Tour Erzgebirge

Taube Erde

On the accumulation paradox. The many exploitation cycles of overburden in an ordinary mining region. Logbook of a tour.

Scene: Landscapes telling about centuries of geological and anthropogenic intervention, above and below the ground. Landscapes in constant transformation, resulting from manyfold intra-actions—people, machines, floods and salt willows, melting snow, birch trees, mushrooms. At times ghostly, riddled with holes, they shall remain ambivalent. In the near future, Zinnwald will have its own lithium plant. Less than 50 km away lies Freiberg, a stronghold of scientific mining. Ever since the 18th century, students and teachers at the local Mining Academy have worked to make mining more efficient, more long-lasting, and more profitable. Visionaries and future tin barons set off from here; spread the newest mining methods in the world, exchanged ideas with colleagues in Trondheim, or Potosí. Many made enormous fortunes.

Lithium: The shimmering violet ore, formerly a mere by-product of the mining of silver, tin, tungsten, these days attracts one joint venture after another to Erzgebirge, the Ore Mountains. Although underground mining, compared to filtering in the salares of Bolivia, Chile, or Argentina, is arduous and absurdly expensive. They say the new technologies and the good working conditions will make the whole endeavour fairer, safer and, even, ecologically harmless.

Speakers: Interstellar life forms, ex-miners, environmental activists, historians, artists and cultural producers. Echoes from underground and from the subconscious. ENERGIEWENDE, energy transition. Germany’s on it, now with its own raw materials, too. How long will it take “utopia”, the western anthropocentric myth of the lithium battery, to crash?

Manifestations: Forests whose soils were rich in ore and ended up treeless; overlapping temporalities—here geological time, there the cycles of the seasons; here the incumbent range of camera batteries, there the half-life of sulphates, a legacy of agribusiness. And, again and again, the three decades since reunification. Is it these temporal overlaps which make the Ore Mountains appear elusive? Does the sense of vertigo come from the indeterminacy of the underground? Adits, shafts, tunnels, caves, ditches: what are we walking on? Are the hills "real" or are they slag heaps, made up of the overburden of mining sites scattered all over Europe? Was this, or this, or this other lake full of particles of “numb” rock? How toxic is the water?


Despite advanced technology, the scans’ resolution is poor. The region is almost four million light years away and ultimately, tiny. Because of glitches in transmission, the images are dotted with black and blurry patches. Transcript—adapted for Earthlings—of the conversation between two researchers [Translator's note: the language of this interstellar community does not contemplate names and singular pronouns, as life is understood as based on gatherings of many, or holobionts; in the following, “R 1” and “R 2” will be used for the sake of comprehension]:

R 1: Quite possibly they communicate via changes of pressure or flows. If we are dealing with an uninterrupted hydraulic network, as it seems to be, a sudden change in pressure at one site would be immediately felt everywhere… as regards the metabolic impulse hypothesis, we still wouldn't completely rule it out. There's plenty of evidence of regular metabolic activity—

R 2: Yes... and another hypothesis still to be discussed is whether the whole system is regulated by electrical impulses. This is often the case on Planet 3, although the electricity is not harvested from the atmosphere but has to be laboriously generated.1

R 1: Right. Then there are these younger beings who communicate through writing... they produce electricity almost in excess which then has to be stored somehow—

R 2: A deficient group, largely organised around closed vertical systems. Hence perhaps their diminished sensitivity: they seem to be deaf to most non-mechanical impulses.

R 1: They have to recur to strange prostheses and extensions, can't seem to get the most basic principles of symbiosis right.

R 2: These are strange creatures... the majority busy enduring crises that have long become normalised. Meanwhile, some are experimenting with rockets to land on Planet 4, presumably to colonise it... indeed they have severely affected several systems on that planet in a very short time—

R 1: The complete opposite of these. It is hard to even calculate how long they have been co-existing. How they cover areas while staying connected, making connections for others and exchanging food with them, is just brilliant. This emerges quite nicely in the region we are zooming into. The scans are poor but all hints are that they were able to completely recreate a substrate contaminated by those other predatory creatures within 30-40 rotations around the Great Star... it's true, they are masters of a rule of survival which repeats throughout the star system: to shape spaces and support the co-existence of many through connections between dispersed and scattered, continuous but open cells—

R 2: This is not just about the conditions of communal co-existence. The fact that electrical signal transmissions allow to send information about food sources, local conditions, system damages, the presence of other systems in close proximity, and-and-and... if life forms exist on this planet that rely on electrical impulses and do without hydraulic or metabolic functions, then... then it is conceivable that they could also communicate on Planet 2, via phototrophy for example... that they could make life possible there again over time. It is already known that some variants can photosynthesise—

R 1: The temperatures on Planet 2 will remain constant, at least until the extinction of the Great Star sets in. None of Planet 3's inhabitants are fit for such temperatures. And, neither are we. It's a tiresome discussion…

R 1 are communicating with caution. The longing for the lost home, Venus—the second planet in the solar system, made unliveable by the inexorable evaporation of the oceans and the extreme greenhouse effect which followed the strengthening of the sun—regularly plunges R 2 into despair and long periods of encapsulation. Those who have only joined in the ship, like R 1, have not but abstract ideas about co-existence on the abandoned planet, while the memories of those who once lived there have become increasingly interwoven with myths. Thus, R 2's idea that Planet 2 could be revived has hardly any followers by now. All efforts are directed towards researching conditions for interplanetary cohabitation. The intra-effects of fungi, lichens and mosses on Earth, Planet 3, are of great interest in this context, as many recognise in them life-supporting systems which are compatible with their own. #Cohabitation #Feminism What do lichens teach to queer theory? David Griffiths tries and answers

R 2: Our observations on Planet 3 alone disprove your claim! These variants can survive absolute extremes, from high radiation to dehydration. They enter into a state of suspended animation and, once their tissues are dehydrated, neither extreme temperature changes nor free radicals—which are, after all, the most dangerous consequences of cosmic radiation—do them great harm.2 And as said, they can photosynthesise via one of their two symbionts. These are bundles of possible life! Yet instead of entering into symbiosis with them, we are scanning the star system looking for the most advanced forms of communication and “synergies” for future “neighbourly life between stars”. This is madness!!!

R 1: It's not quite like that... the community has dealt with these questions carefully. Apart from the slim prospects for success, it was decided that living between the stars and planets, that is, connecting them without occupying them, is more in keeping with our ethics—

R 2: Our interstellar mobility has made us more communicative, but we are not happy. For those who have only germinated after the great catastrophe, like you, the gravitational force may be a mechanical operation of the ship. However, the feeling of being tied to something... and through that connected to all, but really all others... that feeling is, just, beautiful. It gives comfort and sustains. This is why we cannot stop hoping and working so that life can happen again on our planet: even if after sympoiesis we should no longer be as we used to be. We are not, and never have been anyway, closed, finished. #Cohabitation Fred Moten and Stefano Harney on Being Incomplete

1. From Altenberg to Zinnwald

Topography sketch of the mining area Altenberg - Zinnwald.

P 1: Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge), Tin Forest (Zinnwald), Smelting Huts (Muldenhütten). Ashes Ditch (Aschergraben),3 Crossing Ditch (Quergraben),4 Boundary Ditch (Grenzgraben). The toponyms make immediately clear which role mining has played in the production of this landscape…

P 5: Also the name of the town of Freiberg relates to this: back in the days, a mountain was declared free for anyone who wanted to extract silver there.

P 2: In Altenberg, though, the mountain from which they mined tin up until 1991 is hardly recognisable. Look to the right, here is the Pinge (Wedge): seen from the road, an oversized, slightly curved red wall; from the Europark, a scratch in the landscape—and looked at from above, or on a map, a crater!

P 3: One crater on top of, and partly surrounded by, an even deeper labyrinth of tunnels, galleries, shafts…

P 5: The mine was riddled with holes. Dozens of people, sometimes entire collieries, fell victim to it throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. But this seemingly only had the effect of encouraging further mining activities. Even the immense damage of the historically largest quarry, 1620, had no consequences for extraction. On the contrary, mining became more and more professionalised, especially with the establishment of the union.

P 1: The union had the essential function of negotiating the extraction and levy conditions with Saxony’s counts. In addition to the mine itself, it administered the processing quarters, in which the extracted rock was crushed, the water system that supplied them—that is, the two artificial ponds, the Aschergraben (Ash Pit), and the mill—as well as the surrounding forests, from which the wood for setting fires and fortifying the pits was supplied, at least until the trees were exhausted.

P 5: In the 19th century, the union also initiated the construction of the Roman Shaft, through which the rock was transported to the site of today’s Mining Museum.

P 3: A whole landscape was constructed to facilitate mining. In fact, mining was not just a branch of industry but a sophisticated economic system, already long before its capitalist upscaling. The ores were not simply extracted and transported away, as in Potosí and other colonial protectorates, but processed regionally. The entire population was integrated into this system. #Extraction #Landscape #Renaturing Lucy R. Lippard’s “Undermining, a book full of dirt”

P 4: I was not aware of how many other professions besides the, male, miner were related to ore extraction. From the woodcutters, carpenters and bricklayers to the porters and simple workers who washed the tin—often women and children—to the blacksmiths, glassblowers and porcelain makers...

P 1: Our general understanding of mining is obscured by chronic over-representation and a peculiar form of under-representation, too. We are accustomed to the representation of the heroic miners, but mining does not actually mean continuous digging, scooping and depositing, at all. Especially before machines were introduced, underground extraction used to require very long preparatory phases; spending a whole working life solely digging one adit would not have been an atypical miner’s biography. What is totally underrepresented, on the other hand, are the ecological and economic contexts of mining, comprising of women, children, migrants, forced labourers and, of course, nature.

P 5: The “perfection” of that economic system and the formative role it played for territory and society, were actually the main argument for the designation of the Erzgebirge/Krušnohoří region as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.5 The distinctiveness of this alpine region is not linked to specific landscape qualities, water management, individual mining sites or mining huts; nor to the fine crafts or the towns that flourished in connection with mining in Saxony: it’s about the whole complex.

P 2: I’m wondering… does the local population’s positive reaction to the prospect of resuming mining in Zinnwald for the purpose of lithium extraction have anything to do with this “wholeness”? Until now, I simply thought that people are enchanted by the idea that lithium helps “the good cause”, energy transition—

P 6: And, of course, it backs the smooth production of things we can no longer do without in everyday life: mobile phones, laptops, pacemakers, e-scooters, etc.

P 2: ...but here, where generations have lived off mining and Germany’s reunification has meant its abrupt end—or should I say, its last temporary interruption?—I have to ask myself... what deeper fantasies does the promise of raw material extraction evoke? Could it be that people don't really care what is extracted and for what, but associate mining with a social embeddedness, a connection with others, that has broken away with emigration, privatisation, demographic shrinkage and austerity policies? #Extraction #“Green” future #Sustainability On range anxiety in everyday life use of batteries and accumulators (in German)

2. A hike through the Bielatal

P 7: I am intrigued by the fluctuations of mining—these recurring cycles of value addition and value loss. Mining is constantly exposed to crises, both of demand and of depletion—

P 6: Not to mention the stoppages caused by logistical and infrastructural bottlenecks. Sometimes there is a shortage of wood, sometimes of water. Sometimes perhaps also of labour. Sometimes the demand falls, whether because of a war or of its end, because of customs conflicts or competition deriving from cheaper imported ores...

P 7: Until a new cycle of value addition begins. Here in Zinnwald, this was the case with tungsten. Tungsten was in demand in metalworking and for the production of bulbs in the second half of the 19th century, later also for the war industry. When its usefulness became known, everyone set about digging up the overburden left behind from tin mining anew in order to extract the ore that had become fashionable.

P 8: ...only that this overburden, or “deaf” rock as they call it, was not always stored, as in Zinnwald, in the original extraction sites. More often than not, it lay buried in dumps scattered all over the landscape. So, they gleaned the dumps.

P 9: Apparently, this old practice is coming back. The state government is planning to carry out gleanings in several dumps in the region. They target lithium obviously, but also other ore particles which can be extracted now, thanks to more refined technologies—

P 7: At the exclusive expense of landscapes that man has already looted for centuries. The expression “run on raw materials” takes on uncanny features for my taste.

P 10: How many tonnes of tiny particles of lithium, tungsten, tin, silver, do you think we are standing on right now?

P 11: And is it even possible to recognise a tailings pile? Everything here just looks beautiful, green and rural!

P 9: Dealing with overburden has always been a dilemma. Where to put it? The mines could only sell parts of it to buyers from the construction industry, so the bulk was piled up after washing. Due to this practice, Erzgebirge’s already hilly topography acquired its additional layers. With a little experience, it is easy to distinguish the geologically formed elevations and valleys from slag heaps. These cover smaller areas—they fill interstices, so to speak. Moreover, they are not overgrown with forest because most trees do not like their substrate. In fact, the dumping activity deeply upset the biological equilibrium of all soils, requiring flora and fauna to adapt. The most problematic consequences were of course those of the dumping of chemically treated overburden. Add the already high chemical contamination of the watercourses—also owed to mining—and of the fields—owed to industrial agriculture in the post-war years—and you can imagine the extent of devastation 30 years ago, when the mine in Altenberg was finally closed. The dumping lake down there... that was a red dead sea back then, it featured haematite concentrations of around 4%. The Biela river carried iron and many other heavy metals in its water. However: nature can recover from something like that. That is what fascinates me personally. In recent years, a habitat has emerged here not only for birch trees, salt willows and spruces but for various neophytes and flora-fauna interactions with strange, unexpected effects. Up here, on the tipping dam, toads hibernate in the winter. #Extraction #Landscape #Sustainability #Water A botanist’s view on the flora re-covering slag heaps (in German)

P 12: And this, thanks to the green fairy who is known to protect the entire valley6 as much as to the small, inconspicuous mushrooms which operate largely underground, right?

P 9: We haven't investigated that, but it stands to reason!

P 10: Sometimes a lack or absence of human intervention, perhaps also a low density of human population, is to be desired for non-human populations. The chances for regeneration and spaces of symbiotic experimentation open up almost by themselves.

P 12: Perhaps mine is an overly optimistic thought in times of terrible and irreparable destruction... but am I wrong suggesting that these landscapes, emerging from plottification, monoculture, extraction, teach us precisely what future political movements should do: uniting human and non-human actions? #Cohabitation #Extraction #“Green” future #Landscape #Renaturing #Water Scientists and artists around Anna L. Tsing describe ecologies which evolve and expand far beyong human control

3. Facing Muldenhütten

P 5: ...Muldenhütten's historic site—with smelters, ditches and slag heaps—would never have come into being without the development of scientific mining in Freiberg. The Mining Academy gathered and expanded essential knowledge for mining: on the one hand, it developed new deposition techniques and the chemical-physical processing of the various ores; on the other hand, it contributed to the foundation of the disciplines of water management and forestry. This had to do with the fact that in centuries of ore extraction, the ecology’s reproduction capacities had in fact been completely exhausted. The rulers had to see to it that they did something, after all, the foundations of their wealth lay there—

P 3: This knowledge promoted technological progress far beyond Saxony and, over time, a global industry. It served colonial countries and rulers to find and extract minerals in areas whose social, economic, ecological as well as cultural foundations were later left severely damaged. The perhaps most surprising thing is that in the decolonised age, the majority of politicians and many people, even in these areas, continue to assume without criticism that this knowledge created at technical universities, think-tanks and start-ups, is essential for survival.

P 14: You put it almost too nicely! We are face to face with a completely perverted faith in science and technology. This knowledge, and mining knowledge in particular, has never had ecology in its sights. Even today, it merely justifies conservation, renaturation and reclamation programmes, the trade in green bonds, and the most dubious reforestation deals. Deals that, by the way, are now not only concerning the formerly colonised countries but have become common also on European territory.

P 15: Yeah… in Germany, this is the case with the “Federal Immissions Control Act”. This is the law thanks to which pieces of forest in Brandenburg could be cleared for the construction of the Tesla Gigafactory: Elon Musk only had to commit to reforesting an equally large area elsewhere—

P 10: Forest gone here, forest coming in there, like in a computer game.

P 7: Extractivism is not just a colonialist logic. It is a strategy with planetary implications, a strategy of paradoxical accumulation. A few people or corporations blindly accumulate minerals and profits—causing daily dispossession, exclusion, forced migration to millions of people, and all kinds of damage to the environment. And with which result? The accumulation of a whole lot of waste: overburden, pollution, contamination, which soon becomes unmanageable.

P 8: Perhaps it is because of this accumulation paradox that the landscape seems so scary. Isn't there something uncanny about dumps like this one we’re walking on right now?

P 17: It is uncanny, but also absurd... absurd, I mean, like the term “deaf rock”. People speak of the deaf rock buried in the dumps, where “deaf” stands for useless, worthless. But in the history of mining, with its cycles of revaluation and devaluation, this “waste” has been found interesting anew and re-collected over and over again. Our sensitivity for the different temporalities, but also changeability, of the ecology and all its interrelationships is underdeveloped. We do not seem to be able to think in the long term and instead orient ourselves towards a science promising technological solutions to problems that are far more complex.

P 18: Hmm, what does “we” and “science” mean here? Science as academic enterprise is, still, a Western and male enterprise. The scientific discourse is dominated by the hegemonic structures of power and thought; more often than not it is manipulated and warped into alternative facts. Financial dependencies and institutional constraints keep many researchers entangled in regimes that place supposedly free scientific knowledge behind the teleology of the ruling class, making “value-neutral” technology serve the undisturbed self-valorisation of capital—

P 15: Elon Musk, who invests in lithium-ion batteries and RNA vaccines while simultaneously—in case of failure—sponsoring explorations of Mars for future colonisation, is an embodiment of this.

P 19: Does anybody actually believe that his SpaceX will make everyone go mobile? The exclusion will continue. We need many other imaginations, other ideas, shareable, communable ones! Other forms of knowledge, as well as other technologies, already exist, confronting that profoundly hopeless and disillusioned, male, sad science.8 #Cohabitation #Feminism Donna Haraway’s plea for a feminist overcoming of closed scientific models of biological and social cohabitation

"Flammenfärbung", Maryam Katan, Video, 19:02 min.

Flame colouring (“Flammenfärbung”) is a chemical process that can be used to detect the presence of elements in rocks. In each case, the colour of the flame identifies a particular element. The flame colour of lithium, for example, is crimson. The range of elements that can be positively detected under these conditions is small, as the test is based on the subjective experience of the person performing it and not on objective measurements.

1. On energy harvesting and the question of what it has to do with (Nikola) Tesla, see:

2. ‘Lichens are “extremophiles,” organisms able to live, from our point of view, in other worlds. … their ability to survive many different types of extreme qualify them as “polyextremophiles.” In the hottest, driest parts of the world’s deserts, you’ll find lichens prospering as crusts on the scorched ground. Lichens play a critical ecological role in these environments, stabilizing the sandy surface of deserts, reducing dust storms, and preventing further desertification. Some lichens grow inside cracks or pores within solid rock’. Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life. How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures. London: The Bodley Head (2020); 95.

3. 'The Aschergraben [was built as early as 1452-1458] as an artificial ditch to supply the tin processing shacks with rainwater and water from the moor-rich ridges of the eastern Erzgebirge, as well as from the region’s streams. This makes the Aschergraben one of the oldest preserved water management systems in Erzgebirge and at the same time, an important material heritage from the early days of mining in Altenberg’. Wikipedia entry, Aschergraben.

4. ‘The upswing in mining, which began in the 16th century ... required an expansion of the water supply. Against this background, the Great Gallows Pond and the Small Gallows Pond were created around 1545 as water reservoirs. The main tributaries of the gallows ponds were the Quer- and Neugraben, which were created in the 1550s’. Wikipedia entry, Quergraben.



7. See Tim Ingold, Lines. A brief history:

8. See for example:

With: Tour participants, Helmuth Albrecht (TU Bergakademie Freiberg), Ana Alenso, Aurora Castillo, Oscar Choque (Ayni, Verein für Ressourcengerechtigkeit e.V.), Maryam Katan, Andrea Riedel (Stadt- und Bergbaumuseum Freiberg), Jens Weber (Grüne Liga Osterzgebirge e.V.), The Driving Factor.