Wanted In Switzerland: Um, A *Sociable* Hermit

The St. Varena Hermitage is trying to recruit a new hermit to oversee see its chapels, but the job description raises a dilemma: how to find a recluse who can schmooze with visitors.

The hermit's residence at St. Varena Hermitage in Switzerland
The hermit's residence at St. Varena Hermitage in Switzerland
Elisalex Henckel

When Verena Dubacher was chosen in January 2009 for her last job, there was a lot of excitement around the announcement. She was the first woman in 600 years to be awarded the hermit position at St. Varena Hermitage in Switzerland, which dates from the 17th century.

The 63-year-old religion teacher didn’t care for all the hoopla, but having been chosen filled her with joy. It was a dream come true, she said in front of all the cameras and microphones suddenly focused on her. “I hope the stillness, meditation and wonderful natural surroundings will add depth and vitality to my relationship with God,” she said then.

She then moved into St. Varena Hermitage in the Verenaschlucht canyon in the Swiss city of Solothurn. The reporters who went along to cover the move assumed that she’d be spending the rest of her life there. But five years on, she’s turned in the key and moved to a retirement home, citing “health reasons.”

The task of finding a replacement for Dubacher falls to Sergio Wyniger, president of the Bürgergemeinde Solothurn, an entity that manages several properties, including the hermitage. That this is no easy task is clear from the recruitment ad, which says that they are looking for a “hermit, male or female” who “enjoys contact with people” — in other words, a walking contradiction.

It’s not lost on Wyniger. “It’s the dilemma of the St. Verena Hermitage,” he says. On the one hand, the hermit has must embrace the solitude through the cold winters and long nights in the canyon. On the other hand, an increasing number of people want to visit the hermitage — sometimes to celebrate a marriage or baptism, sometimes just to light a candle. Many of them are also looking for somebody to offer spiritual advice. Over the years, the hermitage has become the most-visited excursion site in the Solothurn area — and the hermit living there is a big part of the attraction.

One of the churches at St. Varena Hermitage — Photo: Baikonur via Wikipedia

Finding the right recluse

Verena Dubacher, a farmer’s daughter, was chosen in 2009 because she possessed both theological (her education was in theology) and practical abilities. Until her unexpected retirement, she was very capable in her role. In fact, people regarded her as highly committed to it.

“The Bürgergemeinde valued her marked sense of order and the care in keeping the canyon and both the St. Verena and St. Martin chapels in good, clean condition,” the Solothurner Zeitung wrote after she left. She made sure the rules governing the canyon, which is a protected natural site, were obeyed — dogs couldn’t be let off the leash, and bikes had to be walked, for example. But she also had an open ear for anybody who wanted to talk or were hoping for some sort of consolation.

But “the increasing number of weddings, religious services, and other events” and the to-do about her personally became so overwhelming that she started spending her weekly day off at a nearby cloister. Sergio Wyniger told a regional TV channel that “she really preferred to be alone.”

Apparently, Verena Dubacher wasn’t the first hermit who missed some peace and quiet. According to Neue Zürcher Zeitung, her predecessor had also apparently expressed concern about this. The newspaper suggested that, instead of a hermit, perhaps a caretaker might be more suitable for the job, which requires the upkeep of two chapels, the pathways and fences, and janitor services before and after baptism and wedding ceremonies.

But Sergio Wyniger has no intention of changing the job description. The janitorial duties are just part of the job, he says. What’s more important is that the hermit pass on the legend of Saint Verena and be prepared to listen to people’s problems. There are no formal conditions to be met, but candidates should be Christian.

The compensation package for the job is free board at the hermitage — a small (25 square meters) house with a garden, running water and electrical current, but no landline connection — as well as a monthly stipiend of about 820 euros. “That’s not enough for a family or to lead a life of luxury,” says Wyniger, “but it’s fine for somebody who’s already getting a pension or doesn’t need a lot to get by on.”

So far, 40 candidates — about a fifth of them German — have sent applications to Wyniger. He isn’t currently in a position to say anything about the candidates’ backgrounds, he says, because he is accepting applications until May 5. The decision should be made by council vote by the end of May or beginning of June so that the hermitage is occupied once again before the summer season rolls around.

Verena Dubacher won’t be present either during the vote or to show her successor the ropes. When she left, she asked not to be contacted. She wants to find the space that she’d initially hoped to find when she accepted the job of hermit.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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