What is this weight in my mind?
And what is this new sense of time?
It’s the open fields and the friends that are gone,
And I’ve been in the lowlands too long.
—Gillian Welsh, “Lowlands”, who didn’t mean it the way I’m hearing it now.
The sun is sinking behind the clouds on the horizon. The official sunset time on the internet is still about ten minutes away, but the air temperature isn’t going to take account of that nicety. I stop and put my jacket on over my cardigan. It’s not quite enough, but I’m keeping the gloves and hat in my front basket. Sometimes the promise of more warmth later is better than the warmth itself.
This is a good spot. The bike path runs between two strips of water, both bright with reflected sky. To my right is a narrow patch of reeds, its leaves beginning to turn purple-brown with autumn. The last light of the day gives them a bit of its orange, a parting gift of warmth and richness. To my left, the fields stretch out for kilometers, flat and treeless. Only the livestock and the woodwork—bridges and little stretches of fence—break the landscape between me and the outlines of the distant trees and towns. Above it all, the sky is full of light.
Then the sun disappears and the land goes grey. Time to mount up and ride on. I’m still about forty-five minutes away from my village, and I’m getting hungry.
Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been out here without a good reason. Six months ago, I was indifferent to this vast, flat, wet landscape. My heart has always been in the mountains and the desert. When I moved to Scotland, I learned to love the terrain by analogy. The rolling hills of the Borders have a lot in common with those near San Francisco1. And the way that the bones of the land show beneath the heather in the Highlands echoes the California desert and its sagebrush. The places aren’t the same, really, but the similarity is enough to make a bridge. It’s enough to find a way to love the landscape.
But there’s no bridge from anyplace I’ve lived to the Dutch polder. This is nothing like anything I have ever known. If my love of California came through the front door and my love of Scotland through the side, this sudden, inarticulate love of the Netherlands is the unexpected guest who appears one day in the living room, ringing no bell and answering no invitation. And yet here it is, and it draws me out of the house and away from the cities every bright day. I go out for half-hour rides and come back three hours later, windblown and bright-eyed.
And the Noord-Hollands polder through which I’ve been riding is the real deal: the unfiltered, unadulterated Dutch landscape, served neat. It’s undiluted by tulips and uncut by the tourist trail. It stretches out northward from the urbanized shore of the IJ to the Afsluitdijk, making up the land between the North Sea and the IJsselmeer. The fields are punctuated by towns and villages: Purmerend, Volendam, Alkmaar, Heerhugowaard, Den Helder, Edam, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Schagen, Heiloo. Straight, elevated canals and swift roads cross them, taking the people and the freight to and fro. But the land between is filled only with a kind of vastness: long, straight lines of pasture under the endless, endless sky.
This land was reclaimed from the water in the sixteenth century, and its first crop was Dutch democracy. The hoogheemraadschappen, the water boards that manage drainage and flood control here, are among the oldest democratic institutions in Europe. 2 They have endured in the face of centuries of authoritarianism, a living assertion that the best way to get a thing done is to empower the people who do it. The landscape here is their mute, stubborn, enduring proof, an irrefutable argument in mud and grass. The water boards are the reason that Dutch political culture, which demands cooperation between fundamentally different points of view, is known as the polder-model. This land was built by people who did not agree with their neighbors, but who worked with them anyway, and the people who live here do not forget it.
But that’s history, and this is working farmland. The old wooden pumping mills have been moved to the tourist attractions and nature reserves. What remains are long, narrow fields, divided by sloten (canals used primarily as drainage ditches3). Just as the Scots make fences from the stones they clear from their land, so the Dutch make them of the water they drain away from theirs.4 Because the sloten are sunken, the only visible fences are the short, gated stretches that prevent the livestock straying along the roads the tractors take from field to field. So the land has an odd, ragged look from a distance, as if some force had destroyed all but three meters of every fenceline.
Apart from the fences, all that stand above the fields are strips of reeds beside the water, wooden bridges carrying bike paths and roads over the canals, and the occasional bench where one can sit and look out over the landscape. I don’t think there’s anything to see, sitting on those benches, but I’m always half-afraid to stop and find out, lest a further undiscovered passion take me and I never get up again.
I’m only half-afraid, mind, because it’s not just the polder that draws me, but the act of cycling through it. Noord-Holland is interlaced with networks of bike paths, all well-marked and well-paved, used almost exclusively by Dutch people. My experience of the landscape is inextricably linked with the little thrums and whirrs of my bike as I ride, the steady progression the of ground beneath my front wheel, and the occasional nods and terse greetings shared with my fellow-travelers. I treasure this feeling of going somewhere, past these indifferent cattle and disinterested sheep, over bridges and beside bright stretches of smooth water, moving always toward the intricate silhouette of civilization that marks the boundary between earth and sky all around.
It’s not a landscape for secrets. You see whom you’re going to meet well in advance, and the prosperity or ruin of the next farm over is apparent at a glance. Even the rain comes well-heralded, sweeping across the open pastureland. I’ve read many theories that the Dutch bluntness and honesty comes from the openness of their land, that it grew alongside the polder-model in these fields. I don’t know if it’s true, or provable, but cycling here, I find it entirely plausible. This clarity and openness gets into a person’s head and won’t leave it. I can’t even imagine growing up immersed in it from birth. This is an area where many of the older generation still do not have living-room curtains, but choose to spend their leisure time in full view of their neighbors.5
And yet, despite that ceaseless visibility, it is a place of surprises: the tiny clover blossoms still showing beside the cycle track; the ruined propeller of a World War 2 plane that came down in the fields, a monument to the crew that bailed out over the North Sea and died; the cable ferries that take me across the broad canal, pulling themselves along on a metal rope suspended above the water6; the honesty-box stand where I buy six new-laid eggs, still grassy, for €1.50. And underneath those lies the constant rediscovery that this land is the work of human hands, and that it is pleasant because the people who built it valued the people who would live there enough to make it so. It is a perpetual gift from the past to the future, and I am perpetually humbled to receive it, like a stranger invited to dinner and fed the best food in the house.
I’m conscious that I’m finding it hard to disentangle my sudden passion for this open land from my steady, growing understanding of and affection for the people who live in it. Indeed, I get the sense that the two are deeply linked, that I journey into this culture the way I cross these open fields, and that the destination of the two is a single thing: home.