High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

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High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

Johannes Lievens: Common Oak
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© Rijksmuseum Collection, Amsterdam / Marianne Hommersom
© Rijksmuseum Collection, Amsterdam / Marianne Hommersom © Rijksmuseum Collection, Amsterdam / Marianne Hommersom
Calm Before the Storm
literature
arts

Johannes Lievens: Common Oak

Eighteen young writers from Flanders and the Netherlands have brought nineteenth-century artefacts from the Rijksmuseum to life. They wrote their stories in response to the question: what do you see when you look at these objects through the lens of impending doom? Johannes Lievens draws our attention to the inkstand once owned by Baron Chassé. ‘The prospect of a major disaster is reassuring to us.’

Common Oak

  ‘I have the honour to report to Your Majesty that thus far nothing has happened here and in the regions round about.’

  The year was 1832 and General Chassé was in his room in the Citadel of Antwerp. The fortress was the only place in Belgium that remained in Dutch hands. He was waiting for an attack. The attack. The general had been in the army since the age of ten. It was imminent.
  But the attack had not started yet, and so General Chassé unscrewed the lid of his inkstand, dipped his pen into the ink and stared straight ahead. He did not know what to write in his daily letter to the king.
  He usually managed to think of something. He would write about the enemy inching closer, say, or the state of their supplies at the fortress.
  But not today. He had run out of ideas. He wrote:

  ‘I have the honour to report to Your Majesty that thus far nothing has happened here and in the regions round about.’

  The prospect of a major disaster is reassuring to us. Climate change is one of the greatest catastrophes of our time and yet we are still talking about pledges for 2030, measures for 2050 and consequences for 2100.
  As we await the end, writers, artists, journalists and activists take it upon themselves to present us with images of future doom. Of droughts, floods, mass migration, water shortages, wildfires
  And yet it is never enough. The devastation will be even greater! Even more inconceivable! We need even more imagination!

  But saying that you need imagination for this disaster is the same as saying that thus far nothing has happened here and in the regions round about.

  Carrying this message from General Chassé, three soldiers set off in a mail boat up the river Scheldt, on their way to the King of the Netherlands. En route, their sail was shot to pieces, and they braved the North Sea. Eventually, the message reached the king, then me, and now you.

  ‘I have the honour to report to Your Majesty that thus far nothing has happened here and in the regions round about.’

  But all kinds of things had happened.
  In the Caucasus a box tree had grown until its trunk was as thick as an arm. It was cut down and the wood dried and carved into an inkstand.
  A handful of quartz sand was heated in a wood oven until it melted and human breath blew it into an ink bottle.
  The ink in that bottle was made of crushed oak apples, the cocoons created by a common oak after a gall wasp mother has laid her eggs in its budding leaves.
  But the general had no eye for that. He dipped his pen into the ink and stared straight ahead. He wrote that nothing had happened yet.

Series

Calm Before the Storm

Kenneth Berth: The Table

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