The Scrub Pine Syndrome Walking in the Netherlands
Once, as part of a busy ramblers' fair in the RAI in Amsterdam, I had the privilege of addressing a room full of my compatriots who had just booked all-in walking tours of what the brochures called the fairy-tale landscape of colourful tufa cones and weird rock formations' offered by Turkish Cappadocia or the 'steaming lava fields and yellow-brown rhyolitic hills' of Iceland. It was my job to tell these folks what it's like to walk across the grass from Ferwerd to Blija and past the cows from Lammeschans to Lam bertschaag. An impossible task, of course. What on earth could I offer in the Netherlands to match the 'imposing rock formations' of Brittany and the 'enchanting tarns' of the Tatras? The canal from Sas to Terneuzen. And the ring canal around the Wormer and Beemster polders.
A scrub pine on the heath. Photo by Jan Willem Wertwijn.
I scanned the room and saw no one who would be prepared, like my father shortly after the war, atop a dune beyond Overveen, to gaze down into the fathomless depths of a hollow and spreading his arms wide to cry in delight to his family: 'Kids! We don't have to go abroad for this!' So what possesses a modern human being to make him shoulder his rucksack and set off on foot through the Netherlands, which as we all know is the world's most built-up delta area? That question was put to me most cogently during the walk round the entire country that I undertook for my book On Foot (Voetreiziger: verslag van een tocht door Nederland, 1993), at the edge of Grevelingen Lake on the border of Zeeland. One fine spring day I encountered what the Dutch writer Nescio, a great evoker of nature, would have called a gentleman of Calvinist aspect, clad in a black three-piece suit. He surveyed my hiking boots, my rucksack, my windproof jacket and my paunch beneath it, and asked, `Tell me honestly. Do you do this for pleasure? Or on doctor's orders?'
f another soul. So are there other grounds apart from one's health for enjoying walking in the Netherlands? Surely there must be. I don't think that after my enthusiasts( recommendation in the RAI many of my audience hastily swapped the to Iceland or the Tatras for a circuit of the IJsselmeer. Still, the 11( that in the last ten years the Dutch have started walking in their ow â–ş o on a fairly massive scale. In quite a short span of time an ex i eri5ive di v Li signposted network of footpaths has been created, criss-crossing the cnnn tr:_, from North to South and from East to West. The Netherlands is literally tered with red and white strips of paint on trees and red and white sticker lampposts, which, if you do not miss any, will get you without map or compass from Stavoren to Lauwersoog in eight days, from Amsterdam to Arnhem in ten days or, if you keep up a fast pace, will take you in three weeks the whole 480 kilometres of the Pieter Path from the Waddenzee in the north of Groningen province to the border with Belgium in the extreme south of Limburg. The names of these routes are generally redolent of sheep's wool and the distant past: the Erratic Stone Path or the Gelre Path, the Creek Path or the Seven Wood Path. And all of them are described in handy booklets you can put in your pocket. There is only one problem with them: they often treat the Netherlands as if it actually were Nepal or Norway. They try as far as possible to avoid built-up areas and the attendant human contact. A day out on the Dune and Polder Path or the Mudflat and Mound Path is only considered successful if you 'haven't met a soul' en route. But if that is the object of the exercise, then give me the Norwegian tundra. You'll have no trouble getting away from it all there. But between Blija and Ferwerd? Or between Vaals and Epen? If what you're after is the grandeur, the compelling splendour, the proximity of the divine in nature, you must have a screw loose to go looking for it in the land of peat bogs and -
The Societas Ambulationis Academica (WandelSoc.nl), in
and 2003, during
stages of its project Across the Netherlaiuls from Top to
Toe, carried an oaken armchair through Drenthe province, to place it on every dolmen passed. It was left behind on the last one (D51). This photo shows WandelSoc. and chair at the first dolmen, G t. Photo courtesy of Wandelsoc.nl.
Stone Age mounds, which anyway, as everyone knows, wasn't created by God but reclaimed by the inhabitants themselves. And yet the Dutch walker attaches great importance to coming home in the evening and saying with a blissful smile that it was fantastic not to meet anyone,
Dutch writer C.S. Adama van Scheltema (1877-1924), flanked by two friends, in walking outfit. Photo courtesy Letterkundig Museum, The Hague.
not a soul, on the way. The very Dutch urge to be atone is, obviously, a direct result of the density of built-up areas and the endless tailbacks in which the weekend walker spends his week sighing at the wheel. 'No!' he thinks. 'There's no way I'm going to get stuck in another queue at the weekend.' On Saturday and Sunday mornings the buffet of many a station is full of rucksack-toting individuals who have taken the train to the start of their walk and are all waiting, drinking lots of coffee, till the walkers ahead of them have disappeared from view.
You can stay in the hay for the night I myself have no problem at all about meeting people en route. Quite the reverse! Just consider that you can understand the people you meet. And don't have to walk about, as you do in faraway rugged places, as if you were an extra in a film with incomprehensible subtitles. Where else but in the Netherlands could I have an experience like the one I had on a warm Sunday morning in that tiny pub beyond Hummelo? It nestled among five old chestnut trees and five old limes and was called The Van Heeckeren Arms. I stepped through the front door and into the nineteenth century. It must have been over a hundred years since anything had been changed in the bar. A weathered counter served as a bar with no beer taps. A cupboard with a mirror and a few bottles of drink. In the wall the doors of a closet bed, from the time when the Arms was an inn as well as a pub. 'It's old sure enough,' says a red-cheeked man called Evert Jan, serving me a coffee and an almond biscuit. Two hundred and fifteen years. Something like that.' For the last century, he says, the place has been run by his grandfather, then by his father and after his father's death by his mother, who is now 84 and whom he helps. When she dies Evert Jan will continue the business on his own. Will you make any changes?' I ask.
The Kaapse woods.
'Oh yes,' he says. 'I will. I'll have it repapered.' A little later his mother shuffles into the bar on a Zimmer frame. She sits down on a wooden chair, dears her throat and roars, 'Nice Sunday'. 'Mother's a bit deaf,' explains Evert Jan. He'll leave me to her, he says, he's ready for a hot meal. 'Granny's almost 85,' says the only other customer in a rather shaky voice, as he'd started early. The brass band is already practising!' 'You keep out of it!' shouts Granny. I say I'm a writer. 'Write this down,' thunders Granny. 'Be-ing mo-dern serves no pur-pose at all.' She adds that things weren't all that marvellous in the past either. 'It sometimes happened,' she said with long spaces between the words, 'that you'd take eight piglets to market and come back with nine.' 'Granny means,' says the drunk... 'Quiet!' says Granny. 'Arable farming's going downhill at the moment too.' 'They haven't got any cows left either,' says the drunk. 'Yes we have,' cries Evert Jan from where he is eating in the kitchen. 'Three, and a couple in the freezer.' 'Shut up!' orders Granny. 'You can stay in the hay for the night.' 'No,' says the drunk. 'That's where I'll be bedding down shortly.' 'No,' says Evert Jan, who has finished his meal. 'I'll be lying there, 'cause the mare's ready to foal.' 'You can,' says Granny. 'But you don't have to. We're always open. Except sometimes we're not, 'cause then we're closed.' The Netherlands that produces characters like this is a joy to walk through. Because let's be honest: however good my Russian or Finno-Ugric may be, I can only record a conversation like this between Vaals and Den Helder. In the Netherlands I walk with my ears. The moment I cross the border my feet have to take over.
Picture used for an Achmea ad in Dutch magazines (2003).
Farseeing prohibited There are also a few snags about walking in the Netherlands. I'll mention four. Signs. Dogs. Education. And New Nature. First, signs. Scattered across the whole of the Netherlands are millions of signs, telling you in minute detail what you, the walker, can and cannot do. I'm not kidding you: at the entrance to the dunes beyond Wijk aan Zee twelve signs jostle with each other, carrying instructions on the compulsory admission ticket, the cigarettes and pipes that must be put out, the silence that must be observed and the dogs we can take with us only if kept on a lead. Those on horseback must follow the yellow, those on foot the red and those in wheelchairs the blue arrows. I swear its true: in Friesland every hundred metres along the sea wall there are circular signs showing a pair of binoculars with a red line through them: far-seeing prohibited!. Outside Urk the Ministry of Transport, gritting its teeth, has opened the dike embankment for 'recreational co-use': walking is simply allowed, cycling with special permission, but not with a dog, open brackets close brackets.
No flies on these people! 'Shall we put no dogs" on the sign?' said one civil servant. No,' said the other. If we do someone will come along with just one dog and we won't have a leg to stand on.'
Next, dogs. These are almost a reason for choosing the Abruzzo, Iceland or the 'imposing' Cevennes after all. You can't walk into a single village, pass a single farm or country house without man's best friend growling, licking, barking and rolling its eyes, longing to get its teeth into man's fellow man. In the centre of Roggel, in broad daylight, one of these horrors ripped the strap of my rucksack to shreds. I heard a swish and the damage was done. 'Damn dog,' I roared. 'Bloody animal.' 'Well,' said its owner. 'You went too close to him.' In Gaasterland a pit bull was heading towards me. 'Stay,' called its master. Not to the dog. To me! The third phenomenon that deserves a warning is education. I'll simply call it the scrub pine syndrome. In the Netherlands, it seems, there is nothing worse than returning home after communing with nature without having learned anything. It's not allowed. It will not happen. It cannot happen. The powers that be insist that you retain what you have seen en route. The scrub pine stands all alone on the heath in the Grote Peel. To make sure you do not miss the scrub pine a board has been put up. At eye level a hole has been sawn in it. You have to look through it. You then see, in line with that hole, the scrub pine. Just to make sure there is also a brass plate saying 'Scrub Pine In this way thousands of nature walks assume the char acter of d biuLoyy son. Pay attention! Read the sign! If not you'll get a five minus for the field trip! This expresses a deeply Dutch quality, rooted in the national schoolmasterly soul. Take the Point Where Three Countries Meet. The Germans do nothing about it; they don't like it when their country stops. The Belgians sell ugly postcdid. And the Dutch are out to instruct from the word go. Numerous panels infer -
us that once long ago it was all sea here, can you imagine it? And that we shouldn't call Southern Limburg hill country but valley country. Because nothing has risen up there; on the contrary it has been worn away. My fourth and last warning relates to New Nature. This is often invoked where there is a meadow that cows used to graze on. That meadow then has been turned into New Nature. I must get this off my chest: apart from the odd sand drift the Netherlands is an artificial landscape. Constructed. Ordered. Made. There's nothing wrong with that - it is a feature. And it has often been beautifully done. In the meantime all over the Netherlands nature conservationists are busy roughening the man-made landscape. They themselves will say: returning it to Mother Nature. I don't believe it. They're too sure they know what Mother Nature likes and what She doesn't.
Dutch writer Belcampo (1902-1990) ready to hit the road. His shorts can still be admired at the Letterkundig Museum in The Hague. Photo courtesy Letterkundig Museum. The Hague.
What they would most like to do, I believe, is to restore nature to a supposed primeval state, to the day when the Lord God created the Netherlands - which as has been said He never did. In the Ooy polder near Nijmegen I was accompanied for a day by an extremely amiable environmental officer from the State Forestry Service who told me that he was trying, with all the means at his dis-
posal, to get rid of the willow. Because the willow displaced the reed beds along the waterways. And in the reed beds lived the reed warbler and the blue heron which the Forestry Service would like to see re-established in the Ooy polder. And because the willow provides a home for the sparrowhawk and the buzzard, which the Forestry Service happened to be dying to get rid of! A few days later I was travelling on a boat through the Biesbosch with his colleague from Brabant. He told me that he was trying with all the means at his disposal to bring the willow back. Because beavers lived under willows. It was true that the last indigenous beaver had been killed in 1826. But he had just caught thirty-six German-speaking beavers along the Elbe and driven them to Brabant in a van. Unfortunately few of the females had survived the move. This was apparent from the signals sent by the transmitters implanted in the beavers and which closely monitored, for instance, their mating behaviour. The transmitter had also made it possible to track down a specimen that had found its way into a shopping centre in Dordrecht.
Come w ith me The New Nature makers and the Long Distance Footpaths have one thing in common: they try to suggest that the Netherlands is actually rather like Lapland, a wild country full of unspoiled nature. Things are much simpler than that.
The Drenthe Aa.
Come with me, be my guest, let's walk together, and you can see for yourself. Walking in the Netherlands is the joy of a soft, springy dune path between Wijk aan Zee and Egmond in a chill spring morning mist. Solitary trees twisted out of shape by the sea wind loom up from the shreds of mist like skaters on a frozen lake. Or a little further on the polder beyond Alkmaar. In the green fields the sheep graze, rear ends to the wind. Or else the dike between Stavoren and Hindeloopen. On dams cormorants shake out their wings. Coots bob up and down on a wavelet. An elderly couple shell boiled eggs in a rowing boat and fish for eel.
The Beerrister polder.
He's got a bite. He waves. A morning like an etching. A bit further on, beyond Makkum, it is as Frisian as it gets: water, grass and fringes of reeds. On the horizon the saddleback roofs of five, six, seven village churches. The mud flats between Schier and Pieterburen were made by God, an hour ago at high tide. That timeless space makes you long to lose yourself in it for ever. And oh, the Drenthe Aa! How amiably the stream meanders as if it were a real river! Further up some lonely birches. A distant edge of a wood that the sun shines through. Or else the Waal, especially when clouds and river seem to merge in a curtain of rain. In Zeeland waters the deeply Christian bargee's wife, with whom we were allowed to sail, points to the sky that is red and grey and white all at once and in which the clouds seem to hold the promise of distant lofty mountains. In the dip of Zuid Beveland, after a day without a sound full of winding dikes and hedges of blooming hawthorn, I walk into the Westerschelde hotel, my face flushed with happiness. The owner asks if I am suffering from stress. I say, 'No.' 'If ever you are,' she says, 'throw the pills away and come here. It's so quiet: in less than an hour you'll be in a coma!' To cut a long story short: this country may not be primeval, but a walk through the Netherlands is a succession of small, unspoken delights. A chicken bridge across a ring canal, a ferryman's house in the water meadows, a cow under an apple tree, a cloud on the horizon: everything the Dutch painters saw, long before you and I were born. â€˘