Wind and Water – Netherlands (May 15, 2013)

In a previous blog I stated that “all” of the Netherlands is below sea level.  Well, that was a windmill 1bit of an exaggeration that I will correct with this entry.  I looked it up – yep, I googled it – just to get a fact or two straight.  Per Wikipedia 1 (whatever did we ever do without Google and Wikipedia?), about 20% of the total area of the Netherlands is below sea level with about 50% of the land being less than 1 meter (about 3.28 feet) above sea level and 21% of the population living below sea level.  There is a mountain named Mount Vaals (Vaalserberg) that is 322.7 meters (1,059 feet) above sea level.  Mount Vaals is shared by Germany and Belgium so it is not totally within the boundaries of the Netherlands but it does mark the high point for that country.  To give you some perspective on that, Mount McKinley in Alaska (highest point in North America) is 6,194 meters (20,320 feet).  Closer to home here in Maryland, Sugarloaf Mountain is 391 meters (1,282 feet).  So, if you have visited Sugarloaf, you can imagine that it is slightly higher than the highest point in the Netherlands.  And Mount Vaals is not representative of most of the landscape in the Netherlands…there is a reason the Netherlands are call the Low Countries.  Most of the land that we saw on our recent visit was below sea level or just at sea level and all of the towns visited were filled with canals and dikes.  It was definitely a case of “water water everywhere”.  So what do you do if all, or most of the land, available for living and farming, is either underwater or very, very wet? If you’re in the Netherlands, you build dykes and you harness the wind to help you move as much as you can.  Which windmill 2brings us to two of the three reasons anyone might visit the Netherlands, namely to see windmills, check out the dams and dykes, and to see tulips.  I am sure there are other reasons to visit, maybe buy some diamonds, but, for me, these are the big three – windmills, dykes, and tulips.  And if you want to see windmills, you go to the UNESCO historical site Kinderdijk where there are 18 windmills still working and you can learn everything you ever thought you might want to know about them.

Before I go further, this blog is not intended to be a tutorial and I am certainly not the authority on anything related to the Netherlands or my big three interests from my visit there.  I only share some of the things I learned from the trip, most of it gleaned from the information provided by the various tour guides and from my aforementioned sea level data check using Google and Wikipedia on the Internet.

Growing up in the south, I am very familiar with grist mills and have visited a few that are preserved – some still working grinding meal for tourists to see — over the years. I suppose, in my mind, I associated windmills with grist mills and somehow figured that windmills would be pretty much the same.  Of course, that is nowhere near the truth.  Grist mills in the US are water driven mills whose function is to grind grains, mainly corn, into meal to be used for cooking bread.  But windmills in the Netherlands use the wind to power screw technology to move water from one area to another.  About the only similarity is that the mills use natural power sources, wind or water, to provide the power.  I do believe the Dutch also used a type of windmill to grind grain but they mainly used windmills to remove water.  And they were doing it from way back in the 13th century.

windmill 3But, back to windmills… noted, as early as the 13th century, windmills were being used to pump the water from one area (usually a lower lying area) to another area (a river or lake).  The land that was created is a polder which seems to be an island that is below sea level.  As more land was cleared, the polders became bigger.  A row of windmills would be built on the dykes to keep the water cleared from the polders.  As one canal became filled with water and prone to overflow, another row of windmills would be built at a higher level with another canal or man-made lake until the water could be pumped to the main river and eventually out to sea.  As such, the windmills are built on tiers of land so that the water is gradually raised to the sea level and can flow out to sea.  Although the old windmills are not used today (except those at the UNESCO site at Kinderdijk) for this purpose, there are modern pumping stations that still use the old Archimedean Screw  2 technology to keep the land dry.  Essentially, the technology involves the use of a very large screw which is placed inside a hollow pipe.  The whole thing is placed in the water on an angle with the bottom of the screw in the water and the top of the screw at the higher level where the water is to be dispensed.  As the screw turns, the water is pulled into the bottom and moves up the screw until it comes out at the top.

windmill 4While the Archimedean Screw is still used for pumping water, the windmills are not.  The industrial revolution brought in the use of steam engines and, now huge diesel engines provide power to the pumping stations.  But, with all the wind still readily available for use in the Netherlands, no one has given up on the use of windmills. They just changed the design and function.   Huge modern steel windmills dot the landscape generating electricity.  Having used windpower for hundreds of years, it was probably a no-brainer for the Dutch to graduate to generating electricity using the technology….and from the number of windmills in the countryside, I do not believe there was as much controversy about using the new windmills in the Netherlands as there has been in the US.

windmill 6One final thought about windmills.  Like lighthouses where the keeper lived inside the lighthouse, the miller also lived inside the windmill.  The accommodations were pretty tight and pretty rustic considering that the parts of the windmill pretty much filled the windmill.  The windmills at the UNESCO site are also inhabited by the “millers” who operate them.  However, I do not believe the millers actually live solely within the windmills; I suspect that the furnishings we saw in the windmill were for our benefit and the miller and his family live in the outbuildings nearby.  The guide told us that there are 2 professional millers at Kinderdijk and the rest were in training.  She mentioned that there was a waiting list to become a miller and to live in the mills and operate them.  We were lucky enough to see a windmill operating (at tremendous speed) and to see the miller come by to stop the mill before he left for the day.

windmill 5Okay, that’s windmills but what about those dams or dykes?  The Dutch had “water management councils” or waterschappen from as early as the 12th century.  We were told that the “water manager” for a town was much more important than any other Government official for the farmer’s livelihood and even the lives of the people depended on the keeping the water at bay.  The mayor might have thought he was the big cheese but he pretty much did what the water manager told him to when it came to the dykes and the windmills and keeping the town dry.

Basically, water management consisted of the dikes, canals, and pumping stations (windmills).  The earliest water management methods consisted of trying to block the water from coming in from the North Sea and the Zuiderzee or Southern Sea.  At first, I think it was a case of a little here and a little there…..block this stream, build up that bank, add a little dirt here and a little there. Smaller and simpler dams were built in the beginning and made bigger and stronger as time passed.  Dykes were connected to create much bigger dams.  Canals between the dykes were built to allow water to flow out at low windmill 7tide but blocked to prevent water from coming in again at high tide.  Dams were high ground so people settled and built their homes on the dams.  And so you have Amsterdam which was built on the dam on the Amstel River. And, yes, that is the river which has a beer named after it.  Similarly, you have Rotterdam which was built on the dam(s) on the Rotter River.   In Amsterdam, the main part of the original dam is called the Dam Square.  And all the trams run through it and all the tour groups meet there.  After a long day of walking on uneven cobblestones, it is not unusual to hear the tourists walking around lost going up one canal street after another looking for that “damned square”….then again, maybe it was just me that said that.

Clearly over the years the bigger issue was not allowing the water to go out to sea with the low tide but stopping it from coming back in with the high tide. And over the years, the dykes failed and had to be rebuilt which was made more difficult because every time the tide came in while the dyke was being repaired, it breached the dyke again.  This went on for centuries.  And each time the land was flooded with salt water, it took years for the land to become suitable for the plow and growing crops again.  I found myself wondering if this is why the Dutch say that they “reclaim” the land implying that they had to keep clearing the same land of water over and over again.  The windmill 8last big natural flood was in February 1953. Prior to that some areas of the southwestern part of the Netherlands were flooded by the Allies in their efforts to stop the advance of the Nazis in World War II.  I’m sure it made sense to the Generals and tacticians to breach the dykes and flood the land but it must have been devastating to the people trying to survive anyway to have their farms and fields flooded leaving them without homes during this war.  Then, less than 10 years later, they’re flooded out again with hundreds lost and drowned when natural forces broke the dams.

Today, there are two main systems of dykes in the Netherlands.  The Zuiderzee Works on the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea) in North Holland and the Delta Works in South Holland and IMG_5697Zeeland.  The Zuiderzee Works was built in 1932 in the north and created the IJsselmeer (IJssel Lake).  Interestingly enough, we were told that the water in the Ijsselmeer is fresh water and that closing the lake off to the tides of the Zuiderzee effectively destroyed the fish and seafood industry in that area. The water runs into the lake from the rivers and streams and is carried out to sea with the low tide but blocked from returning with the high tide so it remains essentially fresh or only slightly briny.  The Delta Works in the south was begun in 1958 and finished in 1997. It was the Delta Works dykes that we visited and photographed.  You can see on the photograph included that the dykes consist of a series of gates that can be opened in different combinations to control the flow of water into and out of the area.

While we were touring these areas, I just could not help thinking of the islands in the Chesapeake Bay that are slowly being eroded away and wondered if the Dutch would not have taken a different perspective on whether or not to let nature take its course.  I also pondered whether or not New York City and particularly Manhattan Island would be the metropolis it is today had it been originally settled by some group other than the Dutch East India Company.  It is New Amsterdam Mapmy understanding that the southern end of Manhattan Island was originally very swampy and prone to floods of the surrounding rivers.  Where other colonists might have seen too much swamp and not enough landmass, the Dutch were probably not the least bit put off by the marshes and wetlands.  They had access to the Native Americans for fur trading and access to the sea for shipping the furs….what better place to build a town.  I found this photo of an old map on line – check out the canals — of course they would build canals; it was technology they knew well.  And they called it New Amsterdam, what else?

If you’re still interested and looking for way more information on dams and dykes and windmills –


Time and Taxes – Netherlands Trip Notes (May 1, 2013)

Time and Taxes Photo 1Visiting another country gives one perspective.  When we are born, our whole world lies within the tiny room where we are kept safe from harm by our parents.  With each passing day, our world expands – to the house, then to the yard, then to the neighborhood, then to our town and so on and so on until our safe little world is pretty good sized but still limited to a small corner of the world.  Some people live their whole lives within one city or one state and are quite content with doing so.  But some of us yearn to see the world and see what’s over the hill, so to speak, and so at some point leave the proverbial nest and start exploring anywhere and everywhere.  And so it was with me.  I couldn’t wait to leave home and get out of that hick town where I grew up and see the world.  And I did….for a while. But somewhere along the line, life caught up with me and I settled down again.  There just wasn’t time for a great deal of travel what with getting married and working and focusing on the family.  Travel was limited to vacations here and there when there was enough time and money to do so.  And travel was limited to dreaming about the places we would go when we “retired”.  And, now, we are here and we are getting back into travel mode and putting some of those dreams in focus. Funny how my dreams have changed.  When I was younger, I wanted to see big cities and historical sites….and now I find that I prefer natural areas and wildlife preserves.  So most of our outings in the past couple years have been focused on the great outdoors.  But our recent trip to the Netherlands gave me a little bit more history than nature and has given me much to think about in terms of my small world in relation to the bigger world out there beyond the hedgerow, as it were.

time and taxes photo 2One of the things that struck me from the first day in Amsterdam is that everything there is so old.  Of course, there are newer and very modern areas in and around Amsterdam but the “old town” is, to quote someone much younger than me, like really old – ancient, in fact.  I think of “old town” Alexandria, VA or Annapolis, MD, —  areas I am familiar with and “old” in the United States is not nearly so old as old is in Amsterdam.   Or, at least, the “old” that is preserved in old buildings that can be dated back to the founding of this country in the 1700’s.  But the buildings in Amsterdam can be dated back to the 1500’s – I know this because they put stone carvings over their doors of the buildings with the date clearly shown.  These stones can also show the occupation of time and taxes photo 3the owner when the home was built.  These stones fascinated me and I found, when I got home that most of the photos I had taken on the trip were of these door stones.  Homes built in 1532 are not only still standing but still inhabited.  These homes were built before the United States was colonized.  Of course, there were native Americans living on the east coast but there were no three level row houses with cap stones dated from that period so America appears to be quite young where western civilization is concerned.  And, not only did the Dutch have homes in the 16th century, they have records of zoning laws.

time and taxes photo 4Or, at least, it is what we would refer to as zoning regulations.  According to the guides who led us through the city, Amsterdam had rules about how their homes would be built in the middle of the 15th century.  Only one or two wooden houses still exist from that century.  Wood would be very flammable and fire would be very dangerous for houses built very close together so laws had to be passed that would require houses to be built of brick. The “logo” for Amsterdam is XXX and you see it on signposts and carvings all over the city.  It is not clear exactly what this means as there doesn’t seem to be any historical documents to explain but the guides say that the traditional story is that it refers to the three main threats to the city – fire, flood, and pestilence.  I think they might also add the government and bureaucracy because from the earliest times, in additional to numerous laws and building codes and regulations, they also had taxes.

time and taxes photo 5According to Wikipedia, the ultimate “go to” source for everything and anything, there are records of people living in the Netherlands on man-made “terps” or hills as early as the 1st century AD.  No row houses then, but certainly ancient “swamp people” living along the coast and in the lowlands and raising ground on which to build shelters.   These terps were later connected to each other by dikes, or dams, to form communities all working together to keep the water in the canals and rivers and provide some bit of dry land.  The old town of Amsterdam is built on the dam on the Amstel River and started as a fishing village in the 12th century.  Yep, it is the river that gave name to the beer.  And, the main square in Amsterdam is the “Dam Square” – which after walking around on the uneven cobblestones all day and getting lost and trying to find your way back to the main areas where you could possibly catch the tram and get off your tired aching feet, became “that DAMNED Square”.

time and taxes photo 6

To provide stability, the homes in the old town were built on pilings sunk deep into the ground (or the soil of the dam).  I do not recall the exact number but remember the guide mentioning the number of pilings in the city as being in the thousands.  IMG_4741The guide also mentioned that in the olden days, prisoners were issued a pump when they were put into the old prison because their cells would be below sea level and a prisoner either pumped or died.   That treatment probably wouldn’t be allowed in today’s society but it does seem….well, never mind. Another prison fact I gathered while in the Netherlands was that they didn’t really feed the prisoners in the earlier times – well, not the civil authorities anyway.  The rich folks provided bread for prisoners via the church….sort of in hopes of getting into heaven by feeding the poor.  Guess you didn’t get a break on your taxes for your charitable donations but the priest and church did see some benefit to it and as people got older, they were apt to make donations to the church.  Of course, some of the money went for bread but most of it went to the churches which are the biggest buildings with the most elaborate ornamentation of all.

Now back to taxes.  Taxes were calculated by the width of the building frontage and, even in the 1400’s, people didn’t like to pay taxes. So the people built their homes narrow in the front and long and tall.  These homes had steep narrow stairs to the upper floors and the furniture could not be carried up the stairs so homes were built with hooks on the front of the top floor of the building so that time and taxes photo 7the furniture could be hoisted up to each floor.  This is the practice even today.  I watched a recent HGTV® show about expats living overseas and the furniture was brought into the house using the hook. The moving man leaned precariously out of the attic window and hung a pulley onto the hook. Then, he and his colleague used the pulley to hoist the furniture up and into the house.  The moving man indicated that afterwards they always had a beer and it was the home-owner’s responsibility to provide the beer.  Some things never change.

So the houses are tall and narrow and time and taxes photo 8relatively uniform and standard – tall, long rectangular boxes. Not much architectural interest in that; so, over the years – okay, over the centuries, the Dutch began the practice of putting elaborate facades on the buildings.  And so you have what everyone in the world would recognize as a Dutch home – tall row houses with tall ornate gables and lots of carving and decorative embellishments making each a unique creation and essentially works of art.  This was pretty much true for several of the towns we visited – tall narrow houses on narrow streets sandwiched between canals and lakes and rivers.

time and taxes photo 9And the houses all lean one way or the other but mostly forward.  Going back to the need to hoist the furniture up to the upper levels of the house…..heavy furniture on a rope would tend to swing and break the windows. Glass was a prized commodity and very expensive.  So the houses were built so that the façade leaned out just a bit so that the heavy furniture would hang level (like a plum bob, I suppose) and away from those expensive windows.  But then someone noticed that his house might be more noticeable if it stuck out just a little bit further than his neighbor’s house so it became all the rage to build one’s house so that it leaned just a little bit more forward than IMG_4536all of the neighbors.  And, of course, when things get out of control, the government has to step in and try to fix things.  So we come full circle to the taxes and the zoning laws and history.  Before there was even a glimmer of a United States, the Dutch were busy building houses and writing regulations and passing laws that dictated how far forward a house could lean and how high the facades could be and ultimately collecting fees and taxes on anything that could possibly be taxed and fined.

Walking the streets of a city that was a full-blown city, center of commerce and government some two to three hundred years before our country was even a colony certainly puts things into a more global perspective.  Someone on the tour mentioned this perspective to one of our tour guides at one point and the guide pointed out that Europe’s history is also America’s history — that many of our ancestors came from that part of the world not so many years ago.  Again, more perspective of our greatly expanding life-lines going back to the Netherlands and Europe and beyond is gained. It seems that we like to travel to learn about other places and people in the world but, in the end, we mainly learn about ourselves most of all.

P.S.  A little touch of American history perhaps?time and taxes photo 10