The phone rang early on a chilly Saturday morning in late October, breaking the stillness. The wood floor was smooth and cold on my bare feet. It was my father, telling me in his Dutch accent that after a prolonged battle with cancer, my Uncle Kees in Holland has died. I asked for and receive the necessary information: he died at home with my dear Tante Rennie caring for him; he was asleep; she is holding on. Then this: they had received my card a week or so ago, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Two weeks before, I had received a similar phone call. My father called to tell me that Uncle Kees was very sick, and would not last the week. Email, Facebook, and smart phones have allowed us to pull on those wires that string together the continents and evaporate the ocean with a pulse of electricity. But my Tante, who spent her childhood living through World War II, has no such wires connecting her to me, except for the telephone, which she uses with Germanic efficiency during an overseas call.
“Tante Rennie, it’s Sandra in America . How are you?”
“I’m fine. Don’t spend your money. I have a letter to you in the mail. Bye!”
I was left then to the written word to tell them I loved them, that I was thinking of them. And I prayed the word would get to them in time, and it did. I got to say goodbye this time, and I didn’t cry. I didn’t have to. I knew his favorite English words and knew his stories. I carry him with me.
It was not the case many years ago, when I was a kid and my father told us that his mother had died, and then a few years later his father. We could afford to fly only my father back to Holland for the funerals. I cried both times, even though I had only met them twice in my young life. Even at that age, I think I sensed what I had missed, and cried for not knowing them.
I hung from talking my father and was glad I had traveled to Holland the year before. It was my fourth time. Over the years, my ties to this country of water have emerged like the pasture-rich polders that are created when the skilled Dutch engineers drain Holland ‘s inland seas. My trips have been deliberate, engineered events to get to know this place better. During the last trip in 1996, Tante Rennie turned to me and said, “I don’t understand why you come here so much. We are just ordinary people in an ordinary place.”
I just smiled. In her lifetime, commercial air travel became possible, but was not common. A trip overseas is laborious, expensive, and if taken should be for a month or more. Born only 35 years later, I lived in a world of relatively inexpensive air travel, due largely in part to the World War that shaped my Aunt’s life and her people. I can make the water between us disappear, and so I find myself at her door at fairly regular intervals. She cannot understand why, but it is because of her and the land she is a part of. So different from mine, and yet, so familiar. I am a person of the ocean, of the water.
I grew up in Connecticut , an hour away from the ocean. It was an inexpensive place to take four children, so my family went there often in the summer. When we weren’t there, we were at my maternal grandparents’ modest cottage on the shores of a lake. I spent most of the day in that water, coming out only to eat, from mid-morning to sunset.
To this day, water calms me, soothes me. I now live in Boston , and when I am troubled, I find my way to the ocean. If I have not been there in a while, it continues to call me until I go. I like to think I have inherited this water gene from my Dutch side. How else to explain its hold on me? When I am in Holland , there is no need to go to the water; it comes to you. It was during my third trip there that I realized I had yet to see the ocean, In this tiny country, the water is everywhere between the fields in the canals, and so I never thought I was in a dry place missing the ocean. In Holland the ocean is overkill.
A small country about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, Holland edges western Europe. To the east and south lie Germany and Belgium; Holland ‘s only other bordering neighbor is the North Sea, called by the Dutch Nord Zee. The other sea that used to border Holland, Zuiderzee, the South Sea, is no longer. The Dutch people’s long history and experience with the sea gave them the knowledge and technology to subdue this body of water in 1932; they diminished it from an inland sea, to a freshwater lagoon into a couple of lakes, meer: Ijsselmeer and Markermeer are the names. The word meer, when combined with niet in Dutch means “no longer.” These two meer eventually will be niet meer as their water is drained. But this is nothing new to the Dutch, for whom living on the land first means taking the land from the sea.
Enkhuizen is a town in northern Holland on the coast of what used to be the Zuiderzee, but what is now really a peninsula jutting out into Ijsselmeer. There we visited the Zuiderzee Museum. Part of the museum is a village of very old houses taken from all over Holland to represent the architecture of different periods—1400s, 1500s, 1600s. It preserves the long, important fishing industry history of the Zuiderzee that is now lost. It also preserves a bit of my own family history.
When I interviewed them for my book, my father and aunt talked about the steamers that chugged by on the Merwede Canal on their way to Amsterdam and the Zuiderzee. They told me about my great grandfathers, one of whom was the captain of a passenger ferry that sailed across the Zuiderzee from his home of Bukhuizen on the east coast of the Zuiderzee, to Amsterdam on the west coast of the Zuiderzee. My paternal great-grandfather (also from Bukhuizen) harvested and shipped peat along the Zuiderzee and connecting canals. My grandfather also sailed across the Zuiderzee transporting peat, vegetables and potatoes. My ancestors lives built on this sea.
The Zuiderzee was my point of reference for my great grandfathers, but when I looked on a modern map, I could only find the Noordzee and the Waddenzee . Where do you hide a sea? I couldn’t find it, but my faith in its existence persisted. Surely such a small country could not eliminate an entire sea! I’m not sure if that faith belies my stubborn American will, or my American ignorance about other ways of living with and without water. The draining of a swamp to put up a mall sprawling with acreage doesn’t seem like terribly difficult project to me. In the U.S. we are constantly reshaping our land in that way. In a way, I connect the great strength of the U.S. with the ability to dispatch a swampy environment to niet meer. As strong as we are, however, we would never tackle the sea in the Dutch way. We can hardly keep the beach front property of our coasts from eroding away in the face of the sea’s power. It did not even occur to me that such a small country could not only methodically subdue the sea, but succeed in eliminating it. I did not realize until much later that the Zuiderzee Museum itself was a memorial to the Zuiderzee, not an homage to it.
Throughout the centuries, the Zuiderzee had become a huge saltwater bay, the sea always thrashing against the land to take it back. In 1932, the Dutch finished a 19-mile long dam, the Afsluitdijk. It connected Noord Holland with Friesland , the two coasts of the sea. By the time they finished the dyke, many parts of the sea were already dry. The flow of fresh water from the many rivers surrounding the sea filled up the meer and helped desalinate the land. “With the completion of the barrier dam, the Afsluitdijk,” says a guidebook quite sedately, “the Zuiderzee ceased to exist and gave place to the Ijsselmeer, which is now a freshwater lagoon.” Ceased to exist. When I look at the bag I saved from the Zuiderzee Museum gift shop, I sometimes think niet meer. It’s the only physical remnant I have left to connect me to my great grandparents: the bag and the stories. Everything else is gone. In my lifetime, the routes they sailed will be covered with roads, and I hope someday I may drive along them.
But even if I do drive along the roads created from the Zuiderzee, I know this land of Holland is less about terra firma and more about water and polders. One look at a map of Holland shows that in this ongoing battle with the sea, there is no clear winner. The Dutch plan to reclaim the Zuiderzee to themselves by turning it into fertile polders, and in the process, they will win a battle over the water. However, the map blue of the three estuaries of the Rhine , Maas and Schelde rivers farther south tells of the water’s own battle tactics. The estuaries cut deeply into the land, and then turn into rivers that flow deeper and deeper into the continent. And where the rivers falter, the canals take up the task by connecting the stretched rivers to each other to join yet more water. The reclaimed polder on the Zuiderzee is a very large land mass of 242,500 acres, however, the water will not completely give up its own; the polder is surrounded by water.
When I turned from the map to take to the roads, the map blue turned into water everywhere. Every block of pasture is defined by the water-filled ditches surrounding it. Every minute of every day that water is pumped. Some eighty percent of Holland lies below sea level. Only a small section in the center of the country rises above the sea. Although windmills form a picturesque part of the Dutch landscape, in the old days they single-handedly kept the sea back from the land. They pumped the water that constantly seeps from the fields to the ditches into the side canals. Then larger windmills pumped the water from the side canals into the main canals and finally back into the sea. The pumps now are powered by electricity and hydraulic pressure, but their function remains the same: should they suddenly stop, the sea would slowly flood the pastures and consume the coastal land and tributaries. The sea would reclaim its bed on which the Dutch have built their country.
And that is exactly what happened to Holland during World War II. The Dutch planned to use their water ways as a defense, however the Nazis had studied every schematic, knew every switch. They turned the water against the Dutch. By the war’s end, much of the coastal land was inundated. The Nazis shut off the pumps and the sea water swept hungrily over the crop and pasture lands taken from it long ago. It took many years for the Dutch to make the land useful for agriculture once again.
Today, that devastation is niet meer, and as I drove along this land as flat as the ocean bottoms it comes from, I thought a lot about how this constant fight with the sea defines a people. Americans (in the short-term anyway) can forget about the swamp after it has been drained for the shopping mall. Soon no one remembers a swamp was ever there. The Dutch drain a lake or a small sea and they must keep at it, always pumping the water, never resting. The result I think is that we are more reckless and impulsive with our landscaping and in our culture. Although Boston architecture is fairly conservative and strives to integrate the old and the new, as you travel farther west the cities’ skyscrapers become more daring, and the cityscapes created are more chaotic. Las Vegas anyone?
The Dutch on the other hand are more methodical, deliberate, more exacting. In Friesland, the roads are lined with perfectly spaced trees, planted as windbreaks. In a land as flat as Holland, wind becomes the element to contend with on a daily basis after the land is reclaimed. Trees between farms serve the dual purpose of windbreaks and fences. But these trees are not left to their own devices. Some are constantly trimmed to the same height so that they will grow thicker and provide a better wind barrier. Other trees in front of the farmhouse have flat frames nailed to them so that the branches are trained to grow in two opposite directions. Any branch venturing out-of-bounds is either cut off or pushed back into the frame. The result is a lollipop of a tree. Such extensive manipulation surprised me, but I realized that these manipulations come naturally to a people who have been controlling their environment for centuries.
The environmentalist in me does question this extensive manipulation, but as an American, I will not be throwing any stones. And despite all we Americans and Dutch do to the environment—and we’re certainly not alone in our manipulations—I hold onto the belief that the power of the earth to recover, reclaim and heal itself is strong. On my last trip my belief was strengthened by witnessing this great, quiet strength. When I was in Holland in 1987, Tante Rennie and I bicycled around the surrounding villages. On the flat roads you can cycle forever and never get tired. We stopped for warm stroopwaffles fresh from the market–drippy, warm caramel and cinnamon between two soft round wafers. As we left the market and the smells of warm food and fresh flowers, the scent of Holland presented itself. Wet, pungent, musky and green, the smells of the fields and livestock permeated my nose and body. I can smell it even now.
We rode by a manicured field with a few small, leaden cement buildings that were positioned oddly. They were not aligned with the roads or ditches. In the Dutch world of order, they were almost obscene. Windowless, with rusty metal hooks protruding from the cement roof, they made me uneasy. Then Rennie explained they were bunkers made by the Nazis during the war to hold ammunition. The walls are so thick and the bunkers so well made, the Dutch government doesn’t have the money to dismantle them. So they sit in these verdurous pastures, with cows roaming amiably by, as a grim reminder of a darker time. In 1994, we spent more time traveling all around Holland by car, so it wasn’t until well into the week that I saw that same pasture. The bunker was still there, but I noticed one corner was sunken well into the ground, tipping the whole mass at an angle that made its leaden weight seem less threatening, even silly. Even as we work to change the face of nature, she works to change us.
If the U.S. is a heartland, then Holland is a waterland. I think about how the Dutch must ceaselessly struggle to keep their water land from turning back into water, and how patient and persistent a people they must be. I like the tension of Holland —between the sea that is subdued, but not beaten, and the people of the country of my ancestors trying to keep what may not be theirs. I like tracing the blue veins on the map of Holland to see how far I can go before I lose the wispy thread to the land. But most of all I like to imagine that Dutch pasture, part land and part water, wet and soft, sucking down that bunker little by little, until one day, it is swallowed whole. As it sinks deeper, the land turns to water, which will start to break the cement down, and the bits of sand will get pumped into the ditches, canals and then the sea, where they will lie at the ocean bottoms and be niet meer.