I had forgotten how wet it is in the Netherlands. After a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19, I finally visited ‘my old sod’ again this fall. On a bike trip through the polders south of Amsterdam, I passed by the Vinkeveen lakes and was amazed to see the water come within inches of mowing level, and yet, houses were built there, with gardens planted along the edge of the lake, all immaculately maintained as always in the Netherlands. Can’t wear stilettos here: their back half would be in the water. Wooden shoes begin to make perfect sense in this wet clay; you still see them in use on farms. There’s a ditch in front of the house, there are ditches on the sides, the lake is in back, and everywhere there are canals to lead the water away from the soggy interior of the country into the sea. The goal of Dutch water ‘housekeeping’ was always to transport the superfluous water to the sea as fast as possible, and to keep raising the dikes in the Rhine delta for fear of flooding. Nowadays, new insights into the effects or recurring summer droughts have begun to change the aim, which is to retain and utilize the ample winter rainwater and river flows as much as possible in order to reduce domestic, industrial and agricultural use of valuable groundwater from deeper levels under the soil. This means storing the water and using it to ‘re-drain’ the land from underneath during dry times. The soil needs to be wet to prevent the land’s dry top layer from compacting and sinking ever lower, while at the same time, plentiful fresh water is needed to push back the salty seawater that forever threatens to creep underneath the dikes and into the polders. From the beginning of their human settlement, the Low Lands have had to wage a water war, being attacked from all sides. New scientific knowledge constantly produces different approaches to enable people to keep their heads above water, including natural selection: the Dutch are the tallest people on earth, so that definitely helps.
You’re riding your bike, sometimes on narrow roads on top of the dikes, sometimes on kilometres-long special bike paths straight through the polder’s pastures. You may see cows grazing either below you or above you. It’s disorienting; living in mountainous western Canada, I hadn’t experienced it in this way for a while but now I’m completely familiar with it again. There’s water beside you and there’s water far below you: it’s hard to know what the true water level is in this country, but in western Holland you can bet you’re well below sea level in most places, sometimes more than six metres lower. In that sense, the Netherlands isn’t quite as flat as it is portrayed. It has to be the most complicated man-made landscape on earth with the most mind-boggling managerial intricacies. You get the sense that if they were to stop pumping the water away for even one day, the whole place would disappear. That’s exactly the fine line they try to achieve through multiple modern techniques, applied because of the contemporary climate-warming, ocean-rising reality. Many of Holland’s western cities such as Amsterdam are built on a myriad of wooden poles beaten into the bog to stabilize the spongy ground underneath. This wood needs to be kept underwater at all times: exposure to air causes it to rot, houses may crack, tilt or sink.
You still come across a 17th or 18th Century windmill fairly often in this landscape: lonely, de-commissioned industrial buildings of great beauty and famous ingenuity. They’re well maintained by volunteer millers. Some lucky caretakers get to live in the round interior of the ground floor, somehow organizing their furniture around the huge wooden centre shaft. The mill’s pumping mechanism inside, made of solid oak, is impressive. The big, heavy transmission wheels clasp their teeth into one another perfectly. All of it heaves, creaks and croaks on windy weekends when they activate some ‘museum mills.’ It’s awe-inspiring to see that it works like a charm. No fuel, no electricity needed. It’s strictly about genial design, master carpentry, and brisk wind in the sails, turning the wheels to get that water scooped up from the polder’s ditch and out in stages, by sequences of additional mills (‘the run of the mills’), into other ditches located slightly higher, to finally be deposited into the so-called ‘ringvaart’ (main waterway at the highest elevation, surrounding the polder) that takes it to sea. Granted, the engineering of these water-pumping factories took a while to perfect. In the early days, some watermills ‘took flight’ (do they have ‘sails’ or ‘wings?’): they had their heads blown off in the extra strong winds that are ‘normal’ in this part of the world. Once beyond the experimental stage, these mills faithfully pushed all that excess water out of the polders for centuries, until the steam pump and yet more modern methods were invented, making this perfectly clean traditional technology obsolete. Some mills stand forlornly in the middle of ever-expanding suburbs now, which makes for intriguing, contrasting images. I still do a double take when I see an old mill standing below one of these towering, white ultra-modern ones, the electricity-generators so ubiquitous in the Dutch landscape these days. Birds beware: it’s dangerous for you up there amongst these ‘wind farms!’
Ultimately, now that we know more about the eventual upshot of our chosen political and economic ‘system’ of liberalism based on capitalism, we may blame many of our current troubles on the Dutch. But in 16th Century reality, it represented progress: the Netherlands is considered to be both the cradle of liberal democracy (Descartes, Spinoza and Locke, all ‘freethinkers’ living in Amsterdam, wrote their liberal treatises here. How good does it get?) and of capitalism. The complicated water management, for one, forced the Dutch to talk to each other, to deliberate, make decisions and act collectively. The power of the Church combined with the absolute, ‘divine’ monarchs, the feudal systems that predominated elsewhere in Europe were largely avoided here. To this day, in my opinion, there still is a comparatively strong national sense of ‘being in it together,’ of a shared purpose in society (many contemporary Dutch would disagree, now that their population is more individualistic and multicultural than ever and apparently less cohesive and harder to govern). They call it ‘poldering,’ which is reflected in their formation of a coalition government after elections: the various top chosen political parties attempt to come to some sort of an agreement on policies to pursue together. It’s a struggle. The last elections were in March this year and they still didn’t have a ‘working government’ while I was there in September, only the decommissioned, lame duck one. Despite the problems a Coalition system may pose, I still think it has advantages over our Canadian ‘First-past-the-Post’ political system where a relatively small percentage of voters installs a Majority party and a great deal of parliamentary time is wasted on rhetoric and mutual character assassination between the Ruling party and the Opposition. By putting their heads together and joining forces instead of competing, these smart money-hungry Dutch traders invented the first corporation and a stock market where anyone with means, man or woman and not just the landed gentry, could invest. The Dutch East India Company made a huge swath of people rich, from the first sailing to Java in 1595 onwards. From the great City of Amsterdam to the Dutch Master painters, the attractions of Holland we so enjoy as tourists largely came about because of this outrageous wealth from products imported from all over the world in the 17th Century, by hook but definitely by lots of crook as well. An at times sordid history of Dutch colonialism was to follow this early trading episode.
It’s said that the landscape of your youth, the one you played and got dirty in, where you adventured and discovered nature, will always make the deepest imprint in your soul. I believe it. I long for and always return to the unique ecology of the coastal zone where I grew up, north of The Hague: deciduous forests of oaks and beeches interspersed with daffodil, hyacinth and tulip fields, followed by coastal dunes with their characteristic drought-proof, leathery and spikey vegetation (the sandy Dutch ‘wilderness zone’ doing double-duty as drinking water reservoir) and the long, wide-open North Sea beach.
I deeply inhale the fresh, scented air to make this land my own again. There’s rich animal and birdlife here. The dunes are perforated with rabbit holes. I watch the fine hues of land and sky. It brings strong memories of my teenage times; everything else in life momentarily falls away. This was the place where my preference for quiet solo forays already began: rain or shine, I would trot my pony up and down these dunes or happily gallop on the beach, feeling a completely exhilarating sense of freedom ‘far from the madding crowd.’ With nobody around, I could laugh out loud and be in tears at the same time, not because it was so funny or sad, but because it felt so elemental, so utterly blissful to be filled to the brim with the pure joy of being alive.
So there’s that: the look and feel of the particular landscapes of the Netherlands in the various seasons; the ways in which the Dutch keep tinkering with their land. The tranquility of the polders that still exists if you know your way around. On a bike in the countryside, on foot in the cities and towns, it’s a rich experience – historical, topographical, technical, cultural and social. The dichotomies between social liberalism and its ultimate expression of individualism, versus the necessity of nurturing the collective wellbeing. A big dose of socialism mixed in with the extremes of economic liberalism. These issues have come to the fore all over the western world of course. We struggle with the negative, planet-destroying results of this centuries-old worldview everywhere. It’s just that it’s so clearly noticeable in the small-scale, compact Netherlands. But the Dutch are a well-informed, dynamic, creative, energetic and most of all, fearless people – the country literally buzzes with entrepreneurial initiative. Just watch these thousands upon thousands of people streaming in and out of Amsterdam’s Central Station all day long, or land at Schiphol Airport to see for yourself. Holland is a happening place!
There’s more; please see #2 of my musings about the Netherlands.