Voyage: From landfill to flowery grassland

A walk with artist Stefan Cools

5 September till 12 December 2021

Human influence on the landscape is evident in areas where the ground has undergone heavy mineral extraction, such as the zinc oxide sites in Limmel and near Eijsden, but also in a more nuanced way in unexpected places. Have you ever considered the impact of the posts driven into a field to create a non-existent boundary? Or what happens to old landfill sites? Do you know what happens to the rainwater that fell on these grounds decades ago? Or why you should keep an eye out for butterflies during a nature trail? On this walk, artist Stefan Cools takes you on a route through and around Bunde and past special natural areas.

Distance: 5 km
Walking time: 2 hours

Given the hilly terrain, sturdy walking shoes are recommended, and waterproof walking shoes in bad weather.

Almost every day for more than ten years, I have been walking the same route through the Bunderbos, a forest with springs and rich and rare flora. The butterfly and its life cycle are central to my art practice. Besides undergoing an enormously fascinating metamorphosis, the butterfly is above all an indicator of the natural surroundings’ condition because of the many needs it has of its environment. This walk takes you through a beautiful ravine forest with special flora, over the former dump and through one of the meadows I manage with my partner Sandra van den Beuken.

1. The route starts at Bunde Station. There is also ample parking here. From the station square, turn right into Spoorstraat. Walk to the end and then turn right into Roggeveldstraat. After the railway crossing, you walk up Kloosterberg. Take the third turn on the right into Catharina Daemenstraat. Immediately after the first street and after the first corner house on the left, you can go down a small staircase. You will arrive here at a special arborway.

An arborway is a covered path with trees or hedges on both sides that form a tunnel and are often found at monasteries or stately homes. Many arborways have disappeared in recent years, but a few have survived, including this one here in Bunde. The arborway that used to be part of the garden of the former monastery Huize Overbunde consists of dogwood. As a child, I played under the arborway. In those days, it wasn’t well maintained and was overgrown with unwanted plants such as blackberries. Fortunately, these relics are now attracting interest and are regarded as an important part of our cultural heritage.

2. Turn left out of the arborway. Walk through the avenue of trees to the statue of Mary. Here turn right and walk over the metal sand trap. Keep to the right, up the hill. At the end, you are suddenly on a surfaced road, Kloosterweg. Cross the road diagonally to the left. An unsurfaced path then steeply ascends. This path curves gently right. Follow it for a while until the sturdy old trees on your left give way to young trees with lots of grass around them. Just before these young trees, you turn ninety degrees left, and you walk on a path that goes straight ahead. On the left is the forest and on the right is open grassland with the occasional small shrub or tree. Welcome to the old landfill site. 

When entering the grassland, where it is full of different kinds of orchids in the summer, you can hardly imagine that you are walking over a landfill site. 

The Bunde dump was used for discarded waste from the Mosa and Sphinx potteries. Tankers unloaded fluids. The site was eventually closed, but in 1987 it was feared it might reopen! Fortunately, this plan was reconsidered. Studies showed that the surface water in the area around the landfill contains high concentrations of cadmium, a by-product of the former mining activity for zinc and other heavy metals. The contamination caused the complete extinction of plant life that was fed by springs in this area.   

In 1988, work began on cleaning up this legacy of the industrial past and investigating the best way to stop this environmental pollution. As a result, the contaminated water was pumped away, and what still seeps to the bottom is discharged through a sewer to a treatment plant. The top layer here is covered with sand and several insulating layers. This area now requires dedicated expert management. For example, large trees are not allowed to grow here because the roots would breach and damage the protective layers. 

Because I have been walking through this area for years and recording all the flora and fauna I encounter, especially butterflies, I have seen the landfill site develop into an area with various notable species. The mowing and draining that prevents the grassland from becoming forest has transformed the area into a flower-rich plain and thus created space for ecological development. I suspect that the earth that was applied helped the herbs that belong to a flower-rich grassland to thrive here, hence the relatively rapid ecological development in this area. Apart from plants such as orchids and common centaury, there are also many insects, including a rare butterfly species called the Jersey tiger. 

The Jersey tiger thrives in this area thanks to the presence of host plants and nectar plants and because of the different types of habitats at a short distance from each other. This area provides the two microhabitats that the butterfly needs at the different stages of its life. The caterpillars need a relatively shady and humid microclimate, and the butterflies need a dry and warm microclimate. The presence of hemp-agrimony is also an important factor in why the Jersey tiger flourishes here.

3. At the landfill site, walk straight ahead, parallel to the forest edge. The path soon bends right. Follow the bend and continue walking across the field. Keep following the path to the far corner, turn right at the T junction, so you stay on the landfill (the path may be partly overgrown), thus circling the site. Keep following the path, also where it makes a gentle turn. At the end, you will return to the path where you turned into the old landfill. Follow the path to the left and walk into the forest. Turn right at the T-junction. To your left is a large hole from the old gravel quarry that now contains water. Walk straight ahead until you reach a turnstile. Go through it and immediately turn left. This plot is called Op ’t Rentelen. 

Beginning in summer 2021, The Butterfly House Foundation, which I run with my partner Sandra van den Beuken, shall lease this 1.3-hectare plot of land from the Province of Limburg. We are going to transform it into an ecological, flower-rich grassland. Its business model prioritises nature over humans. The foundation evolved from my work, and in recent years we have done projects in public space through The Butterfly House Foundation, from butterfly gardens to flower fields, in collaboration with universities, art schools, citizen researchers and local residents.

Our plans combine art and nature development and focus on knowledge about the landscape. We intend to bring back former landscape elements that we found on old maps of the Op ’t Rentelen plot. These features include standard form fruit trees and shrubbery to create a better transition between forest and pasture – thus creating a more gradual shrubland seam – steep edges for solitary bees and bumblebees, extending hawthorn hedges, introducing flower-rich grassland, and installing nesting boxes for owls and birds of prey. As well as common fruits, the field crops will also include herb-rich hay, which is sought after for horse owners by the foraging trade. 

In addition, we also harvest for my large museum works, installations and exhibitions. Because participation in our foundation’s projects is essential to us, we can now work in the field with other organisations to give courses, such as scything and pruning. We shall invite locals to come and help pick the fruit and process it. We shall also involve scientists in the research of converting grassland into flower-rich grassland. The whole project will offer me new opportunities to realise more publications and artist’s books. 

Very Contemporary – a network of contemporary art institutions in the Meuse-Rhine Euregio, of which Bureau Europa is also a part – invited me to participate in their 2021 exhibition programme. I made ‘Barbed Wire Vegetation’, which is standing in the meadow. This work deals with time, boundaries, the landscape and ecological processes. 

The work developed from my research into barbed wire vegetation. Under barbed wire grows a unique flora that forms its own habitat. This often includes special types of plants. The grazers leave the vegetation under the barbed wire, and it is not possible to mow. Therefore, there is no soil disturbance. This creates a particular biotope. The meadow posts that keep the barbed wire in place are permanent beacons in the landscape and therefore tell a lot about it. But the meadow posts are also separate biotopes, with mosses, lichens and other small vegetation. For many insects, the meadow posts are also places to warm up. Many butterfly species use them to rest and gain energy by unfolding their wings towards the sun and then continuing on their way. For the little owl, it is a vantage point when hunting for insects. 

The barbed wire in this artwork remains independent of other fixed elements, such as hedges and trees, or indeed other barbed wire. As a result, this material’s intended function – the demarcation of an area – is lost and serves instead as an artwork. The QR code next to the work provides more information.

4. Walk along the path until you come to the next iron gate. Here you go through the old fruit meadow and at the end through a turnstile. Turn left and take the unsurfaced road, Trentelenweg. At the end of this road with fruit trees on both sides, you turn right onto Kasennerweg, which is surfaced. Follow this road, then turn left into Wonkelestraat. When the road turns ninety degrees to the right, you will see a gate and a white brick wall on your left. Here you step up and continue along the narrow Lochterveld footpath. Halfway through is another gate. Keep walking straight on until you reach the main road. Here you go through a third gate, cross the road, and walk through another gate into the meadow. The path runs right through the meadow and past a solitary cherry tree. Walk through the gate at the end and turn immediately left. Here you continue straight ahead. After the meadow on the left, you will see a footpath at the end next to the meadow but ignore this path. Instead, walk straight on the path and down into the woods. Eventually, take the second path on the left. Finally, from this path, you can see the rail track in front of you. 

I have been coming to the Bunderbos since I was a child. Because of this, I know all the trails and almost all vegetation by heart. The Bunderbos consists of different parts, including the Lagebos and the Hogebos. It is especially popular for its flora associated with the forest springs, such as the wood anemone, yellow anemone, wood violet, cuckoo flowers, upon which orange tip butterflies can be seen in spring, and the rare opposite-leaved golden-saxifrage. At twilight, you may encounter badgers and deer. But the most special inhabitant is the fire salamander, which once had a large population along the rail track. However, their numbers have declined sharply in recent years due to a fungal disease among the fire salamanders. Along the way, you will come across dozens of springs. Rainwater that fell onto the plateau more than fifty years ago has made its way through the soil and resurfaced again in the springs.

Here you turn left and keep walking parallel to the track until you come to the surfaced road called Boschweg. Continue along it until the railway crossing and then turn right over the railway and into Roggeveldstraat. Then take the first street on the left, Spoorstraat, and you will arrive back at the starting point of this walk. 

Thanks to Fred Erkenbosch for the additional information about Bunde’s history.


Texts Stefan Cools | Design Janneke Janssen and Lyanne Polderman

The work Barbed Wire Vegetation was commissioned by Very Contemporary.