Watching a film about the creation of the Schermer polder at the Museum Molen Schermerhorn it was as if you could feel the salt in the air, hear the pounding of the waves, sense the raw, natural power of very sea that the Dutch have contended with for hundreds of years.
Apart from its natural sand dunes, much of North Holland is between one and 4.5 metres below sea level, so it relies on the dunes and dikes, dams and floodgates to defend it against storm surges from the sea. A complicated system of drainage ditches, canals and pumping stations keeps the water at bay, enabling people to live on the land and work it. This project got underway in Amsterdam in the 17th century, when a network of canals was developed to the west and south of the historic old town and the medieval port that encircled it. The city was extended by draining the swampland using a system of canals in concentric arcs, while the spaces in between them were filled in and used for development. The city became a model of large-scale town planning that became a reference point throughout the world until the 19th century.
If Amsterdam’s canals seemed a remarkable feat as I walked through the streets and gazed at them on a cruise, it was at the museum that I was struck by the sheer scale of the project of water drainage that Dutch people have been engaged in for centuries. Beginning with the Zijpe and Hazepolder in 1596, the Dutch embarked on a project of draining land and building defences against floods after whole villages were wiped out. Work on the Schermer polder began in 1634, a daring project given that the Schermeer has a surface area of 4760 hectares and a depth of 4 metres. A total of 52 drainage mills were built to pump water to a higher level – the museum we visited is in one of 11 that survived following the introduction of electric pumps in 1928.
It’s a story of an extraordinary effort, ingenuity and innovation: It was a monumental feat to create a system of canals and dikes of this scale, all with the sole aim of holding back the lakes, the rivers and the sea. The windmills that were built to pump the water, and later the Archimedean screw were remarkable examples of engineering.
The appeal of the story for me, was also the strength and determination people showed in response to disaster, the heroic effort and commitment it took to not only build something new but maintain it. My fascination with the story is also reflection of my growing feeling that it’s time for me to focus on rebuilding, on creating a new life following the destruction of the old one. This requires a definite shift of gear, a change of focus from mourning and loss to a single minded focus on this project called life.
This shift began slowly, but I felt it most definitely in Athens, when I decided that I wouldn’t focus on loss, or grieving, and make the effort not even to think about Mark for the time I was there. Since then, I’ve had a couple of coaching sessions, and am beginning to think about what I want to do with this new life. My relationship with the pain of loss is changing. It’s always there, drumming away, but it doesn’t overwhelm me, define my every moment as it did. Regret washes over me at times, I miss the beauty of life with Mark incredibly and it’s hard to accept that it’s gone. But there’s a resolve in me to press on, to continue this struggle for something new no matter what.
It’s a sign of how things are changing that I can spend so much of my time thinking about what’s being done to Greece. Just three months ago I was largely numb to the world around me, it was all I could do to deal with the agony that was within. Now the impact of Europe’s conditions for a bailout is often on my mind, as is the political implications and fallout both for Greece and Europe.
This blog is all about the question of whether we can ever expect to do something about the problems we face. At the moment their scale seems insurmountable. The failure to reach an agreement so far, has, Paul Mason writes “revealed the true dysfunctionality” of the EU. What we’re seeing is a failure of leadership that falls far, far short of the effort that went into the European project in the wake of World War 2. Whatever happens in the talks, the Greek people will suffer, as they have been suffering over the past five years, and it’s likely that the economies of other countries could go to the wall as a result of the same economic dogma.
Amid the political chaos that Mason describes, the blame games and recriminations, it seems no one really knows how to even begin solving the problems they face. The contrast with what I saw in the Netherlands is remarkable. The Dutch are proud of their success in protecting themselves from the water, not just because of the ingenuity involved, but because of the level of cooperation required in both the creation and maintenance of the polders. It wasn’t an option to give up like some do, convinced that nothing can be done, and now they can’t afford to get mired in arguments that are only about defending narrow interests and not about finding solutions. At the museum, Marijke told me that the need to protect themselves from the water was paramount to the Dutch, and partly explains why consensus has become so important to them over the years: “We may have disagreements, but you have to have consensus,” she said.
We visited a number of the villages in the polder, taking in the beautiful buildings, hearing about all the architects schooled in the classical styles who created new designs that were sympathetic to the old farm houses. Marijke told me about her father, a local GP, who after two toddlers had drowned, called the village together and said that it was vital that the children learnt to swim. A swimming pool was built in the village that has been used for 40 years by local children – only recently did it close as children and parents were attracted to bigger pools in the cities.
I heard remarkable stories of what people can achieve together in the Netherlands, but stories of triumph are only helpful if we resist the temptation to blithly discount the pain and suffering involved. Personal experience has driven home to me that when catastrophe strikes, moving on requires strenuous, unrelenting effort. Holding the tension between facing the full scale of the disaster head on, feeling the pain and continuing in hope isn’t easy at all – but it is the stuff that great exploits are made of.