Last week I was in Flevoland, in the Netherlands. It is a land of overwhelming flatness, even by dutch standards. The horizon is broken by tall poplars, farm buildings, the white forests of wind turbines turning lazily in a perpetual breeze. The whole of the province is polder: it was reclaimed from the Zuider Zee (now the Ijsselmeer) by dykes and drains in the 1960s. The cities – Almere and Lelystsad – are laid out with an exacting precision, an urban planner’s dream of a perfect new community. It is apparently a land without memory or palimpsest; a land where all the trees are of the same age and girth, where fields do not melt into untidy corners of scrub and wildness.
Dutch colleagues I spoke with of my own age remember the draining of the land, being brought here by their curious parents to watch the polder appearing from beneath the sea. In a country recoiling from the horrors of the second world war, the polders fulfilled a dream of a new country. It also provided essential new living space, the sad irony of Lebensraum for a displaced people.
Recently, archaeologists found a skeleton of a young woman buried beneath the dusty soil. Estimated at 9,000 years old, she has been named Michelle, reflecting that curious passion we have for naming the historic dead, giving them names with which we can identify, rather than the ones they may have had in life. She and her companions would have lived in a flat landscape of swampy plains at the edge of a sheltered sea, at a time when post-glacial sea levels were lower. I like to imagine this as a benign land for them; free from the predators in the dense woodlands further inland, warm and low-lying, with access to fish and plants. I am told this is the oldest skeleton yet found in the Netherlands. The discovery of Michelle’s remains gives Flevoland a history, a claim to antiquity, and counterbalance to the new fields and neat urban design.
When the polder was created, an area of lower-lying damp land near the margins of the sea was left to re-wild, without agriculture or urban sprawl. It is called the Oostvardersplassen, and has become a home to ospreys and buzzards, storks and egrets. Barry Lopez, in his haunting essay A Reflection on Wild Geese, offers the Oostvardersplassen as an example of how humans can find a more meaning ful balance with nature, “holding tenaciously” he writes “to this image of reparation”. Perhaps it is like the land which Michelle and her family hunted or fished in 7,000 BC. Like the coastal salt marshes of eastern England, it holds the tang of salt in its soil, the memory of the sea in the sound of the wind hushing through the willows.