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Posts Tagged ‘mining’

A Very Interesting Excursion

June 29, 2015 | by

Looking for van Gogh in Belgium’s mining district.


Vincent van Gogh’s The Sower, 1888, which was inspired by paintings by Jean-François Millet.

Earlier this month, Nellie wrote for the Daily about van Gogh’s time in the Borinage and its effect on his art. In this follow-up piece, she reflects on her own travels in the region.

On a sunny but cool afternoon in mid March, I stood on the muddy ground of a closed and abandoned mine in Belgium. Behind me, a handful of pigs screamed from inside a pen in one of the decrepit buildings. A large, lean, mean-looking dog, which in fact was not mean at all, stood nearby, tethered to a long rope.

It was my first time in this place, the former mining district of Belgium, called the Borinage, though I spent the nearly six years prior writing a novel that took place there. From 1878 to 1880, before he declared himself an artist, Vincent van Gogh lived in the Borinage, trying to be a preacher, and the story of what may have happened during that time is my novel’s subject. I didn’t go to Belgium while I was researching or writing the book—the mines are all closed these days and the area developed; I told myself there was no point in going if it didn’t look just like it had in the late nineteenth century. But Mons, the city that sits right at the tip of the Borinage region, is this year’s selection for the European Capital of Culture and, as a result, is home to all sorts of interesting exhibits and performances, including the first-ever exhibition of van Gogh’s work from and related to this period of his life: it opened, strangely, just a few weeks after my book had been published. It was a coincidence too odd to ignore, and I got on a plane to go see this place I had long imagined.

I have been struggling to articulate what this visit was like in any coherent way. I knew, all those years, that the place I was envisioning was real, but in my mind it was a place that no longer existed, a place to be conjured and imagined, not to stand on with two real feet. To be confronted with the reality of the place in physical space was quite a different thing. I expected that there would be nothing left. In a way I was right, and in a way very wrong. Read More »

Idle Bird

June 10, 2015 | by

Van Gogh finds art in the Borinage.


Vincent van Gogh, Coalmine in the Borinage, 1879.

In October of 1879, Theo van Gogh went to visit his brother, Vincent, in the Borinage coal-mining district of Belgium. Theo was en route to Paris, where he had business to conduct as an art dealer; Vincent was doing self-appointed missionary work. The pair walked along an abandoned quarry that reminded them of a canal they’d frequented as children in Holland, but now there was an undeniable rift between them. Theo, upset by Vincent’s appearance—he had given away nearly all of his clothes to the miners, and had ceased bathing—told him, “You are not the same any longer.” He felt that Vincent was wasting his time in this squalid place, and suggested that he leave to take up a different trade.

Angry at his brother’s inability to understand him, Vincent wrote a letter to Theo on October 15 that would be the last for ten months. The brothers had been writing letters to each other almost unceasingly since 1872, when Vincent was nineteen and Theo fifteen. This would be the first and deepest rupture between them, a silence that would never repeat itself. Referring to Theo’s accusation of “idleness,” Vincent wrote with bitterness, Read More »

Another Bartleby, and Other News

October 23, 2014 | by


Constantin Meunier, Pays noire (Black Country—Borinage), ca. 1893, oil on canvas.

  • “On a winter’s day in 1482 a scholar had an embarrassing disaster, leaving a blood-red blot of ink on the pristine page of a valuable book. He then compounded his crime by confessing, adding a note in the same red ink still legible after 532 years. On the desecrated page of the Historiae Romanae Decades, printed in Venice in 1470, he wrote: ‘Ita macula’—this stain—‘I stupidly made on the first of December 1482.’ ”
  • On George Whitman, the eccentric founder of Shakespeare and Company: “He could be welcoming. He could be gruff. He could be charismatic. He could be aloof … This was, after all, a man who on occasion expressed himself by throwing books at people, sometimes affectionately, sometimes less so—a love-hate gesture, or so it sounds, not unlike Ignatz Mouse hurling bricks at an eternally besotted Krazy Kat.”
  • Novelists, here is your picaresque, contemporary Bartleby: an Italian coal miner who shirked work for thirty-five years and is now collecting his pension. “I invented everything—amnesia, pains, hemorrhoids, I used to lurch around as if I was drunk. I bumped my thumb on a wall and obviously you can’t work with a swollen thumb … Other times I would rub coal dust into my eyes. I just didn’t like the work—being a miner was not the job for me.”
  • Let’s trade fossil casts: “In the first part of the twentieth century, casts of fossil specimens were key to paleo sciences. Because actual fossils were too valuable and rare to ship to international researchers, casts of fossils circulated in their stead … Paleoanthropologists would offer to trade casts of ‘their’ fossils to other researchers in different areas of the world, who had different looking specimens—the casts became a social currency.”
  • In praise of reading plays: “A great published script makes you understand what the play is, at its heart. Not just what a certain production was like, though it also ought to do a good job of that. It makes you understand how the play feels as a living work of art—how it sounds and behaves inside your head, a mental effort that matters more in reading a play than in reading any other kind of literature.”


American Inferno

October 3, 2011 | by

Centralia, PA. Photograph by Eric Hart.

Centralia, Pennsylvania, is a town that barely exists. It is a blip of a place, almost indistinguishable from the endless forest flanking state road 61 in the rambling northeast quarter of the state. There are no hulking ruins—not even a sign that alerts you when the town begins or ends. Though the population of Centralia peaked in the 1960s at more than two thousand people, now fewer than ten live here. After the nineties, road maps and atlases began leaving it off their indexes; the post office revoked its zip code in 2002. The reason is simple: Centralia has been on fire for almost fifty years. Read More »