The Netherlands started out in its career in modern history as a combination of morass and hard-scrabble country. Pliny reports that the morass dwellers looked like shipwrecked sailors: “They try to warm their frozen bowels by burning mud, dug with their hands out of the earth and dried to some extent in the wind more than the sun, which one hardly ever sees.” The more stable uplands in the back country could only with the greatest effort be made to yield a meagre subsistence to small huddles of peasants. Not exactly the land of milk and honey.
The soggy lowlands were eventually improved, but the hard-scrabble uplands pretty much stayed that way into the 20th century, when the Dutch government hatched a scheme to transport garbage from the western cities, which had become overwhelmed by their own trash, to poor Drenthe, for use as soil amendments. A nice instance of what I like to think of as social metabolism, the exchange of food and ordure between urban and agricultural areas to keep the whole thing in more or less in balance.
I was born in one such trash-embarrassed city, Hilversum, which started exporting its leftovers to Drenthe in the early 1960s and lived for a while in Amersfoort, which started participating some time in the 1950s I believe. I hereby publicly take responsibility for having done my best for Drenthe.
Anyhow, what started out as a large-scale composting venture eventually got derailed by cheap chemical fertilizers. And all of that is why Drenthe has a gigantic garbage dump, repository of noncompostable trash from its early days and from trash not suitable for incineration more recently, all of it cemented together by the ashes produced by the ovens next door. More than 20 million cubic meters of unpleasantness quietly simmers below the surface of the neatly landscaped hills, like a boil in the skin of the earth.
In fact, the thing is still growing, as the waste stream from the west has diminished but not dried up. At more than 40 meters above sea level, it is the highest point in the entire province of Drenthe. Ironically, it is the best vantage point from which to admire the local landscape.
The dump is now also a park, very lovely if you don’t pay too much attention to the plastic bags that escape from the active face and blow about here and there before being snagged by the orange-vested workers patrolling the trails. A little visitor center at the summit maintains a guest book, in which I found the following roughly-translated entry, probably written by a high school student on a field trip: “I think it is incredibly beautiful here, but it’s a pity there’s so much trash lying around. If you guys just pick it up, it would be really nice.”
At the foot of the slopes runs the peaceful little river Oude Diep, recently restored, where a father and his son are angling for fish. Putting the catch on the dinner table might would require quite a bit of optimism, it seems to me. More than I think I could muster.