Modern Walden or Life in the Woods near Berlin

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.” Henry David Thoreau

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I am a sweet-water* lake kind of person. When I have time off from work I like to spend it at a lakeside cabin just outside Berlin. For those who don’t know, Berlin is surrounded by at least a zillion lakes, (OK then, 3,000) and everyone has their secret favourite that they only divulge to best friends, or people they owe money. I post kitschy photos of sunsets and heron flapping lazily over the horizon and spend my time watching mewling kites wheeling overhead with my binoculars. But when I take a photo of the serene lake with my smartphone the GPS function tags the photo as “Industriegebiet Rüdersdorf” (Industrial Area Rüdersdorf). That can’t be right, surely? I am on the edge of a nature reserve after all; the water so clear you can see your toes, mussels and schools of fish, carp as big as your arm jumping in the sunset. I even bought a rowing boat to better explore the area.

But I am not sure I liked what I discovered.
It didn’t help that my holiday reading was Naomi Klein’s magisterial book on the climate movement and the extractive industry “This Changes Everything.”

I took the book out in the boat with me, cast the anchor over the side, and bobbing out in the middle of the lake I could see various chimneys, and other industrial-looking silhouettes on the skyline, clear indications that despite the silence, the clear water, the great crested grebes and swans, I was not in the middle of untouched countryside: not only was I a mere 30 km from the hustle and bustle of Berlin’s centre I was also slap-bang in the middle of one of the largest industrial areas of Brandenburg. Opencast mining, gas-storage caverns, electricity generation, large-scale dumps, the works. The only thing I could identify off the bat was the cement works. That’s because when I return here after a week of city life, there is usually a fine white layer of dust covering everything outside. Plus there is a useful sign on the funnel-like structure saying “CEMEX.”

On the 40-minute drive here you pass every type of “urban sprawl” shop you can imagine: tyre and car outlets, building materials suppliers, warehouses, dump sites specifically for building waste, scaffolding businesses, forklift rentals, gas canister depots, about ten petrol stations, a liquid gas station, a garden centre selling only concrete statues of cherubs, and at least five large-scale DIY stores. An ALDI is just being built, there’s a wholesale pet food store, NETTO, Penny, the works. The kind of stuff we upwardly mobile Berliners tend to pretend doesn’t exist, at least in the Prenzlauer Berg world of organic shopping and shared sunlit work spaces-cum-coffee shops.

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The lake where I spend my time is a bit mysterious, as it is not mentioned in the never-ending list of top bathing spots for Berliners looking to cool off. But that may simply be because the international media haven’t quite clocked on to the fact that there is an Eastern side of Berlin beyond Prenzlauer Berg, repeatedly listing Krumme Lanke, Tegelersee and Plötzensee as the go-to beaches. This seems odd considering a) the excellent water quality (it’s a nature reserve, with three springs feeding into it with the mussels, crayfish and myriad fish for proof) b) the proximity to the S-Bahn (4 km cycle ride through a pleasant cool woodland area, and a safe wide bike track) c) the size of the lake (220 hectares of sunlit water) and d) the great “Strandbad”, one of Germany’s many municipally subsidised beaches, with entrance fees of 2,50 € for grownups and 1,50 € per kid over six. Younger than that and you go free. The real money is earned with the beer and the grilled sausages, which, as I can attest, makes more sense than relying on stiff entrance prices. Once all those Rüdersdorfers are in there, they are a hungry, thirsty, captive audience and the size of the men’s paunches tells you the rest.

The Stienitzsee (there I’ve spilled the beans now) is the appendix end of a very long intestinal-like tract of waterways, bulging out in the form of lakes every once in a while (Kalksee, Flakensee, Müggelsee), connected by narrow canals: from its tail-end here at the nature reserve, it turns first into the Müggelspree, and then into the Spree, taking a convoluted detour through Berlin, with one arm heading towards the Spreewald on the Poland border, and the other heading all the way up to the Baltic Coast.

From the water you see things that are invisible from the road. Tiny basic cabins (“datschas” as they are still called, from the Russian for weekend homes, that pretty much everyone and his uncle seemed to have in the GDR) line the banks of the lake and canal. Some ramshackle, adorned with plastic swings and upturned leaking and paint-blistered boats with names like “Seejurke”** and “Kleiner Gustav”, some pristine with impeccable lawns leading down to the lake, with ostentatious gleaming “schwanzverlängerer”*** motor boats. But these cabins all have in common a certain modesty that still attests to the socialist past. No mock-Palladian palaces here, or Zehlendorf-style villas nor modernist fantasies. No vast wasteful lawns. Just normal people with normal habits lucky enough to have a spot by the water.

I decided to take the water route to visit the succinctly named “Building Materials Museum” nearby, whose name alone surely merits a visit by Bill Bryson. I turned into a narrow canal leading to the Kalksee, a limestone quarry that had been flooded after use. A large overhead road that leads to the Berliner Ring thundered above, and down below the bizarre sight of people enjoying the sun in plastic chairs, or mowing lawns by the river, whilst articulated lorries thundered above them.

The “Museum” with a pleasant dock and waterside café on the banks of the Kalksee is actually more of a park, a sprawling area with various historical reminders of the region’s industrial past and information on its present.

Turns out, where I spend my holidays used to be the largest raw materials producer for cement in the GDR. The quarry is four kilometres long, a kilometre wide and around 100 metres deep, the largest opencast quarry in Brandenburg.

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In the summers during the early 1980s it snowed limestone; 59,000 tonnes of dust a year was produced by the limestone kilns alone. During the post-war GDR years the primary goals were fast cheap housing and growth. No one wanted to discuss the layers of dust settling on the freshly washed clothes on the washing lines around Rüdersdorf or the smell of burning chalk from the industrial lime kilns because there were more pressing needs. The environment was sacrificed on the altar of progress, whilst in the West it was being sacrificed on the altar of profit. In both cases the future was sacrificed for the immediate needs. Only in the eighties did environmental groups start making headway with the growing awareness of how these extractive industries were long-term affecting the water and air.

After reunification two cement works were shut down in the interests of “streamlining”, the third most profitable one was “bought” by Readymix Düsseldorf for what they call “an apple and an egg” here (not much) and turned into a state-of-the-art cement factory. It is still running strong nearby, but the air is somewhat cleaner thanks to the one million they invested in filters in line with European air pollution regulations.

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Apparently the Brandenburger Tor, Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam, the famous Volksbühne in Mitte, Berlin’s cathedral, the Olympic Stadium and lots of other landmark buildings all have one thing in common: they were all built from the limestone mined here in Rüdersdorf. It has been quarried and fired here for the past 750 years. Until it ran out, clay was also sourced from the banks of the lake and there were several brickyards in the area. To this day, the Rüdersdorf limestone quarry is the largest in central Europe. But ask a Berliner, and I bet 10 to 1 he won’t have heard of it.

So is Rüdersdorf the equivalent of Berlin’s hardware store? All the building materials you could need tucked away behind a few lakes and superstores, while we get to live in the elegant limestone buildings, saunter past organic coffee shop to the bespoke artisanal veggie store with no visual reminders of what it actually takes to build a city?

In 1764 King Frederick II had 13 “four-family-houses” built in Rüdersdorf to house foreign miners and their families. A village school soon followed, more houses, and then a colony for invalided-out soldiers who had to sign contracts to work the mines to pay for their upkeep. In 1899 the first cement factory opened up, ideally close to the limestone needed. The local waterways, leading directly to the heart of Berlin, and then via the Havel to Potsdam, were an additional factor. In the 1860s more houses were built for migrant workers from the Niederlausitz (Lower Lusatia, an area extensively mined for its lignite coal), who were brought in and housed in exchange for contractually binding work in the mines. Migrant workers from other areas of Germany soon followed. During the Nazi period prisoners were used as forced labour and after that migrants from Eastern Europe made it their home. During World War II, French, Italian and Soviet prisoners of war worked here, and then in the years of the GDR, workers were sourced from the nearby prisons.

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Until Autumn 1989 the cement works and mines were strictly shielded from the public. With full employment, it was impossible to find people who wanted to work in the mines of their own free will, so the cement works were surrounded by concrete walls and dog runs. Production was continued with convicts from the Rüdersdorf prison. After the demise of the GDR the barracks were used as housing for asylum seekers, but under German law they weren’t allowed to work, otherwise they would probably have been set to work here too. From the watchtowers you have a bird’s eye view of the industrial landscape. I am reminded of apocalyptic films like Bladerunner or Stalker and it’s not a future I wish to pass on to my children. On the other hand, now that it is here, what a wonderful idea, to turn this community’s extractive past into an open air museum with children playing hide and seek in the old lime kilns and families having picnics on the newly grown grass. The museum guides at least seem unperturbed, in fact, quite proud of this moonscape. Apparently it was the site of many famous film scenes from 1914 onward, with famous directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Joe May filming here, with and actors like Hans Albers, Maria Carmi and Harry Piel. For the classic GDR-Karl May films about cowboys and Indians, actors would fight it out here in the white limestone “canyons of Colorado”. It seems ironic that while First Nation peoples in America and Canada fight to protect their lands from extractive mining and pipelines running through their countryside, actors on the other side of the world recreate the Wild West in the idyllic-seeming defunct mines and tailing lakes of Germany.

Somehow I don’t see the local Rüdersdorfers fighting for green energy. They are pretty busy polishing their high-speed motorboats and driving SUVs. The biggest employer in the area is CEMEX, which still blasts two detonations a day, and still supplies raw materials for Berlin’s continuing building boom. But since the eighties a mixed bag of progress and backtracking has been made, local forces of “progress” wanting to make a fast buck by allowing large corporations in combination with more sustainable forms of industry. In 1988, just before the Wall came down, a local Rüdersdorf Environmental Group was founded, concerned about the high levels of dust in the air and the pollution in the lakes. An exhibition was staged highlighting the effects of the local industry on the waterways and environment. The water was undrinkable and fish stocks had shrunk to a minimum, the eel that used to flourish here had disappeared. The group was key to turning the Stienitzsee into a nature reserve, almost worthy again of Fontane’s description of it as the “Thuringia of Berlin”,  but the towering industrial towers biting into the skyline are a reminder that there are two sides to the coin of our comfortable existence.

Nine wind turbines were erected in 1995, the museum on the site of the open pit mine was opened in 1994. And in 2011 the “Solarpark Rüdersdorf” opened on the 11-hectare site of the former rubbish tip Tasdorf. It was the largest rubbish tip serving Berlin in the 80s, covering 22 hectares, and was recently “sealed” with a photovoltaic farm on top providing enough power to fuel more than 750 homes.

The local mayor is pro-industry, Christian Democrat, Andre Haller, but despite this there are green initiatives taking place and there is currently a referendum on Brandenburg policies on intensive livestock farming vs sustainable and organic animal husbandry. Hope yet.

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Communities need to be able to create their own balance between exploiting and preserving their country’s wealth. Sure, buildings have to be built, and heated, but we are now, better than ever before, in the privileged position of being able to choose which path to take: building with fast-growth renewable timber, in a sustainable way, powered by wind, solar and hydro-energy with lakes untouched and industrial mines remaining as quaint monuments to the past, or a future where lakes serve purely as tailing ponds for the runoff and toxins revealed from the earth.

Returning to my cabin after the museum visit, I saw a white-tailed sea eagle circling above, on the lookout for fish. A relatively rare sighting, but something I have shared with my daughters a few times now. That same evening we saw a vole, and discovered a raccoon in the plum tree, stuffing himself with half-ripe plums, and I tried hard to suppress the feeling of preemptive nostalgia, hoping against hope that my daughters too could share these wonderful sights with their children one day.

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* the Germans call freshwater lakes “süsswasser” = sweet water lakes.

**Seejurke is a Berlinization of Seegurke (sea cucumber)

*** Schwanzverlängerer means “dick extension”. A lot of the motorboats seem to serve only that purpose, as they are only taken out at sunset for a quick fast spin around the lake and then polished all day.

Further reading:

http://www.museumspark.de/erlebnispark/geschichte/

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/R%C3%BCdersdorf_bei_Berlin

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