Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Human Chain

Land of the Dark Elves 

It is twilight, and I am swimming in cool waters. Never mind that an air force of mosquitoes is attacking any exposed flesh, I am in heaven. This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I am in a beautiful lake surrounded by tall pines silhouetted against the evening sky. The trees, the soil, the rolling countryside could be Norfolk, if Norfolk had lakes, and more trees.

But this isn't England. It is Deulowitzer See in Lusatia, a region of Germany near the Polish border; the east of the old East Germany, a place that for the whole of my childhood was invisible behind the Iron Curtain.

I am here with Greenpeace UK, part of an international camp that is hidden under the trees. We are here to help our colleagues in Greenpeace Germany because the lake, the nearby village of Kerkwitz, and the neighbouring villages of Atterwash and Grabko are all under threat from the Swedish energy company Vattenfall.
Heaven or Hell?

There is apparently a local saying "God made Lusatia, but the Devil put coal under the ground". Many environmentalists agree that what lies below the lake is indeed the work of Satan for beneath the water is a seam of lignite, or brown coal, Europe's dirtiest fossil fuel.

During Communism its fumes made the East resemble Mordor. Burnt in power stations and made into ersatz petrol to power Trabants, it polluted the air and water and choked the lungs. Cancer, bronchitis, heart and respiratory conditions were the consequences for the local comrades. Acid rain and greenhouse gases were the consequences for the wider environment.

Marxist/Leninism may have gone, but the lignite remains in use in Germany, as it does in Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo and Greece, a dirty fuel from a different era.

The brown coal is bad

Lusatia and its lakes survived Communism, but they may not survive Capitalism.
Photo: Hanno Bock Wikimedia Commons

I'd seen what might be in store for the lake earlier in the day. The Jänschwalde mine is an open cast pit the size of a city tended by machines size of skyscrapers. Giant bucket wheel excavators clear away the overburden to reveal the lignite lying a few metres below. 'Overburden' is a mining term. To the rest of us this means topsoil, trees, villages, and lakes.

The scale of Jänschwalde is hard to comprehend. From the coach the mine first appears as a wall of earth covering the entire horizon. Looking into the mine you see nothing of human scale.

To turn Deulowitzer Lake into this seems a crime against both God and Nature.

Decarbonising Europe

Ironically the problem has partly come about because of the success of the German Greens. The country was home to an arsenal of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and dusted with fallout from Chernobyl in 1986. Anti-nuclear groups in Germany were popular and well organised and so when Fukushima went bang the country decided to phase out its nukes.

Although a world leader in renewable power, the German economy is as power hungry as any in the world and so the politicians looked to lignite to fill the gap. But turning to the brown coal threatens to blow the European Union's targets for tackling Climate Change out of the water. Lignite produces at least twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of electricity as gas, and nearly twenty times as much as wind power. The new mines would lock Germany into lignite use until 2050, meaning we can kiss goodbye to keeping Global Warming to two degrees by 2100.

Despite the support of local politicians, and despite a Greenpeace organised referendum in 2009 in which the population of Brandenburg rejected lignite, in April this year the state government approved the plans to expand Jänschwalde. Meanwhile, just across the river that marks the Polish border state owned energy company PGE also wants to start mining for the brown coal.

So the battle is on to save both the lakes and the climate. For Pastor Matthias Berndt of Atterwasch this is a spiritual war "We're not just fighting to save our property here in these three villages, we're fighting against the destruction of nature and for the preservation of God's creation."

The Human Chain

But the pastor and his flock are not the only people worried about dirty fuels.

Having failed to kill coal with their referendum, Greenpeace Germany organised the Menschenkette, or Human Chain. The plan was to get enough people to come together to make a line 8 kilometres long from Kerkwitz in Germany to Grabice in Poland spanning the width of the proposed mines.

Greenpeace groups from across Northern Europe were taking part, and so on the Thursday before the August Bank Holiday I was with 63 other people from Greenpeace UK on a coach to Kerkwitz.

We travelled through the night along the autobahn passing massive coal fired power stations, but also gigantic wind farms; onshore turbines the size of the largest offshore arrays in the UK.

Last time I passed through this area was more than twenty years ago. Then everyone drove Ladas and Warburgs and there were still Russian soldiers about. Now it is all BMWs and Mercedes and in the high-tech motorway services the toilet seats revolved.

Deposited in the woods by the lake, we pitched our tents next to French, Norwegians, Czechs, Belgians, Dutch and Germans from the west of the country. Our own party, being typically Greenpeace, included at least four other nationalities in addition to British. (Never confuse real Greens with Little Englanders; we are an internationalist bunch.)

We were knocked out by the beauty of the forest, the quality of the beer and the warmth of the reception. Slightly less so by the lentil soup, admittedly, but you can't knock free food.

Standing in line with seven and a half thousand other people is a bit like being one yeast cell in barrel of beer; you know something great is happening, but it's kind of hard to tell what. This video clip gives some idea of the scale of the protest. I appear at 8 minutes and 42 seconds, which puts me more-or-less in the middle of the chain.

Without a doubt this is the biggest environmental demonstration I've every been on, five or six times bigger than our Manchester fracking rally. It was also one of the friendliest. A couple of die Bullen - as we're apparently supposed to call the police - were seen leaning on their squad cars smoking cigarettes, but basically we didn't need anyone to tell us what to do.

Once we were unchained we headed across the border into Poland for a gig headlined by our own Asian Dub Foundation. However we didn't drive for twenty hours from Islington in order a see a band from Hackney, so I don't see the set out and instead head back to Werkwitz.

Most people are chilling in the Climate Camp and the rest of the UK contingent are drinking the bar dry, but I walked into the village to the meet the locals.

In the Biergarten of the local pub I meet a man who speaks fluent drunk, the parents of the German member of our party and a folk singer who seems to want to sing a duet with me. The live musician struggles to play some English songs on his synthesiser and everyone is pleased to see us. Having spent most of the last decade wondering if their homes are going to disappear into a giant hole it's not surprising.

Tonight, at least, they seem hopeful for the future.

Politician’s Promises

Across the border in Poland Zbigniew Barski, the mayor of Gubin, was equally happy. “Never has our problem been so widely reported,” he said. However as we headed back home – having my passport checked for the only time on the entire journey when boarding the ferry to England –both the Polish government and the Brandenburg region seemed unmoved by our protest.
However, across the Baltic in Sweden they were having a General Election. Vattenfall wasn’t just a Swedish company, it is wholly owned by the Swedish government. The Human Chain had the Swedes talking about brown coal for the first time and opinion polls showed three quarters opposed the new mines. As these were effectively Vattenfall’s shareholders, this mattered.
On a TV debate the leaders of the eight largest parties all indicated they would stop Vattenfall if elected. But would they keep their promise when in power or wriggle out of them, possibly by part privatising the company?
When the votes were counted the centre-left Social Democrats were the largest party, but to form a government they needed a coalition partner. 
They chose the Green Party who had two demands for them. The second was an end to nuclear power, but the first was stopping Vattenfall.

Old problems

It's been said before that environmentalist have been fairly successful in tackling the bad new things of the late twentieth century such as nuclear power, DDT, GM food and - in Germany at least - fracking. However we've been completely useless at stopping the bad old things of the early twentieth century such as cars, chemicals and most of all coal.

Hopefully The Human Chain has done something to redress the balance. Brown coal is bad no matter which way you look at it.

Photo: Gordon Welters/Greenpeace
But although I came to Germany to save the climate, that's not why I want to stop the mine now. The truth is I am now in love with Deulowitzer See.

I've camped in some beautiful places in my life only to see them destroyed - the woods near Newbury and the Bollin Valley near Manchester Airport come to mind. This must not happen here.

For the sake of the climate, of the health of the people of Lausitz, but most of all for beauty's sake, let's unite against coal, the future is renewables.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Great Trees of Wales #2: Nevern's Bleeding Yew

Does a bleeding yew tree mark the grave of an ancient High King in a small Welsh churchyard?

Bleeding yew trees are actually common enough to be a readers problem on Gardner's World, but this one is the famous Bleeding Yew. It's a pity then that there isn't a better story about why blood red sap seeps from this 700 year old tree at certain times of the year, but maybe I can do something about that.

The main story is that a monk was hanged here for a crime he didn't commit, but there are also versions where it is empathy for Jesus or that it is waiting for an independent Wales or world peace, or something.

However the yew though is just the hook to lure you into the churchyard of this fascinating little hamlet.

Nevern is in an interesting part of the world. A few miles away is Castell Henllys, a reconstruction Iron Age village on the site of a genuine Iron Age village. The discovery of the post holes of the original huts in 1980 saved the place from becoming an Asterix theme park, and instead there are authentic Celtic roundhouses here, a reminder of a time when there were no Welsh or English, just Britons.

Also nearby is Pendre Ifan, possibly the finest dolmen in Wales.

The Church of St Brynach though is in its own way just as fascinating.

First of all there's St Brynach himself, who according to his chronicler was a bit of a lad until he converted to Christianity and cleaned up his act. At least one woman was apparently unimpressed with his new found chastity and attacked him with a spear when he wouldn't do the business with her.

The current church is a Norman one built on the site of St Brynach's original "clas". Apparently this was his third attempt at church building. The first failed when he was chased away by demons and the second when the locals stole his wood. (You know, I'm starting to think this chronicler was taking the piss.....).

What does remain though are some very curious stones. One is now the outside sill of a window and is inscribed with the seemingly random letters. Another is inside and has a rather stylised cross on it, but the most interesting has some curious upside down Ogham writing on it. It just says 'Maglocunos son of Clutarius' (was here?), but because it says it in Latin as well it helped scholars to decipher this ancient script.

Outside is a wonderful 10th century Celtic high cross, but the highlight of the churchyard is the enigmatic Vitalianus Stone. This dates from about 500AD and is also inscribed in Ogham and Latin. Possibly this was here even before Brynach.

Now 500AD is right in the middle of the Age of Arthur. This is the year usually given for the Battle of Badon Hill, which is mentioned enough times in different sources to probably be a real defeat for the Anglo-Saxons, although it's far from clear if anyone called Arthur was ever involved in it.

Now Vitalani could just be some otherwise anonymous Roman who just happens to be buried in what subsequently became the home of a Celtic Saint, but he could also be someone much more interesting. The Latin inscription actually says "Vitalani Emerato" which is cod Latin, the second word should probably be Emeritus, meaning "of merit". This may be a spelling mistake, or it could be a local Celtic dialect.

But if the second word is wrong, what if the first word is too? Vitalani or Vitalinus is not a common Latin name. However the chronicler Nennius, who cobbled together a work called Historia Brittonum in the ninth century does have someone whose father and grandfather both have that name. After the brief mention of Arthur in the poem Y Goddodin, Nennius is our oldest primary source for the legendary chap, although Nennius actually calls him dux bellorum meaning Great Leader, not king. It is from Nennius that we get the famous list of Arthur's twelve battles.

Nennius also gives us the tale of Vortigern, who invited the Saxons over as mercenaries only to have them betray him. The story most people know about Vortigern is how his castle kept falling down until Merlin told him about the two dragons under the foundations. Merlin was added to this story in the twelfth century by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in Nennius the boy who narrowly avoids becoming part of the castle is Ambosius Aurelianus, who is well attested enough to probably be real as well.

Meeting of Vortigern and Rowena by William Hamilton
What interesting though is that Nennius tells us
Vortigern's dad and granddad were both called Vitalinus. Now in Old Welsh Vortigern actually means Great King, so it could be a title rather than a name. In which case, what was he actually called? Well, the obvious answer is Vitalinus, the family name.

In which case do we have an ancient High King of Britain buried here?

We can't be sure, but both the Historia Brittonum and the Black Book of Carmarthen have Vortigern fleeing into the west from the victorious Saxons. With a church dedicated to a barely believable Celtic Saint along with some Ogham and bad Latin this is certainly the sort of place you'd expect to find someone like him.

Rutger Hauer as Vortigern in Merlin (1998)
So maybe what the yew is bleeding for is the last superbus tyrannus, the Romano-British ruler of old Roman Province of Britannia, who tried to hold together a Latin speaking Celtic kingdom to the very end, and who, before he died, saw his kingdom fracture into feuding tribal groups. Perhaps it bleeds because the process of putting it back together again is not yet complete? 

More on the possible Vortigern/Vitaninus link.