One final walk near Etten-Leur. A short drive, from the pollards to the Liesbos, where Van Gogh, among many other things, supposedly drew the edge of a forest: 

Vincent van Gogh, Woods, 1881, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

I read somewhere - I forget the particulars - that the forest must have been logged just before. I have this image in my head that nature was unspoiled still during the time Van Gogh lived, green fields and trees and space between buildings, views and skies galore, but of course it couldn’t have been. The rot had already set in. Nineteenth century, industrial revolution, the smoke and the soot, the roots of Greta’s outrage already strong and growing, settling in. 

The car park’s reasonably full. People changing shoes, strapping bikes to the backs of Audis, BMWs. There’s a sign, conveniently, the start of a walk, an unintimidating 2.5 kilometres, follow the yellow arrows. 

It’s a beautiful  forest, and the weather’s made for it, dappled sunlight and leaves of a deep green, whispering ferns and branches tickling, shallow puddles bearing bright reflections of pale clouds, mud in thick clods sticking to soles and trouser legs, the Brabant earth I’ve thought of as full and buttery and rich ever since seeing Van Gogh’s works. Now and then, another rambler, a bright spot in the distance, trotting dogs and running children, a bench in a spot that, to me, approaches perfection. 

I take a wrong turn somewhere and end up before two giant trees, one a plane tree, the other an oak? Names, initials have been scratched into the bark, ‘AVA’, ‘BL’, I can’t make out the rest. Turn back, back onto the path past piles of logged tree trunks, bare and arid, stripped down. Something of Van Gogh’s time that’s remained, then, even if it’s only the ugly things. 

An abandoned Starbucks cup on a picnic table, and then masses of ethereal ferns, more than a metre high, covering the forest floor. I look down because maybe that is what Van Gogh would have done and see black beetles everwhere, black but with that petrol sheen of oil on water. Van Gogh would have known the name of these beetles, would as a boy have probably taken one home with him to add to his collection. I decide this is as good a place as any to draw the line. 

Orange faces peeking at me from the tree trunks. Two eyes and a sad, slightly drooping mouth, two dots and a line, all in neon spray paint. Van Gogh saw trees as people, as discussed. Have these trees been marked for logging? Is it a joke of some kind, a sad face for a sad fate, or is it a code I don’t understand, and what’s with the ones with the blue band sprayed around the trunks? 

There’s a restaurant at the beginning of the walk, and at its end, with tables spread out beneath the trees and a cask of cold beer, as all the best walks do. I sip and toast to the end of the day, and to the beetles, and all the tiny, fragile traces of a time that isn’t perhaps as lost to me as it often seems. 

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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.