Thursday, September 8, 2011

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Once again, I found myself in the open spaces of Flevoland (see Landscape and Memory (2), 15 June), adjusting to the flat expanses of the polders, the overwhelming sky. I visited Schokland, a thin sliver of land which was, before the draining of the polder, an island in the Zuider Zee. It is now a low ridge, rising only a few metres above the surrounding fields; a ghost of an island, its landlocked shores bereft of the rhythm of tides. The margins of the former island are marked by a line of trees, creating a strong visual impression of the four kilometre-by-half kilometre strip which would have been home to over 200 people.

The island was abandoned in the late 18th century, after extensive lobbying of the national government by the island's school teacher for an acceptable resettlement package for the islanders. Rising sea levels after the 'little ice age' of the 16th century had made the island untenable; each year, the low ridge of dune would be drenched by winter storms, the small wooden houses flooded and damaged. I imagine the islanders closing their doors with dread during every night of wind and rain; the dawning inevitability of floods that accompanied the frequent storms. To leave their wooden huts, their churches, the bones of their ancestors, would have been a conclusion they had ignored for as long as possible. We cannot accept that the land can turn against us so.
These thoughts were in my mind as I passed through the main street of my home town this morning. After a night of high winds and heavy rain, the river was swollen with water, brown and dense, roiling with intent. At the edge of the town, a heron coasted into a sodden field and regarded the passing traffic with its I-told-you-so eyes. The primaries of its ragged wings were clotted with rain. So quickly, the year turns to autumn, the land is swollen with rain.
Two years ago, we experienced the one-in-a-thousand-year flood. Every winter we dread it happening again. Even now, in September, the rivers look like November. Each freak event is dimissed as such; we fail to see the pattern which is emerging from the chaos of our changing weather.
Whilst in Flevoland, I started to notice a series of blue-and-white marker posts topped with a template of a ship, rising from fields and hedgerows. They mark the sites of shipwrecks; over a thousand of them were found when the polder was drained, the stained timbers of luggers and coasters embedded in the desiccating mud. Living as I do at the foot of the fells, it is a warning, this proximity to water; how near we are to the rising seas, how easily the shipwrecks of our past come back to haunt us, emerging slowly like ragged skeletons from the patient mud.

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