Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Acid Factory Forest

Some Acid Factory rosehips

If you ever happen to find yourself flying to Copenhagen Airport you will no doubt take a metro train to the city centre shortly after landing. After you have been on the eerily driverless train for roughly three minutes you will notice that to your left you are passing a built up area of characterless blocks of flats, car parks and hotels. That’s where I live. In the other direction you’ll notice that you are passing close to the sea, with Sweden clearly visible across the Øresund, if the weather is good. In the foreground, just before the shoreline, you’ll notice huge mounds of dirt and tangled pieces of metal surrounded by earth moving equipment. Underneath it, although you could never tell, is the Acid Factory Forest.

Let me explain. I live on a road called Syrefabriksvej, which in English means Acid Factory Way. The reason for this is that quite a long time ago it used to lead to – you guessed it – an acid factory. Back in Denmark’s industrial heyday, if there ever was such a thing, the shoreline was covered with salt works, fish processing plants and factories. Then, by the 1970s or so, the fish had gone and production of goods was shifting overseas, meaning the factories shut down and the area became what is commonly called an urban wasteland.  

Having a miniature rust belt did nothing for the island’s reputation whatsoever. The island I live on, you see, has always been the target of snobbery. In medieval times the contents of Copenhagen’s chamber pots were brought here and spread on the land as fertilizer, and henceforth the island was known as lorteøen - or shit island. By most accounts, it was populated by a particularly coarse breed of pig farmers, and in 1521 King Christian II, who was a great fan of everything Dutch, gave the southern section of the island to some farmers from Holland. His reasoning was that they could supply the royal table with quality fruit and veg – something he believed Danish farmers to be incapable of. They didn’t have to pay taxes and perhaps because of it all of Denmark hated them. 

Amager (pronounced ‘Ama’ – the ger bit is silent - Danish is like that) continued to be unpopular. On the opening page of Søren Kierkegaard’s manifesto of existentialism Either/Or he declares that he’d rather live on Amager talking to the filthy pigs than live among the uncivilized philistines of contemporary Copenhagen society. I’m not sure if that was meant as a complement or not.

Anyway, today the pig farms are gone and covered in apartment blocks, 7-11s and pet grooming parlours. The shore line, where the old acid factory was, has been given an extreme makeover in the last six years, with a huge offshore island being built and fancy flats springing up here there and everywhere. You're more likely to see a fashion shoot or a skateboarding contest than a blue-overalled worker down there these days. But one bit that nobody ever seemed like getting around to doing anything to was where the old acid factory had been. It covered quite an area, and there were the remains of many other factories there too, although I don't know what they produced. Urban legend had it that the land was poisoned, which may well have been true.

Amager beach in 1950, when the area was a bustling industrial zone

Amager beach in 2012, now given over to leisure

Poisoned or not, nature had been allowed to take its course over the last 40 years and, until quite recently, a forest had grown up there. I used to go there regularly to recharge my psychic batteries. Denmark, you see, is a remarkably manicured country with barely a blade of grass out of place. Maybe it’s because the land was so flat and easy to tame that a culture grew up that could accurately be described as the cult of ‘neatness’. You know that picture of the American family with the picket fence? They were no doubt settlers from Denmark.You see it everywhere. Sometimes I think that the ideal home in these parts is a square Lego-type house on an immaculate lawn with not a single other living organism on the premises other than maybe a supermarket bought orchid artfully placed on the dining room table. Something a bit like this:

An idealised Danish house ... for some

But the Acid Factory Forest was different. Here, there was a profusion of life. Through the concrete factory floors and the tarmac carparks and roads an army of saplings had burst forth, soon burying what remained of decades of human endeavor beneath a blanket of leaves and twigs and earwigs. It was a place of tall silver birches, adolescent oak trees, apple trees (perhaps from people tossing apple cores out of passing car windows), elberberry bushes, hawthorns, rosehips and many more. The trees were alive with birds, and I saw birds there that I never saw anywhere else in Denmark. But mostly it was populated by a sizeable unkindness of ravens, who sat looking down philosophically from the posts that held the rusty razor wire fence to keep people out up. Every time I saw these ravens I made an effort to say hello to them. After a time they grew used to me and, although I never managed to get a response out of any of them, I’m pretty sure that they understood some rudimentary English phrases after a while.

I loved visiting my urban forest and seeing all the wildflowers there in Spring and the amazing bounty of fruits and berries in the Autumn. I didn’t dare eat any of them, of course, as the warnings about poisoned soils were all too clear in my mind. Once, after reading a book about wild food, I decided to harvest some snails. The snails there were unlike any others I have seen in Denmark – they were giants! And they were everywhere. I picked up about 20 and put them in a huge jar, feeding them lettuce and parsley (tutored by my Italian father in law who is an expert snail eater - he said it would remove any 'toxins'), and had big plans to fry them up in butter and garlic and invite a couple of friends around for a wine and escargot evening. I watched them slithering around for a week or two, and they watched me back with their slimy eyes on stalks. They looked so trusting. I grew to like them, and even had names for some of the more recognizable ones. Inevitably I couldn't bear to eat them. 

After a period of desperate rationalization, I rode back down to the Acid Factory Forest and gently placed them back where I had found them, bidding them a fond farewell as I left. The community of the forest had been reunited again. (Would the snails tell others of their adventures? Would the others believe them? Was I going crazy?)

But then, one day last year, something dreadful happened. An invasive species penetrated the nature zone - a predator so ruthless that it could only spell doom for all of the ravens and foxes and squirrels and hares that called the place home. Yes, an ape-like creature wearing a hard plastic hat and a fluorescent yellow jacket was seen surveying the site with a sextant and talking into a mobile phone. After only a few days more came, as if lured by this initial colonist. They worked methodically, and smoked cigarettes as they drove long white stakes into the ground at 100m intervals, dividing the land up in preparation for it being brought back into the orbit of human control. The ravens remained perched on the fence and watched all of this with their beady eyes, occasionally squawking something to one another in their indecipherable tongue. It was a bad omen to be sure.

But then, just as quickly as they had come, the men went away. For the entire winter and spring, nothing happened, and the denizens of the wasteland carried on living their lives in relative peace. But then, this summer, I went away for a week, and when I came back I noticed something odd. All of a sudden my flat had a sea view. Where before there had been the green froth of leaves there was now the icy blue of the Baltic Sea. I got on my bike and went down to investigate. When I got there it was a scene of utter destruction. A large machine was parked there which seemed to have some kind of giant double chain saw pincer attached to the front. It had evidently been over the whole area because nothing now rose more than a foot from the ground. The ‘debris’ was still there, and so were the ravens, who were all sat on the fence surveying the wreckage. Somewhere in it were all their nests, presumably with their young still in them.

I felt shocked, as if a family member or friend had been violently murdered. How could they do this? And to rub salt into the wound, they then sprayed the entire area in some kind of herbicide to ensure than no living thing would be left alive. It seems to succeed and after a few days the whole area was wilted and dead as if it had been sprayed with agent orange - which maybe it had.

I was depressed. The Acid Factory Forest had given me succour and strength throughout the times I had been depressed in the past, and now it was gone. There was nothing I could do. I mentioned it to a few local people but they were all unsympathetic. ‘Oh it was just an eyesore – a wasteland,’ they said in so many words. It attracted crime, it was being used to dump trash, teenage joyriders burned cars in it, somebody had been attacked there … it seemed like the place could do no good at all. There was nothing for it but to rehabilitate it and bring it back to a state of purity.

I wondered what had happened to all the resident wildlife. There was literally nowhere for it to go as the Acid Factory Forest had been surrounded variously by a beach (intersected by a busy road), Copenhagen Airport, a yachting marina and sterile suburbia. Only the ravens, I imagined, could get away – and they did. After a couple of weeks of staring at the devastation and cawing to one another they just left, en masse. I wonder how they made the decisions. When to go. Where to go. There is so much we don’t understand on this planet.

Over the coming weeks work went on at the site. The tree stumps were ripped up by another fearsome machine and bulldozed into great tangled piles before being loaded onto trucks and driven away. Then the ground was levelled and some kind of yellow plastic gauze was spread over the, perhaps, 40 acre area. After this hundreds – perhaps thousands – of truckloads of building debris was brought in and spread on the ground. Maybe it was the tower blocks they have been enthusiastically dynamiting around Denmark recently.  Then on top of the debris went about a metre of clay. Beneath that huge mass of concrete, plastic and clay was a substrate layer of dying matter that was once a 40 year old forest. And some snails that had once been on an adventure.

A sign was erected outside the new barbed wire fences, showing what was to be done there. The land, it said, was being turned into a nature reserve as part of the city's commitment to sustainable development. A CAD generated image showed what it would look like. It showed mostly immaculate grass with a few neat trees here and there with ‘contemplation benches’ for the computer generated Danes who were strolling around with shopping mall type contentment on their computer generated faces.

It was all too much and it caused me to think about all of the human follies to which we are susceptible. The greatest mistake of our age, it seems to me, is our inability to recognise that a linear accomplishment is trumped by a cyclical one. Every time we take a natural system and unleash a cataclysm upon it we are turning it from a very complex system with hundreds of different types of organisms (probably thousands if you go down to the micro level, which microbiologists tell us where it’s really at) into a very simple one of a handful of selected species which would never coexist in the natural world. To maintain the new equilibrium – in this case neat grass, a few selected trees and some water features – means a constant battle against the forces of nature which ‘want’ to turn it back into a ‘wasteland’ i.e. a piece of land that is useful to many species, but not us.

The wasteland of the Acid Factory Forest lives on on Google Earth, incidentally, which is yet to be updated.

This battle costs energy and money. It will take a few personnel with a variety of power-hungry machines to prevent the new ‘nature reserve’ from turning into a, well, nature reserve. And we know where the energy will come from to power those machines, and we know that using energy on hedge trimmers, leaf blowers and chainsaws for ornamental gardens will not be high up on the list of priorities during an energy crunch.

I have come to regard the whole Acid Factory Forest fiasco in a philosophical way. 40 years is but a blink of an eye in natural time, and one day this place, and plenty more besides it, will again be rich in life. I’ll be long gone by then.  Wastelands like this will become wilderness one day. And many of the cities and towns that we live in will be a part of it if we truly extend our temporal range of consciousness to the far future. Who knows, maybe in the rubble of this flat on ‘Shit Island’ where I am typing this will one day be snuffled over by packs of wild pigs, hunting for acorns from the oak trees I have been surreptitiously planting in municipal parks and on road verges around the area. Or, more likely, the rubble will be home to crabs and oysters and the bricks of the kitchen wall I now see before me will be covered with seaweed and barnacles – the island is, after all, only a couple of metres above sea level, with much of it actually below.

After the trees had been removed the site was covered in plastic gauze

An adjacent area was left standing
The end result, standing with my back to the sea looking towards my apartment block

Postscript: After I wrote this a couple of days ago it has emerged - according to my well-placed source - that the local council has found itself with no money for planting trees or further developing the site. Work, for now, has stopped. In the meantime, some interesting new pioneers are forcing themselves up through the lifeless clay and rubble … pictures to follow.


The world's first Holistic Real Estate Agent

Sustainable Properties for Sale

This is a shout out for my friend David Edge. I first met David in Spain when I interviewed him and his wife Aspen at their farm high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains for my very first newspaper article. They had bought a run down farm on a degraded piece of no-good desertifying land and through sheer hard work and determination turned it into a veritable green oasis in a parched yellow wilderness. David and Aspen used permaculture techniques and were heavily influenced by Allan Savory and his concept of 'Holistic Management' - and it was truly inspiring to see what they had achieved in the face of conventional wisdom.

Sadly, Aspen was struck down with cancer and died a couple of years ago and David was left with Semilla Besada, their farming project. He passed the project onto some new guardians and returned to his roots in Devon and he has now started a website with the aim of putting people in touch with one another who are seeking to buy or sell land or property that is suitable for living in in a sustainable manner. You could say that he is the first holistic real estate agent.

Anyway, please have a look at his new site and see if you can spare a minute to help him spread the word. As readers of this site will be aware, finding a place to live in which you can be a useful part of the ecosystem is one of the most important challenges we face. He is not doing it for money, although he does accept donations if it all works out for the buyer or seller.

You can see his site Sustainable Properties for Sale by clicking here and his Facebook site can be followed here. The site is fairly new but it covers properties worldwide - so it doesn't matter where you live.


  1. Good post. I feel your anguish.

    Unfortunately, this sort of thing is to be found everywhere. In my home city back in Canada (Winnipeg), they decided one fine day to permit a vast expanse of empty prairie land in the south-west of the city to be developed as more suburbia while the rest of the city is neglected. Suburban development is good for business and justifies the existence of numerous government employees and officials (and they can hire more people at the same time). To hell with the quiet prairie landscape. We killed all the bison there long ago anyway.

    Here in Taiwan you see a lot of hypocrisy where Buddhist organizations will decimate a mountain jungle to build a shiny new temple complex while praising themselves for using the air conditioning sparingly and encouraging everyone to bring their own reusable chopsticks. Or they'll decimate a landscape to build a new university which hardly anyone will attend and then teach "environmental ethics".

    It'll get worse before it gets better. Countries like China are leading the way to our ecological downfall:

    Weapons of Urban Destruction

    1. Hi Jeffrey - yeah, it seems to me that the more 'worthy' the cause, the greater the opportunity for carte blanche destruction. Justification is the name of the game - in the example I cited in this post it's all about creating 'nature reserves' and planting trees - oh, and they are building a massive aquarium next to it as well.

  2. Same here. The hill above us (south-central Pennsylvania) was never suitable for farming; someone's herd of pigs were the only visitors in the forest 100 years ago. A grappler, the machine you describe, ripped out the hardwood and coniferous trees a few years ago, and McMansions were built over the whole area. Now only barking dogs instead of deer, fox, groundhogs, and turtles.

  3. Stupidity reigns supreme over much of the world. While shedding a tear remember, however, that Nature bats last - always....

  4. To quote Martin, Nature may bat last, but once it does, the game will be effectively over.

    Soon to be published on the Doomstead Diner.

    1. I'd say that we're batting at the same time as nature, playing a game we don't know the rules of (but which nature makes).

      Eventually, when we've lost, we'll realise it wasn't a game.

    2. I suppose the implication of 'nature bats last' is that the game will, in fact, be over and that nature will have 'won' - if there's any game and/or anything to be won. We humans seem to love the idea and fact of games and seem to ascribe gamesmanship to everything, forgetting, of course, that in the 'natural world' whoever 'loses' the 'game' usually gets eaten.


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.