Xylem // Bosnia and Herzegovina
A hiss between the rocks makes us stop in our tracks. Poskok! They have warned us of this snake. It was the first word we learned in the local language, even before saying ‘thank you.’
Almost everyone we met so far had something to tell about it, be it advice on preventing bites or quirky tales of vipers attacking unsuspecting villagers by swooping down from trees.
On one occasion, a former soldier in the Balkan war told us that when under fire, he and his mates would always check the ground before taking cover: «We fear poskok more than enemy» he affirmed
Now, there she is. A cream-brown female with amber, cat-like eyes. Slits for a nose. Above it, a horn. Scales like an armour. Vipera ammodytes, poskok.
The encounter happens in the Dinaric Alps, the long mountain range that separates the Balkan Peninsula from the Adriatic Sea.
A few days ago, we crossed the border between Montenegro and Bosnia. Now, mountain dust covers our boots, our legs are tired, and provisions are low.
But when we surpass a rocky summit, the view acts like a balm. Rainforest hugs the slopes beneath flat plateaus. Birdsong and the gurgle of water rise like steam from the valley we will cross the next day.
Beyond the golden peaks in the distance lies our destination: The Neretva River.
“The encounter happens in the Dinaric Alps…“
“… to the end of the asphalt road
where the Neretva basin begins.“
For the next part of our journey, we require provisions for at least eight days. The only option to resupply is Gacko, a depressing village in the shade of a coal-fired power plant.
Thick greyish-white smoke billows from the chimneys, heading Southwest as a second layer of clouds. The lignite is sourced in a large surface mine right beside the settlement.
We only stay as long as we need to resupply and hitch a ride to the end of the asphalt road where the Neretva basin begins.
As the smog flies, the river’s headwaters are only 12km away from the power plant. But they could not feel further apart.
In the Neretva Valley we find few houses and even fewer people living in them. Almost all of the buildings are locked and bolted. Bats have taken over the abandoned barns since farmers flocked to the cities decades ago in search of better economic opportunities.
Others left during the war. Ruins with bullet-ridden walls, a bombed-down building, occasional signs warning of landmines – vegetation has overgrown the ubiquitous scars of the conflict.
We still meet some people, mostly elders. They returned to their land, they say, to care for a subsistence garden, a few sheep, and a handful of beehives.
“… vegetation has overgrown the ubiquitous scars of the conflict.”
“… we swap (…) the dirt trail for the riverbed.”
A myriad of trickles collects in a small glistening creek at the bottom of the valley. When we spot it, we swap our hiking boots for water sandals and the dirt trail for the riverbed.
Heavy packs on the back, feet immersed in the stream, we struggle to find our balance on the slippery pebbles. But with each step, we get more used to it.
Whenever a tributary joins, we feel the drop in water temperature. Whenever the banks narrow in or widen, our leg muscles respond to the current by compensating for the change in speed.
Above our heads, dark clouds chase each other in ever-changing constellations. We can never predict when the rain will hit us. But after, invariably, the sun breaks through, fog rises from the hills, and reptiles slip out of their hiding places to bask in the warmth.
With every kilometre we advance downstream, the water deepens and gains strength. By the third day, it reaches our thighs. Whenever we need to wade through rapids, we interlace our arms, grab each other’s shoulders, and move together. The current hammers indiscriminately against boulders, rocks, and our bare legs – too strong to safely cross alone. It is time to retreat to the safety of the land.
Back on the trail, birdsong and the mating calls of yellow-bellied toads replace the roar of the Neretva. Instead of cars or people, we encounter a family of wild boars, the scats of bears and wolves, and a few clean bones. Every few meters, a rustle indicates that a lizard or snake has taken note of our presence.
“Every few meters,
“… wild and untainted. Until now”
Though we now follow the forest trail, we frequently return to the riverside to take a dip, make camp, or fill our bottles. As we drink the clear water, we find it hard to believe that just 200 kilometres downstream, this river will have become one of the most pollutant waterways that flow into the Adriatic Sea.
Throughout this first part of its journey, it runs wild and untainted.
Until now – because a staggering 70 planned dams threaten the Upper Neretva and its tributaries.
And some are already under construction.
A huge clearcutting marks the end of our hike: Four kilometres of forest razed to build the first hydroelectric power plant.
The churned earth is littered with stumps and dead trees. The tracks of bulldozers and wood harvesters cut through the landscape like hardened scar tissue. Logs lie in untidy heaps on the sides of these barren boulevards. The river, a side note – as if someone had forgotten to close the tap.
The air feels hot and stale. There are no more animals, no birdsong – Only a persistent feeling of oppression.
Walking through this wreckage is perhaps the most demanding thing we have done until now. Our bodies respond with rejection. We feel sick and exhausted. But we force ourselves to move forward to document everything.
“The churned earth is littered with stumps and felled trees.”
“Xylem is to trees what arteries are to our bodies…”
In the leaves of the felled trees, we can still observe the xylem’s intricate pattern. It evokes the map of a river basin or the blood vessels of a human heart.
Xylem is to trees what arteries are to our bodies or rivers to the planet: Lifelines that transport water and nutrients. But here, these lifelines are being severed.
So tonight, one hundred scientists, artists, and activists from seventeen countries pitch their tents and laboratories next to the construction site.
The camp feels like a frontline, the last barricade against the machines moving upstream.
From here, groups of specialists venture out day and night equipped with all kinds of artefacts. Together with them, we survey the streams, descend into dark caves, and climb mountain peaks to scrutinise the skies.
Water, earth, and air: we observe life thriving in all three elements. From fish to reptiles, from mammals to insects, from lichens to fungi, we encounter large and healthy populations of rare and endangered species and even discover organisms entirely new to science.
It is hard not to feel excited as we watch the lists of catalogued specimens growing daily. Every sample collected could provide another argument to stop the devastation.
“Water, earth, and air: we observe life thriving in all three elements”
“… every lifeline lost is one too many.”
The Balkans are known as the Blue Heart of Europe because one-third of its streams are in a pristine state, while in the rest of the continent, there are virtually no wild rivers left.
Yet the struggle for the Neretva stands for many others in the region.
As scientists, lawyers, and activists race against the clock to stop more than 3000 dams under development, investors and construction companies cut our remaining lifelines one by one.
In an era of mass extinction and climate breakdown, every lifeline lost is one too many.
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