On the Road How a Lake and Former Coal Mine Can Help Us Think About Fossil Fuels, Renewable Energy, and How We Seek to Control Temperature
Collecting and burning wood, I felt close to my family. It was something tangible, something that kept us warm.
I was neck-deep in crisp lake water, on my knees as if suspended in prayer. It was the beginning of a summer abroad with my girlfriend, Liesel, and at this point in our travels we were right by the Polish border in Germany where early June doesn’t see temperatures above the mid-70s Fahrenheit. The water hadn’t fully shaken winter, and I liked that. Liesel, who grew up in the subtropical climate of South Carolina, stayed back on the beach to read a book, protesting that this was definitely not beach weather.
I suppose you could call what I was doing—kneeling in the lake water with just my head exposed to the air—a form of meditation. It felt familiar, yet artificial.
I was swimming in a three-mile-long, mile-wide lake that had only been a lake for four years. It was once Tagebau Berzdorf, an open-pit coal mine that closed in 1997 after new legislation required the local power plant to install cleaner desulfurization technology, which was deemed too expensive. In 2002, after local government and businesses collaborated to repurpose the pit into a recreational lake, water from a nearby river was redirected into the pit. The flooding finished in 2013. Now, the roughly 87 billion gallons of freshwater that make up Berzdorfer See—in English, “Lake Berzdorf”—occupy the same space where, between 1835 and 1997, a total of 318 million tons of brown coal, also known as lignite, had been mined.
I found it to be quite pleasant there. The shore is lined with fields of green grass and young, twenty to thirty foot tall trees—many my mother’s favorite, birch—with thin trunks and healthy light-green leaves. There are four small beaches made of imported white sand; mine offered several large umbrellas for shade, a playground for kids, impeccably clean bathrooms, and a snack shack selling, among other items, ice cream, bratwurst, and pilsners from the local brewery, Landskrone. The water at Lake Berzdorf bears no pollution from its past life as a coal mine as a cynic might suspect: As of 2016, it had a pH-level of 7.69, right in the range of 6 to 8, where a freshwater lake should be.
I’ve yet to meet another American since returning to the States who’s been to this one specific lake on Earth, which isn’t surprising. Mostly locals seem to use Lake Berzdorf.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t care about Lake Berzdorf. We’re almost all in agreement that the environmental effects of open-pit mines, also known as strip mines, are bad; whole watersheds are tarnished. And almost all of us know that the burning of coal—whether in Germany, in China, or in the US—poisons the air that people both near and far breathe. Every human being alive has to live on this Earth that we’re warming up. There are dozens of Lake Berzdorf’s—decommissioned open-pit mines that have been cleaned up and repurposed into recreational lakes—that have been created or are in the works in this region of East Germany. For locals, these rehabilitated mines are good: The lake district is estimated to bring in €10 to €16 million ($12.5 to 19.8 million) annually to the local economy.
Because the lake was once a coal mine that supplied a community in a cold climate with resources for heating, Lake Berzdorf reminded me of how I used to spend all four seasons helping cut, stack, and burn wood to heat my family’s home in Massachusetts.
My family would avoid using the two other sources of heat available in my childhood home—oil and electric—because they were expensive. Beginning as early as May and June, while driving about town, my father would eye people’s yards for any trees that had fallen down or were about to, offering the property owner a deal: He, with the help of my older brother and I, would take care of the tree so long as we could keep the wood. Whatever we cut and brought home would be used to maintain a fire in our basement furnace throughout the winter. We did this every year up until about seven or so years ago—when the last of my siblings and I moved out and my father’s aging body made the endeavor too difficult to do alone. The process of collecting and burning wood was when I felt closest to my family. It was something tangible, something for our collective benefit, something that kept us warm.
Later on, driving back to our Airbnb, I would tell Liesel about how Lake Berzdorf’s connection to coal reminded me of my personal connections to wood. She had grown up with electric heat, which in South Carolina, is used lightly and occasionally. She didn’t realize there were so many different ways to heat a home. But there are. Combustibles like wood and coal.
We fell into silence. I thought about how if I had never gotten into the water, I wouldn’t have gotten cold in the first place. But I took pleasure in dipping my body into the frigid temperatures of the lake, and I missed Massachusetts, my family, burning wood, and enduring the state’s bitter winters. I wondered, what is it about going from cold to warm that I would seek the cold again?
We’re always searching. The spot where I was swimming in Lake Berzdorf was likely dug up in 1955, according to a map that dates each expansion of Tagebau Berzdorf. Perhaps naively, while kneeling in the water, I looked around me in search of black rocks that could be coal. Before then, I had never even seen a lump of coal. (I’m not sure if it’s because my parents also had negative associations with coal, or if it’s because there were cheaper fuel options in Massachusetts during the years after I was born in 1993, or both). How strangely exciting I thought it’d be to discover coal just lying there at the bottom of a swimming lake. Of course, there was nothing but sand, pebbles, and some mushy seaweed.
I kicked out my feet, and sunk my head underwater. On the way down, I blew out all the air I had in my lungs, releasing a rushing stream of bubbles, until I was sitting cross-legged on the lake’s floor. Inundated, I let my lungs, chest, and throat steep in the cold water. They tightened. I kept my eyes open, gazing at unbending yellow sun rays slashing through a veil of foggy green water, listening to the muffled lapping of wind-driven waves touching the shore. I looked around for what was.
Nearly two hundred years ago, in 1835, mining began nearby in four small underground shafts by a village named Berzdorf. Operations grew until the city of Dresden—the state capital of Saxony, Germany, some sixty miles west of the mine—purchased the mine in 1914 in an attempt to independently supply the city’s growing demand for electricity and heating.
The city government had some test drilling done at the small mining shafts by the village of Berzdorf and found an enormous seam of coal estimated to be about 160 feet thick. In several spots within a three-quarter square mile patch of land around the village, excavators would just have to dig up fifteen feet of earth to tap into the seam—at the deepest spots, one hundred feet. The seam had the potential to bear at least 35 million tons of coal. A year before the purchase, in 1913, Dresden had imported 90,000 tons of coal for 945 thousand marks (in today’s dollar: ~$6 million). At that rate, the seam could have supplied enough domestic coal for the population of Dresden to keep their homes warm and lit for some 380 years. So, for 2.33 million marks (today: ~$14 million), the city of Dresden purchased the mine at Berzdorf, the mine’s onsite power station, and the entire villages of Berzdorf and Schönau.
Yet by 1920, the investment hadn’t saved the city of Dresden any money, quite the opposite. With hyperinflation and the value of the mark tanking, the city sunk a total of 16 million marks (today: ~$13.5 million) into Tagebau Berzdorf by paying for the following expenses: the drilling of the coalfields, the acquisition of more surrounding land, including another village named Leubat, the start of open-pit mining in 1919 and expansion thereafter, track systems, railroad cars, wagons, locomotives, excavators, workshops, a conveyor and sorting system, administrative buildings, ten residential buildings with twenty apartments each to house some of the mine’s 230 workers, a plant for drinking water, an electric power station, and a briquette factory, which dries and presses coal into rectangular bricks used for heating. So the city of Dresden sold Tagebau Berzdorf in 1921 to a privately owned company, which sold the mine to another company in 1925, which, after declining sales, flooded the pit and gave it back to the state of Saxony in 1927. After the Second World War, facing a scarcity of resources for electricity and heat, the newly installed communist government of East Germany—the German Democratic Republic—drained the pit. Mining at Tagebau Berzdorf resumed, effectively ending the mine’s first stint as a lake.
I pushed up from the lake’s bottom and resurfaced. Wiping the water from my eyes, seeing the surface of the lake under a lovely summer afternoon once again, I breathed in and felt the presence of air in my throat and lungs more than I had before my swim—altogether a quite refreshing feeling.
Starting in August, and in September after school, my father would put my brother and I in the truck and bring us on-site to a tree he had already cut down, and whose branches he had sheared off. The work would begin with my brother and I standing to the side, watching our father grind the blade of a chainsaw through the trunk of the felled tree—his strained face evidence of a great force being exerted. When the chain inevitably dulled or just broke and the chainsaw halted, this great energy would whip into a tirade of god-damn-it’s, come-on’s, you-gotta-be-kidding-me’s, and the occasional swear.
Once the tree trunk was cut down into segments, we’d then watch him crouch down, place his hands under one of the chunks, and, with a grunt and push of the legs, heave it to a nearby open area. He’d grab an ax from the bed of the truck, go back to the chunk, eyeball the trajectory of his swing, lift the ax high above his head (I always thought it seemed to linger there, suspended in some long second), and, with the greatest might, bring the ax down on the wood, over and over, hewing, producing several smaller logs of wood.
This is when my brother and I finally became of use. The logs were light enough for us to lift and carry over to the bed of the truck. We were always skin and bones. We never grew into our father’s frame, sharpened by decades of jobs requiring physical labor. His hands were rough, the muscles on his arms and legs were thick, and even his chest was hairier than ours ever got. Physically, we took after our mother, a short and small elementary school teacher. My father pushed me, my brother, and my little sister towards the direction of her career path, relentlessly supportive of doing well in school, so set on this that he never taught us how to use his tools—as if it’d give us no other choice but to rely solely on our heads. And with him always present, there was never reason for us to take a turn with the ax, a pretty self-explanatory tool. I never once held the chainsaw.
Once the bed of the truck was full, we’d drive back home and chuck the wood onto a patch of dirt by the driveway where some years we grew weedy, mostly unsuccessful gardens. If there was still wood to be cut, we’d go back to the site and repeat this process—the haphazardly piled wood in the patch of dirt growing in circumference and height—until my father thought we had enough to last the winter. Late September and October would be spent reorganizing the pile into a neatly stacked cord.
Beginning in late October and November, when the season in Massachusetts begins to turn and the weather gets cold, we’d go outside, load individual logs into the cradles of our arms—me placing four to six logs into my brother’s arms; my brother then pinning his logs between his chest and the cord of wood to hold them up while using a free hand to load three or four logs into my arms; my father operating independently, prodigiously—walk over to the basement bulkhead, and throw our armfuls of logs down the stairs. Frequently, my little sister and mother came out to help, making it a family affair. After a few rounds, usually I and my little sister, as we were the smallest and the least useful for carrying armfuls of logs, would go down into the basement and start restacking the logs by the furnace. We’d put as much as we could fit into the basement, saving us a few days until we had to do it again.
Every afternoon throughout the winter, it was my job to start a fire in the basement furnace. Each day, I piled kindling on top of crumpled balls of newspaper and ripped-up cereal boxes. I took a few small logs and made a teepee over the kindling, cardboard, and newspaper. I struck a match and lit the newspaper. This was simple to do. When I made these fires, I used to sit cross-legged on the cement floor, waiting for the small logs to catch, watching with my head no more than two feet from the fire.
Later, I would watch my family return home from school or work, shake off their winter coats and the cold, and feel the spree of heat swirling through our home, touching them, keeping them warm.
I resumed kneeling in the water of Lake Berzdorf, though my teeth were beginning to chatter. I had been in the water for some thirty minutes. I looked over my shoulder, squinting into the light of a setting sun, at the small beach that was the Blue Lagoon, which was no bigger than an American football field. Members of the beach’s small crowd were starting to clock out. There were families, many with children wearing either a hat, swimsuit, or shirt with those yellow, one-eyed, overall-wearing cartoons, Minions, printed on them (which, for whatever reason, seems vastly more popular in Germany), teens in playful packs of three to five, and solitary couples, inching closer to each other’s bodies as the sun dropped and took the day’s heating with it. There was Liesel, still reading a book. She had wrapped her legs completely under her long skirt and was wearing my hoodie with the hood up and the strings drawn tight. A few more minutes, I told myself, and then I’d get out.
Beyond the beach, above the treeline, I could spot the tops of “Excavator 1452”—an open-air museum featuring a monstrous excavator that operated at Tagebau Berzdorf—and the smokestack of an abandoned coal factory, both down the road, their metal and brick crowns rising into the sky, providing easy reminders of their colossal presence. There used to be steam continuously rising from the smokestack.
Coal mined at Tagebau Berzdorf had two primary destinations: (1) power plants and (2) briquette factories. At the power plants, the coal was burned in boilers, which produced steam, which rotated a turbine attached to a generator, which generated electricity. At briquette factories, the coal was pressed into rectangular stones, which were placed on drying shelves, which were then distributed to shops throughout eastern Saxony and sold to locals who would then burn the briquettes in tiled coal ovens often in their living rooms, generating heat for their homes. These briquettes burned considerably slower, steadier, and hotter than wood.
It’s much easier to feel sentimental about a family gathering wood in an idyllic New England setting than a coal operation that tortures the Earth, but do consider the stakes here: In 1987, this region of East Germany endured a winter that saw an average temperature of -22°F in the month of January. In such severe weather, more than ten minutes of exposure results in frostbite; the young and elderly are significantly more prone to death; depending on a person’s clothing, size, and age, these temperatures can quickly drive one’s body temperature below 96°F when hypothermia sets in, causing exhaustion, disorientation, unconsciousness, and possibly death; the probability of this happening increases twenty-five times if a person gets wet. At these temperatures, if a house isn’t heated, the pipes can burst within about an hour and a half.
Meanwhile, that winter in 1987, one of the area’s power plants, Hagenwerder, located at Tagebau Berzdorf—both operated by the state-owned BKW Oberlausitz—had been frequently faltering and failing to provide electricity to the national grid. Excavators, conveyor belts, and other machinery were freezing and buckling. The 7,000 employees of BKW Oberlausitz were working around the clock and fighting to keep up. It shouldn’t be surprising that 450 people—faced with the extremely apparent need to provide electricity and warmth to the community—volunteered to help keep Tagebau Berzdorf, the local power plants, and briquette factories going. Here (and in many places still), coal was once a business of necessity.
Of collecting wood, I remember this also: Not all of it was so romantic. By the time winter slumped into the doldrums of February, this process of going out and throwing wood into the basement, of coming home from school and making a fire, got old. We’d seek relief from our dependence on these chores. We’d start wondering when the repetition would be over, someday in March or April, some years as late as early May, when our boots would tramp over slush instead of snow and ice as we threw wood into the basement for the last time. Winter would always linger. It felt as if we just kept going out for wood until we stopped going out for wood.
As the little waves continued lapping onto the initial pebble deposit of Lake Berzdorf’s shore, I turned to count nineteen wind turbines in the distance, a few over the border in Poland, most in Germany, turning and turning.
Germany is the third largest producer of wind power, after China and the USA. Whereas renewable energy sources account for 31.6 percent of Germany’s electricity, coal still accounts for 45 percent. However, Germany plans to cut the use of coal in half by 2030, to end all nuclear power by 2022, and to phase in renewable energies, namely solar and wind. Just a week or two before my swim at Lake Berzdorf, President Trump and his climate change denying administration withdrew America from the Paris Climate Change Accord.
For most, it’s obvious, if not generally assumed, that we should rely on resources less harmful and truly reproducible. I didn’t know until recently that after brown coal, the burning of wood releases the next highest amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—301.79 g/KWh versus brown coal’s 332.75 g/KWh. Embarrassingly, I had always thought of cutting and burning wood as harmless and natural, especially if done in moderation and using trees that had fallen or were about to; when my parents had to stop using wood and started relying on oil and electric heat, it felt backward. I have always known the dangers of burning coal and other fossil fuels like oil and gas. In any case, at Lake Berzdorf, it’s easy to see that the absence of steam rising from the smokestack of the abandoned factory, Excavator 1452 sitting idle in a museum, and the wind turbines spinning in the distance are all signs of progress.
I knelt there in the water for a moment longer, watching the propellers of each turbine endlessly catching the wind, until it was time. I went back on shore. Wind chilled my wet exposed skin. Liesel handed me a towel. While drying off, I felt a bit light-headed, perhaps from the motion of the water and the insufficient air in-take from my holding breath underwater. I sat down in the sand beside Liesel, peering out over Lake Berzdorf—the rippling tips and divots of its water catching a brilliant white cast by the low evening sun—before lying onto my back to steady myself. I closed my eyes. I breathed in air. Liesel rested her head on my chest, both of us shivering until we were warm.