There was a soldier walking through the great forest, returning from the war, his pack loosely slung over his shoulder. One-two, one-two, he marched on… oh no, he’s a strange old fellow on his way to Hattem. And the paths and avenues he takes are not mysterious winding roads, but long straight cycle paths, closed with a barrier and separated by posts from a plowed strip of earth in which elongated pools have formed. The trees are reflected in it, but that’s the only nice thing about it. Everything here is surprise free, sometimes I feel like a squirrel on a long road.
Those were also my first real forest impressions, when I was on my way with my parents to Natuurvriendenhuis Ons Honk in Lage Vuursche. Paths designed by man that separated the rectangular areas of woodland. There were mushrooms and pancakes, twisted pine trees with lots of bare, flaking trunks, and a tavern with Hero bike racks. Appropriate for a world of modest bourgeois pleasures, but also filled with melancholy towards the unprecedented amount that exceeded those pleasures.
I got my first glimpse of that when I saw a movie about Das Wirtshaus im Spessart. Robbers in an endless forest. A stagecoach speeding along a winding path between tall trunks. And then in the midst of that desolation an inn, a place of refuge. The thought of that is somehow condensed in my childhood memory in the generous cleavage of the dirndl-clad servants at that inn.
Round, everything there was round and undulating – nothing in nature is straight. It is not easy to experience something of that feeling in those symmetrically measured plots of forest around Lage Vuursche. You can see that stagecoach arriving from miles away, so to speak. And how would you imagine a galloping father here like in Goethe’s Erlkönig poem can imagine, or a headless horseman as in the forests of Sleepy Hollow?
Our Honk is now called Koos Vorrinkhuis. A school class is sleeping in the rooms next to me. ‘Special education’, says the houseguard, to prepare me for crowds and noise: children ‘with disabilities’. Today’s pale noses? They were always welcome in the oxygen-rich forests to breathe healthy air and ‘gain up’. Six weeks before, I remember from my own stay in Vosseveld near Soestduinen, not far from here, there was a holiday colony for ‘sick and weak children from the less well-off’.
But these look fine, run around exuberantly and are accompanied by the cutest companions. “You have me, right?” I hear one say to a girl who is resting her head against her shoulder. “I’ll stay very close to you. I saw you run through the woods like a beautiful doe.” And then she smiles again.
The next day they cycle past me, neatly behind each other in their brightly colored vests. One by one they greet you sincerely. I barely manage to resist the urge to yell out something like “Goodbye guys!” Too bad I’m not wearing a hat. Then I took it for each of them, and deeply, with a bow, to the teachers at the beginning and the end of the procession.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 13, 2021