
“You should know that we are strictly vegan.”
“It’s okay”, I answered.
“What do you mean ‘it’s okay’?”
“It means that I will not eat or bring here anything which is not vegan.”
They seemed to be fine with the answer and asked me how long was I planning to stay.
“Somewhere between one and three weeks.”
I sat down and had a long conversation with them. Their name was Klem, although by now it was obvious that no one here is using their real name. I told them that I’m part of Extinction Rebellion in The Netherlands, that I heard about the occupation of the forest and wanted to see what it is like. They were listening attentively but I could hardly tell what was on their mind because any facial expression was covered by the mask.
It soon became apparent that Klem was more radically anti-capitalist than any other person I’ve met in my life. In a later conversation I asked them to imagine how this camp would look like if it was legal. They said it would be boring and that they would probably leave and continue fighting the system somewhere else. Their fight was their life and their life was their fight.
Thinking of the word ‘radical' I am reminded of a quote by Hannah Arendt: “Good can be radical; evil can never be radical, it can only be extreme, for it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension yet--and this is its horror--it can spread like a fungus over the surface of the earth and lay waste the entire world.” I used to think that there is no such thing as “extreme left”, that it was just a propaganda of right wing politicians. But now I’m not so sure anymore. I admired Klem’s fierceness yet couldn’t help but think that, as a product of the system which they were trying to destroy, they will never be able to realize a more beautiful alternative.
At some point I had to go back to Hambi Camp and fetch my backpack. When I got there I saw Waffel again and told him about my time in the forest and my meeting with Klem. “You will never see their face”, he told me.
I asked him for a ride back to the forest because my backpack was quite heavy. As we reached the entry to the forest he used a scarf to cover the lower part of his face, reaching up above the nose. I realized that this was making me uncomfortable and mentioned it to him. He thought I was afraid that someone might hurt me, but that wasn’t it. Trying to explain to myself and to him what I was feeling, I said that "when we hide ourselves we internalise the identity of the oppressed and let fear rule our entire being". I don’t think he understood me, but he said that I shouldn’t feel like I have to do the same if I’m not comfortable with it.
He stopped the car at the entry to the forest and we started walking towards Lluna. The place was empty. We saw people sitting and talking underneath a nearby structure. Above them a red star and what seemed to be a picture of Stalin. Waffel wanted to talk to them. As we approached they pulled up their face covers to hide their faces.
“Are you fine with us being here?”, Waffel asked.
“I don’t know you. What do you want?”, one of them replied in an indifferent yet hostile tone.
Waffel said that he’s been here for a long time…
The other person did know him, and she wasn’t as hostile as the first.
“Do you know where Klem is?”, Waffel asked, after realising that they aren’t really up to any type of conversation. They didn’t.
We went back to The Tower and Waffel asked if I would like him to show me inside. We climbed the ladder and entered the first floor. There were two beds and a battery which was connected to a solar panel on the roof. He said I could use it for charging my phone but shouldn’t leave it connected for too long as it was draining the battery. We went up another floor. This one was much messier, with many boxes of tofu and rice milk that were donated. Some of the tofu was completely rotten and smelled horrible, yet no one seemed to get rid of it. Waffel said I could stay in either floor but preferably not in the third because it could get too windy. I preferred to set up my tent outside. We climbed down and I told him I can wait here until the others come back. He wished me luck and left.
I set up my tent and unpacked my stuff inside. My phone battery was nearly drained so I climbed the tower again to charge it. Someone was there. They introduced themselves as Robin.
I should say that both Robin and Klem would be considered male in a heteronormative society, yet both of them preferred the pronoun they as an act of opposition to patriarchy.
Robin was going to cook something and asked if I wanted to join them. They fetched some of the not-yet-rotten tofu and said we could get some veggies from downstairs.
All of the food that is not donated they get from “dumpster diving”, which, I believe, is self-explanatory.
Robin was cutting some potatoes and gave me a couple of courgettes and carrots to cut.
"Shall I wash them first?”
They were hesitant and finally replied “if you want to…”
They then said that the water are precious so normally they don’t bother to wash food. I washed the vegetables anyway, but only used very little water.
As we cooked we talked about society, about the climate crisis and about the future. I told them that I had a very different idea of this place before coming here, expecting to find “tree-hugging hippies”. They laughed and said that I’m probably quite shocked then. They were right. They also said that perhaps one learns much more when reality doesn’t match one’s expectations. They were right.
As the conversation continued they mentioned a book called Desert, written by an anonymous writer, which claims that it is already too late to stop the social and environmental collapse; and that when all hope is gone one is just left with living in whichever way they feel like.
For Robin it meant living here in the forest, close to the trees and the animals, and other humans who share this way of life.
I suppose I still have some hope within me. Hope that, while society is collapsing, more and more people will awaken to a new consciousness; leaving our comfortable yet superficial lifestyles behind, and reconnecting with a source of energy and wisdom within us that will instruct our every action to be in alignment with life itself.
For Robin, most people are just too used to their comfort to be able to live in any other way.
The food was ready. “Gibt Essen!”, he yelled to see if some other forest dwellers were hungry. A few moments later someone came, carrying a small pot and a spoon which contained leftovers of their previous meal. They didn’t seem to mind and just poured inside some of the food that Robin made. I stayed there for a bit longer and then excused myself to go to my tent.
I didn’t get much sleep as I was a bit cold and quite uncomfortable on this very narrow and thin camping mattress, a sleeping bag that felt too synthetic and no pillow.
Am I also too used to my comfort?
I woke up at around 9am.
This is too much for me…
I don’t belong here…
I have to leave.
I then thought that perhaps if I did my morning yoga routine I would feel better and change my mind, so I rolled out my yoga mat and started with a sun salutation.
I sometimes like to practice with my eyes closed, but I recalled a saying from an old Swami at the Sivananda ashram in France:
“we normally meditate with our eyes closed; except when we’re in nature!”
So I left them open, looking at the trees.
I noticed many more treehouses than yesterday, many of them more than 20 meters above ground. I guess I’m just not used to looking so high. And I wondered how many other things I was missing because I’m not used to these different ways of seeing. I finished my practice but my will stayed the same – it is time to leave.
I took a package of strawberries from one of the boxes and headed to the Vigil. There is internet there so I can plan my return to civilisation.
The Vigil was empty. I plugged in my laptop and looked for possible next destinations. I sent a couple of emails to potential Workaway hosts and wished for the best.
On my way back to the forest I realised that if I keep walking straight along this path I will reach the coal mine. I had to see it with my own eyes; to witness the extent of our ongoing battle against nature.
Walking past blockades and ground that was dug in order to keep police vehicles from entering, I finally reached the end of the forest. It was as simple as that: one step you’re in it and on the next you’re out. The trees, the insects, the wild animals, the birds, all made way for Dead Earth.
A few meters in front of me was a wall made of sand. I climbed it and gazed into the distance: a panoramic view of desolation stretching for miles on end. All of this used to be the forest and now it is dead; the bottom of the pit is 500 meters below ground, like a knife penetrating the core of The Earth. Tears were flooding my eyes… If we knew she could feel – would we still do that?
I sat down and closed my eyes.
ॐ ॐ ॐ
On the fence between two worlds
I sit and meditate
On my left side a forest
And a wasteland on my right
Here past and future are united
In a pre-postapocalyptic present
Of sacred silence.
Om shanti 🙏
The sound of footsteps in the distance. I opened my eyes. A young forest dweller and an older man were approaching from the side of the forest. They climbed the wall and continued in the direction of the mine, nodding as they passed me by. Suddenly, an SUV appeared and drove towards them. It was RWE security. The older man spoke to the person in the SUV for several minutes while the forest dweller stayed behind. They did not go any further.
As they came back I asked what happened and the older man (apparently he was a journalist) replied that RWE has cameras here and sent the vehicle to tell them to go back. They left and I stayed a bit longer and cried some more.
If we all cry enough – will our collective tears regenerate the earth? I wonder…
I headed back to Lluna. Klem was there. I told them about my experience at the edge of the forest. They asked me how was it.
"Very sad", I said, followed by a moment of silence.
“I love the treehouses”, I said after a while, “Did you ever build one?”
“How did you do it?”
They started explaining the process step by step: First you identify a tree. Then you attach a small weight to the end of a light rope and throw it across one of the branches. Then you replace the light rope with a heavier one and attach it to a pulley. Then you go to the mono crops and find a piece of wood that can be used as a support frame for the floor.
They continued on and on, describing everything in great detail; from the special types of knots to different methods of using the pulley, and from multi-level treehouses to winter insulation. It was way too much to comprehend for a person whose highest handicraft achievement was to set up a tent the day before. And the fact that I started having a headache also didn’t help.
“And do you sleep there?”
They shook their head. Most treehouses were constructed on oaks while theirs was built on top of an ash tree. In recent years a fungus has been infecting more and more ash trees, causing them to grow unnecessary branches for the fungus to feed on, while not having enough energy to strengthen their roots. Eventually they become weak and fall.
The tree upon which Klem’s treehouse is built has been getting weaker, so other forest dwellers have been pressuring them not to stay there.
I asked Klem if I could see their treehouse and they said yes. They fetched a couple of bicycles and we started riding. There were many paths marked by branches and stones – another thing which I haven’t noticed before. Klem rode in front and occasionally looked backwards to see if I was alright.
We reached the treehouse. They told me it is 28 meters above ground – the highest in the forest, and it had a unique design since they built it all on their own. It was a magnificent creation, sitting at the company of the crowns of the trees, triumphantly looking over the forest. And yet the tree itself was weak and we could see the treehouse swaying in the wind.
“Can I take a picture?” I asked hesitantly.
“Yes, be my guest; many people have taken a picture of it before”.
I reached into my pocket for the phone and took one picture. “Would you like to have it?”
"Depends if it’s a good one”, they said and came closer to have a look. “Oh that’s a really nice one!"
“How can I send it to you?”, I asked.
“That’s a good question…”
We headed back and my headache was getting worse, so I decided to take a quick nap before leaving.
I woke up one or two hours later but the headache was still there. I checked my phone; luckily there was a signal. A host from Waldbröl said I could come there for a few days. Stepping out of the tent I saw Robin beneath the tower and greeted them.
“You took a nap?” they asked with a smile.
“Yes, but I have a bad headache.”
“Oh, me too actually…”
Was it the food? I wondered, while Robin went back to their business.
Feeling suddenly nauseated I went to one of the trees and vomited.
I have to leave here now!
I crawled back into my tent and packed all of my stuff. It was getting worse. I decided to leave the tent behind as I didn’t have enough energy to break it down or carry it with me. It was time to go.
I heard people talking in the tower. Klem was among them.
“Klem?” I shouted.
“Would you like to say goodbye?”
They climbed down and looked at me.
“I’m leaving… I think I got a food poisoning and I feel very bad.”
“Oh shit. I’m sorry… but you’ll be alright.”
"I’m leaving you the tent, it’s a donation.”
“Oh thanks. We need more tents around here, haha…”
We hugged and I left.
I had to walk to the Buir S-bahn station which was 45 minutes away. Half way through I already felt exhausted. A little further was the Vigil, perhaps I can ask for help there.
Someone just arrived with a car; maybe I can ask them to give me a lift to the station… But first I had to sit down and recover some strength.
“Excuse me?” I approached the owner of the car, “do you think you can give me a lift to Buir?”
“No.” he said, “The car is full and it’s in the other direction. But the station is quite near…”
“I know, but my backpack is heavy and I’m feeling quite weak”.
He wouldn’t budge so I thanked him and went back to my chair.
Feeling even worse I decided to call Waffel and ask him to take me to the hospital. Someone else answered and said Waffel wasn’t there. I told him my situation and he said he was sorry but he doesn’t really know what to do about it. I had to keep going.
A few steps later and I vomited again. Catching my breath I actually felt slightly better. Only 20 more minutes to the station.
I made it, but I was completely exhausted. The train to Cologne arrived 10 minutes later. I put on my face mask and dragged myself inside. No time to rest yet. I took out my laptop and looked for a cheap hotel room near Cologne Hauptbahnhof. 50 Euros including breakfast. What would someone who is not so privileged do if they were in my situation? But I am privileged, and I did book the room.
Feeling sick again I felt like vomiting. Not inside the train! I tried to hold it in my mouth but couldn’t. Luckily there were no other people near me, and my vomit was mostly just water by now.
I arrived to Cologne. I wanted to buy some food and drink so I don’t get dehydrated, but I felt nauseated again so I rushed out of the station and vomited for the fourth time. Just a little bit further and then you’re safe.
I found a shop where I could buy ice tea and a pretzel. I imagined the shop keeper must have thought I had Corona.
Another 5 more minutes of walking and I arrived at the hotel. Checking in with very few words, I climbed to the second floor, opened the door to my room and collapsed on the bed. I’m safe.
It’s been a week since I was in Hambach. The window is closed but in its place there is a scar, a precious mark of remembrance that my destiny and that of the forest are deeply entangled. Every plane that crosses the sky, every air-conditioned living room, every concrete mall and every cheap gadget imported from China; behind the noise and tumult they all whisper “Hambach”.
In a few weeks I will be moving to Dornach in Switzerland to study Anthroposophy. As part of an ongoing (Re)Search, together with the Youth Section at the Goetheanum, we have been reflecting on questions that lie at the core of our humanity in this moment of time. The question that was guiding us throughout my time in Hambach was “Where has humanity gone?”; and I could think of no better answer than that panoramic image at the edge of the forest. Humanity hasn’t gone into one single place, but rather diverged into many, mutually oblivious and seemingly unrelated places. That image is a reminder that they are all connected; that we are all connected.
And I cannot help but wonder about my part in all of this. It feels as though I am guided by a strong impulse to bring those divergent paths into a focused unified whole; to dis-cover the hidden truths and hidden faces of this shared story, and hold them gently with an open hand, visible for anyone to see who is not afraid of looking. To integrate, to reconcile and to heal. Like Plinio Designori’s desperate confession in Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game: “How far body and soul, ideal and reality have moved apart in our country; how little they know about each other, or want to know. If I had any one task and ideal in life, it was to make myself a synthesis of the two principles, to be mediator, interpreter, and arbitrator between the two."
Yet the question is misleading, as humanity has not gone but actually is going, forever and always. And any attempt to characterise the present moment as something static, as a stopping point, cuts the observer apart from the perpetual motion of undivided wholeness that is the essence of existence.
Humanity is going…
Humanity will Fall in love with Truth
And Humanity will Rise
For Truth is in Love
Spiral on – Forever and Always
Dedicated to all activists, environmentalists and spiritual warriors who devote their lives to saving the Hambach Forest.
Hambi Bleibt! ✊