Mild Apocalypse – Feral Landscapes in Denmark: Reflections on an Exhibition

By Nathalia S. Brichet, Frida Hastrup, and Felix Riede §

From the late 1930s until 1970, low-grade brown coal was extracted at Søby in mainland Denmark. This activity carried out largely by manual labour massively transformed, if not destroyed, the surrounding landscape. The need for Danish brown coal extraction was spurred by increasing domestic demand, but even more so by the onset of World War II when supply lines from Britain were severed. Denmark needed a fossil energy source of its own, however poor the quality of the coal. The Søby mine thus writes itself into a much wider narrative of global connections and changing patterns of production and consumption. Indeed, the very event – World War II – gave rise to what the scientific judges of the Anthropocene Working Group see as the most likely stratigraphic ‘Golden Spike’ marking the beginning of the Anthropocene: the atomic bomb explosions in the middle of the 20th century.

This new ‘Epoch of Man’ is often framed in apocalyptic terms. The apocalypse can take many forms and the Anthropocene, we argue, is also made up of unspectacular and ‘mild’ cases of human disturbance, as we showed in the exhibition “Mild Apocalypse” at Moesgaard Museum near Aarhus, Denmark. In the exhibition, we invited visitors to explore a peculiar Danish anthropogenic landscape where the extraction of brown coal, regulated by the state and on a rather small-scale basis, has nonetheless left remarkable and permanent traces. The exhibition asked how familiar and unfamiliar forms of life, human and non-human, quietly emerged and continue to emerge in the shadows of prior industrial activity. In short, we wanted to bring the Anthropocene home (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. The standing remains of former homes around the now abandoned brown coal mine. Cultural and natural heritage grow together. Photo by Nathalia Brichet.
Figure 1. The standing remains of former homes around the now abandoned brown coal mine. Cultural and natural heritage grow together. Photo by Nathalia Brichet.

Zooming in, Søby is located in an apparently unexceptional area in western Denmark. Even so, it is thoroughly shaped by the quest for fossil fuels, which briefly populated the area with entrepreneurs, able-bodied workers, black-market traders, and seekers of fortune.

The brown coal beds were swiftly exhausted, and people moved on. But the extraction left behind a ruined landscape with acidic lakes and frequent landslides, as well as opportunities for new species, businesses and projects. A composite scene of potentials and obstacles has come into being – impossible to control, dangerous at places, and unsuited for commercial agriculture and forestry (Fig. 2). What happens in a landscape worn out by extractive activity?

Figure 2. Danger lurks in Anthropocene landscapes. From scanpix.
Figure 2. Danger lurks in Anthropocene landscapes. From scanpix.

The area is now home to deer, weeds, hunters, lone wolves, invasive plants, and other forms of life that thrive and engage with each other where prior industrial activity has exhausted the possibilities for continued industry. At this particular spot familiar species and objects are assembled in novel and peculiar configurations. There are other stories to tell than the traditional narrative associated with Søby, which is one of entrepreneurial spirit, male prowess and economic success – a Danish Klondike. What if these qualities were turned on their head and seen in the light of their destructive consequences as expressive of the Anthropocene?

Questions like these have led researchers from Aarhus University’s AURA and C3NET projects to also gather in the former brown coal beds to investigate – using methods from ecology, anthropology, archaeology and the arts – a landscape formatted by human intervention. Our take on the Danish brown coal history is inspired by AURA and C3NET researchers’ insights into disturbed landscapes – mild and not-so-mild apocalypses – across the world (Fig. 3-17).

Søby, for all its apparently unremarkable nature, constitutes a microcosm of the Anthropocene that includes invasive species, pollution, human-transformed landscapes and of new ecological opportunities and dangers. Museums worldwide are beginning to address the challenge of confronting and debating anthropogenic climate change, its causes and consequences. In an Anthropocene perspective, cultural and natural history and heritage collapse; man-made nature becomes a topic for museums of cultural history as much as museums of natural history. Welcome to a Danish Anthropocene landscape, created by human activity, grown over.

Ophavsret beskyttet billede, Iga Kuriata,  særudstilling, mild apokalypse, genfotografering, 11. marts 2016
The Mild Apocalypse exhibition at the Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus, Denmark. Photo copyright protected, by Iga Kuriata, March 11, 2016.

 

Fieldwork locations and inspirations of AURA and C3NET researchers.

Figure 3. Looking for mushrooms in former industrial forest in the Cascade Mountains of the US Pacific Northwest. Refugees from Laos and Cambodia who have resettled in the United States are given little public assistance, and sometimes they turn to the forest to make a living. These forests were once the centre of US industrial logging, but now the best logs are gone. In some places, the mushrooms are worth more than the remaining timber. Mushroom hunting for the global market is one form of living in ruins. Photo by Anna Tsing.
Figure 3. Looking for mushrooms in former industrial forest in the Cascade Mountains of the US Pacific Northwest. Refugees from Laos and Cambodia who have resettled in the United States are given little public assistance, and sometimes they turn to the forest to make a living. These forests were once the center of US industrial logging, but now the best logs are gone. In some places, the mushrooms are worth more than the remaining timber. Mushroom hunting for the global market is one form of living in ruins. Photo by Anna Tsing.
Figure 4. Lianshi Park, also known as Yongding River Wetland, near the Chinese megacity of Beijing. The park is an ecological restoration project aimed at ensuring biodiversity in the former industrial area along the Yongding River on the urban periphery. In the background is a disused steel mill, which has been shut down because of the pollution it caused. Photo by Jens-Christian Svenning.
Figure 4. Lianshi Park, also known as Yongding River Wetland, near the Chinese megacity of Beijing. The park is an ecological restoration project aimed at ensuring biodiversity in the former industrial area along the Yongding River on the urban periphery. In the background is a disused steel mill, which has been shut down because of the pollution it caused. Photo by Jens-Christian Svenning.
Figure 5. Soil conservation structures above one of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project dams in Lesotho, southern Africa. The structures were erected to prevent soil erosion that diminishes the quality and quantity of water in the reservoir, which is a problem for this multi-billion dollar effort to transfer water from the mountains of Lesotho to arid South Africa. The dam reservoirs have drawn attention to land degradation in the region, while at the same time reducing the availability of agricultural and grazing land in flooded valleys. Photo by Colin Hoag.
Figure 5. Soil conservation structures above one of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project dams in Lesotho, southern Africa. The structures were erected to prevent soil erosion that diminishes the quality and quantity of water in the reservoir, which is a problem for this multi-billion dollar effort to transfer water from the mountains of Lesotho to arid South Africa. The dam reservoirs have drawn attention to land degradation in the region, while at the same time reducing the availability of agricultural and grazing land in flooded valleys. Photo by Colin Hoag.
Figure 6. Rice terraces cover steep slopes of the Ifugao mountain province in the Philippines. For thousands of years, rhythms of life negotiated between humans, plants, rain, and soil have revolved around the cultivation of rice — hundreds of varieties of flowering grass planted in pond fields. These rhythms are breaking, as farmers leave for jobs in the city or mines nearby; earthquakes and shifting rainfall patterns contribute to landslides; and more and more terraces lie in disrepair. Photo by Elaine Gan.
Figure 6. Rice terraces cover steep slopes of the Ifugao mountain province in the Philippines. For thousands of years, rhythms of life negotiated between humans, plants, rain, and soil have revolved around the cultivation of rice — hundreds of varieties of flowering grass planted in pond fields. These rhythms are breaking, as farmers leave for jobs in the city or mines nearby; earthquakes and shifting rainfall patterns contribute to landslides; and more and more terraces lie in disrepair. Photo by Elaine Gan.
Figure 7. The mine Peña de Hierro is founded on a massive belt of minerals, stretching for 250 km from Portugal to Spain. The area has been mined since Roman times, and in the 19th century the place also provided copper and sulfur for burgeoning chemical and electrical industries. The enormous scale of mineral extraction in the area shows in a giant open-pit crater and in a mining system no less than 155 meters deep. The red waters are connected to the Rio Tinto, the acidic river system in the area. Astrobiologists research this landscape as a Mars analogue, the conditions considered as inhospitable as those of the red planet. Photo by Filippo Bertoni.
Figure 7. The mine Peña de Hierro is founded on a massive belt of minerals, stretching for 250 km from Portugal to Spain. The area has been mined since Roman times, and in the 19th century the place also provided copper and sulfur for burgeoning chemical and electrical industries. The enormous scale of mineral extraction in the area shows in a giant open-pit crater and in a mining system no less than 155 meters deep. The red waters are connected to the Rio Tinto, the acidic river system in the area. Astrobiologists research this landscape as a Mars analogue, the conditions considered as inhospitable as those of the red planet. Photo by Filippo Bertoni.
Figure 8. This carcass of a zebra lies next to a heavily trafficked road north of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, southern Africa. Roads like this connect people and places and serve as important trade routes. But these routes, together with veterinary fences meant to control the spread of disease to livestock, put wildlife at risk of collision with vehicles and inhibit the movement of migratory animals. Unable to travel in search of fresh water and forage, large numbers of animals have died over the years trapped in these networks of roads and fences. Photo by Pierre Du Plessis.
Figure 8. This carcass of a zebra lies next to a heavily trafficked road north of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, southern Africa. Roads like this connect people and places and serve as important trade routes. But these routes, together with veterinary fences meant to control the spread of disease to livestock, put wildlife at risk of collision with vehicles and inhibit the movement of migratory animals. Unable to travel in search of fresh water and forage, large numbers of animals have died over the years trapped in these networks of roads and fences. Photo by Pierre du Plessis.
Figure 9. Brick wall in Denmark where a particular species of harvestman thrives. Originating in the Mediterranean region this little creature is considered an invasive species in Denmark. When building materials and other goods are transported across borders, biological species often tag along unnoticed. This harvestman is now much more frequent than other species native to Denmark, possible because it has outmanoeuvred the local harvestmen in finding feed, and it is particularly common in places with a lot of human activity. Photo by Stine Vestbo.
Figure 9. Brick wall in Denmark where a particular species of harvestman thrives. Originating in the Mediterranean region this little creature is considered an invasive species in Denmark. When building materials and other goods are transported across borders, biological species often tag along unnoticed. This harvestman is now much more frequent than other species native to Denmark, possible because it has outmaneuvered the local harvestmen in finding feed, and it is particularly common in places with a lot of human activity. Photo by Stine Vestbo.
Figure 10. Horseshoe crabs harvested on the American east coast. This marine animal, which has not changed much for 400 million years, was numerous until the mid-20th century. Since then, the stock has been greatly reduced, in part because their spawning grounds have been polluted, and because they are harvested in great numbers. Horseshoe crabs are ground up and used as fertilizer and feed, and their blue blood is used in the medical industry due to its special coagulating qualities. Photo by Peter Funch.
Figure 10. Horseshoe crabs harvested on the American east coast. This marine animal, which has not changed much for 400 million years, was numerous until the mid-20th century. Since then, the stock has been greatly reduced, in part because their spawning grounds have been polluted, and because they are harvested in great numbers. Horseshoe crabs are ground up and used as fertilizer and feed, and their blue blood is used in the medical industry due to its special coagulating qualities. Photo by Peter Funch.
Figure 11. Mud lake on the Indonesian island of Java caused by the mud volcano Lusi, which erupted in 2006. The sulphurous and now largely lifeless mud lake is 11 metres deep, has buried seven villages, and forced 75,000 people to evacuate. Geologists are discussing whether the eruption was natural and caused by an earthquake or manmade by oil extraction in the area.  Photo by Nils Bubandt.
Figure 11. Mud lake on the Indonesian island of Java caused by the mud volcano Lusi, which erupted in 2006. The sulfurous and now largely lifeless mud lake is 11 meters deep, has buried seven villages, and forced 75,000 people to evacuate. Geologists are discussing whether the eruption was natural and caused by an earthquake or man-made by oil extraction in the area.  Photo by Nils Bubandt.
Figure 12. Because of the brown coal extraction, which stopped in 1970, some areas of the brown coal beds are so polluted with ochre that even the hardy pine (Pinus contorta) struggles to take root. Large numbers of this non-native pine were planted in the area to prevent sand drift in the desert-like landscapes and eventually it became a successful pioneer species in the area. Today, the hardy pine is unpopular and many would like to see it replaced with hardwood forest. Photo by Mathilde Højrup.
Figure 12. Because of the brown coal extraction, which stopped in 1970, some areas of the brown coal beds are so polluted with ochre that even the hardy pine (Pinus contorta) struggles to take root. Large numbers of this non-native pine were planted in the area to prevent sand drift in the desert-like landscapes and eventually it became a successful pioneer species in the area. Today, the hardy pine is unpopular and many would like to see it replaced with hardwood forest. Photo by Mathilde Højrup.
Figure 13. Behind the dike surrounding the Po delta in Italy, the chimney of a decommissioned power station marks the industrialization of the area. The dikes have to be continuously maintained since the delta area sunk up to five metres below sea level after methane extraction in the 1960s. This has made the delta much more at risk of flooding, which has led to a rural exodus. In the event of future sea level rise the delta is further exposed. Photo by Meredith Root-Bernstein.
Figure 13. Behind the dike surrounding the Po delta in Italy, the chimney of a decommissioned power station marks the industrialization of the area. The dikes have to be continuously maintained since the delta area sunk up to five meters below sea level after methane extraction in the 1960s. This has made the delta much more at risk of flooding, which has led to a rural exodus. In the event of future sea level rise the delta is further exposed. Photo by Meredith Root-Bernstein.
Figure 14. Fish ladder viewing window at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, northwest United States. Nearly all of the Pacific salmon that spawn in the upper reaches of the river’s watershed must pass through at least one of the 14 such structures on its main stem. The dams, which provide the region with cheap electricity, irrigation water, and boat locks, have turned the river's once-wild rapids into a series of spillways and stair-stepped lakes, requiring fish ladders to aid salmon migration. Photo by Heather Swanson.
Figure 14. Fish ladder viewing window at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, northwest United States. Nearly all of the Pacific salmon that spawn in the upper reaches of the river’s watershed must pass through at least one of the 14 such structures on its main stem. The dams, which provide the region with cheap electricity, irrigation water, and boat locks, have turned the river’s once-wild rapids into a series of spillways and stair-stepped lakes, requiring fish ladders to aid salmon migration. Photo by Heather Swanson.
Figure 15. A ruined and vacated house near the volcano Merapi in Indonesia. Merapi is considered the world’s most dangerous volcano, and it erupts frequently. Nonetheless, people continue to settle close by, because previous eruptions have made valuable raw materials available. The owner of the house lost his wife and child in a Merapi eruption and now works in a near-by sand mine. Photo by Felix Riede.
Figure 15. A ruined and vacated house near the volcano Merapi in Indonesia. Merapi is considered the world’s most dangerous volcano, and it erupts frequently. Nonetheless, people continue to settle close by, because previous eruptions have made valuable raw materials available. The owner of the house lost his wife and child in a Merapi eruption and now works in a near-by sand mine. Photo by Felix Riede.
Figure 16. The village of Lofthus in western Norway. Apple plantations crawl up the slopes until these eventually become too steep. The fruit producers would do anything to expand their plantations, but will have to make do with increasing the yield on the acreage available in their effort to compete with cheaper imported fruit. For this reason, the authorities recently lifted a ban on imported fruit trees and shoots, which are sturdier and grow faster. To some, this is a timely rescue of the fruit trade, whereas others see it as a disastrous exposure to pests. Photo by Frida Hastrup.
Figure 16. The village of Lofthus in western Norway. Apple plantations crawl up the slopes until these eventually become too steep. The fruit producers would do anything to expand their plantations, but will have to make do with increasing the yield on the acreage available in their effort to compete with cheaper imported fruit. For this reason, the authorities recently lifted a ban on imported fruit trees and shoots, which are sturdier and grow faster. To some, this is a timely rescue of the fruit trade, whereas others see it as a disastrous exposure to pests. Photo by Frida Hastrup.
Figure 17. Cleaning up after a gold mine in Greenland that operated from 2004-2013. The white mega bags are full of oil polluted soil and will be kept in the mine’s abandoned gallery for eternity. Soil remediation would have required shipping of the heavy load to Esbjerg, Denmark, around 3000 kilometres away. This option was not considered worthwhile. Photo by Nathalia Brichet.
Figure 17. Cleaning up after a gold mine in Greenland that operated from 2004-2013. The white mega bags are full of oil polluted soil and will be kept in the mine’s abandoned gallery for eternity. Soil remediation would have required shipping of the heavy load to Esbjerg, Denmark, around 3000 kilometers away. This option was not considered worthwhile. Photo by Nathalia Brichet.

Author bios:

Nathalia Brichet, PhD, is a postdoc at Aarhus University, where she is part of the collective research group Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene. She is also part of the research project, Natural Goods? Processing Raw Materials in Global Times. Her research is focused on extractive industries in Greenland and Denmark. Brichet uses her fieldwork to collect and exhibit anthropological analyses in collaboration with the people she engages with, and curators and colleagues from museums in Denmark, Great Britain, USA, and Ghana. She has curated collaborative exhibitions at the National Museum of Denmark, National Museum of Ghana and at Moesgaard Museum in Denmark.

Frida Hastrup, PhD, is associate professor in ethnology at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen. She is the leader of a research project about natural resources by the name of Natural Goods? Processing Raw Materials in Global Times, (funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research’s Sapere Aude programme), which has exhibition work as part of its output. This has resulted in co-curated exhibitions at the National Museum of Denmark and at Moesgaard Museum.

Felix Riede, PhD, is an archaeologist with particular interest in geo-cultural heritage and the relationship between humans and the environment at the intersection between the Arts and the Sciences. In particular, he has been researching the impact of extreme events such as volcanic eruptions on human communities in the deep past. He is currently coordinating PI of the Climate|Culture|Catastrophe Network, a hub for the Environmental Humanities at Aarhus University. In 2017, he will start a large research project funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research’s Sapere Aude programme on Europe’s deep-time geo-cultural heritage and the impact of the Laacher See volcanic eruption 13000 years ago on environments and communities at that time. Recent publications include an edited volume on past vulnerability, reflections on ethics in studies of past environmental change and on teaching climate change in the humanities, as well as papers reaching out to the risk reduction science community.


This post is part of our thematic series: Museums and Ecology.

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