World War I ended 100 years ago on Sunday, but 42,000 acres in northeast France serve as a living memorial to the human and environmental costs of war.
The battle of Verdun was the longest continuous conflict in the Great War, and it so devastated the land it took place on that, after the war, the government cordoned it off-limits to human habitation. What was once farmland became the Zone Rouge, or Red Zone, as National Geographic reported.
An excellent Twitter thread by writer Paul Cooper, excerpted here, explains more:
The areas covered by the Zone Rouge (right) roughly follow the lines of trenches along the Western Front. (left) T… https://t.co/xZvXtUVLKW— Paul 🌹📚 Cooper (@Paul 🌹📚 Cooper)1524654878.0
100 years later, humans still don't live in the Zone Rouge, which is so thick with unexploded shells that a French government agency called the Department du Deminage is still at work clearing them. The Department handles shells from World War II as well, and from other areas, but the Zone Rouge is especially saturated.
"They reckon that they have 300 years work ahead of them before they have cleared the whole battlefield," British historian and author Christina Holstein told National Geographic. "And they never will."
Hugh Whitfeld produced a video for Australia's 7 News highlighting their Sisyphean task:
For much of the area, the years without human presence have had a restorative impact on the land, transforming the Zone Rouge into a forested green zone.
"To their surprise, they found the vegetation—trees, grasses, bushes and briars—all came back very quickly," Holstein told National Geographic. Verdun was also intentionally reforested with German pine sent from the Black Forest as part of reparations following the war, CNN reported.
The area is a now a favored spot for hunters of wild boar and deer and a source of timber for France, as well as de facto memorial to the villages whose ruins remain amid the trees.
"Because it has been abandoned and covered with trees, it is a microcosm of something that happened a hundred years ago," Holstein told National Geographic. "It is a bit like Sleeping Beauty. Things have just gotten frozen in time."
One plaque even reads "In memory of water. In this place stood one of the fountains of Douaumont" (Olivier Saint H… https://t.co/B6JQzgocA7— Paul 🌹📚 Cooper (@Paul 🌹📚 Cooper)1524654885.0
However, one part of the Zone Rouge has not recovered. This is the La place a Gaz (the gas place), a shack in a clearing surrounded by razor wire where companies burned unused gas shells after the war.
"They burned it for years, basically for the entire 1920s and we never thought about the consequences," area historian Guillaume Moizan told CNN.
It is still one of the most toxic sites in France. The arsenic levels in the soil are 35,000 times higher than normal and some parts of the soil are 17.5 percent arsenic, according to a 2007 study. Little grows there, even now.
Although today the Zone Rouge has been largely repopulated, there are still no-go areas. On two pieces of land clo… https://t.co/YSbFVSFrJ5— Paul 🌹📚 Cooper (@Paul 🌹📚 Cooper)1524654882.0
Conflicts since World War I have continued to devastate the environments of the countries where they were fought, from Vietnam to Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense is in fact the world's biggest polluter. Today, La place a Gaz serves as a chilling reminder that, when governments order their armies into battle, they are not just killing the enemy—they are killing the earth we will all share long after the guns have fallen silent.
The Cold War’s Toxic Legacy: Costly, Dangerous Cleanups at Atomic Bomb Production Sites https://t.co/ZO870QjaQ2… https://t.co/0xBT122ZHJ— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1520266520.0
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.