In the following I want to document a paper I gave at this year’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Meeting in Edinburgh. The paper was titled ‚Practicing Cold War memories through geocaching‘ and was meant to put up part of my fieldwork and conceptual frame for discussion. A big thank you goes to Kim and Jake for organising a great session showcasing New and Emerging Research in Historical Geography. I would also like to thank all session participants and guests for their thought-provoking comments which I plan to reflect on in one of the coming posts. However, I hope that discussion is not over yet and I welcome any point put forward to through the comment feature below or personal messages.
This paper is about my ongoing PhD-project on memory practices of the Cold War in Germany. Conceptually, I follow on from work on the geography of memory, which has generally characterized memory as a means to socially construct place-based narratives of collective and individual identity. I want to focus on memory-in-the-making, i.e. on the practices of remembering that have only started to imbue specific locales with meaning within the two decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
While my project also examines well known modes of heritage-production such as in museums and heritage protection public bodies, here, I want to focus on geocaching as a way to bestow meaning upon Cold War relics. In this paper, I want to present my conceptual approach which is based on practice theory as well as on ethnographic research. Preliminary results from fieldwork will show how geocaching can be seen as a way to produce place-based memories on one side and how this corresponds to wider practices of memory on the other side. My aim is to bind together both the historical geography of Cold War militarized landscapes in Germany and a vision of how individuals produce embodied memories before they become manifest in commemorative plaques, statutory heritage status or other conventional forms of publication.
Part One – Notes from the field
My 15-minute paper was divided into two parts, the first documenting a fieldwork experience from southern Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost of Germany’s sixteen states. I ‚explored‘ a derelict Cold War munitions depot close to the town of Kellinghusen through geocaching – an online based GPS treasure-hunting game. To my surprise, hardly anyone attending the session had ever heard of geocaching, which is quite popular in Germany. At the conference, I read out the following manuscript, complemented by a slideshow, in an attempt to get across an evocative account of geocaching and the experience of this Cold War site.
It’s April 26th, earlier this year. I’ve been anxious all day, and even the night before. I had found a geocache called ‚abgerüstet’, that is ‚disarmed’ in English, a couple of weeks before on the geocaching dot com website. The description promised exactly what I was looking for: a cache hidden at a disused Cold War military site. According to the description, this was a former nuclear arsenal run by the US Army on a German training ground. Close to the site was a German barracks complex that housed artillery and tank troops until it closed down in 2008, the cache description goes on. They are now planning a large-scale leisure centre on the grounds and the cache owner remarks sceptically: „Goodness knows if that’s really going to happen.“
This looked like the perfect ‚history cache’ to get started with some explorative fieldwork, only some 30 miles away about halfway between Kiel and Hamburg. Also, there shouldn’t be any reason for me being anxious. According to the description the only equipment required to find the cache was a torch and, of course, a GPS device.
However, some of the older log postings for this cache warned of an ‚angry’ forest official apparently loose in the area. Therefore, I was quite unsure whether one might have to climb fences or otherways illegally gain access to the site, which I wasn’t really prone to do. One couldn’t really tell from google earth.
This is probably why I decided to bring three friends along. Of course they knew that I was doing some kind of curious ‚work’ in going on this cache-hunt and they confronted me with the question wether I was actually being paid for this. I explained that I was trying to learn the game so that I didn’t look like a fool when I was actually doing interviews for my project – and that this was a way for me to find out what could be of interest to me later on.
Once we were underway and walking to the first coordinates after an hour’s drive, I felt a bit silly. We walked past the perimeter fence of the barracks complex and then on what had obviously been a training area for tanks, with large concrete slabs built-in at crossroads. We met a few people taking their dogs out, muggles, non-cachers in the lingo, who were obviously unaware of our intent. If people were going for walks here, the area must be anything but off limits, I thought. We were basically just out for a stroll with the added ‚thrill’ of locating small containers or felt-tip notes that revealed the coordinates for our next target.
This was a multi-cache, which means that we had to discover four preliminary stages, each leading to the next, before we could find the final stash. At the second stage, for instance, we found this film can that had been carefully hidden in a small hole in some concrete block next to the path. I didn’t find any of these stages on my own and couldn’t even get my GPS-enabled smartphone to locate us, which was a bit frustrating. Luckily, one of my companions was quite proficient at geocaching, so we moved on quickly. Soon, a conspicuous mound of earth came into view on a clearing. This must be one of the bunkers I have seen on google earth, I assumed. I was excited to find out just how impressive the Cold War stuff would be – the pictures online had been quite promising.
We started exploring the bunkers. There were three large ones, big enough to park several lorries inside, and a further seven, smaller ones. They were all camouflaged concrete, covered with earth, but bare of any metal fittings that had apparently been there. All doors had been dismounted not that long ago, as deep scratches in the concrete seemed to indicate. Although I was careful not to be the one who started any such discussion, we soon began talking shop: this shaft is for air-ventilation, the trees now growing on top would make for good camouflage, this wall must be a metre strong, they probably parked mobile antiaircraft stuff in here. Luckily, there was no official interpretation nor any other signage on site proofing us wrong.
The field of bunkers stretching a few hundred square meters was not where the final stash was hidden, though. The coordinates we found led to what had quite clearly been the ‚heart’ of this site. A tall watchtower, some low-rise brick buildings, and the footprint of two parallel lines of fencing made this all to obvious. This was where the nuclear stuff must have been. We entered what we agreed on must have been a guard-house, and indeed there were no signs nor anything else suggesting you should not do so. What a relief. The place was pretty derelict, with brick walls apparently vandalized and ceiling panels coming down. However, there was hardly any grafitti, and no trash at all. A site where the cliché ‚lost place’ was appropriate, I should think. I was , well, almost awe-struck.
This time, I was lucky enough to be first-to-find the final cache among our little group. And, yes, this photograph is staged. The geocache was a medium-sized tupperware box, hidden in a self-sown mouse-style jacket. Inside was the logbook, which we signed, a lighter, and a few other small items to trade, which we didn’t.
Instead, we continued to look around the central compound. There were two more massive bunkers, not unlike the ones outside but probably a bit larger. There was a network of underground parapet walks some two- or three-hundred meters long, with pillboxes at the entries. Only half-jokingly, we concurred that this would be a cool place for paintballing. But in a moment of reflectiveness inbetween our ‚play’, a somewhat terrifying thought crossed my mind: This is not for play. They meant it.
Back home I signed the digital cache logbook: “Drove here with *** today and even enjoyed the sun. Really interesting site, but somewhat creepy, I think. Thanks to the owner!”
Obviously, my original field notes are written in German and contain personal information I would not publish. So the notes I presented at the RGS/IBG have been translated and rewritten to represent a narrative of that day that would fit the six or seven minutes I could afford to allocate for part one of my presentation.
In the next post, I will continue with the second part of my paper.