Red River Backwards

A Letter from Berlin

is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England. He’s a writer, translator, musician, sailor and environmentalist in no particular order

Much as I love Berlin, I find that life in the city tends to mess with my head.

With so much in the news about climate catastrophe, mass extinction and Earth systems breakdown, the mere fact of getting up and going to work in the morning seems like the most manifestly absurd thing one could possibly do.

Whenever I can, I head out into the remnants of the natural world that still exist around  the city: the woods, the parks, but most of all, the river. My partner and I have an old sailing boat, and just being able to get out of the city centre and spend time on the water feels like opening the door onto a different way of being.

Sure, I know what is happening to the environment and the climate. It’s not being able to see it, directly, that creates the mental disconnect that so many of us suffer from here in the Anthropocene.

A city like Berlin is already a natural disaster in so many ways. How are we supposed to know when a bit more is too much?

Last year gave me an intimation of that, when the forests on the southern edge of the city started burning, and the smoke drifted northwards, into the city centre.

That was worrying enough. But there was another – far less reported event – that nagged at me, and finally got my attention.

Berlin’s iconic waterway, the Spree (pronounce it as ‘shpray’), started flowing backwards.

The summer had already been heavy with portents, the city blasted by drought since the spring. The nearby Baltic Sea, normally barely warm enough to swim in, had been simmering at quasi-Caribbean temperatures since June. We were just back from three weeks on the water, travelling back south from Polish Szczecin, down the waterways of the Oder and the Havel, to our home port at the very end of the Spree, the point of its confluence with the much shorter Havel. We were greeted by an oil spill and dying fish. Large carp lay belly-up and bloated. But they were killed not by the oil, but by lack of oxygen. And the river water was lower, and greener than usual, and full of unfamiliar – apparently invasive – plants.

Welcome home.

*  *  *  

Legend has it that the Spree was created when the mighty giant Sprejnik shot an arrow across his realm. Such was his strength that his arrow buried itself deep in the earth on landing in a distant valley. So deep in fact, that his subjects had to dig way down into the soil to retrieve it. And when they finally did so, the hole they had created filled with water, and continues to do so to this day.

There are still giants in the Spree. The stretch of the river nearest to where I live is home for instance to a three-fold, hundred-foot, perforated steel statue known as the Molecule Man. The colossal artwork dominates the river between Elsenbrücke – Alder Bridge – and Oberbaumbrücke – Upper Boom Bridge. Back in the Middle Ages, when the waterways were the thriving access routes into the twinned walled cities of Berlin and Cölln, a spiked boom was lowered across the river at night as a deterrent to smugglers.

The river has always been untrustworthy, Lethe-like. There are towns in surrounding Brandenburg that have the Spree in their names, but which the river has deserted, changing course to follow some – for us – unintelligible behest. Berlin itself is built on the shifting sands of the Spree-islands, and is dual at its core, even before the latter-day schizophrenia of East and West. The original inhabitants, the Sprevani, were a Slavic tribe, who named, or perhaps took their name from the river, before they were displaced or assimilated by Germanic tribes from the west.

Berlin’s Molecule Man Photo: Mike Hembury

Further south, other giants are at work, and they are still digging holes. Only now, they are digging for lignite, so-called ‘brown coal’.

The huge open-cast mines in the nearby region of Lusatia, on the border with Poland, are the work of monstrous and insatiable metal diggers that have transformed the countryside beyond all recognition. The deep scars that extend all across the region have rendered the landscape so alien that it regularly serves as a backdrop for film teams in need of a handy desert, or moonscape.

Lusatia is also home to Germany‘s indigenous Slavic minority the Sorbians. Their ancestral homelands have been particularly hard hit by mining operations, with village after village falling victim to the giants’ hunger.

The list of devastated communities reads like a mournful epitaph to a minority that had somehow managed to survive the Nazi era relatively unscathed: Stary Lubolń, Bukowina, Dubrawa, Górki, Gribownja, Zasrjew.

Over a hundred villages have disappeared, completely or partially.

And reading the full list of destroyed places in Lusatia, one can’t help but notice that only a handful are non-Sorbian. In fact, it’s difficult to resist the notion that the slow eradication of the Sorbians is just a further ethnic Selektion, carried out this time by the apparently random hand of geography and geology.  

Back in the Nazi era, and later under the Stalinist dictatorship, there was no real possibility of resistance to the encroachments of the mining industry. People were resettled, and that was that.

Now a new wave of resistance has come to Lusatia. Young activists from the direct-action group called ‘Ende Gelände’ (a pun, roughly translatable as ‘end of the road for the mines’) have taken to occupying the mine monsters and chaining themselves to machinery.

Photo:: Ende Gelände

How disconcerting for the fierce and rapacious giants that their modern-day Davids should be young women – often as not – with painted whiskers and paper suits. Even with all the power of modern fossil-fuel capital backing them up, the machines’ days are numbered.

Over the course of the past four years, they have been harrassed, arrested, and even jailed, but their tactics have met with increasing approval on the part of those communities that continue to be threatened by lignite mining.

And lignite, it must be said, is a filthy fuel.

One of the smells I associate most with winters in Berlin is the smell of burning ‘Briketts – lignite dust compressed into small blocks to be used for heating. Back in the days of the Wall, brikett smoke and the thick exhaust from East German 2-stroke ‘Trabi’ cars would often combine to form a distinctive greasy smog that would envelop the city.

Nights of bitter cold and exile. Hard drinking bars with prefabricated concrete walls covered with tat and velvet. An island city of draft-dodgers and anarchists. A fiercely anti-authoritarian subculture. Outside, the oily blackness of the river, viscous and vacant, even under the sodium glare of the border lights.Pathways terminating into concrete. Roads split down the middle. Bridges used exclusively for the exchange of prisoners and captured spies. The absurdity of borders. The cold, persistent and all-pervasive, freezing the rivers and lakes into playgrounds and hockey pitches, into sudden impromptu carnival sites. How strange that this is all it takes – an expanse of frozen water – to free up so much joy. We go for a walk on the ice, among the skaters. Everyone is a child again.

Nowadays I sometimes experience a wave of nostalgia when I catch a rare whiff of brikett smoke, rolling down into the streets from some high chimney. For lignite has thankfully become a rare thing in Berlin.

It’s legacy however, lives on.

*  *  *

In its heyday, the lignite mining industry used to pump millions of litres of water a year out of the active mining area and into the Spree, seriously contaminating the water with iron hydroxide and sulphates, and even arsenic.

Now that Berlin has become a more-or-less smoke-free zone, and the industry has entered into a (hopefully) terminal decline, the mines have kept their poisons pretty much to themselves, and the Spree seemed to be on the road to recovery.

That is, until the effects of last summer’s drought started to kick in.

The 2018 drought in Central Europe was so long, and so extreme, that meteorologists started comparing it with the apocalyptic drought of 1540. The water in the River Elbe was so depleted that so-called ‘hunger stones; from that era were uncovered, bearing the inscription ‘If you can read this, weep’.

In Berlin, the low level of the Spree caused the water authorities to shift into crisis mode.

Even under normal conditions, 500 million litres of recycled water per day is added to the Spree from the city’s treatment plants.

But during the drought, monitoring operations suggested that inner-city stretches of the Spree were starting to consist almost entirely of recycled toilet water. And that the water being pumped into it was only adding to the pressure that was causing the river to flow backwards.

Here, we are the river. Its water filters down through the river banks and bed to join with the groundwater. The groundwater is our drinking water, the water we bathe in, the water we cook with. We think of it as an eternal cycle. But it’s a fragile thing. Our lives are fragile things, based on a creaking urban infrastructure we are barely aware of. All it takes is a power outage in mid-winter, or a mains break in mid-summer, to suddenly remind us of our dependencies.

At the end of August, the situation became so serious that the water authorities decided to implement their contingency plans. These consisted of starting up the pumps in the old lignite mines, and injecting huge amounts of water reserves into the Spree to get it flowing the right way again.

The contingency plans worked. The Spree started moving in the right direction again. The only problem now was that the mine water reserves were so polluted with iron hydroxide that they turned the Spree red.


Polluted river water on its way through the Spreewald delta Photo: BUND Brandenburg

On its way from Lusatia to Berlin the Spree passes through a unique UNESCO conservation area known as the ‘Spreewald’, a wooded inland delta made up of hundreds of channels, leading to and from the main river.

According to Sorbian legend, the devil decided one day to plough up a field in the area. He hooked up his oxen to a plough and cracked his whip to spur them on. The oxen took fright at the sound of the whip and stampeded through the area willy nilly, dragging the plough behind them and leaving random channels in their wake that immediately filled up with water. The result is over 800 miles of interconnecting channels in an area of just under 200 square miles.

The wetlands and marshes of the Spreewald delta have always been home to a wide range of wildlife, from fire-bellied toads to white-tailed fish eagles and western ospreys, from green hawker dragonflies to otters and red deer. It’s a finely tuned environment, in which more or less the entire food-chain of the regional fauna is dependent on the waters of the delta, and the creatures living in it.

However, high concentrations of iron hydroxide in water are known to clog up fish gills, and to be toxic to mussels and other shellfish that depend on water filtration for food and oxygen.

So the toxic red tide that Berlin’s water authorities had sent flowing through the area meant a slow death sentence for the wildlife of the Spreewald.

There’s nothing natural about our waterways any more. In the lake where our old boat is moored, the ecosystem is kept alive by floating aeration pumps that spray the water out into the air in regular pulses. They have been there so long, we hardly notice them. Yet they are a sign that the river is dying, that the lake is on life support. Even out in the Baltic, oxygen-depleted areas have spread to form the world’s largest marine ‘dead zone’. It would seem to be a case of ‘You break it, you own it’. We have broken nature. It’s ours now. Of course, the illusion of ownership is part of the problem. We are being forced, unwillingly, it seems, into active stewardship of the environment around us.

It’s a role we’ve so far proved miserably inept at.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, most people were unaware of the drama being played out upstream.

By the time the newly invigorated Spree water arrived in the city, most of the iron in the water had already been deposited as sediment, so the water had lost its rust-red colour and reverted to a kind of murky brown. But its iron content was still unusually high, and that, together with the excessive summer temperatures, had turned the river into a nutrient-rich broth, ideal for algal blooms such as potentially toxic cyanobacteria.

Almost stagnant, oxygen-starved, hot and soupy: parts of the Spree turned fluorescent green overnight.

People were warned to keep their children and dogs out of the water. Fish could be found floating belly-up in stagnant stretches of the river. The city started using so-called ‘aeration ships’ in an attempt to keep up the oxygen content of the water.

The Berliners of course, were unfazed by the toxic qualities of their favourite river. After all, for many years the river was part of the ‘Death Strip;, an extension of the border between East and West. People had been shot trying to cross it. And although the lakes around the city are great for swimming, not many people are foolhardy enough to go for a dip in the Spree. In fact, there are stretches of the river, particularly in an area called Rummelsburger Bay, that are so contaminated by effluents from now-defunct industrial plants, that just living there is considered a health risk.

*  *  *

If there’s a spirit in the Spree, it’s a ‘Nixe’, a shapeshifting river mermaid capable of enticing unwitting travellers into the depths and beating the devil at his own game. These days she has a ring through her nose and a can of beer in her hand. She’s streetwise and hardened, and apparently immune to all the effluents and emissions that the city, and the mining industry, can throw at her. She’s pretty tough. And still, I can’t help worrying about her.

*  *  *

The great drought of 2018 broke with a series of late summer storms.

Perversely, one of the worst things that can happen to an urban river seriously short of water, is for it to rain heavily.

Not only did the accumulated dust, dirt and assorted pollutants of the summer months get washed into the Spree, but the mass of rainwater was so great that it overwhelmed the city’s treatment plants and flushed huge amounts of untreated, or only partially treated wastewater directly into the river.

Which wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that the drought had caused a serious drop in Berlin’s groundwater, thus turning the river into the city’s primary source of drinking water.


*  *  *

There’s no happy end to this story.

From now on, there is no happy end. Only the ends we make ourselves.

It rained a little when autumn came, but the effects of the drought were still being felt well into November. Harvests throughout Germany were said to be ‘the worst of the century’, with farmers experiencing losses valued at two billion euros.

And while the winter has been a fairly wet one so far, it has also been unseasonably mild.

On 16th February, the temperature on my south-facing Berlin balcony was 33°C. That’s way out of the normal range for continental Europe in winter. And it’s also an intimation of fresh droughts to come.

And the poor old Spree, abused, stagnant and polluted along the length of its course?

The Spreewald has apparently returned to normal – whatever ‘normal’ can be said to be for an area that is slowly being poisoned.

The only really good news is that the river’s not flowing backwards any more.

The bad news is that it probably won’t stay that way for long.


Mike Hembury’s essay on living in Berlin, Belonging is published in Dark Mountain: Issue 14 – TERRA

Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

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