This past November I visited ZEGG Gemeinschaft in beautiful Autumn-flavored Deutschland for a 10-day service program, full of wood-chopping, sauerkraut-making, slick ecovillage tech, and more.
Hope y’all enjoy this heavily-annotated photo tour of my adventures.
An hour’s train ride outside Berlin, there is a special place.
I disembarked at the lovely village of Bad Belzig, walked through sleepy suburbs down brick roads to the outskirts of town, and found myself here at the humble entrance to ZEGG Gemeinschaft.
ZEGG (an abbreviation for the German of “Centre for Experimental Culture Design”) was founded in 1991 by descendents of the “Bauhütte” project sparked in the 70’s by Dieter Duhm et. al. Since then it “has developed into a colourful and diverse cultural centre and well-known networking hub for communities, engaged scientists and other researchers, and peace activists.” Nowadays about 100 adults and children live together in the community, living the “quest for new forms of love and sexuality and the manifestation of personal and global healing.” You can read more of their history here.
The physical community is built on a modest 16 hectare (40-acre) plot of land with a diverse history. Formerly a farm estate, Olympic training facility, Nazi SS outpost, and Stasi training center, it now serves as a vibrant hub of environmental and spiritual healing. What a ride!
ZEGG’s campus includes many iconic structures, natural and human. More on that tall one in the background later.
I happened to catch ZEGG at the peak of Autumn color, just as the burnt-orange leaves were shedding to the ground in droves. As a Texas native, I’d never experienced anything like this before. Breathtaking!
As in Tamera, artful signs affirming ZEGG’s vision are scattered about, such as this one: “No to terror and war. Another world is possible.” Word.
Much of ZEGG’s vision comes through without words, though. Here, trees culled from the surrounding forest have become a children’s dream fort.
Like any ecovillage worth its salt, ZEGG includes rooms for contemplative stillness. I attended the daily 7:30 AM meditation… once. Nourishing as the practice can be, this was *way* too early for my night owl self.
In lieu of meditation, the more adventurous residents take a dip in ZEGG’s pool every morning. I did not do this. Got my fill of hypothermia at Findhorn Beach, thank you very much.
Rather, I enjoyed simply strolling the dewey grounds of ZEGG, watching the sun come up through the Pine and Birch woods.
Why was I visiting ZEGG?
For Herbst Aktion (“Autumn Action”), of course! An annual 10-Day volunteer program to help the ecovillage prepare for the Winter. After a quick breakfast of hearty bread, spreads, and coffee, we would assemble on the terrace at 9:00 AM sharp for our morning meeting.
With all hands on deck, the Herbst Aktion crew would do some warm-up exercises, hear what tasks were available and how many people were needed for them from the various group leaders, and then self-select into our preferred roles for the day. Despite their perennial enthusiasm, die Kinder there were not assigned roles. ZEGG does not endorse child labor.
With our roles assigned, Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it was off to work we would go.
One of our Aktion locations was here at the Holzhackschnitzelheizanlage.
Yes. That is a word. It means Wood Chip Heating System. And that’s exactly what it is! Under that blue tarp is several Metric Crap Tonnes of wood chips. A photovoltaic array covers the entire roof. The tall part is a smoke stack with a rooster on top. [In thick German accent] “Super.”
The Holzhackschnitzelheizanlage gets fed wood chips from that gigantic pile on the left into that slightly-less-gigantic hopper on the right. I recommend not falling in.
The Holzhackschnitzelheizanlage (I love this word so much, can you tell?) then incinerates the wood chips within Frederik, one of the two anthropomorphically-named boiler units which then pipe Grade-A, 110% renewable, Artisan-Crafted Warm Air and Electricity to the other buildings on campus.
Ashes made by the Holzhackschnitzelheizanlage (it’s such a badass WORD) are then collected in hoppers like this one. Flaming awesome, right?! Felix here was slack-jawed. Your jaw’s probably kinda slack right now too. No? Well… wait ’til you see what we did with the ashes! (to be continued…)
Here’s how it all works, in one convenient chart. Holzhackschnitzelheizanlage.
Here’s where we slept. The Holzhackschnitzelheizanlage kept us warm at night. That whale was pretty friendly, but she snores.
ZEGG has really gone all-in with photovoltaics. Here’s the Guest House, the main community building on the campus where we had all our meals.
Did you know climbing vines change color in Autumn? Awesome! Who needs paint when you’ve got these? Eat your heart out, Damanhur.
The Holzhackschnitzelheizanlage (should I stop? I’ll stop…) isn’t the only ecologically eco-awesome thang in ZEGG. They’ve also got a [drumroll…] Composting Toilet! This one isn’t nearly as large as the ones in Tamera, or as conveniently close to everything, or as good-smelling… but… it exists! Seriously though, it was cool to see this here.
And if peeing into a pile of sawdust two meters down isn’t your thing, you can optionally pee into the Terra Preta Urinal. What’s a Terra Preta Urinal, you ask? Well, first, it’s ONLY FOR URINE. Keep your crap in the dang Compost Toilet, Du verstehst? Second, you gotta first understand what Terra Preta is…
…this stuff! Basically, Terra Preta (aka. Biochar) happens when you burn a (kinda) compost pile really slowly inside a Volkswagen-sized inverted pyramid made from recycled Soviet-era metal scraps. This makes a carbon-sequestering pseudo-charcoal that’s like a pre-fab metropolis for plant-supercharging micro-organisms.
The one kicker is that the Terra Preta is pretty dead right after you make it, SO you add urine, from the Terra Preta Urinal to “activate” the whole shabang, and then…
…you spread the Activated Terra Preta onto your garden beds like compost, cover them to prevent the birds and snow from mucking it all up, and go hug the nearest tree.
This last step is very, VERY important. Do not skip it. Good job, Mieke.
Of course, Urine-Activated Terra Preta isn’t the only way to give your Growing Stuff a kick in its proverbial photosynthesizing pants.
Got me feeling a little American Gothic.
I learned that trees actually drop their leaves with a nutritional payload fine-tuned for the particular cocktail of symbiotic micro-organisms in the soil around their roots. So, we carefully and lovingly raked the many (many (MANY) ) fallen leaves on the ZEGG campus, taking care to gather each tree’s leaves around it’s own trunk, and not another’s.
You’re welcome, trees. We salute you for giving us shade and shelter and food and… oh… I dunno… the very air we breathe. Props.
Here’s an example of that raking love in action. This ZEGG resident (whose name I am incredibly sad to have forgotten), being a fan of Findhorn, created this stone spiral within a forest glen at the feminine heart center of ZEGG, as recognized by [ecovillage] World-renowned geomancer Marko Pogačnik.
He was right. The placed is charged as %&$#. I made my Austin soil offering here.
Oh! THIS IS WHERE CHESTNUTS COME FROM!!! O_O!!! Right?!! Like spiky little Sandworms that spit out scrumptuousness.
You, Nature. You.
Ah, remember that ash from the Holzhac… yeah, that thing? WELL, it turns out if you spread that ash on the ground, this keeps mold from growing on it during the snowy months.
Also, it turns out that if you first leave these ashes in an oil drum outside, and rain gets in because the oil drum wasn’t totally sealed, it turns that nice, powdery ash into ROCK.
So, in order to turn this back into a spread-able something resembling ash again (and not, y’know, ROCK), and because we were doing things the Eco-way with Eco-Human-power, we had to spend a few hours “Aschezerkleinern“, which I understand is German for smashing-the-ash(rock)-mass-with-steel-hammers-into-slightly-smaller-ash(ROCK)-pieces-until-your-back-hates-you…
…or until you decide that using a little dinosaur-juice-powered jackhammer action isn’t such a morally reprehensible idea after all.
Sustainability is complicated.
The upshot is that we got to look like Genuine Badasses when we spread the Thoroughly-Zerkleinert-Asche in the woods. Take it from Slow-Mo Astronaut Walk Felix here – We felt pretty cool.
After a breezy morning of leaf-raking or ash-crushing or whatever, we would always look forward to the 11:00 Fire Circle Tea Break, recharging on pre-packaged chocolate bars, apples, and copious cups of coffee over cordial conversation. Consonance.
“Oh crap, I’m so sorry… are y’all cool with me taking a photo of y’all? [How do I say that in German…] Yeah, you are? Okay, cool! I promise not to tag you on Facebook or anything because the photo was kinda awkward but really endearing.”
“So.. how ’bout this fire, amiright?”
I genuinely wish I’d spent more time in the ZEGG Garten. The community grows 50-70% of their fruit and vegetable needs on-site. That’s mighty impressive as ecovillages go.
Oh by the way, if you’ve been looking for Paradise, we found it. Totally hiding in plain site. Best plan ever. Props, Paradise.
And speaking of Paradise, our eco-tastic tasks also included… potato-sorting! Yes, there were literally 5 metric tons of these little brown gems. They were grown on a nearby farm, with whom ZEGG has a trade relationsh… Hmm? What, Peter?
Yes. Yes, that’s a bucket. Thank you.
Anyways. We sorted the 5 metric tons of Kartoffeln into four groups…
- Lots of mold? For the horses.
- Just a spot or two? Eat ’em soon.
- No spots and big? Cellar storage.
- No spots and small? Also cellar storage, but in a different bucket.
I’m spelling this out in great detail because, after several hours of throwing dusty potatoes into various buckets, my mind had internalized this process so well that I saw nothing but potatoes in my dreams for two nights. Potatoes… thousands of potatoes… rolling down like a horde of Sauron’s Orcs, bent on crushing me under their unending weight and growing little baby potatoes out of my cold, dusty flesh. *shiver* I still get flashbacks, y’all. I… I think I need therapy…
Bottom Line: The ZEGG folks were NOT going to starve this Winter. This is about half their potato supply. Now, they may not be 100% organically grown Martian potatoes, but at least these were made without using a totally unsustainable rocket fuel to condense their irrigation water. Suck it, Matt Damon.
A funny thing happened one day. I selected to chop a bunch of “Quitten.” This fruit was totally new to me, looking like a lumpy apple and tasting like a sour pear. Also super hard to cut. But in the end, it makes a dang tasty marmalade.
My cutting cohort also rolled into an improvised “Quittenmeditation“, beatboxing and vocalizing along to the rhythms of tossed cores and knife chops. Priceless! Wish I could request a copy of the NSA’s recording of it that they made using my iPhone’s microphone…
Oh yeah, and these are known as Quince back home.
Speaking of clandestine shenanigans, I learned of a semi-secret “Green Smoothie” delivery operation run by one reclusive ZEGGian. Insatiably curious, I social-engineered my way into his secret headquarters via the cunning method of… asking him if I could see it.
He agreed! One very early morning, I followed him around the campus, gathering freshly clipped field greens, including dock, dandelion, stinging nettle (which, y’know, STINGS… unless you grasp it firmly… “grasping the nettle”, you might say) and some others I never got the English name for. After that we combined these fresh-from-the-ground greens with chopped-up Quince, Apple, and Banana, then pulverized everything for a few Minuten in a Vitamix®.
The result was an über-nutritious, thoroughly earthy, and sometimes-almost-sweet green goo that we bottled in red-capped jugs and delivered to the doorstops of a couple dozen ZEGG residents on the back of a bicycle, Eco-Milkman style. Yeah. For real. So awesome.
ZEGG’s main kitchen was roomy and well-organized, in resonance with Tamera and Findhorn. I felt right at home there, pot-washing and preparing meals with the enthusiastic kitchen crew.
BONUS: As thanks afterward, the kitchen crew got some fresh espresso made from locally-roasted beans, plus chocolate-covered raisins. It’s like they knew I was coming.
Stereotype Alert: I made Sauerkraut in Germany!
Here’s how to do it…
Step 1: Gather 50 kg of shredded organic cabbage from your farm.
Step 2: Wash your feet and DANCE BAREFOOT ON THE CABBAGE. Stop when sufficiently squishy or out of good music, whichever comes first.
Step 3: Add 300 grams of Himalayan Salt to your squishy cabbage. Must be Himalayan. No exceptions. Ever.
Step 4: Stuff squishy, salted cabbage into hot-water-sterilized ceramic urn, place perfectly shaped rocks on top, cover.
Step 5: Carry urns into cellar, wait 1 month for badass bacteria to conquer the entire ecosystem inside the urns, pre-digesting the cabbage on your behalf, open and enjoy your Sauerkraut.
Über-Stereotype Alert: No Winter-prep program in rural Germany would be complete without… HOLZHACKEN!
I had fun. ^_^
And chopped a lot of wood.
……like, a LOT of wood.
Oh yeah, that up there’s the Holzmeister himself. He taught us how to chop a Metric Übercraptonne of wood without ruining our backs. Way to go, Rogét. Way. To. Go.
But the puppies did get tired after a while. DOG tired, you might say! Ahahahaha… haha… ahhhhwwww… Guter Hund! Gute Holzhacken. Ja. Genau…
Even Barton got in on the action! No no, he didn’t actually chop any wood. Don’t be ridiculous! Armadillos can’t chop wood. BUT he did pose well.
Didn’t you, Barton? Gute Gürteltier! Guter Foto Machen!
Yeah, Barton had a lot of fun at ZEGG …too much fun, sometimes. Get off Mario’s face, Barton! They’re trying to serve us a delicious dinner!
Despite exciting days, our dinners were often low-key occasions. After a hard day’s volunteering, we didn’t have much energy left for lively chit-chat. Being one of only two native English speakers there also made things tricky for me. So I mostly just braingasmed at how Lecker our food was. Seriously. Best ecovillage food ever.
We did have many opportunities to speak candidly with ZEGG’s residents, on everything from the age disparity to gender issues to organizational politics. Obviously it was no excuse for actually living there for years or… decades. But I feel extremely grateful for all the open sharing. ZEGG residents are living a beautiful, difficult, boundary-testing reality.
Major respect, y’all.
Oh, and fresh lemongrass tea is Die Gute Scheiße. Just sprachen.
After a long day of Herbst Aktion, we relaxed in the evenings with a range of wonderful activities. Group song and dance, deep emotional sharing through Forum, Yerba Mate-fueled drum circles…
Y’know, ecovillage stuff.
Sometimes you’ve just gotta paint the Dirty Old Town with accordion tones. ZEGG’s “Village Pub” was the perfect venue for chocolate/beer/exhaustion-powered jam sessions.
Sing even if you don’t know the words!
Sing especially if you don’t know the words.
Sing to heal the World. Sing to heal You.
Sing because you deserve it.
Sing because everyone is listening, and no one is.
Sing because why the $%&# not?!
Sing until your throat bleeds beauty.
Just sing, y’all.
On a related note (gonna get super serial here for a moment) the refugee crisis is a Real Thing, y’all.
A half kilometer from ZEGG there is a refugee camp with five hundred residents and growing. They come to Infocafé “Der Winkel”, the one cafe in Belzig with WiFi. The one cafe that teaches them German and English for free. The one cafe that will not kick them out for seeking a better life in a country that isn’t being bombed.
A young resident from ZEGG who works there 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, organized a jam session one night of our program. Open invitation, no questions, no entry fee, no one turned away.
I didn’t take any photos of this jam session, because I was so caught up in just Being There. Without words, we bonded through the universal languages of music, rhythm, beer, and sincere acknowledgement of each other as Human Becomings.
One refugee who did speak a little English thanked us especially, as best he could. “My home is gone,” he said. “I walk very much. I am very tired.
“But tonight, I am happy.”
Another way some ZEGG folks (like Stephanie here, who lives in Belzig) are helping the refugees is by employing them. Stephanie is a former Wandergeselle (“Journeyman”) in carpentry, following a Medieval German tradition of craft guilds and apprenticeship. She’s one of the few women to ever do it.
At the time I visited, she was renovating her massive house into a multi-family dwelling, beginning to Permaculture the $&%# out of the property, hiring refugees to help, and building the whole place into a complementary micro-ecovillage.
Oh, and she beat cancer.
This is what Stephanie’s soil looks like. Everywhere. 200 years of that tree-leaf-dropping cycle mentioned earlier built this rich, dark, humusy goodness, several inches deep. My Permie self cried a little. Grown in this lusciousness, Stephenie’s apple trees were dropping their last bounty of the season. So tasty!!
~( Nature Interlude )~
Taken at the beginning and end of our 10-day program. So Herbst.
By our ending Führung (“walking tour”) of the completed work, our team was a world different from the awkward strangers we’d been at the start. I’ve seen this happen over and over again on my Journey. There’s no better way to build a community than that community building something together.
Had to fill this guy up with all my Feels…
May the Herbst Aktion circle be open, but unbroken….
Vielen Dank, ZEGG