Just outside Esch-sur-Alzette, in southern Luxembourg’s resurgent rustbelt, on the border with France lies the Ellergronn nature park, established on the site of the former Cockerill coalmine, closed in 1967:
Today the park includes a welcome centre, a museum of mining, a restaurant (An der Schmëdd), and a glorious stretch of beautifully preserved woodland, including the alders which give Ellergronn its name.
Our visit to Ellergronn took place on a special ‘nature day’, with the park opening its doors to a wider public and proposing various activities and events.
From the moment we entered the precincts, the rusting remains of a mining rail line surrounded by greenery invited us to step back in time and enter an older, slower world. Then along the road leading to the main complex, there came into view a horse-drawn carriage – which would return several times, be it passengerless or carrying a contingent of wide-eyed children. Driver and passengers alike looked as if they had stepped out of a photograph from the 1950s. Moments later, we found ourselves in the entrance to the complex, where a jazz quintet was proudly performing vintage New Orleans material.
The main purpose of our visit was to sample the breathtaking woodland walks around the site, and there we could appreciate both the tallest of beeches, ashes and alders and the smallest details of nature, from wild strawberries to ochre-winged fritillary butterflies. Yet the visit also offered up an unexpected centrepiece, in the restaurant where we had lunch before embarking on the walk.
The restaurant offered traditional fare – suckling pig and cordon bleu with mushroom sauce, both served with a fresh crispy salad – and, like the rest of the site, felt like a veritable time-warp. The decor included an enormous candle tree in white wax. A polished wood radio straight out of the 50s, its dial listing the stations of the time, competed with a collection of ageing vinyl records.
Positioned next to the table where we ate, there reposed a strange object: a phrenological bust, with a map of the supposed different divisions of the human brain, signed with the name L.N. Fowler.
For an admirer like myself of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), this was a beacon into the past. Phrenology, a physio-psychological system devised by a German called Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), held that the key to an individual’s character lay in the structure of their brain, divided up (as in the map on Fowler’s bust) into different organs corresponding to particular qualities. It was all the rage in Europe and the US in the 1830s and 1840s, and, if today dismissed as a pseudo-science, then enjoyed considerable scientific respectability (one can argue today that it did in a broad sense anticipate contemporary neurological notions of localisation of function in the brain). It also stimulated the literary creativity of writers such as Walt Whitman and, crucially, Edgar Allan Poe, who incorporated phrenological notions in his work – in stories such as ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ and ‘Some Words with a Mummy’ (both published in 1845) – with an attitude poised somewhere between ambivalence and fascination.
The bust in the Ellergronn restaurant is an example of the articles marketed by the brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler. The latter is the L.N. Fowler of the bust: together they ran the Phrenological Cabinet, an establishment in New York which promoted the new discipline and dealt in phrenological paraphernalia. In an essay of 1845 on the poems of his famed contemporary Longfellow, Poe not only discusses phrenology and its claims but also refers directly to ‘the marvels and inconsistencies of the Fowlers’ (Poe, ‘Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’, published in ‘The Aristidean’ (New York) 1845; repr. in Poe, ‘Essays and Reviews’, ed. G.R. Thompson, New York: Library of America, 1984, 759-777 (760)).
The person behind this bust was, then, known to Edgar Allan Poe. To find a Poe-related object in a restaurant in a nature park on the border between Luxembourg and France might appear unlikely indeed. Yet surprising though the discovery may be, it also testifies to the universality of the nineteenth-century American writer, to the multiplicity of connections between his prescient literary work and our world of today. For those with the knowledge and with eyes to see, sooner or later all roads can lead back in time to Edgar Allan Poe!