Netherlands – At The Gates Of The Sea

EAST and southeast of Dordrecht, which is on an island, stretches that intricate network of water ways called The Biesbosch, or “reed-lands.” All travellers from Dordrecht southward to Rosendaal and Antwerp pass this at a distance, and perhaps no better idea of the country as a whole can be had than from the train. This desolate stretch of reed-lands is, one may say, an hermaphrodite country — it is neither land nor water, yet it partakes of the nature of both; but where the land begins and the water ends, no one can say.

The great bridge that crosses the Hollandsche Diep, or Dutch Deeps, is also known to every traveller over the route above mentioned. This arm of the sea was made by an inundation in the fifteenth century, and it is a fitting introduction to the amphibious regions south of it—that are seen in part at ebb tide, and are invisible at the flood —which are known as the Verdronken Land — Drowned Land. Tholen, one of the islands of Zeeland, is the gate way to this region, desolate in itself, and pathetic in memory for the hundreds of thousands that have lost their lives in the great cataclysms of past centuries.

After leaving Dordrecht and passing through the Kil, we moored at Willemsdorp, for James and Ben wanted to see that great piece of engineering, the bridge over the Dutch Deeps, at close range. While we were there the weather grew thick, and the water so rough that Oom Kees struck and refused to pole The Broomstick so much as a foot from the wharf until it should clear. As all of us knew that this was the only wise thing to do in the circumstances, we overlooked this fit of insubordination which Neeltje assured us was not unprecedented in the annals of the craft. We left The Broomstick and her crew, including the two dogs, to wait for clearer sailing, and took the train to Bergen-op-Zoom, for the Captain was to meet us in Tholen the next day; from Bergen-op-Zoom one may reach that island by steam-tram and ferry in about forty minutes.

How pleasant it would be to hear once more, instead of the “Groote Kerks” in every town of the Netherlands, the old Catholic baptismal names belonging to these edifices! It is distinctive to speak of St. Lawrence, for instance; we see in it Rotterdam, the great tower, and the doves filling the air about it; of St. Peter’s, we see Leyden and John Robinson’s lonely burial place; of St. Mary’s and St. Cunera’s; they are memory’s path-finders for Amersfoort and Rhenen. In Bergen-op-Zoom we find St. Gertrude’s, with a parasitic growth all around it that obscures its beautiful lines. But the tower is a noble one, and dwarfs the roofs of the whole town, which has lost its former glory and commercial importance.

The wind was heavy and prevented us from riding in comfort on the platform of the tram, which usually is provided with seats — a famous place for seeing the country-side. In this instance, however, there was little country-side to see—a windmill or two, some dykes, and now and then a low-roofed house. That was all until we steamed out upon the dyke and found ourselves on the shore of De Eendracht, the channel that separates North Brabant from Tholen.

I know nowhere in the Netherlands so lonely an approach by water as this same little ferry-way. The channel is not wide, and we were ferried across in so primitive a fashion that we realized at once we were in a, to us, strange land, and about to be introduced to another life. A rude raft, a rope for lever, a man for a walking windlass — that was the entire mechanism. The ferryman pulled across by sheer strength, walking back and forth and pulling at the rope hand over hand. I recalled that day in March when the Queen went down into the stricken land and crossed the same channel, which at that time was a wild sea by reason of the floods.

As we drew near to Tholen it looked as if it were recovering from a siege. Men were at work on the broken dykes; the watergate had been carried away. The little village was saved only because the high dyke, on which the houses by the water-gate are built, did not give way. If it had — there would now be another village beneath the sea, and new area added to the Verdronken Land, the waves of which at the present almost wash the feet of Tholen’s dykes.

It has been my privilege to see the interiors of some of the homes of the Netherlands, and these homes chance to cover the whole sociological range of caste. From the Forest House in the woods of The Hague—an ideal royal residence, for it combines great magnificence with home-likeness — to the huts of Tholen is a far cry, and between the two the gamut of society ranges. I have seen the interior of a home of the nobility, of the rich banker, of the professional class, of the lower and upper middle classes, of the workingman, and of the Tholen fisherman; and it was in Tholen I found a courtesy and welcome that would have done credit to the Forest House in The Hague; it was in Tholen I found an old sacristan with the manners of the noble; it was in Tholen I found a simple folk not so intent on gain but that they could welcome a stranger because she was a stranger, and had come down to their stricken island to see them in their struggle for existence.

It saddened all of us — this life that is held by the strength of a dyke. The old church of Tholen, built in the early part of the thirteenth century, the old sacristan and his Spanish grandee manners, the sunken stones in the moist pavement on which the fourteenth century dates were scarcely legible, the desolation of the formerly grand interior, the wind surging through the trees that grow close to its crumbling walls, were a prelude for our visit to Oud-Vosmeer,, several miles farther down on the island and accessible by the highroad along the high dyke.

We drove along this dyke, that in March threatened to break in one or two places, in a wind so great that the trees swayed and bent beneath its force. This added to the desolation of the surrounding country. On our right, as far as the eye could see, was — desolation ; not the desolation merely of homes, but the utter abomination of desolation that one may picture in imagination, yet which is rarely seen. The dykes that surround the great polders, or farm lands, sometimes miles in extent—for they are the lands reclaimed from the sea — were broken and rent in places. The double rows of trees on the dykes, that serve to hold the earth together by their roots and to give shade in summer, stretched for miles to the horizon, bare, and gaunt, and dead—not a twig, not a leaf, not a vine, not a spear of grass, nothing but sand and ooze, a deposit from the overwhelming sea. Once we passed a graveyard overgrown with sea rushes, that bent before the wind. On our left there was a portion of the country that showed some signs of vegetation, but it was feeble and struggling in the midst of sand and ooze. Not one living thing was visible; here and there a hedge, thick-set, showed its bare, brown, intricate anatomy of interwoven twigs. Once we saw a turf and mud walled hut far below us in the polder; but there was no sign of life about it. We were silent, oppressed ‘by what we saw.

Oud-Vosmeer in the north of Europe, and the villages on the slopes of Vesuvius at the south, were suffering at almost the same time; the one passing through deep waters, the other through the furnace of fiery ashes — and both just missing being buried beyond the hope of resurrection.

In the morning of that fateful March 12, 1906, when the different dykes gave way, the people fled in terror to the tops of them, thinking that there they would find safety ; but the next tide was so furious in its onslaught that the water from the sea flowed over the tops of the remaining dykes where they had sought refuge, and then they were panic-stricken. The work of salvation was carried on day and night for days. The families, who were not taken from the dykes, were rescued from the upper part of the town hall, from the churches, and from their own garrets. They drove all their cattle onto the high dyke that held ; but when the sea rolled in upon and over them, only human life could be rescued; the cattle, horses, and sheep were all drowned, the hay carried away from the meadows, the barns floated off, the houses inundated, and in many cases undermined so that they fell. All this one may see if one goes to Oud-Vosmeer. We saw, too, the forsaken graveyard by the church; the hedge dead and utterly stripped, the sand covering the gravestones deep beneath its drift. It was a glimpse, this unreal reality, of what lies behind us in those cosmic aeons when our plastic earth was a serial story of cataclysmal change: slow upbuilding, verdure, floods, da capo.

The illustration accompanying this chapter I have called A Broken Sea Gate; I do not wish it to be misleading, therefore I give a few words of explanation. The dykes that broke around Oud-Vosmeer were the earth-dykes, grown over with thick grass-turf and set with large trees, that serve to protect the polders from inundations. That inundation, however, that came in March was from the sea, and hence I have given to the illustration the title of a sea gate. Properly speaking, the sea gates are those great dykes of masonry and piles that border on the sea where there is a break in the land’s natural defenses, the sand dunes. These may be seen on the coast at The Helder and at West Kapelle in Walcheren. But in so far as these dykes, of which the illustration shows one in the act of breaking and also of being overridden by the over-full sea, serve to keep out sea and not river water, I have permitted my-self to name them sea gates. The great inundation of March 12 and 13, of this year, proved that the earth-dykes, hitherto considered a sure defense, are useless in times of great peril — and the peril is ever imminent! The fact, also, that the great dykes of masonry on the coast suffered, and were broken in some places, has shaken the people’s confidence. “Eternal Vigilance” must continue to be the watchword to the End — and in that End the sea will reclaim its own and this wonderful land cease to exist. This is written in the decrees of a natural Fate.

But even then, when overwhelmed and overmastered — and may it be ages distant ! — this land will not have existed and lived, will not have toiled and suffered to preserve itself from becoming literally a Drowned Land, in vain; for its inheritance from the ages, and its legacy to the ages, remain the same: a love of country so intense, a patriotism that burns ever at such white flame of heat, that the words Dutch and bravery, both physical and moral, are, among nations, synonymous.