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The Dialogue, the Ten Thousand Things and the Buttercup

Geerat J. Vermeij


Robbert Dijkgraaf


Kristofer M. Schipper


Frans Lanting


Theunis Piersma, Sytze Pruiksma, TsjĂŞbbe Hettinga


Illustrated by

Joep Bertrams


The Dialogue, the Ten Thousand Things and the Buttercup

. Essays on Man and Nature


Edited by

Johan van de Gronden and

Monique Grooten


Johan van de Gronden and Monique Grooten

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Het gesprek, de tienduizend dingen kop weg?

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hat do a marine biologist, a Taoist master, a photographer, a physicist, an animal ecologist, a composer and a poet all have in common? They were all, at some point in their early lives, touched by nature’s beauty and vulnerability. The authors of the essays that make up this booklet were born or raised in the Netherlands, left their nests and either settled elsewhere or eventually returned to the lands of their childhoods. They are cosmopolitans with roots in the Dutch clay. As adults, they’ve become masters of

their trades, yet they have never lost their childhood wonder and amazement. The descriptions of nature by Geerat Vermeij, who lost his eyesight at a very young age, are so rich in imagery and so inviting that you can almost smell the flowers and hear the buzz of the insects. As a little boy, he engaged in a dialogue with nature; today, he continues this discussion as a marine biologist, but always with the same disarming curiosity. You can hardly imagine that renowned Sinologist and Taoist master Kristofer Schipper was once an enthusiastic teenager who, in the nineteen fifties, set out to explore the surroundings of Amsterdam with a nature study club for youngsters long before he could decipher his first Chinese character. His first impressions of the enormous richness of species and refined interconnectedness in smaller biotopes later helped him comprehend the cosmology of the Tao, where the same form of cosmic energy flows in all living and non-living nature. Self-taught photographer Frans Lanting recalls how the natural estuarine environment near Rotterdam played such a formative role in his

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The dialogue with nature begins, almost as a matter of course, somewhere in one’s early years: the experience of a familiar environment, feeling at home somewhere, and the sense of wonder about the abundance of so many different creatures. Vermeij sees the interaction of an inquisitive, curious mind with nature as a conversation. To him, the path of knowledge and greater understanding of the amazing interconnectedness of species and ecosystems leads to a closer alliance between nature and humankind. As we learn more, so we understand more about our origin. We cannot afford the silence of a broken bond.

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life. He witnessed the dynamics of the tides giving way to the rise of the petrochemical industry. It made a lasting impression on him. The Frisians Theunis Piersma, Sytze Pruiksma and Tsjêbbe Hettinga saw their countryside destroyed by that other branch of heavy industry, intensive agriculture. Physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf takes us back further in time and tries to imagine young Charles Darwin’s thoughts as he sat on a fossilized tree trunk in a petrified forest high up in the Andes and began to grasp its immense evolutionary age.

Kristofer Schipper’s essay has a touch of the skepticism and irony of the old master Zhuang Zi, whose writings Schipper was the first to make fully accessible to the Dutch audience in his beautiful, annotated translation. Let’s not fool ourselves, Schipper seems to be saying, along with Zhuang Zi, ecology and nature conservation are as old as the Tao. Some two thousand years ago, simple Chinese peasants formulated practical guidelines that, even today, would not be out of place on a notice board at the entrance of Yellowstone or Kruger National Park. The term “ecology” is barely 150 years old, but the practice of protecting the natural environment goes back thousands of years. It would be wise for us to follow vital cultural motives that are as old as Methuselah.

The ten thousand things are as they are, as diverse as they are interconnected. We should focus on our own inner natural landscape where we shall find a connection with everything living and not living. Classic Taoist texts often promote the idea of “non-acting.” This non-interventionist attitude seems a strong departure from the saber-rattling of despots and powerful rulers during the Era of Warring States1.


The Era of Warring States, or the Warring States Period, covers the Iron Age period from about 475 bce to the reunification of China under the Qin Dynasty in 221 bce.

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Zhuang Zi was a contemporary of Aristotle, and it is strange that the former’s work is not as well-known in the West. If Aristotle is considered the first biologist in the western world, then Zhuang Zi is the first great scholar who called for self-reflection to avoid disturbing the harmony with the ten thousand things. There is more that these two thinkers have in common. A dialogue between them, walking around a colonnade of an imaginary Sino-Grecian academy, would have lead to agreement on the virtue of moderation. In both the East and the West, finding the middle ground and avoiding extremes have always been essential practical strategies towards a harmonious lifestyle.

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Almost certainly, Zhuang Zi would have been skeptical of widely imposed climate and environmental targets. A growing group of disenchanted modern citizens will readily sympathize with this attitude. They are not very hopeful that we can trust political leaders to master the environmental problems we face today.

The consequence of our lack of moderation becomes overly apparent in the closing essay. The buttercup jumps out of the ten thousand things as a symbol of the loss of flower grasslands in agricultural Holland and the disconcerting decline in numbers of meadow birds, such as the godwit and the ruff. The authors rightfully ask if this development could be countered with a more sensible balance of interests. The Dutch are not only European champions in agricultural exports, but also northern European champions in loss of biodiversity. This booklet is a gift, a birthday gift from a fifty-year-old lady who has invited friends and family from all over the world on board an old ocean liner in Rotterdam. Anniversaries, especially the ones with the round numbers, often come with a touch of nostalgia. That’s why there will be cake, balloons and streamers, also press releases, commemorative coins, conferences and even a concert. All these are important and somewhat unavoidable. But once the glasses are empty, the PowerPoints shown, the resolutions forged into quantifiable, ambitious targets, then all that remains is the quiet of our chamber.

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The essays that follow are best read in a comfortable reading chair. There may be a distant dog barking. The curtains are drawn. The streets are quiet. What’s up, with us and nature?

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Johan van de Gronden (1963) is ceo of the Dutch office of WWF (World Wild Fund for Nature). Monique Grooten (1966) is Program Manager Footprint, Climate and Energy at the Dutch office of WWF (World Wild Fund for Nature).

History of a Dialogue

Geerat J. Vermeij


f you are like me ... hearing the word Artis [the Amsterdam Zoo] brings to life a magical world of amazing animals, far-away lands and wonderful adventures.�

When I first read these lines with my tiny fingers, they immediately struck me. With his captivating imagery, this Dutch author, a.f.j. Portielje, evoked in me a fantasy world full of surprise. The exotic names were enough to send me on long, imagi-

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nary journeys through jungles, deserts, and mountain ranges. I met colorful parrots on Jobi near New Guinea, camels galloping through the Gobi Desert and sea lions playing on the California coast. I could hardly imagine, or even hope, that I would ever make any real journeys like that, and have any remarkable adventures at all. I have always been fascinated by nature. In the polders around Gouda, in the woods of the Huis ter Heide nature resort, or on the Scheveningen beach, I found not only everything that I thought beautiful – acorns, pine cones, fragrant flowers, and shells – but also a reassuring order, a sense of contentment. It made for a sharp contrast with my unhappy life at the institute for the blind, so far from home. My parents and my brother Arie let me feel, smell and hear everything there was to be found and enabled me to build on these experiences with books they turned into Braille with slate and stylus. My book about the Artis Zoo was one of them.

During my introduction to the natural world, I never felt it to be in any way strange. The tiny daisies in February, the sweet scent of pine trees in the warm sun, the wind rustling in the poplar

trees along the dike, the nettles in the grass, the approaching thunderstorm at the end of a sultry day – I experienced them all as completely normal. They merely confirmed the natural order of things. The way in which a damp forest was different from dry heathland, a muddy ditch from a sandy beach, common butterbur in spring from fallen chestnuts in the autumn, this was almost a given to me. Things were the way they were. There was nothing to doubt; there was no reason to wonder why things were there or how they came to be there. Not until I ended up in the United States at the age of nine did I become aware of the challenge nature could present to someone with a scientific inclination. Even on my very first night in the remote, wooded area of New Jersey where we had moved, the buzz of hundreds of tree crickets created inexplicably simultaneous sound waves. We were based amidst a hilly wilderness filled with the scream of blue jays, the clear song of the wood thrush, with thousands of caterpillars building their silk tree homes together and even poisonous snakes. Before the icy-cold winter would cover the landscape with

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layers of snow, the magical forest was thick with autumn leaves that made it feel like you were walking on a down pillow. My whole concept of nature as a familiar place had been turned upside down. My amazement over this new order became even stronger when, a year later, my fourthgrade teacher in Dover brought back some shells she had picked up during her vacation in Florida. Compared to the rather coarse, yet finger-friendly cockles, razor clams and surf clams found on the North Sea beaches, these shells from Florida were stunningly diverse in their shapes. Their forms were endless variations on the spiral theme – which I was not yet familiar with then. Smooth as glass on the inside, their exteriors were decorated with neatly arranged ribs, knobs and even spines. My imagination took me to the beaches where such beautiful objects could be found, and I dreamt of tropical coastlines even beyond my imagination.

It wasn’t long before I began to feel a scientific drive to explore wonderful shells and exotic landscapes. The sense of wonder I felt for eve-

rything beautiful and surprising was developing into a deep need to truly know, understand and explain the objects I had diligently started to collect. And shells in particular attracted my attention. I soon began to wonder about the contrast between the tropical shells and those that were common on the colder beaches of Holland and New Jersey. I felt an ever-present urge to explain, to make a connection between the phenomena and objects I observed, and what I read and thought. Arie and I pored over atlases, books about marine life, and field guides. Everyone in the family read these to me and helped transcribe books into Braille, and Arie and my father drew relief maps and illustrations.

Such a transition to a more scientific perspective may be impossible as long as everything around you remains self-evident. These comfortable ideas need to be shaken off so the mysteries of even what seems known can be exposed. Like me, many people only experience this when they arrive in a new and unfamiliar place. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace didn’t come to their understanding of the great

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diversity in plants and animals until they had exposed themselves to tropical forests and uninhabited islands. Had they stayed at home in England, they probably would never have been struck by the struggle for survival which seems ever so more pronounced in the tropical regions of the world, nor by the geographical distribution of species which doesn’t quite match any static idea about the origin of species. For a scientifically minded nature lover, unraveling mysteries becomes second nature. Curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, the need to find coherence and clarity among the wealth of facts and impressions – these become one’s basic state of mind. This scientific approach is an ongoing dialogue between nature and mankind; the outside world offers ever-new insights and notable phenomena, while the receptive observer constantly seeks to answer ever-new questions. In the end, it is about much more than trying to understand living beings and relationships in the natural world and the geological past – it is about appreciating them, preserving them, and protecting them.

The magical world Portielje so invitingly depicted became a living reality for me. My family, the Braille system, good schools, and the support of a benevolent government helped me turn my childhood nature wanderings into a highly satisfying career in science. An event that stands out in my life is my first visit to the tropical rainforest of Costa Rica, with its overabundance of vines, its ever-present sounds and scents, and where everything always grows and moves. The shells I had once picked up and treasured as beautiful, abstract objects had become parts of mollusks; now I understood how their exterior decorations represented clever adaptations to the natural environment. As I traveled, I was now able to observe and collect these beings myself on the coral reefs of Palau, on the endless sandy shores of Panama, among the Madagascar mangroves with their roots covered with spiky oysters, on the cold and rocky coasts of Alaska and Iceland and on the salt marshes and pebbled coast of New Zealand. My growing interest in evolution and the history of life on earth took me to the Miocene formations in Panama and Florida and to the great collections and libraries of the

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museums of Sydney, Tokyo, San Francisco, Washington, London, Paris and Leiden. These experiences and the research in which they resulted enabled me to share the insights I had gleaned from nature with others through publications and lectures.

It is in everybody’s interest to keep such possibilities open for future friends of nature. This requires not only the preservation of nature and wilderness and all her workings in an everchanging world, but especially that we protect the freedom to admire and explore this natural system. The bond between ourselves and the realm that brought forth all living beings cannot be broken. The dialogue between man and nature must continue.

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Geerat J. Vermeij (1946) is a marine and evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Davis. He specializes in the evolution of mollusks.

The Sublime in Science

Robbert Dijkgraaf


celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in a very intimate setting. Sarah Darwin, the great-great-granddaughter of the scientist who had what was most likely the best idea ever, read a captivating passage from the Origin while seated on a tree trunk in the appropriately named Darwin Forest. This is not a forest in the green and lush sense. On the contrary, there is no sign of life for miles around. Darwin Forest is located

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in the middle of the most arid desert in the Argentinean part of the Andes and consists of only some scattered fossilized trees from the Mid-Triassic period. It is 245 million years old. To Darwin, the discovery of this petrified forest in the spring of 1835 marked a turning point in his thinking about time and the history of life. He realized that those trees must have once stood in a very different environment with a very different climate from how he had found them. By a twist of fate, a stretch of primeval forest had petrified entirely complete. The trees were still rooted in the ground and many of the stems stood several meters tall. Darwin was able to imagine the actual shape of a world long gone by simply walking around in these fossilized woods. It was this sublime experience that helped him unlock nature’s greatest secret: the creative force of evolution which has both shaped and maintained the incredible richness of life on earth. There, in the middle of the Argentinean desert, a very modest plaque commemorates Carlos R. Darwin, the man who represents this monumental turning point in the history of science.

I, too, was deeply impressed by my visit to Darwin Forest. It is actually the meeting place of two events in history. The first one took place hundreds of millions of years ago – a small patch of woodland was conserved entirely by a freak of nature. The second event happened much closer to the present. In the middle of a desert, a young scientist was struck by the dazzling depth of time – an experience he had traveled halfway round the globe for. And all this happened in this overwhelming setting. Compared to the insignificant scale of a human being, nature is beyond imagination – both its size and its modifications. To grasp the interplay of geological forces, water, ice and atmosphere, we would have to speed up time and shrink centuries into hours. But this also applies to how human beings affect the earth. Humankind may now be counted among the list of natural forces and its effects are as astonishing as they are irrevocable. Can we, being the insignificant individuals we are, no more than a blip in geological terms, still relate to these gigantic phenomena? I literally

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saw the answer to that question one day when looking down at the earth from the window of a small two-engine airplane. I saw a tiny yellow tent surrounded by immeasurable whiteness. We were flying over one of those rare places on earth where you can actually see creeping changes in progress, a place no less desolate, barren and remote as the Argentinean desert. This was on a trip I took with other scientists, accompanying the Prince of Orange on a mission to explore the various aspects of arctic nature conservation. The Greenland ice sheet is, both literally and figuratively, one of the last remaining white spots on the global map. At the same time it is one of the most vulnerable and unknown territories on earth. In the Arctic, the effects of climate change are considerably amplified. The rate of ice loss in the region has roughly doubled over the past years, which is more than the climate panel ipcc had predicted. Some glaciers are now retreating at a pace of six kilometers per year. That is one meter per hour. Not many generations have witnessed the creation of an entire new ocean. A couple of decades from now, however, we will see

the Arctic Ocean free of ice during summer and all the economic, ecological and legal consequences this will bring about. For the armchair scientist that I am – my favorite weapons being pencil and paper – the distance from theory to reality is often too great to bridge with one step. But the small red propeller aircraft that took us from the well-heated conference room to the biting cold of the 2500 meter altitude ice sheet did exactly that. Within minutes of our departure we were absorbed by a white world in which eventually even the horizon vanished. After flying through this vast white void for over an hour, suddenly, a lone tent became visible. The airplane circled around, landed lightly on its skis, produced a lot of sudden noise and, in a matter of seconds, came to stop. So there I was, bundled in ten layers of clothing, snow crunching under my thick boots – a tiny black dot on an immeasurable white plain. I was in an infinitely large world that was, at the same time, unimaginably small. Confronted which such vast emptiness, my world involuntarily contracted, from the encampment, to the tent and eventually to the seclusion of my own mind.

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It is tempting to think, in this age of advanced technology, that all scientific measurements of the ice sheet can be done by satellites. But it’s easy to forget that these numbers don’t mean much unless someone goes out there to verify that the condition of the ice and snow matches the computer models. And that requires a lot, starting with someone willing to camp out in freezing cold for a whole month. At this nameless spot in the middle of the Greenland ice sheet where our little plane had taken us, we found two enthusiastic researchers hard at work. Exposed to violent winds, they were digging a deep hole in the snow to drive a pipe into the ice so they could see how the various layers had formed and changed over time. How relevant is it for a scientist to experience nature directly? The voyage is a familiar metaphor for the adventure that research brings. Scientists journey to explore the frontiers of our knowledge. The excitement of this research is not easy to communicate – and only researchers themselves experience the frustration of dead-ends, fear of failure and misconceptions. The frontiers of what is known now lay far beyond the reach of humankind, or, equally intangible, deep within

ourselves. Our adventure destinations are the most remote galaxies and the tiniest workings of the living cell. And the road to each is equally long and treacherous. To share our experiences of these voyages with a wide audience, we need an approach that is radically different – an approach inspired by the great naturalists from the present and the past. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw an amazing widening of public interest in science. From the inner chambers of a handful of learned men, science moved out into the public domain. Curious citizens organized lectures where the latest insights were demonstrated, preferably with theatrical sparks and explosions. Naturalists were sent on expeditions all over the world. Museums displayed all manner of items from the cultural and natural worlds: fossils, minerals, musical instruments, taxidermied animals. These activities were driven by the Enlightenment notion that the fruits of art and science would edify people and eventually lead to a better and more just society. Knowledge was not the only motive. There was room for wonder, for direct confrontation with unfamiliar objects and ideas.

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With the rise of the large-scale practice of modern science, the romantic enthusiasm of the public began to wither. Science retreated from the public domain, not back into the elegant salons of the noblemen, but behind the safe, solid walls of the new professionalism. How can we once again involve the public in the enthusiasm, the wonder that drives scientific research? This question is especially relevant concerning the great issues that affect the earth today. Climate change, overpopulation, worldwide epidemics, and, naturally, the catastrophic and irreversible loss of biodiversity will all have a drastic effect on our world. To convince the public of the urgency of these issues and to involve them in the search for solutions, we need to bring them in touch with the earth. This can be done directly or indirectly, close to home or far away. The sublime experience of science can happen by the side of a local stream, in a petrified forest in the Andes, or on the Greenland ice sheet. Whether we read a page from Darwin or drive a tube into the ice – we show we care about the future of our planet.

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Robbert Dijkgraaf (1960) is President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (knaw) and Distinguished University Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Amsterdam. He has been appointed Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton with effect from July 2012.

Kristofer M. Schipper


njn, Nederlandse Jeugdbond voor Natuurstudie.

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n amsterdam in the nineteen fifties, only specialists knew the word “ecology.” But we knew it. “We” were the members of a pretty informal youth club 1 that was entirely dedicated to the study of nature. Joining was easy: one had to be over twelve years of age and younger than twenty-one. Membership fees were more than reasonable. The only thing one needed was enthusiasm, and we had plenty of that! Every weekend, every holiday, in fact every free moment, we would get out of the city and go wherever there was something to see and to study: grasses, mosses, flowers and trees, worms, insects, amphibians, birds, and so on.

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Nature and Environment in Ancient China

We went for the small and seemingly insignificant, more than for the big and spectacular. In due time each of us would choose a specialty and become “an expert” in a given field: wild orchids, marshland ecosystems, rushes, flies, worms, you name it. Some, of course, would forever remain just amateurs, and that was fun too. Quite a few went on further and later became professional biologists. As to me, I went into Chinese studies. That is, as Confucius has said, more about reading books than about crawling around in swamps looking at frogs. Yet I found that in dealing with historical and archaeological data my acquaintance with nature observation and analysis of field data stood me in good stead. Especially what I had gleaned from the study of ecosystems helped me to understand how everything in the world connects. This, I was to discover, was also a notion that also sat at the very core of Chinese classical philosophy. Both Taoist and Confucian traditions recognize universal interconnectedness as a key concept. Nature – ‘what is thus by itself’ (ziran) – is the intrinsic characteristic of the Way (Tao), the transcendent and immanent principle that constitutes the very source of the “ten thousand things,” the totality

In the past, the woods on Buffalo Mountain were beautiful. Being situated in the immediate vicinity of a large city, it was attacked with hatches and cleavers. Could it be that it then became more beautiful? Next, after the mountain had been quiet for some time and had been moistened by rain and dew, it became fully covered with sprouts and grasses. But people came driving cattle and sheep and let them graze there, and the mountain became like

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At an early date, Chinese philosophers preoccupied themselves not only with mystical thought or ethical considerations, but looked at the state of the “ten thousand things� in a pragmatic way. They already had reasons to bewail the harm done to the ten thousand things and what they saw as the loss of their original nature. The 4th century bce philosopher Mencius (Meng Zi) wrote to this effect:

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of phenomena that constitutes one great organic whole. According to this way of thought, there is no ontological difference between humans and animals, or between humans and plants, stones, water or anything else. Everything is animated, as all matter (and that includes what we call the spirit or the soul) consists of the same fundamental cosmic energy (qi) and participates in its endless transformations.

it is now: completely barren. When people see it in this state, they think that there have never been any trees on this mountain. But let me ask you: how could the original nature of the mountain have been like this! 2

Here Mencius not just deplores the destruction of the natural environment, but also loss of the original nature of the human being. He considered that the two were intimately linked. In other words: the destruction of the mountain forest was caused by the fact that humans had lost their own original nature. Zhuang Zi, the great Taoist philosopher who was a contemporary of Mencius, shared this view and expressed it by looking at the way humans treat horses:

Now for horses: as long as they can freely roam over the land, graze the grasses and drink water, they manifest their joy by entwining their necks or by rubbing their bodies against each other. When they show their anger, then they turn their behinds against each other and kick. That is all they know to do. But when they are harnessed and put into line by means of beams, then suddenly they know how to break their headcollars, wring themselves out of the harnesses, destroy wagon’s canopy, spew out the bit and bite through the reins. 2 3

Mengzi, chapter 6A, paragraph 8

Zhuangzi, chapter 9. The text adds: “such as Bole. Bole being an legendary expert in taming horses.

Therefore I say: “to make horses misbehave in this manner, that

Zhuang Zi and other Daoists considered that animals were indeed the same as humans. The most explicit statement in this respect is by Lie Zi, who wrote: So why would the minds of wild animals be any different from those of humans? Sure, the bodies they have and the sounds they make are not like ours. [‌] But there are examples enough that show that, in terms of intelligence, nature made them just the same as humans. They want to keep their life intact, and for doing this they are not inferior in intelligence to human beings.4

That was written at a time that China was yet a confederation of states and agriculture was not practiced on such a large scale. Whereas animals were held captive, human society was still relatively open and people could move freely from one place to another and settle in the region or country of their choice.

But with the advent of the unified empire in 221 bce and the development of water engineering to make irrigated rice paddies, this was to change. More and


Liezi, chapter 2. The present version of the Liezi was only compiled in the 3rd century ce, but many parts, such as the present one, are of the same date as the Zhuangzi, 3rd century bce.

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is the crime of humans.� 3

more land became cultivated, and not only became the life of animals, but of humans as well, constrained by the massive production requirements and taxation systems. Already overpopulated, the agricultural heartlands of China became easy targets for oppression, epidemics and raids by robbers. These dire circumstances were at the root of the first non-official communal organization of China as it appeared in West China in the 2nd century ce. This movement, called the Way of the Heavenly Master (Tianshidao), developed the first clearly focused and consequent ecological policy.

In ancient China, mountains, streams, seas and uncultivated natural reserves were considered to be sacred and to be places for mental and physical wellbeing. They offered sanctuary for humans as well as for animals. Now, with the vast development of agriculture at the expense of animal husbandry and the construction of irrigated rice fields even in mountainous areas, these sanctuaries were threatened. Therefore the above-mentioned popular Taoist movement began to establish on a number of holy mountains which they called “places of healing.” The earliest of these protected areas – we would nowadays call them natural parks or reservations – were made in what is now the

northern part of Sichuan province (the region of Shu). At first there were some twenty or thirty of them, but the movement spread, and some three hundred years later similar “places of healing” were to be found all over the country and numbered in the hundreds. The Way of the Heavenly Master remained a strongly vital, popular organization until the 11th century and the beginning of the modern, urban-based, market-oriented society that engineered the great economic expansion in East and Southeast Asia during the following centuries.

The “places of healing” were not meant to be hideouts for hermits, but quite the opposite. In normal times they functioned as gathering places for local communities to periodically – at least three times a year – gather there in order to effectuate retreats and thus regenerate their health and vitality. In times of crisis, famine, war and violent oppression, they functioned as sanctuaries: places to flee to and survive. For these extraordinary times, they developed special surviving techniques and diets that enabled the communities to find food and shelter even in the most extreme circumstances. To function as needed, the preservation of the natural environment was a great priority. Therefore the Way of the Heavenly Master adopted a code of

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one hundred and eighty rules or precepts, regulating in detail the behavior of the communities in the mountain reservations. Among these rules, those concerning the protection of the natural environment were particularly numerous. Here follows a sample, chosen from a great many of similar ones: You should not:

• burn [the vegetation] of uncultivated or cultivated fields or of mountains and forests;

• • • • • • • • • • • • •

wantonly fell trees; wantonly pick herbs or flowers; throw poisonous substances into lakes, rivers and seas; w  antonly dig holes in the ground and thereby destroy the earth; dry up wet marshes; fish or hunt and thereby harm and kill living beings; in winter dig up hibernating animals and insects; wantonly climb in trees to look for nests and destroy eggs; use cages to trap birds and [other] animals; throw dirty things in wells; seal off pools and wells; set plains on fire; d  efecate or urinate on living plants that people will eat or in water that people will drink;

• wantonly or lightly take baths in rivers or lakes; • fabricate poisons and keep them in vessels; • disturb birds and [other] animals; wantonly dig lakes, etc.

The general idea then is: “not too much,” “not unnecessarily” or “if at all avoidable.” The main theme is that of respect. The simple folk who created the very first self-regulated, that is: democratic, communities under the autocratic imperial environment of their times were not utopian dreamers. They were thinking in terms of sustainable exploitation of the natural resources that

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One notes the frequent use of the word “wanton” in the precepts. This means that all remains a question of evaluation and adaptation to circumstances. Only abusive behavior is proscribed, and the possibility for using natural resources whenever really necessary is left open. Human beings being animals, they have a right to live like other animals, taking from the bounty of nature what is necessary for their survival, but not more.

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In these rules we find, in fact, the pragmatic application of the ancient Chinese nature philosophy. It can be seen from the text sample given above that this is not a kind of legal code, but that the one hundred and eighty rules retain something of a philosophical approach to the problem of preserving the natural environment. We can see that, in general, there are no hard and fast rules.

remained at their disposal, being aware of the absolute necessity to preserve them.

The text of the one hundred and eighty rules of the early peasant communities never made it into the official literature of China, and after the Way of the Heavenly Master disappeared, the codex was forgotten. It was only rediscovered recently among the texts preserved in the Daoist Canon (Daozang). This is a vast collection comprising almost fifteen hundred books, the bulk of which have not yet been scientifically studied. Also the popular ecological movement that produced it remains to be studied in detail. When that can be done, we may well discover even more ample resources in the wisdom of ancient China that could be useful to us today. In the meantime we have already gained some important insights. First of all: we should perhaps temper our self-satisfaction with the realization that we today are not really doing anything new. People long ago already realized that the natural environment should be preserved and thought positively about ways to do so. That these people were not academics or politicians, but humble peasants from the plains of Sichuan, may also inspire us to be modest. A second issue that, of course, must be

Kristofer M. Schipper (1934) is an emeritus professor of Oriental studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He also teaches at Fuzhou University and Zhangzhou College, both in China.

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But we also should look at the evidence here as a reason to give us hopes. It shows, I think, that the awareness of the need to protect and preserve the environment is universal. Because of this, we may feel confident that it will prevail and that we can save the planet. To conclude then, let us image for a moment the old philosophers and their peasant friends looking at us here today from wherever they now may be, saying to each other, “Wonderful! This time perhaps the whole world will understand!�

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mentioned here is that after so many centuries the problems they tried to cope with still exist. They have not been coped with. They remain very much the same and are, indeed, much larger.

Sometimes It’s a Question of Thinking a Bit Further 44 45 Frans Lanting


he salty air of the north sea meeting the river water in the Nieuwe Waterweg canal: that’s what defined the region of my childhood. I grew up in the town of Rozenburg, close to Rotterdam. In my early days, my hometown was no more than a tiny hamlet on the border of a natural coastal area. Dunes. Birdwatching. Wide beaches. Waving beach grass. I thought it was wonderful – and indestructible.

And yet, I witnessed all of it disappear. In 1957, progress came to the area in the shape of the Europoort project, the expansion of the Rotterdam harbor. The natural sandbanks were taken over by smoke stacks shrouded in the grimy fog of petrochemical plants. It’s not my intention to make accusations. After all, the only valid considerations in post-war Holland were economic. Still, this was my first direct experience of loss of nature in my own environment. Decent Education I originally wanted to become a biologist or a geographer. But, being the first to go to college in my family, I was required to aim for a real career. So my parents made me choose a “decent education” which translated into Economics. I did find some leeway in the end by graduating in the subject of environmental economics, which was taught by Professor Peter Nijkamp. He was a pioneer in quantifying the value of nature. In the mid-seventies, this was not just new; it was radical. Then, I went to the United States, and there I encountered an entirely different concept of nature. I heard about activists like John Muir, who, as

early as the late-nineteenth century, campaigned against the ruthlessness of California gold rush pioneers in brutalizing wilderness areas. His activism resulted in the instituting of great national parks like Yosemite and the founding of the Sierra Club, still one of America’s leading environmental organizations. It was – and still is – driven by artists, scientists and activists campaigning for the protection of the natural environment. This was something unknown in the Netherlands at the time. A Nice Stroll, and then Back Home The grandeur of the American wilderness inspired a more dynamic awareness of nature on the West Coast. This attitude appealed to me enormously. It was so entirely different and so much more intense then the way I had experienced nature back in the Netherlands. Nature in Holland to me was the pastoral picture the Dutch naturalist Jac. P. Thijsse1 had made available to the masses. Nature was there for a Sunday stroll. Then it was time to all go 1

Jac. P. Thijsse (1865–1945) was a pioneer of nature conservation in the Netherlands and a co-founder of the nature conservation society Natuurmonumenten. He was a teacher and teacher trainer by profession but is mostly known for his wide contributions to field biology, nature education and nature conservation.

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back home and not bother with it for the rest of the week. I vividly remember staring at the large classroom posters of “the natural world of the ditch.” That was as far as nature went in Holland. Sometimes people ask me, “Why do you take those wonderful nature photographs?” These images are my way of showing how things interconnect. I see myself as a storyteller, a “visual journalist” who joins forces with scientists and activists. My work does not romanticize the world. It shows a reality of nature that isn’t always a polished picture. It doesn’t only show nature’s beauty. It’s dynamic, enabling me to tell my story through a photograph. Sometimes, you just have to think a bit further. National Geographic commissioned me to visualize the concept of biodiversity. It didn’t take me long to discover that this doesn’t have much to do with iconic species like penguins or tigers. The bulk of species diversity is found in small organisms nobody has ever heard of. The assignment took me to places like the North-Atlantic coast of the United States where I photographed the horseshoe crab. This animal is a living fossil

which, for the past 300 million years, has been coming ashore en masse when the moon is full. It was a gripping scene that made me feel like I had traveled back in time. My photos could easily have been taken millions of years ago. life: A Journey Through Time That’s how the idea for life: A Journey Through Time was born. I set out to capture the origin of life on earth in images, including not only interrelationships of nature in the present, but also in the past. The project culminated in a multimedia symphony called life: Music which connected my imagery with music composed by Philip Glass. Music combined with images creates a powerful experience, as music and nature are one – they have rhythm, they are dynamic, they are layered. This symphony has been performed many times in support of scientific and nature conservation events. Humankind, no more than a flash in the history of life, doesn’t enter the stage until the sixth movement of the life symphony. We show human feet to symbolize the frailty of our own existence. This is followed by photos I took of the

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human brain and blood vessels in human hands to illustrate how patterns in our own bodies resemble patterns in the natural world – the veins of a leaf, a meandering river, the roots of a tree. A Head of Lettuce In our short history as a species, humankind has assumed a place on earth with seemingly no connection to nature, as if we are a solitary life form that has transcended its own origins. I believe we need to work toward a new awareness of nature. It is often pointed out that we share 98% of our genes with chimpanzees. More amazing is that we also have 50% of our genes in common with a head of lettuce. We are not really so independent of the rest of life on earth as we would like to believe. Those involved with nature and the environment find plenty of reasons to feel disheartened. But let’s not forget that our current approach to protecting nature only started developing 50 years ago, in part driven by the founding of the World Wildlife Fund. A few men in good suits had the radical idea to look at the world from a wider perspective. And look how we see nature and the

environment now! Where 50 years ago the focus was only on protecting species and habitats, we now see nature as something much more comprehensive, a system of which humans form an integral part. True, a lot is being lost today, but I am convinced that there is also a lot to gain in the next fifty years. We shouldn’t look backward, but forward. And sometimes we just need to think a bit further. After all, we, too, are part of nature.

Frans Lanting (1951) is a nature photographer. His work is exhibited and published in books and magazines worldwide. He lives and works in California.

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Theunis Piersma, Sytze Pruiksma, TsjĂŞbbe Hettinga

The Buttercup e grew up in what you could call, in retrospect, an idyllic setting – the villages of southwest Friesland, a province in the northern part of the Netherlands. It was a time when more godwits bred in Dutch fields then ever before. As young boys, we never questioned our world of farms, cows, horses, ditches and fields soft pink with cuckoo flowers one month and gold with buttercups the next. When purple announced the presence of sorrel, we chewed until our jaws were sore. And by the time everything was in full bloom, haying would start, first hesitantly, and later with full force. That was the time when the air would fill with the sweet scent of freshly cut grass mixed with herbs and flowers.


de koning, de grutto en de boterbloem

The King, the Godwit and the Buttercup

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We took it all for granted: the heavenly song of the skylark – when the sun was out you’d see them wherever you went and wherever you looked – the search for peewit eggs, the ruffs performing their mock fights on a summer dike, the thousands of godwits and ruffs flocking together on the shores of a lake on the eve of their departure for the faraway south. This was our fertile, agrarian background – we who became a biologist, a musician and a poet. It has remained our reference point for the change of seasons and for our experiences of landscapes. We grew up in a time of prosperity in the Netherlands. Hunger was eradicated, infrastructure expanded, healthcare and housing improved in quality and became more readily available. Everyone’s life got better. In short, progress had arrived. What was common in our younger days, however, has become increasingly rare over the past three decades. This is probably why the occasional buttercup-filled field, cow listlessly drinking from a ditch, godwit alighting on a gatepost and exalted song of the lark can move us so deeply. Brief moments of nostalgia, and brief moments of concern

– How much longer will it last? The sharp smell of cow slurry injected in the wake of the heavy-duty harvesters – the blessings of large-scale farming – leaves a lingering trace of pain and betrayal. High above us, a bird sings, “The bigger the egg, the easier it cracks.” There is no doubt that living standards in the Netherlands have improved tremendously. But at what price? Which values do we ignore when we choose only the tangible side of what we call progress? Do we give those soft pink values of the cuckoo flower enough attention in considering our landscape, or have we made ourselves hostages to the economic rat race? What do we call progress? The Godwit Let’s discuss our black-tailed godwits more. They are long-legged slender birds with long bills and wonderful, soft, orange-brown plumage in spring and summer. As if embodying modern jet fighters, they like to steal the show by swooping down dare-devil style. But they can also hold still in midair, only just keeping themselves from stalling. In that phase of their flight, they make their characteristic weeka weeka weeka call. The males also use this call from an elevated position in the lowlying lands to keep their territory free of intruders.

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This lends them an especially majestic air. A century ago, Jac. P. Thijsse 1 called the godwit “the king of the meadow birds.” Godwits migrate to the Netherlands to breed in its wet meadows, which are rich in herbaceous plants. Historically, these meadows were a typical creation of the Low Countries. Unsuitable for arable farming, drained peat bogs became ideal cow pastures. The abundance of godwits here are a direct result of the history and economics of dairy farming. With the better part of European black-tailed godwits within its borders, the Netherlands offers a rather unique contribution to global biodiversity, but even though the godwit’s family life takes place in our country, it spends most of the year abroad. From August to December, the godwits are hosted by the small rice farmers of Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. They spend January and February in the rice fields of Portugal and Spanish Extremadura. That makes the godwit a year-round farm bird. In the Netherlands, it takes its nourishment from earthworms in March through July, then feeds on rice, supplemented by chironomid larvae, the rest of the year. 1

See page 47.

Godwits usually fly their five-thousand-kilometer trek from the Netherlands to western Africa nonstop. They set off at the end of a sunny afternoon and continue for three or four days – and nights. Their flight across the Sahara Desert to Portugal or Spain is also a single trek. What remains unsolved, however, is the mystery of their trip from the Iberian rice fields to the Netherlands, though we know some details. The Frisian godwits travel via Laag-Holland National Landscape in the north-west of the country, and many spend a few days near Ouderkerk aan de Amstel in the Landje van Geijsel close to Schiphol Airport. An old Dutch proverb teaches us that in May, all the birds lay their eggs, except for the cuckoo and the godwit. In Thijsse’s day, godwits laid their eggs in June. When we were boys, they didn’t usually depart until mid-July whereas today they leave the dried-out Frisian lands for Guinea-Bissau before the month of May is even over. In our days, godwits were able to fully fledge their chicks, which takes about three weeks of parental care. They also used to delay their departure to replace part of their plumage, which was not a luxury, because a hole in your wing doesn’t make for a very comfortable flight. In those days, agricultural condi-

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tions in the Netherlands were adequate for godwits to afford to do most of their plumage maintenance; now they postpone this until they arrive in Africa. The earlier departure of our Dutch godwits has hit the Balanta rice farmers of Guinea-Bissau hard. Godwits love rice sprouts, and they now eat more freshly sown rice by arriving earlier in the planting season. Not wanting to sacrifice the rice, the Balanta changed their cultivation practices and started sowing under the palm trees close to the villages. They transfer the young shoots to the outer fields when the plants are large enough to no longer be attractive to the godwits. The King Casually ignoring the extra work imposed on the Balantas, here in Western Europe we did everything possible to speed up our food production. If the land was too wet, we drained it. If the soil lacked good structure, we brought in heavy machinery and improved it. Fertilizers of all kinds were used in ever-larger quantities to increase crop yields. Local roads were paved, enabling heavy machines to replace human labour. The countryside was robbed of its jobs and steadily depopulated.

Struggling with all this loss, we asked the question – did we really have to pay this price for our progress? Was there another way? Was it possible to increase our food production, improve our public health, connect our villages with the rest of the country and fight the battle against water, while retaining the biodiversity we once had? Did we focus too single-mindedly for the last half century on creating as much agricultural growth as possible? Along with European Sicco Mansholt 2, who revised his dream of large-scale industrialized agriculture, we believe the answer is “Yes.” We think the Netherlands could indeed have become a flourishing European country with a minimum loss of biodiversity. We could have made a life for ourselves with an ecologically and economically prosperous countryside whose greatest threat was being run over by tourists from other wealthy parts of the 2

Sicco Mansholt (1908–1995) was raised in a socialist-minded family of wealthy farmers in the north-eastern province of Groningen. He started a farm in the newly reclaimed Wieringermeer, but entered post-war politics soon after. As Minister of Agriculture, he sat in 6 governments and became the driving force of large-scale farming. He was a member of the European Commission for 15 years and became regarded as the founding father of a common European agriculture policy. After his retirement, however, he had second thoughts about introducing farming subsidies and large-scale agriculture.

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world. Instead, now only those Dutch people who can afford it, seek out the peace of nature – far across our borders. We could have become an ecocultural retreat serviced by a small-scale tourist sector: the Netherlands as a source of inspiration for those who live in worlds where progress had trampled all soft values. This is where the buttercup, the godwit and the king come together, because emancipations of the past century mean that all citizens are now kings. We ourselves are responsible for electing the local councils, provincial officials, regional water authorities, parliaments and governments that show such a lack of interest in the most vulnerable qualities of our country. The Netherlands is ranked at the top of countries with the lowest remaining biodiversity. It was our own choice, but it is not too late. There are an abundance of opportunities to correct the situation. There is still time to find ways for new agricultural systems that emphasize the quality of both the products and the environment, systems that work with, not against, the water. In the lowest parts of the country, we should have water farms instead of cattle farms, water storage instead of pumping stations. It is indeed still possible, like the old poets sang, to turn stones to bread.

It grien fan ’e fierte Yn in wynslaan fan rûzjende fearren wurdt Us sjongen in hoedzjen fan ljurken en skriezen, In fleanen ûnder ljippen en tjirken as Ingels fan goud mei eagen grôtfol fierten, grien.

Green is the Vista In a rush of wind-ruffled feathers our songs Serve as a gathering call to godwits and larks while Soaring among the lapwings and plovers like Angels of gold whose eyes have seen great vistas, green.

Theunis Piersma (1958) is a biologist and a professor of Global Flyway Ecology at the University of Groningen and at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (nioz) at Texel. Sytze Pruiksma (1972) is a percussionist, composer and filmmaker. His work builds on his landscape symphony Lân (2008, Frysk Festival) and includes the great themes of global bird migration. Tsjêbbe Hettinga (1949) is a poet and performer. He studied Dutch and Frisian language at the University of Groningen. In 1971, he made his debut by entering – and winning – a Frisian literary contest.

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Acknowledgments Realizing this publication has been a true pleasure. We would like to thank the authors and illustrator for spontaneously accepting our request to contribute. Jo-Lan van Leeuwen was our liaison with the authors and timekeeper of the deadlines. Lot Folgering edited the interview with Frans Lanting. Susan Massotty translated the poem by TsjĂŞbbe Hettinga (page 61). Publisher Paul M. Kemmeren warmly embraced the idea of assembling a collection of essays. Thanks to all of you.

This booklet is dedicated to all of our wonderful colleagues in Zeist.

Zeist, the Netherlands, May 2012

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62 63 en de boterbloem

Joep Bertrams (1946) is a political cartoonist. He also creates animated cartoons, designs puppets and illustrates books.

Colofon Translation Ron de Klerk Design x-hoogte, Hans Lodewijkx Published by knnv Uitgeverij Printed by Dekkers van Gerwen Š World Wide Fund for Nature, Netherlands, 2012 No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by print, photocopy, microfilm or by any other means, without the written permission of the publisher.

The Dialogue, the Ten Thousand Things and the Buttercup - Essays on Man and Nature  
The Dialogue, the Ten Thousand Things and the Buttercup - Essays on Man and Nature  

By Geerat J. Vermeij, Robbert Dijkgraaf, Kristofer M. Schipper, Frans Lanting, Theunis Piersma, Sytze Pruiksma, Tsjêbbe Hettinga. Illustrate...