EXPLORING THE WETLANDS
The Dutch have a way with water, and it’s a good thing too, as they have over 100 square miles of it within their borders. No wonder they’ve learned to sail on it, live on it, play on it, work with it and above all – tame it.
Since they began rolling back the sea and reclaiming the rich earth of the ocean floor the Dutch have enlarged the land mass of their tiny country by 15% but they’re by no means finished. It’s a work in progress. ‘God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland’, so the saying goes, and just north of Amsterdam you’ve the chance to see them making it. Not long ago, this area was beneath the North Sea, eventually it will be productive acreage, but for the moment it is simply ‘the wetlands’. A guide from the “Wetland Safari Company’ will take you canoeing through the reeds which flourish there now, introduce you to the quaking bogs, spread a picnic for you in a bonsai-sized forest and tell you all about the wildlife as you go.
My guide was named Majel and she met me on the steps of the Amsterdam bus terminal. She was young, cheerful, spoke English and carried a picnic basket over her arm. We hopped on an ordinary suburban bus and after a short ride Majel and I got off at the side of the wide highway at a stop called ‘Watergang’, where I felt momentarily like a hitchhiker waiting for an onward lift, so unlikely did it seem that this could be ‘it’. But it was. From a culvert under the highway, next to a roadside cafe, ran a little rivulet. This was the narrow entrance to the wide wetland world. Majel added ‘energetic’ and ‘strong’ to her other virtues as she tipped a canoe out from the shed behind the cafe and dropped it in the water. She spun open the lid of an aluminium keg and stowed my camera and her mobile phone in it and set it in the canoe. The keg was originally intended to hold fermenting sauerkraut. ‘But it’s waterproof and it floats’, she explained.
With Majel paddling in front and me behind we set off between narrow banks, under the philosophical gaze of two goats and a duck. Frogs jumped into the canoe and out again. Ahead was a very low bridge. ‘Well done,’ Majel congratulated me as we emerged on the other side, my head still on my shoulders. “Young men find that hardest to do, bend over like that. You’d be surprised how stiff they are.”
The water widened and became the main thoroughfare of a 17th century village. The brick houses, rebuilt over the years on their original foundations, all faced the canal, their flower gardens tumbling down to the water’s edge. Flat- bottomed boats were moored before them, used to transport their cooperative cattle from one handkerchief-sized field to another. We paddled on past a red brick schoolhouse and heard the children counting in chorus in their classroom. On the opposite shore, was a tiny island cemetery. One more bridge and we entered the wetlands which once had been the Zuyderzee.
A silent, watery landscape, broad and low under a pewter grey sky, it was a Dutch painting come to life. Miniature black windmills turned silently, pumping water into the drainage ditch which ran behind the low dykes. Watery pathways, some wide as tiny lakes, others pressing closely in on the canoe, meandered in every direction. “Not many people explore the wetlands,” Majel remarked, “to many people, one stretch of reeds looks like another and it’s easy for them to get lost.” Without Majel, I certainly would have been one of those people. At that point the reeds on the left bank were marginally taller and greener than the reeds on the right bank, but the difference was a far cry from a road sign.
The quaking bog was our destination. As she paddled, Majel pointed out the water bird nests and the wildflowers at the water’s edge. She explained the process which was turning the polders from water to earth. Build a dyke, pump out the water, dig drainage canals into which the remaining water is pumped. In time, vegetation will take over and become pastureland. Houses can be built then, these days on pilings, though in mediaeval times dwellings would have been supported by animal skins stretched over the marsh. Majel pushed the canoe onto a bank and we stepped off onto some of the first-phase, mossy vegetation. Tiny red flowers grew in sparse clusters, minuscule carnivorous plants. Majel knelt to show me a half-devoured ant, head down in a blossom. Then she ran ahead, bounding in front of me like a child, setting the bog in motion. At each step, the ground sluiced from side to side sending ripples out into the reeds, like a trampoline crossed with a waterbed.
Along the path, two or three round holes, a foot or so wide, had been cut. They’d been made by naturalists, Majel explained, to provide deep water in which the frogs could spawn. She dipped her canoe paddle in and circled it around, showing me there was nothing under the earth we stood on but water. We were being supported by interlocking roots on a web only a few inches thick. “It will build into meadow,” Majel assured me. We went back to the canoe, heading now for our picnic spot. We paddled past a few cows and Scottish sheep, oversized on their toy pastures.
Our destination was a hummock of land which rose in the distance from the flat water. A grove of birch trees crowned it. A great place for picnic, Majel clearly thought, but no way to build Holland. “This is what happens when nothing is done to protect the pasturage”, she said. But as we unpacked the picnic basket and watched the birds wheel in to settle in the trees this late afternoon, I doubted it was neglect at all. Some nature-loving Dutchman, I suspect, wanted his bit of Holland just this way.