From toxic dump to ceremonial site: the remediation of Gipsön

A special report on visiting the fascinating Multispecies Heritage and Reconnection Ceremony, by Elinna Fabelholm

Walking by the shore on a sunny day it’s difficult to imagine the Gypsum island’s history as a dump site. Photo: ©(p)artofthebiomass
From toxic dump to ceremonial site for mourning and celebration

What meets the eye on a sunny summer’s day is a green and flowering island with glimmering ponds and massive windmills beating the wind. They fill the air with a slow and steady beat. At the horizon further south, the Öresund bridge with long-distance trains to the continent can be seen in a distant haze. Among the buzzing insects and screeching birds, it’s hard to believe that beneath a thin layer of soil, more than ten metres of white, hard phosphogypsum extends down into the sea, a material testimony of the city of Landskrona’s past as a centre for fertiliser production. In the by-product phosphogypsum, naturally occurring heavy metals have accumulated, together with fluoride, radon and high levels of phosphate. Despite its distressing history as a dump site for polluted waste (see the history page) the Gypsum Island, Gipsön, has become a site so popular that the number of visitors now needs to be regulated. How come this windy island has attracted such widespread attention and become a ceremonial site gathering people from near and far in a yearly celebration of multispecies heritages and futures? Sometimes, unexpected alliances occur around a common cause and that is precisely what happened on Gipsön. Let’s rewind.

The island, Gipsön in Swedish, is made from phosphogypsum, a by-product from the making of chemical fertilisers. Archival footage: ©(p)artofthebiomass

When the chemical industry, once responsible for the dump and for restoring the site, attempted to rename Gipsön the Wind Island due to the many windmills erected in the 1990s, in the hope of overwriting its toxic legacy with promises for a greener future, it backfired. Instead, it has become an important site for mourning and grief among the Slow Carers. This growing movement of people attend to wounded landscapes through an ethics of slow care work in the name of multispecies flourishing and a belief that no quick techno-fixes can mend that which has been broken. When the United Nations by the end of the 2020s—after almost a decade of mounting eco-anxiety—launched its Holistic Development Goals agenda shedding light on the inner transformation which, believe it or not, was completely absent from the old Agenda 2030, people in search of reconnection with nature, others, and our shared life worlds joined the Slow Carers movement in their thousands. Also, the Spotlighters—a movement emerging in the mid 2020s of fresh graduates from high school travelling to what has become commonly known as shadow places, these ignored sites of social and ecological exploitation in the wake of overconsumption. With the motto “Young travellers exposing the hypocrisy of our time”, the Spotlighters, determined to shed light on these damaged sites of human havoc, have the island on their must-visit list. They have been diligently hacking back the repeated attempts of erasing Gipsön’s not so flattering past on various digital platforms and archives. “Refuse oblivion, embrace reconnection!” eventually became a common chant among both Spotlighters and Slow Carers.

Sometimes it’s difficult to sort fact from fiction, especially when art is involved. But the story goes that the now well-known yearly gatherings of Slow Carers, Spotlighters and at a later stage various “eco pilgrims” were catalysed by an artistic intervention back in the early 2020s, when the island was declared “a post-industrial, readymade sculpture” by the art collective (p)Art of the Biomass and inaugurated as a “Plantationocene monument”, a reminder of the chemical and agroindustrial era that left soils degraded and depleted not only locally, but across the globe. The emerging soil crisis, and depletion, had by then long been hidden behind steadily increasing yields, but the grim reality got thrown right in our faces across Northern Europe during the New Dirty Thirties that transformed deep ploughed monocultures into dust bowls during a couple of dry years. High wind and soil erosion created vast dust storms—just as in Southern USA in the 1930s, if you know your ecological history—driving families on a desperate migration to seek better living conditions. Some Doomsday prophets even claimed the New Dirty Thirties and the food crisis that followed was the punishment for not fulfilling a single Sustainable Development Goal 2030.

The Gypsum island, Gipsön, in the early 2020s. Rain pours through the layers of gypsum into the trenches that still existed at the time, and the pipes on the left side were used to circulate the water and ‘clean’ the island To the right you can see the windmills that populated the island, today only five of them are left. Archival footage: ©(p)artofthebiomass

During several decades, the chemical company responsible for the island had attempted to isolate it from the surrounding sea, and to regulate harmful levels of phosphate and other contaminants as well as treat the low pH by adding lime and circulating water with pumps in a closed loop. You can by the way spot the old pump house located next to the pier when landing on the island. After a steady decrease during several decades, the levels started to stagnate but were still considered environmentally harmful. New ideas were desperately needed as both the chemical company and Landskrona municipality grew weary of the situation. This opened up an opportunity for experimentation that the (p)Art of the Biomass collective was quick to seize, and since the late 2020s a plethora of care practices have flourished on the island that seek to learn from – or rather with – the fauna and flora. 

Bioremediation projects – learning with the plants, fungi and microbes

As botany-loving visitors may notice, Gipsön is a quite novel and constantly emerging ecosystem. Pioneer species known to both reclaim damaged lands and, in symbiosis with bacteria, capture nitrogen from the air and fix it to the ground started to appear early on in the nitrogen-poor environment. Common on the island are different species of willow (Salix sp.), sea buckthorn (Hippophaé rhamnoides), alder (Alnus glutinosa) and a lot of plants from the legume family Fabaceae. These pioneers prepared the ground and made it inhabitable for other species. If you visit from May to August, the whole island will be in bloom, you will find different clovers (genus Trifolium), together with roses (Rosa rugosa and Rosa canina) and the beautifully pink flowering fields of crownvetch (Securigera varia) that due to its tough, tenacious roots prevents soil erosion.

Crownvetch (Securigera varia) and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) in bloom. Photo: ©(p)artofthebiomass
Humus is slowly building up on top of the white phosphogypsum. Photo: ©(p)artofthebiomass
Nitrogen-fixing plants from the Legume family can be found in abundance. Photo: ©(p)artofthebiomass

An attentive eye might also catch a glimpse of the buoys floating in the sea nearby, hinting at colonies of mussels and algae that continuously filter the water from excess nutrients. They belong to the Sea Garden, initiated in 2027 by (p)Art of the Biomass as part of a larger bioremediation project on land and along the shores, where humans with the help of not only algae but various plants, fungi and other organisms can contain and remove pollutants from the environment, or return excess nutrients in the sea back to the land. Although it may appear as simple and effortless at first, many of the plants that accumulate heavy metals or other pollutants from the ground have to be harvested and removed and burnt at special facilities, while others can stabilise them in the ground on site. The purpose of the bioremediation project, where different methods have been tried out at various parts of the island, was to reintegrate Gipsön into the local marine ecology – which it had been sealed off from since the 1970s – and to follow, learn from, and support the plants and critters that did the work as environmental remediators. Instead of seeing “nature” as a passive provider of ecosystem services to humans, the project was run with the rather unusual view at the time that humans were themselves part of nature and should give back and provide services and care to the ecosystems. Reciprocity and mutual care is also the reason why the large leaf tea plant (Camelia sinensis) was introduced to the island as it is known to absorb excess fluoride, something Gipsön had in abundance. Today you can find Sweden’s first cultivated field with tea bushes on the slightly acidic and well-drained soil on the Southern slope of Gipsön. The tea plays an important part of the yearly ceremony, but is only taken in very small amounts, as a way to reconnect bodies with land and both acknowledge and celebrate multispecies interdependence (read about the ceremony below).

Fertile bladderwrack in the Sea Garden in June, ready to spawn and release their eggs and sperms. Photo: ©(p)artofthebiomass

The flora and fauna, on land as well as below water, thus stand as silent witnesses to decades of combined human and more-than-human efforts to cleanse the island of harmful pollutants, or at least mitigate their effects, and make it hospitable for new species. This is indeed a slow process that demands attention and care rather than control. The once small-scale bioremediation projects and the Sea Garden initiative are nowadays run by the foundation “The Gipsön Commons” gathering research institutes, art communities, Slow Carers, devoted locals, and various organisations such as community gardeners, on land and in the sea. This very diverse community has over the years not only attended to ecological needs but also to the interwoven cultural, social, spiritual and material needs that comes with every place. This brings us to the ceremony.

The multispecies heritage and reconnection ceremony

Once a year, usually in the beginning of September, “The Multispecies Heritage and Reconnection Ceremony” is held on the island. Devoted to celebrate food and multispecies kinship, it is also the time to commemorate wounds and reinvigorate damaged landscapes and relations. The ceremony was first initiated by a small community of Slow Carers but soon started to attract various crowds, from nature’s rights defenders, Spotlighters, to locals and others longing for spiritual connection beyond religious belief systems. It is open to everyone but be sure to book a spot as the ceremony has become very popular.

When I finally get the chance to visit Gipsön, I realise that the ceremony is also the occasion when the torch is passed on to a new generation of carers for the island. If you are lucky, you can still encounter some of the ‘pioneers’: the grand old man who has cared for the island since its infancy, first as an employee to the fertiliser company, later as senior consultant and stubborn enthusiast when the company failed to cleanse the island. He is now in his mid 90s. The founding members of the art collective (p)Art of the Biomass are also present, their long grey hair getting all tangled up in the wind. Together they inaugurate the ceremony:

We need places to mourn together, mourn the losses and wounds that are left in the wake of the plantation logics that have dominated our societies for too long. Gipsön has become a powerful and meaningful place to gather for many different people, and for various reasons. We need historical sites like this to keep memories alive of the future optimism of yesteryear that brought with it an unwanted and unintended heritage. We are the children that inherited the consequences of their techno-fixes, now we‘re growing old and have to be mindful of what we pass on.

A silence ensues, accompanied by the rhythmic sound of the windmills in the distance and the intermittent calls of cormorants. At that point the participants are served tea harvested from the island. While it is being poured, the women tell the tale of how phosphorus travels through bodies and landscapes, through cells, tissues and soils. How heavy metals and fluoride accumulate. While raising their cups and before we all sip a few drops of the delicate beverage, they evoke gratitude:

“We care for this island as a naturalcultural heritage. It connects urban lives and our stomachs with the food systems, soils, mines, fossil fuels and global trade routes. We thank and express our deepest respect to our fellow fungi, plants, animals and microorganisms, to the air and water, to the sun and soil.

After this ceremonial opening, we are invited to take part in the festivities that include carework, eating and dancing: 

This ceremony celebrates connectivity. But it’s also an ecological duty we perform here. We humbly offer our services to the local ecosystem. As you will see, if we pay close attention to the plants, they have surprising things to tell us.

We get divided into groups for ecosystem caring, that is voluntary work at different stations around the island. You can choose which station(s) you want to attend. You can gather wrack – seaweed washed ashore – and use it to build soil on land, dedicate yourself to maintenance work in the Sea Garden, or tend to the tea field and harvest for next year’s ceremony. There are many other options, such as species inventory and mapping, or storytelling sessions where new and old stories are weaved in multiple forms to be memorised by the ceremonial guides. A group of foragers also venture out to harvest wild, edible plants for the Chlorophyll Bar – today, some plants on the island are safe to eat. Feeling adventurous that day, I choose to join some Slow Carers to the big ravine, in the South-Eastern part of the island, a spot you are usually not allowed to visit without a guide as there may be risks of cracks. This is where samples are regularly taken from the ground water to measure levels of phosphates, pH and fluorides. From the contented look of my guide, I understand that the levels are good. I am told that they have thankfully continued to decrease since the bioremediation projects were launched roughly 20 years ago. Therefore, the Damned Floods Years at the end of the 2030s, which destroyed some of the barriers that isolated the island from the surrounding sea, were not such a catastrophic event as expected. For that reason Gipsön has also caught the attention of many coastal municipalities in Sweden and abroad. The slow care work has to continue though, I am told, for an unforeseeable time.

The porous ground continues to cracks and fissures make it insecure to walk by yourself. Make sure you stay close to the authorised guides when foraging or collecting soil samples. Photo: ©(p)artofthebiomass

During a break, food is shared and eaten in a communal picnic, centred around the Chlorophyll Bar that transforms edible seasonal greens from the mainland and foraged herbs into delicious smoothies. My group gathers around a young guide, Vandana, who waves with what looks like a golden ear of wheat. This is the Kernza wheat, a perennial crop that is cultivated in polycultures on the mainland. You may have spotted the fields resembling mosaics of different plants when travelling through Scania before coming to Gipsön. I am offered a bit of Kernza bread sprinkled with fresh pea sprouts – high in phosphorus –- and a drink from the Chlorophyll bar. A healthy feast made of what is available at this time of year, from local farmers, leftovers from food stores and markets, complemented with foraging on the island. A new type of Swedish ‘Smörgåsbord’ is shared among us. 

It is possible to forage edible greens along the coastline, this harvest is from July. But make sure to check with your guide, not all plants are safe to eat as they function as bioaccumulators and accumulate toxins to various degrees. Foraging is only allowed with a guide at certain times of the year. Be sure to try out the Chlorophyll Bar! Photo: ©(p)artofthebiomass

During our second work session, Vandana takes us to the oldest part of Gipsön, an isthmus leading to Gråen and its bird reserve further north. The smell is strong. It comes from the bird droppings full of ammonia gathered from the colony of cormorants (Phalacrocora´cidae) which have killed much of the previous vegetation on Gråen. But ammonia slowly transforms into nitrate thanks to the ‘magical’ work of our bacteria friends, and permaculture students from Holma Folkhögskola have made use of it to enrich the soil at this part of the island. Over at Gråen, where the cormorants live, nutrient-loving plants will eventually take hold and enrich the biological diversity so other kinds of insects will flourish. 

The evening ends with joyful dancing and singing. As boats shuttle back and forth to bring us back to the mainland, I suddenly feel the redness of my wind-battered cheeks. But I also sense how the day has made room for a mix of emotions, all at once. And strangely it feels liberating. The Gipsön Commons has succeeded in caring for the island both as a place to mourn and grieve but also as a place of hope and joy. A day late to forget. 

Other activities and practicalities

Other activities are organised at other times during the year for volunteers. To accommodate the flow of visitors, you need to be a member of The Gipsön Commons or one of its sister organisations if you plan to visit the island outside festival time. For instance, the Holma Folkhögskola has a yearly week on Gipsön as part of its curriculum on regenerative agriculture. It is also a popular destination for Erasmus senior citizens in the summer since the EU launched its new Reciprocal Ecosystem Servicing Assessment (RESA) programme for EU citizens in the service of ecosystems, as well as for recovering consumption addicts. Members of the EU Rewind Initiative can also come to the island to assist the windmill refurbishing project run by the local electricity group. 

Booking enquiries: The Gipsön Commons

How to get there?
Regulations and security

As with any site of veneration or mourning some rules apply:

Also, a word of advice: don’t ever mention the name “Wind island”, which might create an awkward atmosphere at the festival and offend potential visitors from the Orust region who claim the real Wind island is there.

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