Holland vs. the Sea

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Holland vs. the Sea

There's an old saying in Holland: "God created the earth — except Holland, which was created by the Dutch." Dutch history is an unending battle against the sea.

Geography is not something remote to the Dutch, but a daily reality. The land is brittle, much of it below sea level, protected from the sea by a thin, fragile line of coastal dunes. The word Holland itself means "hollow land". Again and again in history, the sea has broken through, sometimes flooding large areas. Worst break through of all occurred in Middle Ages: water swallowed up about 10% of the whole country, creating the Zuider Zee. (Name means "South Sea" as against "North Sea.") Other times in history (1421, 1570, 1953), the sea has broken through; 1800 people drowned in 1953! Worst of all: the sea is steadily rising and the land is sinking; high tides are slightly higher each year. Thus, new dykes and strict control of coastline is a permanent necessity. Half of the country is below the sea level at high tide; some parts are below even the low tide (thus water cannot just "flow out" to sea as low tide, but must always be pumped out).

The reality of the sea has shaped the Dutch character, requiring hard, incessant work to keep the dykes intact. Dyke-making has always been the "basic industry" of the Dutch — even in prehistoric times. Back then, people dwelling here called Frisians (the area they settled now called Friesland). Lived on large artificial mounds (about 400 B.C.). Over 1,500 such mounds have been discovered: in volume they would be 30 times bigger than Great Pyramid of Egypt if lumped together. Frisians set the pattern that has continued ever since: constant struggle to defend the land from the sea. Romans came next, and then the Christian kingdom of Charlemagne, which included Holland. But neither were able to subdue the Frisians — the most rugged of the Dutchman's ancestors. Frisians massacred first Christian missionaries to reach them, including St. Boniface (754). Another land-reclamation project developed later in the south, near what is today the Belgian border. These medieval dykes were built by hand, slowly, century after century. The Dutch word polder began to be used in 1219 — refers to an area of land reclaimed from the sea. Holland now dotted with such polders, which make up 40% of the land. Large organizations appeared to supervise dyke maintenance and land reclamation — they still function, and are Holland's most important safeguard against flooding. (All dykes in Holland run by the Waterstaat.) Next great stage of land reclamation was during Holland's "Golden Age", 17th century. Huge banks appeared, and funds were poured into new projects; countryside covered with windmills to pump water off the land.

Greatest projects of all have developed recently. First: the reclaiming of the Zuider Zee. This large inlet is now an artificial lake, having been closed off from the sea by the 18-mile Closing Dyke (finished in 1932). Then the pumps went to work, and there are now two polders drained; covered with farms. Pumping goes on. Eventually, over half the Zuider Zee will be filled with polders. Reclaimed soil rich and fertile — it's never been used. Hence, farm produce from these polders is highest in Europe. Dyke building is expensive, but pays for itself because of the productivity of the new lands. Problem, however, is ridding soil of salt, which takes time. Retreating Nazis blew up one of the dykes on Zuider Zee, flooding one polder. Later the holes were repaired and by 1950 the polder was flourishing with farms. Since the Zuider Sea is no longer a "sea", it has been renamed Lake Ijssel, after River Ijssel flowing into it.

Dyke making  The first two clay embankments are built, running parallel. Between the embankments a thick layer of reed mats is put down, held with stones. Then sand is piled on top of the mats and between the embankments. The mats keep the sand from slipping away under the clay embankments and out to sea. On top of the sand: bricks, earth, concrete. Most sea dykes are 300 feet thick at base and about 10 feet high. Sea dykes are more rugged — have to withstand ocean pounding and tides. Interior dykes are lighter, often covered with grass instead of concrete. (You may be able to glimpse the back of the dykes to your left.) In additon to the Zuider Zee, the other big area for dykes is the Delta of two rivers: Rhine and Maas. The Hook of Holland, where we landed, is on the edge of this delta. Delta polders are the oldest in Holland, almost one of the most fragile. Flooding is common. First thing the Dutch did was to alter the course of these rivers, giving them new "beds" (think of the engineering work!), and lining the banks with stout dykes against spring flooding. This area of Holland is known as polderland, because it's nothing but polders. Some of these polders are lower than sea level even at low tide. Question: how, then, is water drained off? It's emptied into ditches, then pumped to higher ditches, then pumped to higher ones, etc., until it reaches sea level and flows off. That's why windmills became popular in Holland, as a source of cheap power to operate all these waterworks. (The Dutch discovered "alternative energy sources" centuries before anyone else thought about it!) Around these delta polders are three lines of dykes. The first is called the Watchman dyke, the second the Sleeping dyke (i.e. not working, but available at need), the third the Dreaming dyke (for a really bad flood).

Importance of dykes shown in the names of Dutch cities, which often end with -dam. (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, etc.) These dams were built as defenses against rivers which would often flood. Amsterdam was the "dam" on the River Amstel, Rotterdam the dam on the River Rotter. Other names end in -dijk (dyke) — Kinderdijk (where the boy plugged the leak in the dyke to save his town), Moerdijk, St. Maartensdijk (St. Martin's Dyke — quite a town to be from!). This battle against the sea has given the Dutch a water complex, as often happens when a culture is dominated by unusual geographical features (e.g. Switzerland). Rituals based on water are a part of Dutch village life: e.g. funeral processions down canals instead of streets; development of artistic, picturesque bridges; perhaps also — an obsession with cleanliness, in which the Dutch surpass even the Germans. Water is plentiful, and even though it comes from the sea, the soil filters it. Holland is one country that will never have a water shortage — luckily, in view of its large population. The psychological effect of this "water culture" is captured in Albert Camus' novel, The Fall, which is set in Amsterdam.

Windmills are a famous feature of the Dutch landscape. They're a necessity to keep pumping water from the soggy land. Hence, the Dutch developed "windmill technology" before anyone else, and taught it to other nations. The Spanish, e.g., learned about windmills from the Dutch when Spain ruled Holland; brought Dutch skills back to Spain and modelled Spanish windmills on the Dutch pattern. In WW II, 200 windmills were destroyed; but 1700 are still in operation. Sometimes, on a polder which is very low and where water seeps in constantly from the sea, hundreds of windmills have to be used to pump out water — sometimes densely clustered together. (Quite a sight!) Windmill technology is not a dying art, but is developed all the time. E.g. it has been discovered that by tilting the blades 10% up, they will catch the wind more effectively. The expression, "Grist for his mill," is a typically Dutch saying coming from the windmills of Holland. Or, "He has been hit by a windmill vane" (i.e. he is mad). Or, "He who comes first, grinds first" (i.e. first come, first served). Many others. Because of economic importance of windmills, popular rituals have grown up around them. The blades are altered in shape and position for certain occasions. Millers have adopted a "code of the vanes" — a sign language based on position of the blades. When the blades form a cross +, that means the mill is ready for operation. When they are shaped like an X, that means they're temporarily out of service (or not needed). On joyful occasions (weddings, etc.), the blades are arranged one way; for mourning (funerals), they're put a different way. When a funeral procession comes by, the miller keeps turning the windmill so that the blades face the procession as it moves past. On festive occasions and holidays, the windmills are brightly decorated: flowers, garlands, figures of angels, or the Dutch flag.


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