(20MIN READ) Along the mining region of the Ruhr in Germany, a strange phenomena has taken place: An abandoned sandstone quarry has turned into a popular climbing crag. Avalonia’s multifaceted nature makes it a liminal ground where the borders between natural and artificial, subject and object, fictional and real, blend. Borrowing the haptic qualities of the embodied practice of rock climbing, Camila Chebez (re)explores an Earth too often figured as mute and inert, a wasteland in waiting.

First Encounter

It was said that along the River Ruhr a place by the name of Avalonia concealed under its canopy a series of sandstone caves. The promise of such rock only three hours away was enough of an incentive for me, together with a team of three other avid climbers, to go investigate. With a vague notion of coordinates given by word of mouth, we left behind the monotonous terrain of The Netherlands for the undulating landscape of Germany. After driving past colossal open pits of coal extraction and the big smoky factories so typical of this industrialized area, we arrived with the last light of the day at the small town of Herdecke. A sign on the road telling us we could drive no further made us do the last leg of our destination by foot. Along the river, we observed the reserved fisherman in their patient game, a dystopian scene if you were to pay attention to the ‘Baden Verboten’1 warning signs along the path that indicated the risk of pollutants in the water.

    Under the light of a retreating sun we discerned a trail into the forest. And so up we went. As we slowly ascended, the darkness became deeper and the road noises quieter. With every step our breath grew heavier and we had to squint our eyes in an attempt to adjust to the play of shadows. But then, like an apparition, the cliff’s face emerged. Our eyes traveled from our feet to its heights which, magnified by the night, didn't give any vestiges of an end. Framed by a low dry-stone wall the sight made us feel as if we had arrived at an altar. We all gasped, unable to articulate with words what this discovery meant. Incredulous, we approached and laid our hands on the rocky surface. The coldness was a refreshing affirmation in the summer air. Little did we know that underneath lay the dormant spirit of a deep-time story.

This is the beginning of our lithical conversation.

Surrounded by two highways and the TPP Herdecke H6 power plant, the latter dating back to the early twentieth century, Avalonia's wild existence is an island apart from continental frameworks of value. Since it was part of an important mining area in the time of industrialist Friedrich Harkort,2 evidence of past excavations in search of minerals still abounds where the bare skin of the land lies burst open. These traces of human impact have given way to ‘holes,’ carved into the hillside, such as where the Katla and Avalonia caves now stand.

    As if in mid-swing, the place was abandoned most probably after other quarries offered more and better profit, and the shift from pavement roads to asphalt during WWI & WWII decreased the demand for sandstone pavers. But unlike newer minefields, the traditional mining techniques used at Avalonia made it possible for most of the ancient trees to be left untouched. Left to the mercy of the elements, different species began to reclaim their place, making it a site of interest for nature conservation projects. This drove the government to declare it a Natural Reserve, which later became indispensable when new industries, and with them people, arrived in the area. Reserves like Avalonia provide important natural buffer zones that can counteract air pollution and offer an escape for the neighboring inhabitants from their busy industrial contexts.

    Working its strange magnetism, Avalonia has since attracted the attention of an ongrowing popular activity: rock climbing. Daniel Pohl was among the earliest visitors in 2004, establishing routes and scouting the possibility of developing the crag. But as he immersed himself in this lithic practice, Daniel began envisioning the place as something more than just a recreational area: an amphitheater where the rock was the main spectacle. Working together with Feinhieb, a collective of stone sculptures, Daniel eventually assembled a series of terraces and platforms with the cave's scattered slabs of stone. This land artwork now acts as a base, a framework where the prominence of the natural rock is made evident, but also accessible for interaction. A bridge between the human and the nonhuman. An invitation.

    Avalonia is a crossroads where the borders between artificial and natural, fictional and real, blur. If one is to observe the interventions in the space, it becomes apparent that Daniel Pohl was successful in evoking an almost fantastical world, in which his paths and towers recall King Arthur’s mythical paradise of Avalon. His subtle constructions function as triggers to the imagination for whoever finds  themselves navigating the forest, turning ruins into mythical engines. How much credit can we give the rock for these narratives, this irresistible provocation it represents to the human mind in the crafting of stories? Could it be perhaps that we see and hear the echo of epochs long extinguished?

Recalibrating Focus

Concealed in the depth of the forest, Avalonia’s evasive face forced us to meet it on its own ground. By the second day our senses had attuned to the rhythms of birds chirping, of mice’s furtive steps, and the way in which a particular pebble on the path would move when stepped on. Now and then the sound of the railroad would intrude and one could almost never escape the gaze of the colossal ivory chimney of the neighboring power plant that rose above the wooden pillars of the trees. Even though we had only been there for less than 48 hours, to turn around a corner and be greeted by the open mouth of the Avalonia cave had already become our most awaited moment of the day. To be engulfed by its dimension brought a sense of homecoming that we could not completely comprehend.

    Within the shade of the cave our pupils expanded, bringing the stone surface into sharp focus. The patterns and veins made by the layering of matter pressed onto matter, or the fusions and fissures caused by the pressure of volcanic temperatures, seemed to us like some kind of writing (in the eyes of geologists these scribbles do transcribe events from millions of years ago). So entranced we were by this first step into the cave that we almost missed a barefooted man, silently brushing away the white marks of chalk from one of the cave’s corners. He noticed our curious looks and simply explained: “Climbers sometimes forget to tend to the marks they leave behind, so I dedicate Saturdays to blurring away this division, between rock and man. Only then the painting comes together.” Perplexed, it took us a few seconds to realize we were talking with the legend himself.

    Throughout the day Daniel Pohl became our guide, pointing out the different sectors and the names with which he had chosen to refer to each rock. “The name Avalonia actually comes from geology, you know?” Avalonia was baptized after a drifting microcontinent from the Paleozonic era of the same name. During its journey from the northern edge of Gondwana, the Rheic Ocean formed behind it and the Iapetus Ocean shrank in front. It collided with the continent Baltica, then Laurentia, and finally with Gondwana, ending up in the interior of Pangea. When Pangea broke up, Avalonia´s remains were divided by the rift, which became the Atlantic Ocean. Many of its fragments remain dispersed throughout Europe.3

With this in mind, one could speculate that what miners came into contact with in the outskirts of Herdecke was a fragment of Avalonia, one of its many changing faces. Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, known for introducing the concept of the Anthropocene, reflects upon the notion of a similar encounter with this land-that-once-was when analyzing a pebble at the southern coast of Poland: “Landscapes are transient. This is a concept that does not come easily to us. In our brief lifetimes we see the Earth’s landmasses as things of massive permanence, the bedrock of passing civilizations.”4 Rocks move at nonhuman timescales.

    “This is the golden treasure of the Ruhr area,” Daniel exclaimed while tapping proudly at a boulder nearby. He then continued to present the rocky walls as a “mystical legacy of the industrial revolution,” pointing out that what is honored in truth are the efforts of the quarrymen, digging out the rocky skeleton of the land, and the countless hours invested later by the artists who patiently reassembled its scattered pieces in the fashion of terraces and short walls. Daniel later added: “Alongside these modern values there is something that is often forgotten, namely a natural value that cannot be measured in hours worked or money—and that value is harder to define. How shall we express in monetary terms the value of the owl that breeds in a nearby forest area and that sees Avalonia as a hunting ground?”

    When acknowledging the perspective of another creature inhabiting the space, the past interactions of humans with the terrain seem to be one of raid and subjugation. Perhaps it is the durability of rock, the fact it prevails through time, that has drawn humans to a relentless attempt to master this noble material be it as tools and weapons—mortars, arrows, and spearheads—, as a basic material for the construction of settlements, or as a canvas for artistic expression—from the first cave paintings to the carving of sculptures and the beginnings of the written alphabet. The cradle of our civilizations was made of rock-hard stone. After centuries of manipulation and defiguration, can we look at its bare skin and read beyond its ‘usability’?

When looking at Avalonia's topology, we know that the digging which gave shape to the caves was the result of mining, that is to say, the classification of stone as a resource, a thing to be extracted. As part of this process, the land was dismembered through sharp picks and the crumbling of cliffs. Today the empty cavities of Avalonia and Katla cave are spectral presences of that history of scars. Still, not far away, the plunder and despoilment of the earth's surface continues.

    Near to Avalonia is The Tagebau Hambach, known as the biggest coal extraction area in Europe. Here, on the site of the ancient Hambach Forest, after merely forty-four years of extractivist practices, only 10% of its surface remains.5 We are living in a time in which the world's natural systems are being destabilized by overconsumption. As Bruno Latour argues, nature is “no longer outside us but under our feet, and it shakes the ground. Climate mutation means that the question of the land on which we all stand has come back into focus.”6 What are we losing when industries destroy the integrity of these nonhuman bodies that physically sustain our existence, in pursuit of monetary interests?

    Aerial view of Hambach pit taken from Google Earth Images
As a victim of past extractivist activities, Avalonia warns us of an ever more likely future, one of deeply transformed landscapes and increasingly degraded ecosystems. And yet Avalonia is also a survivor, a thriving oasis of nature’s resilience. As such Avalonia exemplifies resistance to the conversion of the commons—land belonging to or affecting the whole of a community—into merely resources. Depleted and rendered valueless in the eyes of the market a century ago, Avalonia had the chance of steadily drifting away from the hungry claws of industry, becoming a lost kingdom in a forgotten corner of the Ruhr area. It was perhaps in the shelter of its many caves that Avalonia’s dormant spirit began to dream itself anew. Evoking King Arthur’s terrestrial utopia of Avalon, a place symbolizing abundance where nature provides without the need to sow and cultivate, Avalonia offers its pilgrims a treasure that can not be extracted but can yet be experienced. When immersed in the choreography of the rock, realities previously unseen or unimagined can be uncovered, even across this seemingly ‘exhausted’ ground. 

Making Contact

A very particular phenomenon happens when people interact with rock; an innate playfulness is triggered. Speaking about how he creates stages for climbers to learn and connect with nature, Daniel Pohl claims: “That’s what is important about bouldering, that we teach the adults how to be kids again.”7 When climbing we allow ourselves, for a moment, to be guided by rules predetermined by the stone’s morphology. Countless are the ways of climbing the face of a rock, for “knowing another is endless.”8 These many ways range in difficulty, each demanding a higher or lower level of performance. We accept the physical challenge of this other body, and after each failed attempt we start archiving a muscle memory of the way the stone ‘wants’ to be touched. In this activity, reaching the heights is not entirely the goal, but managing to perform the many ways of doing so. In his book Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga argues that play is a characteristic human feature:9

    “(…) In this intensity, this absorption, this power of maddening, lies the very essence, the primordial quality of play. Nature, so our reasoning mind tells us, could just as easily have given her children all those useful functions of discharging superabundant energy, of relaxing after exertion, of training for the demands of life, of compensating for unfulfilled longings, etc., in the form of purely mechanical exercises and reactions. But no, she gave us play, with its tension, its mirth, and its fun.”10

    Rock climbing proposes a peculiar way of reading the stone, in which the features of the stone’s surface, along with the creativity and stamina of the climber, determine the sequence of movements required to navigate it. The role of the climber is to translate the visible and tactile characteristics of the logos of the stone, to deploy their knowledge of the fact that the rock, as a text of features and patterns, can be both read and conversed with, and to craft corporeal arrangements whose successes or failures are determined by gravity. The morphology of the rocks becomes a manual for the body: an upside-down grip suggests an under-cling, a small hole is a perfect pocket rest. Just like humans talk about taking each other’s hand, the stone is the one that does so, teaching us to walk again on this new plane through forms of embrace. If we are to look at the traces of chalk on the wall, we may appreciate a new story about the relationship between hand and stone—one of mobility and mutual effect. When laying our hands on the porous skin of the cave a whole new terrain starts unfolding beyond our eyes.

    In his essay, The Senses of Touch, Mark Patterson calls for a bodily remembering  through touch by pointing out the body’s ability to bring things into proximity. He explains how “the immediacy of sensation is affirmatory and comforting, involving a mutual co-implication of one’s own body and another’s presence. On the other hand, touch can cement an empathic or affective bond, opening an entirely new channel of communication.”11 Rock climbing intermingles in its act the optical with the haptic. As an embodying practice it literally adds the concrete experience of hands and feet to the abstracted reading of the rock’s surface. In this activity we are challenged to trust the technology of the senses and the magnetism of the rock. It becomes a process of oscillation, between pulling away and coming closer again.
As we run our fingers across the surface of a climb, we are searching for small cracks and indentations. Once we secure them, we engage our muscles and we take off from the ground. The pull of gravity propels us back to our bodies, senses are sharpened, and we suddenly become aware of every other lifeform—plants, lichen, bugs—clinging, like us, to the porous surface. What does it mean to embody these lithic narratives? To cement in our muscle memory the memory of the rock? In this entangled dance we choose not to leave nature alone but establish a sensorial empathy with the agents that sustain our existence.

Embodying Utopia

Three years after the first excursion, I still find myself drawn to Avalonia, eagerly waiting for the chance to start a new, slow pilgrimage to the east. Time behaves differently in Avalonia, the geological pace of the rock seems to stretch time, a sweet relief for the body after the hectic rhythm of daily routines. There are no strangers in the presence of the rock, for we all recognize in each other the rejuvenating and exhilarating effects of engaging in this dance. As one climbs, everyone is ready to catch each other and guide all safely to the ground. It is through this shared struggle that, even without a common language, and with each one following their individual cardinal point, a community begins to form. And just like the scattered pieces of this continent that once was, this hill that once stood, we come together to embody a living utopia, even if it lasts only for a brief moment.

    Play being an impulsive activity that infuses us with joy, allows those of us who find our cities dull, alienating, and disenchanting the chance to break away. Play asks: what would happen if we allowed our instincts to become restorative passions? If we could turn this burst of joy stirred by other non-human bodies into creative practices that could in parallel reconstruct and enhance the healing of landscapes? Avalonia is a place where the embodied practice of rock-climbing teaches us not to appropriate but appreciate the land, reclaiming our bond and sense of belonging with the more-than-human agents, allowing us to discover in a playful way the continuities and congruences between humans and stones.

    To climb is to puzzle together, to reunite into one piece what Silvia Federici calls “the image of a body that [...] capitalism has divided.”12 When we come into contact with rock and climb, we are lending our bodies to the rock for it to articulate its ancestral story. By engaging our bodies we ‘vocalize’ a (temporary) fragment of these narratives. To climb is to construct a collective imagery of a place, one conceived by the ability to ‘actuate territories,’13 a process of bringing space into being. So let us approach, and listen, to Avalonia’s tectonic rhythms, which challenge our very feet into a different dance with the cosmos. 


1︎︎︎ Swimming forbidden.

2︎︎︎ Friedrich Harkort was an early prominent German industrialist and pioneer of industrial development in the Ruhr region during the eighteen hundreds. 

3︎︎︎ J. B Murphy; S. A. Pisarevsky; R. D Nance; J. D. Keppie, Animated history of Avalonia in Neoproterozoic - Early Proterozoic. General Contributions. Journal of the Virtual Explorer. 2001, pp. 45–58.

4︎︎︎ Jan Zalasiewicz, The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey Into Earth’s Deep History, Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 38.

5︎︎︎ Michelle Z. Donahue, "Ancient Forest Home of Squatter Communities Is Doomed by Coal". National Geographic. 2018-04-13.

6︎︎︎ Bruno Latour, “We don’t seem to live on the same planet…”. Different Futures, edited by Kathryn B. Hiesinger & Michelle Millar, Philadelphia Museum of Art & The Art History Chicago (initially given as the Loeb Lecture, Harvard, GSD) 2019, pp. 193-199.

7︎︎︎ Cheyne Lempe and Mikey Schaefer; directors. Stone Locals: Rediscovering the soul of climbing. Patagonia Films. 2020. 71 minutes.

8︎︎︎ Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane, The Living Mountain. Canongate Books. 2011 (first published in 1977).

9︎︎︎ Being not only applicable to humans alone but shared with other animal life.

10︎︎︎ Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Beacon Press, 1971, pp. 13-14.

11︎︎︎ Mark Patterson, The senses of touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Berg. 2007, p. 1.

12︎︎︎ Silvia Federici, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism (PM Press, 2020), pp.45-46.

13︎︎︎ Term borrowed from ‘Stalker’, a collective of architects and researchers who in 2002, founded the research network Osservatorio Nomade (ON).


Video excerpts selected from original footage by the author.


Donahue, Michelle Z. Ancient Forest Home of Squatter Communities Is Doomed by Coal. National Geographic. 2018-04-13. Archived from the original on 2019-09-14. 018/04/hambach-forest-germany-logging-coal-conservation-science/ Consulted February 25, 2022.

Federici, Silvia. Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism. PM Press, 2020, pp.45-46.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Beacon Press, 1971, pp. 13-14.

Latour, Bruno. “We don’t seem to live on the same planet…” Different Futures, edited by Kathryn B. Hiesinger & Michelle Millar, Philadelphia Museum of Art & The Art History Chicago (initially given as the Loeb Lecture, Harvard, GSD) 2019, pp. 193-199.

Lempe,Cheyne; Schaefer, Mikey; directors. Stone Locals: Rediscovering the soul of climbing. Patagonia Films, 2020. 71 minutes.

Murphy, J. B.; Pisarevsky, S. A.; Nance, R. D.; Keppie, J. D. (2001). Jessell, M. J. (ed.). Animated history of Avalonia in Neoproterozoic - Early Proterozoic. General Contributions. Journal of the Virtual Explorer. Pp. 45–58. <10.3809/jvirtex.2001.00026> Consulted January, 15, 2022.

Patterson, Mark. The senses of touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Berg. 2007, p. 1.

Ruhrtal, Boulderclub. Avalonia Consulted March 02, 2022.

Shepherd, Nan and Macfarlane, Robert. The Living Mountain. Canongate Books, 2011 (first published in 1977).  

Zalasiewicz, J. A. The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth's Deep History. Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 38.


With a particular interest in political ecologies of extraction, Camila Chebez (AR) merges the practices of rock climbing and graphic design as a means to devise multi-layered narratives, to navigate and comprehend the world in its dynamic becoming.

Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Season 2: Autumn/Winter 2022 – Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Lynn Gommes, Oskar Johanson – Contributors: Damian Borovsky, Olly Bromham, Camila Chebez, Shreya De Souza, Torben Koerschkes, Max Kuwertz, Christopher Michael, Liminal Vision, Zach Whitworth, Rue Yi – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Design: Clint Soren, dolor~puritan, Ghikhan – Published: October 2022