The World In-Between

It's a strange day - because I just woke up around 5:30 pm. Normally at this time of the day I'm looking forward to an early closing time. But today everything is different. At noon I kept on walking with my dog Bilbo, a forest loving beagle mix, much too far, without any provisions: I suddenly had a goal in my head that I had to reach. A goal that I wanted to reach so often before, but always refused: too wet, too inaccessible, too difficult, too far. There was always some excuse.

Our path in edgelands, between forbidden terrain and seeming idyll. In this forest the first oil drilling rig was installed in 1813. Today there is a faithful replica made of wood - and barren land.

With ease I could have taken the car, got out at the parking and walked only for a few meters. So I would have the comfortable view of a tourist who seldom lurks in this corner. Long ago I was here as a tourist, seeing this strangely grown group of trees - in the meantime on a private property. Already at that time it did not fit into the forest, because of the species and the strange way of growing.

For good reason I wanted to track these trees down, slowly approaching at walking pace to be able to linger: This is the place, where my text will begin. Here, about 25 years ago, I heard a concert deeply touching me, when a modern composer played his music, seemingly not coming from this world. He played on the young trunks of just that group of trees

Did I remember all this right? What kind of tree was it? Would they still stand today? Would I be able to sharpen my memories by looking at the image of the present?

My dog and me hiked so far that the last kilometres home were exhausting. I felt my stomach hollow and empty, dreaming of opening the fridge. At home I prepared hot tea, lime blossom tea with chestnut honey, mead from trees. With the tea, the fed dog and two huge, thick sandwiches, I disappeared into the pillows, just wanted to rest my exhausted bones and read in Robert Macfarlane's "Underworld". So we both fell asleep, me like a stone, the dog probably as well.

I dreamed quite wildly, the hike mixed with pictures from the book. When I woke up slowly, I was in this intermediate world between sleeping and waking, where you often get the craziest ideas. If you write them down immediately, they usually turn out to be nonsense. But often they also give you an eureka effect. I have often planned my books in this state. Now I remember a scene from Macfarlane's book.

There he climbs around with a friend in forbidden underworlds, climbs into a disused Welsh mine and gets into an almost magical cavity. In the darkness below, a dark water level fills the mine over the years. Far above, a hole to the outside, which leads a sunbeam into nothingness. But it is not a place of worship. Generations of land dwellers have disposed of their cars through this hole, simply dumped them into the nothing of the pit, not knowing where and how the wrecks would land there. The gullet took them all in ...

And the author now stands below in front of this mass of cars and, like an archaeologist, recognizes the different layers of time from the wealth waste, he can see how the materials change or do not decompose. Right up to the most modern layer, the scrap tells something about generations of villagers.

In a flash of my dream, brought forth by the scene in the book, I see an image that I hardly noticed during the hike, because it feeled so normal. In a seemingly abandoned house people sat together at lunch and watched us attentively through the window, perhaps because on that path only rarely forest workers, hunters or mushroom pickers pass by. I see them in their cosiness, can literally smell the steaming bowl with my hunger, see the warm yellow light while I walk in the humid cold of late autumn.

Passing the house, I have something in my mind that I didn't know 25 years ago: These people are sitting on cavities in the earth, on underground passages that no longer exist. Exactly in those days when the Welsh people in Macfarlane's book probably disposed of their cars most busily in nature, the galleries here in Northern Alsace were filled to the brim: with hazardous waste, as it is called today. In the 1960s, people were certain that the earth would graciously absorb and swallow everything. Away from their eyes, from their mind. Earth would eat it, transform it. You just have to wait long enough and humus would be formed out of dirt!
Petroleum distillery (1885) in Pechelbronn / Alsace (Photo: Archive of the French National Petroleum Museum, with friendly permission). Living on the edges for centuries ...

Waking up now, I see the picture as sharp as an afterimage on the retina: A family sits with their friends in self-forgotten, stylish enjoyment right on the edge of the abyss, strangely united with the legacy that not even the most modern specialist company could salvage. A flash of light in my half-sleep - and I see another family sitting together, not so far away, just another hike far away. They are poor and dirty, the cottage rather a small hut with a single cow in the narrow garden, at the edge of a village, which makes an irritating impression. It should look rural, but the whole forest has been deforested. It should lie quietly in the midday rest, but through the main street one vehicle after the other drives, fully loaded. It hammers and clanks and scrapes and makes in that strange village.

I see the adults putting their heads together. One of them has a graphite pencil in his hand, writing down with awkward letters what the others are persuading him to do. He is the only one at the table who can write. They are all angry and upset because they feel that something has been wrong in this village for a long time. The cows die, when they drink from the forest brook. The children become strangely pale, wither away, simply fading out like lamps that no longer have enough petroleum. Worst of all, their harvests are at risk because the weather is going crazy. At first they didn't want to believe that the storms were more severe, the summers hotter. Now they have identified the culprit. They are poor, but not idiots, their families have been working this land for generations.

It is the French king in distant Paris, it is the rich aristocrats and bonzes who cut down whole forests in the countryside for their hunts. And above all, a man is to blame who actually brought them their livelihood, but who is now destroying the last of nature. They are all too greedy for mineral resources. The peasants hit the bare wooden table with their fists and dictate furiously. What the man writes will go down in history as one of the first petitions to the king about environmental protection. Hundreds of years later people will know how right these farmers were. The devastating logging has completely changed the microclimate in the village, handling chemicals containing arsenic poisons their water and soil. Almost forgotten today, this cottage is the beginning of what would be called an ecological uprising today. The miners will participate.

And so the beginning of a text is born in semi-sleep, in the intermediate world of inner images, in which this mysterious group of trees will grow. It will draw a link to borderlands between the human urge to explore, human curiosity, joy of experimentation and a world that will consist only of greed, striving for profit and exploitation. Even before the French Revolution. This is a world that is still threatening to explode in barrels and loose sewage, chemicals and concrete under our feet. I am brightly awake and dig like an archaeologist in a big old cardboard box with material. Somewhere a copy of this petition to the king must still lie ...


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