Last update: 13 July, 2011.
Why would anyone want to spend a Saturday afternoon touring a desolate mining pit when there are idyllic and comfortable retreats nearby? Because it is an altogether unusual and enriching experience: quirky, educational, entertaining, as well as mildly aerobic. And there is food and drink provided.
The “Trip to Mars” is one among several of IBA's brilliantly conceived tours into the transitional landscape. Their success is owed to the knowledge, application, and talent of raconteurs like Herr Kalliske. His tour combines lessons on landscape planning and engineering, hydrology, industrial, social and political history, botany, zoology, and geology with a dose of Sorbic sagas and anecdotes about the filming of beer commercials and an episode of Rapunzel. His latest scheme is to organize an extended bicycle tour along motifs drawn from the medieval imagery of the friction between the pagan Sorbic minority and the Christian majority.
Another highly recommended outing is one of Stephan Kaasche's wolf hikes. The wolves in question have filtered across the Polish border into the empty post-mining plains and are slowly establishing a viable population. Farmers and ranchers don't cherish them but are appeased with financial compensation for new fences and lost lifestock. There is a glimmer of hope that the wolves may decimate the deer population sufficiently to give oaks and other deciduous trees a chance to break into the monotony of the pine forests. Even if the wolves are elusive, there are tracks and feces to discover, and there is plenty to learn about the complex ecosystem supporting them.
Walking tours offer the most intimate encounter with the landscape, but other forms of activity have their own rewards and are welcome for bringing in cash and publicising the place. One morning, my breakfast was interrupted by the engine roar from around 400 motorcycles turning onto the IBA terraces for a stopover. Most bikers were more interested in hot dogs and coffee than in the educational offerings, but Herr Kalliske still managed to round up a sizeable group for a quick tour. A few days later, breakfast was cut short by an endless convoy of antique cars passing through for a stamp in their logbooks. At least some participants got enough of a sense of the location to stop and linger briefly.
The landscape does not have to be the focus of attention; it can be stage or backdrop and still open horizons. It is a good place for a cup of coffee and some leisurely bird watching, a picture for the wedding album, or the screening of a new film. As the old mining pits fill up with water and the desert walking destinations gradually disappear, new possibilities open up on the new lakes, such as rafting tours to rare bird colonies that have found temporary homes on barren islands.
In 1784, during the early dawn hours of the industrial revolution, the iron foundry in Lauchhammer pioneered the casting of hollow iron statues. It later added bronze casting to its repertoire and established itself as one of the premier purveyors to Germany's rich and famous. The foundry's history, which traces industrial and political change, comes alive in an intimate museum whose highlight is a unique and very entertaining collection of models. The museum is only a short drive from Berlin, a gem that deserves to receive more visitors than it does.
A unique operation of a different kind is the “Archaeotechnical Center” in Welzow. Surface mining provides ample opportunity for archaeologists. The impacted area dwarfs any other kind of excavation and makes extensive settlement studies possible; and the deep incursion lays open layers of history going back millions of years. The drawback is that the archaeological work has to proceed at breakneck speed because the big mining machines won't wait until the last shard has been carefully exhumed and catalogued.
One consequence of this rushed approach is that one finds more ancient wood than one can investigate on the spot or store in a conventional manner. Thus was born the idea to preserve the wood under water for future reference. As a location befitting the wood's provenance, the first artificial mining lake in the area was chosen: the Clarasee in Welzow, dug out by manual labor at the turn of the 20th century. How well the wood will survive there remains to be seen.
The aquatic storage experiment became the nucleus for the Archaeotechnical Center, a teaching and research facility that feels like a cross between a museum and summer camp. It isn't, technically speaking, a museum because it neither collects nor displays original objects. Its holdings are instead mostly replicas that are meant to be handled by the public and are used as models in workshops on stone age flint cutting and pottery, bronze age tool making, medieval carpentry, and the like. A recent project was the making of a dugout canoe using only iron-age tools. It was such a hit that several giant tree trunks now lie in wait for similar treatment. The technological prowess underpinning these activities comes at least as much from emulating American Indian ways as it does from archaeological research -- which is a story for another day. Beside teaching, the center is engaged in excavation, experimental research, and restoration. Sometimes, the didactic and scientific missions converge. In one instance of crowdsourcing, visitors helped sift through piles of real material gathered in a hurry by steam shovel and truck.
A destination for the connoisseur is the airport in Welzow which, during most of its checkered past, served as a military facility. Its vast terrain is littered with chilling mementos of the Cold War, and there is a small museum with a motley collection of aviation memorabilia dating back to the 1920s. Among the curiosities there are a number of banged-up engines from downed WWII fighter planes. The connection with coal mining lies in the future rather than the past: if Vattenfall's long-term plans come to pass, the coal seam below the airport will be mined in the late 2020s.