The Long Ride, Day One

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Urk, Flevoland, typing this.  I know the town name sounds like some kind of interjection, but if it were then the place would more accurately be called Aah, or perhaps Ooh.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

IMG_9443

After seeing Fiona off to school (Alex was sick), I loaded my luggage onto Grace (my bike is named Grace. If you didn’t know before, well, now you do.)  I’m packed very light indeed: minimal clothing, lightweight tech, some food for the road, bike tools, towel, rain gear.  And then I did precisely what I said I’d do yesterday: rode toward work, and went straight where I’d otherwise have turned right.

That took me across the Noordhollandsch Kanaal, over the freeway, and along the narrow, cobbled Nieuwendammerdijk.  I crossed the IJ on the Zuiderzeewegbrug, which is the only bridge between Amsterdam and the IJsselmeer (everything else goes by ferry or tunnel.)  Much of the route is familiar to me from the Dam tot Dam walk that Martin and I do every year.  It was all somewhat hard going, because the wind was from the south. Mind you, that was a good thing, since that same wind would be at my back for the longer stretch through Flevoland.

But then things got easier; I turned east and rode through a series of parks and sheep fields toward the tiny town of Muiden.  Muiden is old.  It sits on the mouth of the river Vecht, and has only one single-lane bridge for all traffic that wants to cross it. I adore the place, but it’s kind of a pain.

After Muiden, I took the road that follows the coastal dike.  Like a lot of Dutch dike roads, it’s on the land side and below the top of the earthworks, so one has the sensation of riding beside a tall green slope, with no notion of the weight of the water on the other side.  To my right, the land spread out: peaceful fields and plump cattle basking in the late August sun.  I passed through Muiderberg and headed to the Hollandse Brug, the route to Flevoland.

IMG_9555

Flevoland is the new province, built by filling in some of the old Zuiderzee.  It’s beautiful, but it’s also made up of very long, straight, unchanging stretches.  One can lose one’s self in the pursuit of the vanishing point.  I did, several times.  (This is good practice for Sunday, when I will be crossing the Afsluitdijk, the ultimate long, straight, unchanging stretch of bike path).

But no one told the plants or the sheep that they were part of a homogenous landscape.  The birds didn’t get the memo either.  Looking more closely, one sees the individual variety that combines into this illusion of simplicity: the way the birds gather here rather than there, the ragged clustering of the sheep, the surprising variance in the population of grass along the path, the way the trees all look like Old Master paintings.  I suspect that in a hundred years, the landscape will start to vary, in the same way that a development of identical homes gets more character as people start moving in and changing things to suit themselves.

This was when having the wind at my back was best. I made good time along the coast and through the city of Lelystad. I had a wrong turn or two before I found the coastal road north of Lelystad, which runs between a vast line of windmills and hills that are kept trim by means of a flock of sheep.  Something inspired me to tweet about a fiddle band named Windmills and Sheep, and now it’s part of my private vocabulary.

IMG_9658

Crossing to the Nordoostpolder, the older part of Flevoland, meant cycling athwart the wind, and suddenly everything was harder.  Emblematically, the sheep were more isolated and the windmills under construction.  But ahead of me was Urk, my destination of the day.

Urk was once an island in the Zuiderzee, with a harbor and a village full of fishermen.  But when the province of Flevoland was built, land came to Urk: the reverse of the usual process, when erosion turns inland villages into seaside ones. Urk is a lovely wee place, with a large harbor and a small beach, full of restaurants that serve fish.  There’s a memorial to fishermen lost at sea, with a statue of a woman looking away from the water and a series of plaques listing every Urkerman lost to the waves from 1717 until the present.

I walked along the beach and gathered sea glass, and thought about wealth. It’s a topic that had been rattling around in my head all day, as I anxiously rationed my photographic time lest I be too slow to get to Urk, as I filled and refilled my water bottle from the liter and a half I’d brought with me, as I monitored the battery level on my phone. And I’d been thinking about it as I rode past the vast stripes of undifferentiated, inedible greenery beside the bike paths of a country that had suffered terrible famine in living memory.

This trip is the product of incredible wealth: my household has enough resources, financial and emotional, to spare an entire adult for four days.  More than that: I can stay in hotels and eat in restaurants on the way.  And the land is wealthy, with money to spare not only for grass and good bike paths, but to build an entire province out of an inland sea.

Of course, the construction of the land and investment in the infrastructure is wealth well-used: invested for the future, where it will repay that investment many times over; invested in the happiness and well-being of the people who live here. And there’s a fair argument that this trip is an investment in my happiness, my good emotional health.

IMG_9668

But wealth leads to greed the way that spring leads to summer. I like to think I have my own greed, my own desire for more than I need, well in hand. I ride a used bike, shop at secondhand stores, make my own clothes. But when I looked at my collection of sea glass, fifteen or more pieces, mostly green and clear, many of them undistinguished, I knew better. I have sea glass from so many beaches that I lose track. I don’t need more forgettable pieces. And yet there I was.

So I decided to pare the collection down, to only take five from the beach. Five that were special to me, because of their color or their texture. The rest would go back for someone else to find.

That was hard. I chose one of every color I had: clear, green, sky blue, turquoise, brown. But the turquoise and the sky blue were the only specimens of their color that I’d found, so even my five pieces represent a kind of poverty for later beachcombers.

I know it’s only beach glass. But confronting the acquisitive, hoarding impulse and failing to properly overcome it leaves me thoughtful as well as mindful. There’s a passage in the Papal encyclical, Laudato Si’, that speaks to this:

We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment.

The Pope’s point, and it’s a good one, is that we cannot keep up with our acquisitiveness. There’s not enough stuff in the world to feed the whole planet’s hunger for the shiny. I fear that we cannot change, as a people, in time to save the world.

But I can change. Tomorrow, somewhere along the way, I’m going to leave the five pieces of sea glass behind to delight someone else. The memory of finding them will be wealth enough, properly invested.

Previous post in this series: The Long Ride, Day Zero

(For more photos from the day, see my Twitter photostream and the Flickr set for this trip. My route today can be found on Strava; even without an account you can see an un-zoomable map of it.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Long Ride, Day Zero

This morning, I got up, got dressed, and got on my bike. I cycled south from my village into Amsterdam: right turn, left turn, right turn, cross the river, get to work. It took me about half an hour.

Tomorrow morning, I’m going to get up at about the same time, get dressed, and get on my bike (albeit with the saddlebags bulging a little more). And I’ll cycle south from my village into Amsterdam: right turn, left turn…but then I’ll go straight instead of turning right, pass under a viaduct, jog left, and follow the road as it unspools in front of me in a new direction. I’ll cross highways, canals, rivers, provinces. I’ll cycle over bridges, through cities, into villages, among sheep, past birds, under windmills, along dikes. And through it all I’ll keep the IJsselmeer to my left until I get home again. It’ll take me four days.

The desire to cycle really far has been growing in me since I started biking around the Noord-Hollands polder. When I’m out in the open land, there’s a part of me that wants to just keep going, to do something monumental and vast to match the space around me. Over time, that’s coalesced into the wish that I could circumnavigate the IJsselmeer, the great body of fresh water that makes the shape of the Netherlands so distinctive.

The story of the IJsselmeer is the story of the country itself. It grew from small lake surrounded by over-drained, sunken land (medieval water engineering was still in beta). It became the salty Zuiderzee after a series of floods in the late Middle Ages broke the dikes, filled the sunken fields, and scoured the ground away. Through it sailed the ships of the Golden Age on their way to Amsterdam, and from Amsterdam to the world. Even the process of taming it into the IJsselmeer was characteristically Dutch, undertaken with stolid practicality in difficult times: turning a vast salt body fresh and filling a large part of it in during years of economic hardship, war, famine, and natural disaster. Now it’s tranquil water surrounded by peaceful, prosperous land, and both land and water are mindful of their history but not haunted by it—much like the Dutch themselves.

I figured the trip would take about four days; I reckoned the best time to do it would be late summer. I idly elaborated on the idea as I cycled to work or wandered the countryside. It was a dream project, something to do “one of these days”.

But it’s such an achievable dream, whispered the wind out in the deep polder. Over four days, it’s maybe 90 a day. You ride 30, 40, 50 kilometers already, and don’t even notice it the next morning. Only a little extra conditioning, a little planning, the kindness of Martin and the kids, and you can do this. Come. Come.

So “one of these days” is tomorrow, and I’m coming…but in my own way. Not in garish Lycra, not bent over on a racing cycle, not whirring through the air like a bright arrow in flight the way the denizens of Clan Spandex do. It seems right to me to do this in my ordinary clothes and on my ordinary bike, just as when I go to work, run errands, or wander the Noord-Hollands countryside on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a mix of the ordinary and the extraordinary, like water in wine, like the IJsselmeer itself.

Posted in Things Dutch | 10 Comments

Planting beside the water

treeplanting

Behind my house the terrain runs in stripes: a stretch of grass, a narrow road, another stretch of grass, a canal, more grass up a slope, the elevated main road into our village, then the local business park. For some time, we and our neighbors have wanted trees between the narrow road and the canal to deaden the traffic noise and soften the view.

The first intimation that that desire had borne fruit (OK, leaves; they’re willows) was the note through our door. Below the drop-shadow title and the tree-and-tulip clip art, it announced that one of our local councilors would be by for a tree-planting at 9:00 in the morning on Saturday, March 15. “We’re asking for your help on the day. Bring a shovel and a wheelbarrow*. There will be journalists and photographers in attendance.”

The trees were delivered during the week and laid out at intervals on the grass. Pairs of waist-high support stakes appeared. The turf was cut and laid aside. I kept expecting to look over the back fence one day and see all but one symbolic tree in place, in preparation for whatever ceremony or photo-op Saturday would bring. When the tiny digger drove from tree site to tree site on Thursday afternoon, I was sure that was the time, but when it left things looked much the same: each tree on its side, two upright stakes, bare soil, piled sod.

We were out in the back garden on other business this morning when we saw some of the community walking toward the back road, shovels in hand. Reassured that we would not be the dorky foreigners who did the wrong thing, we grabbed our own shovels and joined them. The trees were still unplanted.

Because here’s the thing (and, Dutch readers, please bear with me while I talk this through). We weren’t there for a photo-op, or rather, not for the photo-op I thought we were there for. After some introductory chatting, the Guy Who Knew What He Was Doing took us over to a tree site, where a hole had been dug between the supporting stakes. He explained how best to measure the root balls, how deep the holes should be (and why, with details about how the roots would interact with the water table), how to roll the root ball into place, and why they’d chosen that particular manner of planting.

And then he sent us off, two by two, to go dig our holes and plant our trees.

He went from pair to pair and advised on depth and width, lending a hand to get trees into holes and showing people how to firm the earth around the trunks afterward. The local councilor was there, but he had dirt under his nails when he shook hands. We answered the reporter’s questions while tramping down loose dirt around a newly-planted willow.

When I lived in the Edinburgh, if trees were to be planted on public land near our houses, the council would send a couple of laconic workmen to do the deed. A local councilor might come for a photo-op to dedicate the already-planted willows, but whatever audience there was would not have brought shovels. When I lived in the SF Bay Area, I’d have expected about the same, but we would have brought shovels and stood around the trees for the photographs.† (And I am not denigrating either way of dong things! Different cultures do things in different ways. All three systems produce the two inextricable objectives of the exercise: trees and a picture of the councilor in the local paper just before an election.)

The inevitable jokes about saving money by making the locals do the work were made at the closing speech, when we were all thanked for our efforts. But that’s not what it’s about, of course, not when the soil had been pre-loosened by that digger. The point was much more primal: our trees, our planting. We earned those willows by doing not only the social work of politicking for them, but also the physical work of putting them into the ground. The two are linked, word and deed.

Now, I think of myself as a migrant; I’m in this place but not of it. I expect to be changed by the places I live, but I do not expect to change them. I don’t think I have the right, and I don’t want that responsibility, either.

And yet when I look out my back window now and see the spindly branches of the willow over the fence, I see that I have changed this place. A piece of me is planted here now, putting its roots into the soil I meant to only tread lightly upon. And that’s a very Dutch lesson, too, bluntly questioning my personal narrative of non-involvement. The reality of the engineered landscape (and pretty much everywhere we live is engineered, to one degree or another) is that how we live creates the physical world we live in. People and land are as interdependent as politics and work.

There is no footfall so light that it does not leave a print. The best we can do is choose where we walk, and how.


* The Dutch word for wheelbarrow is kruiwagen. The term comes from the verb kruien, which can mean to shovel things, turn a windmill toward the wind, or walk in the peculiar way one does with a wheelbarrow. In other words, it’s a name based on actions rather than appearances. This is, in a complicated way, neatly symmetrical.
† As the youngest rioter for People’s “everybody gets a blister” Park, I should point out that California does have its own tradition of plant-your-own-tree activism. But I should also point out that Ronald Reagan found that kind of activism threatening enough to fight it with tear gas and live ammunition.

Crossposted on Making Light. Comment wherever you like.

Posted in Things Dutch | 4 Comments

Peter Quince on the Polder

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music.

—Wallace Stevens, Peter Quince at the Claivier

 

skybranchThe longer I live in the Netherlands, the more I realize that autumn is my favorite time of year here.

This suprises no one more than me, since I have chronic Seasonal Affective Disorder, and we do get long, dragging stretches of grey weather that sap my energy terribly.  There is nothing so grim and oppressive as a dark Noord-Hollands day, when the low clouds press down on the land while the listless light robs everything of its color.

But then comes a day like today, when the clouds vanish and the sun comes out in the southern sky.  Then the oblique light turns the heavens into a vast and depthless bowl of blue and paints everything beneath them with pale gold. By now most of the trees are leafless or nearly so, and the elegant tracery of their bare branches underscores the simplicity of the sky they reach toward.  They confine and define the space above themselves, the way an intricate frame does an Old Master painting.

stripes

But although the trees are barren, they’re not drab. From a distance, single-species thickets become broad strokes of color along the horizon.  And when the reeds beside the canals die off and turn golden-brown, while the grass keeps its vivid green, those individual strokes of color combine into stripes.  The land looks almost painted, as though some great abstract artist had dragged a brush across the canvas of the countryside.

As much as the tiny silhouette of human civilisation on the horizon, these great lines, uniform from a distance but complex up close, emphasize and increase the feeling of horizontality all around.  It’s no coincidence that the Dutch word for countryside is platteland, flatland.  Language reflects the landscape it evolved in.

But the element of the polder that has me agog on days like this, more than trees, grass, or reeds, more even than the horizon and the sky above it, is the water.

longview

This is water drunk on the blue of the sky, inebriated with color and depth.  It’s mad and bright and glorious, uninhibited by its own muddy bottom or the faint scum of algae that floats on its surface. It has transcended itself.

sloot1And it’s everywhere, because this is the polder, and the land is interlaced with sloten, the drainage ditches that keep the fields dry enough to walk on but wet enough not to shrink. Every single insignificant sloot is its own essay on the color blue, each one differently, improbably brilliant.

Days like this make me think of Vermeer. He painted light the way a lover paints it, the way the water in the landscape would paint it if water could do such a thing. And his blues reach for the color of the sky reflected in that water. One could lay out the headband of the Girl With The Pearl Earring alongside a field and mistake it for a canal.

But Vermeer’s best works weren’t paintings of vast landscapes. He was a master of tiny details and intimate scenes. And the polder is a landscape for that side of him as well. Notwithstanding its openness and clarity, this is also a place of secrets, of hidden treasures, when one looks closely enough.

A heron stands hunch-shouldered by the waterside, waiting for fish. The first dying leaves of the willow curl up like fingers clenching against the coming cold. Red berries grow in among the bare branches of an aspen, unignorably bright once you spot them. The grass preserves its morning dew, even at midday. Wet leaves disrupt the even patterns of holes on a bench.

heron
willowcurl

redberries
dewgrass
benchleaf

In the almost impossibly beautiful sunlight of autumn, each of these things seems like a still life worthy of framing, a masterwork as absorbing and amazing as the great canvas of the landscape itself. And thus it is that what I feel, here in this land, observing it, thinking of its blue-shadowed water, is art.

Image | Posted on by | 5 Comments

…For What We Will

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
— Luke 12:34, KJV

Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.
— American labor movement slogan from the 1880’s

For Mother’s Day last spring, we went to an amusement park in Flevoland, which is the newest of the Dutch provinces. “New” in this case does not mean “recently incorporated” or “the product of the latest local government reorganization”. It means “newly built”. A century ago, the ground under our roller coasters and go-karts was covered in water. It was part of the Zuiderzee, a salty inlet of the North Sea that was mostly controlled by dykes, but still prone to occasional storm-floods.

Now it’s not only dry land, but beautiful land. Rows of poplars parallel the roads, mirroring long lines of windmills. The trees bend and the blades turn together in the wind, restless as the inland sea they have replaced. In the spring, the fields become long bright strips of tulips, let to bloom before their bulbs are harvested for sale. The only high points in the landscape are the dykes, without which, roadside signs remind us, this land would not exist. It’s a lightly populated place, with open country stretching between the neat and pleasant towns. The province is surrounded by lakes, which were all thick with pleasure boats that day, despite the late rain that kept the amusement park lines sparse.

This is all the product of a tremendous investment of work, money and energy, carried out on a generational timescale. It was built with the kind of expenditure that we don’t think we can make in these days of austerity and economic collapse.

But the bulk of the work of turning the Zuiderzee into the freshwater IJsselmeer and draining some of it to make Flevoland was done in the early Twentieth Century. That wasn’t a fat time in the Netherlands. Although Dutch neutrality preserved her young men from the killing fields of the First World War, no one in Europe was safe from the Depression. Then came World War 2, with the harsh and costly German occupation. And the Hunger Winter, which immediately followed liberation, was unspeakable. A few short years after that, the Watersnoodramp, the great flood of 1953, rendered 100,000 southern Dutch people homeless and soured a wide stretch of still-vital cropland.

Terrible times. And yet, in those terrible times, they chose to spend the extra resources to make the landscape a good place to live. And that was a choice rather than a coincidence, because everything about Flevoland was intensively planned, down to the ways that people would travel:

Contemporary trends had a major impact on the layout of Flevoland. The Northeast Polder is typified by farmland and by woodland on soil unsuitable for crops, and an urban centre in Emmeloord with a ring of ten satellite villages within cycling distance – cars were not a major factor in those days. By the time Eastern Flevoland fell dry, land use requirements had clearly changed. Farmland was still widely available, but outdoor recreational facilities and demand for residential areas and good road links now also jostled for space. There are now four urban centres in Eastern Flevoland, the provincial capital Lelystad, Dronten, Biddinghuizen and Swifterbant.

In Southern Flevoland the polder is no longer just an area of farmland. Together with greenbelt areas laid out for nature, recreation and agriculture, various urban centres make up the town of Almere, which currently has some 186,000 residents. The south-western corner of Flevoland has been designated as an overspill area for the country’s western metropoles. Zeewolde is located where woods and water meet – a fulcrum of outdoor recreation.
—from the English-language Provincie Flevoland website.

We came into the province through that southwest corner, driving by Almere. The city is Flevoland’s contribution to the Randstad, the great conurbation of the western Netherlands. But it also serves as the gateway to the rest of the province, and the land near it is given over as much to recreation and nature as to farming. Indeed, our trip was exactly what the last of Flevoland’s designers intended: a journey for pleasure from the populous Amsterdam area into more open countryside, where there is space for amenities such as an amusement park.

Coming that way, we also passed a herd of concrete elephants by the road, rounded, abstract, mute, and memorable. They’re a Flevoland landmark, something everyone photographs in passing—and no one seems to get a good shot of. We didn’t.

officeworker

The elephants may be distinctive, but they are not unusual. They stand in a nation where the roadside sound baffles echo Escher and monuments to superheroes with briefcases lurk in business parks. Dutch public art is as pervasive as its water engineering, albeit much stranger. The quiet street where we first lived here is graced with a curving abstraction in blue metal, while a chicken made of horseshoes stands guard over the local toystore. And we are not a particularly art-laden village.

If you ask a Dutch person why there’s all this sculpture around, they may tell you about the law that requires it: between 1 and 1.5% of the budget for every government project must be spent on art, chosen by public consultation. But that’s more of a how than a genuine why. The true, underlying reason is so embedded in the culture that it’s all but inarticulable to my friends here.

Public art is there for the public to enjoy. There is so much of it here because the public are important enough that their pleasure and enlightenment is as worth spending money on as a new road or government building, just as their ability to live somewhere beautiful was worth a portion of the resources spent creating a new province. This is the democratization of the art of the Golden Age: the ordinary people who were worth painting then are worth pleasing and uplifting now. And the privilege of being valued like that has spread from the merchant classes to the entire society alongside prosperity, education and control.

But the fact that Dutch public art is so varied, and so odd, carries yet another message. The public is not just worthy of being pleased; it’s also worthy of being challenged.

metalsculpt

Strange public art is an expression of trust that the viewer has the capacity to consider it and judge its worth. It even dares to be disagreed with, disputed, and disliked. It takes the risks of engagement, as with a peer, rather than the privilege of lecturing from above. And the Dutch have, on the whole, risen to the esthetic challenge, embracing visual styles that leave my British and American tastes baffled. I had thought myself relatively educated, adventurous, and sophisticated before I moved here, but now I’m scrambling to keep up.

But the scramble is in itself worthwhile. Living here, engaging with a culture that values its population’s leisure and pleasure—not just with words, but with its resources—is as much a challenge as figuring out any individual piece of public art. And meeting that challenge is reforming me, draining my old unthinking assumptions and revealing new provinces of thought and understanding, new values and things to value.

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 6 Comments

Windmills and Pylons

Autumn has come to the Low Countries, and with it, heavy rains. The ground got good and soaked last night, and as the temperatures dropped, the wet land breathed fog. Urban areas, with all of their hard landscaping, still had good visibility. But this morning, the nature reserve near our house was wreathed in thick white mist.  It seemed like a good day to divert my commute and cycle through it, stopping to take a picture or three.

fogmill

This is the autumn of the Old Masters, spread across a landscape of ochres and browns, creamy and dimmed with the varnish of the morning mist.  And it wouldn’t be the same without the hummocked shape of the windmill in the distance, bare vanes marking the land as inescapably Dutch.

But hang on, here.  Hold the chocolate box.

When you get right down to it, windmills are not intrinsically scenic.  Oh, we treasure them now, transplanting them carefully to nature reserves and tourist parks.  But they’re really industrial equipment, power-generating and water-moving engines, as inherently romantic as an oil derrick or an electricity pylon.

pylon

Indeed, it was not much further on my commute that I came upon the most beautiful pylon standing in the pale morning sun. Its clean, simple lines balanced the last lushness of the autumn vegetation.  The grand swoop of its gently humming wires framed the clear blue sky above me, and the pure echo of its form below was a testament to the stillness and clarity of the water beside it.  At its feet the placid cattle grazed…

You’re not buying this one, are you?

But really, what’s the difference between the windmill and the pylon, apart from a few centuries and some unevenly distributed obsolescence?  They’re both part of the infrastructure of the land, the hardware on which the operating system of Dutch society runs.

Indeed, in a few centuries we may be collecting old mismatched electric pylons from all over the country and setting them up in little parks.  Enthusiasts will clean them and care for them, climbing to the tops in almost-correct period harnesses.  Perhaps they’ll string dead wires among them so that school parties can picture the old days of the electric grid.  Gaggles of tourists will take group shots around their bases before heading off in search of ice cream.

But even now, there’s a decent case to be made for learning to appreciate the inevitable artifacts of our technology.

After all, what people loathe, they neglect.  I think about the changing themes of art since the WPA’s celebratory murals of the early twentieth century, and wonder if America’s crumbling infrastructure is not as much the product of a lack of love as it is the straitened state of public finances.

Another reason to cherish these things is that they’re here to stay.  That pylon is part of a line that brings power from Amsterdam to the next major city to the north.  It’s not going anywhere.  So we who live near it can either look on it with loathing or find some beauty in its lines.

This is something that the Dutch seem to be very good at.  I’ve cycled past lovely homes that look across a river to a junkyard.  Our own very pleasant suburban house has a retail park behind it.  In general, the ways that towns here mix residential, commercial, and light industrial facilities bespeaks—at the very least—a tolerance of infrastructure in the Netherlands.

This is not to say that tolerance is uncritical.  The wires in that picture are high-voltage ones, carrying as much power as the law allows through residential areas.  There’s been pressure to increase the voltage of the line north yet higher, but that would mean removing people from the homes underneath them.  It’s caused a lot of debate in our village. One can appreciate the clean shape of the pylon against the October skies without approving of every use to which it might be put.

When I look at our future (leaving aside the possibility of the collapse of civilization), I see more technological intervention rather than less.  Given that, I hope we can learn to turn our ceaseless thirst for beauty, that common drive that gives us cave paintings, sculpture, and ruin porn alike, toward our infrastructure and the tools we use to maintain it.

I think we’d be happier if we could.

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 15 Comments

Unnecessary

She sold everything after her mother died. There wasn’t much to get rid of, just ordinary furniture, drab clothing, cheap kitchen things: all the accessories of a life endured rather than lived. During the cleanup, she’d found no books, no paintings, no mad indulgences hidden in the back of a drawer. She was disappointed, but not particularly surprised. Her mother’s secrets were not the sort one finds evidence of between mattress and box spring.

wallpaper

Her cousin Gabe helped her clear the apartment. He was the only one of the family she was in touch with, but a day with him was about as much as she could stand. She knew how he saw her: thin, pale, stoop-shouldered, the very image of her mother. At least he had the good sense not to say so. That was probably why they were still in contact. But he still thought her odd.

He’d grown more and more restive as the stack of things for him grew, and the bags to be sold and donated piled up, but the box of things for her to keep remained resolutely empty. She was folding the mothball-scented Army blankets she’d slept under as a child when he finally asked, half-shocked, if she was going to keep anything from her mother.

“This stuff isn’t ‘from’ my mother. It was hers. She owned it.”

“But she left it to you.”

“No, she didn’t. She died intestate. The probate court said it was mine, that’s all. And the courts don’t care whether you take the stuff or the money.”

Gabe shook his head. “Girl, you’re not right.” But he did stop asking if she wanted to keep anything. When he piled the things he wanted in his car and drove away, she knew she wouldn’t be seeing much of him any more.

The one item she didn’t sell was the dress she’d worn at the graveside. It had been her grandmother’s before it was her mother’s. It was black silk crepe de chine, so simply tailored that it never seemed to go out of fashion. Her mother had worn it to her own parents’ funerals, to court for the divorce, to graduations and endings of every sort. It smelled of her.

That, at least, had to change.

The man behind the counter at the dry cleaner made her sign a waiver because the dress had no labels or tags of any sort. “We can’t accept any liability if there’s no care instructions,” he said. He stroked the fabric a little, attentively, then looked up at her. “But we’ll be careful.”

doorway

Walking back to her car, she passed a real estate agent with an enormous plate glass window. She glanced at her reflection, then started to look away. It was a bad habit, that impulsive look. Her mother had called it vanity and scorned it as she scorned everything unnecessary.

But her mother was dead.

She raised her chin a little higher and met her reflected eyes. Her image looked tired, like a woman who hadn’t slept well in years. Tired and used to being tired, worn out with tiredness.

And then she saw the listing behind the glass: a house in the desert, an old house, all on its own, listed for precisely the sum she’d inherited. And in an instant, on the strength of the coincidence and because her mother would have disapproved, she decided to buy it.

Purchasing the place meant lawyers and taxes, so she did end up paying more than the magic sum. But she had plenty of savings, because spending money is hard when you hear your mother’s voice murmuring waste, vanity, unnecessary every time you get your checkbook out. The house was the first thing she’d ever bought despite that voice: her first indulgence.

raggedIt was a messy indulgence. The place had been abandoned, then squatted in, then abandoned again. The surveyor said the structure was sound and the pipes were still in place, but very little else was usable. The wallpaper hung down from the walls in long ragged strips. The windows were filthy, the bathtub stained, and the whole structure groaned like a ghost when the wind blew.

But the light was good, out there in the desert. The wind that made the house creak also blew the fragrance of sagebrush through the cracks around the window frames. And after dark, the stars spread out across the sky, extravagant, unnecessary, uncaring. She worked hard during the day and slept well at night, for the first time in years.

Out behind the house was a junkpile of sorts, dominated by an old washing machine, a tub-and-mangle affair one step better than a washboard. Around its feet were piled various rusted oddments, some identifiable (a frying pan, an old clock face, a rocking horse, some bedsprings) and some not. She’d found six doorknobs there one morning, just before she’d planned to go into town to pick up three doors she’d ordered. So she was in the habit of going out and digging around whenever she was looking for a tool or an oddment of metal.

One day she was turning over items in the pile, hoping for hinges for a kitchen cabinet. She lifted an old plank and saw that it had a mirror attached to it. The silver was spotted and the glass was cloudy, but she brought it inside anyway. She set it up on the mantlepiece. And every time she passed it, she looked in it, with her chin a little raised, and met her own eyes.

handball

One day as she glanced in the mirror, she noticed something small, round and unfamiliar on the windowsill behind her. She turned around, but the sill was empty. And yet, in the mirror, the round thing was still there. She took the plank down from the mantlepiece and backed slowly up, steering by the reflection.

When she was beside the window, she looked over her shoulder again. No ball. She looked away again and groped around behind her. Her fingers closed on something. It was cracked and rough, and surprisingly heavy when she picked it up. She brought her hand around and looked.

She was holding a ball that hadn’t been there before. She peered at it and saw old continents, faded letters, washed-out seas. It was a globe made out of solid wood, now bleached and split, as if it had been sitting in that window for a long time.

What do you do when you find something that shouldn’t exist? She made herself a cup of tea, then sat at the table with the old globe in front of her. There was no sense telling anyone about it, she decided. She had no proof that the globe hadn’t always been on that windowsill. And who would she tell, anyway? Gabe? Her real estate agent? Some newspaperman or internet researcher? No.

She left it on the table and picked up the mirror. Walking backward through the house, she looked for other things that weren’t there. But she didn’t find anything, so she put it back on the mantlepiece. She smoothed her hair, nodded at her reflection, and went to the kitchen to fix dinner.

Days passed. Autumn came. The house became livable, then comfortable. Wherever she walked in it, she saw things she had chosen, work she had done. It felt full of her in a way no house she’d lived in before had. She felt at home, and found it strange.

dressform

In November she found an old dress form in the attic and dusted it off. The black dress fit on it perfectly, so she stood it in her bedroom. She was only going to leave it there for a day or so, because the light would fade the silk. But the days passed, and there was always something else to do than worry about the dress.

One day she bought a new mantlepiece mirror. She brought the old one into the bedroom, wondering if she wanted to hang it above the dresser. She was holding it in place when she caught a glimpse of the dress form over her shoulder.

The dress on it wasn’t the simple black silk, the dress for endings. In the mirror, the form wore something extravagant, white and ruffled. With a shock of recognition, she realized it was the dress from her mother’s wedding pictures, which had all been thrown away after the divorce.

She glanced over her shoulder. Black dress. She backed toward the dress form with the mirror and reached out, wondering if she would feel the stiff ruffles of taffeta. But her hand brushed familiar crepe. She pulled a fold of it into her field of view, and it was black. She looked at her hand in the mirror, and saw it holding white cloth.

And suddenly it was too strange for her. She picked up the form and balanced it on her shoulder, still in the black dress, then carried both it and the mirror out of the house. She dropped them abruptly on the junk pile, hearing the mirror shatter as it fell. The dress form landed upright, and she left it there, standing behind the washing machine, facing away from the house.

She was sure she’d sleep poorly that night, but she didn’t. In the morning, she realized she’d been dreaming of her mother in the wedding dress, smiling in a way she’d forgotten her mother had ever smiled. Her pillow was damp with tears, the first she’d shed since her mother’s death.

She got out of bed and realized that she was cold. It had snowed during the night, the first real snow of winter. She dressed and went outside.

The dress form was still in the junkpile. The night’s fall had covered it, and at first she thought the changed shape was just the accumulation of snow. But when she brushed the powdery layer off, the fabric underneath was white taffeta, frivolous and unnecessary.


This story was inspired by photographs I took at Bodie State Historic Park this summer.

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

The voyage of discovery

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

I wrote, in my last piece on cycling through the Dutch landscape, about the vast openness of the terrain. But I don’t know that I’ve managed to bring out how very different that vastness is than anything else I’ve seen, or why that difference matters quite so much. I have been in other vast landscapes, particularly the California desert and the Scottish Highlands, but when I call them to mind as I cycle through Noord-Holland, they don’t map. They’re not the same thing.

What makes the polder different is not the great blue and white dome above me, nor the flat ground over which I ride. It’s the join between them that makes the landscape what it is: that thing that I described last time as the intricate silhouette of civilization that marks the boundary between earth and sky all around.

The more I go out into the polder, the more I see how that narrow, dark line is the focus of the whole landscape. It gives everything else scale and context. The sky is vaster and emptier against its peaks and curves; the clouds are fluffier for its sharpness. It frames and defines the fields around me. And it surrounds my journeys as well, lying at the beginning and the end of every path. Everywhere I go, I’m heading toward it—though, like a mirage, it dissolves into individual trees, houses and villages as I draw near. But then the ever-varied unified silhouette reappears, reformed, when I leave the settlement and reach the next set of fields.

The line marks the polder as a deeply, inescapably human thing. And the humanity of the land put me off of it for a long time. There’s nothing of the wild there, and wilderness was always my refuge and the reservoir of my peace.

When I lived in California, finding that refuge was easy: drive up to the cabin, camp out in the desert, hike through the forest. Moving to Edinburgh (without a UK driving license) taught me the tricks of simulating wilderness. There was a spot in Holyrood Park, deep in the bowl of the hills, where no sign of the city obtruded. There was a place one could stand by the old Royal High School, one’s back to Princes Street, and see only a single building against the park. The Water of Leith walkway, winding through the north of the city, provided both a visual and auditory escape from civilization. And on weekends, there were always the Highlands, and my in-laws’ place in Perthshire.

Of course, even the wilderness I knew in California wasn’t really wilderness. I’ve never actually walked where no human foot has trodden. The forest of my childhood was old logging land, and its paths were only passable because our neighbors ran cattle on the mountain. The Highlands are an ecological ruin from clear-cutting and overgrazing, now scattered with rectangular patches of row-planted Douglas fir (a New World tree). And the desert has roads, inhabitants, settlements.

But even that illusion is hard to come by in the Netherlands, particularly in the Randstad, the urban conglomeration on whose northern end we live. There’s a nature reserve near our house, which is sometimes almost close enough to natural to give me the feeling of wilderness. But it’s a tenuous illusion. I spent my first years here in a kind of terrified impoverishment, hoarding my approximations of solitude. I visited and revisited the few secret places where one can be entirely away from people and their visible works. I rationed out the joy of taking unexplored paths, knowing there were only so many new vistas of supposed isolation to be found in that constrained, village-bound patch of unfarmed land. I didn’t want to run out of peace.

I know now that I was starving in the midst of plenty. But accessing that plenty required me to learn to see the world in a way that is, with the irony of which only history is capable, one of the great gifts of the Dutch to European civilization. I had to learn to see the transcendent beauty of the ordinary works of man.

To unpick what I mean by that last sentence, we need to go back in time about four hundred years. Ironically, this puts us in the same time period that the Noord-Hollands polder was created. But now we need leave the new-drained fields and venture into the intricate line of civilization.

In the rest of Europe, the 17th century was the Baroque era. Paintings emphasized the dramatic, the historic, and the mythological. Portraitists made their money by painting royalty and nobility. Beauty was the purview of the ideal and the refined, and true art lay in transmitting that to the mortal observer.

But in the Netherlands, that time was called the Golden Age, and Dutch artists were otherwise engaged. With same materials and techniques that Italian and Spanish painters used to delineate the hair of goddesses and the robes of kings, they filled their canvasses with milkmaids by windows and serious merchants.

Nor were those artists out of step with the local taste. The Netherlands was at the peak of its wealth, and the new population of rich commoners commissioned the paintings they wanted to look at. They bought images of ordinary streets, and a girl looking over her shoulder. For an entire century, while the rest of Europe was admiring cherubs and personifications, the Dutch mercantile class was demanding pictures that cherished and valued the reality of their lives. These people had found the real world to be a good place, and saw art as means of celebrating that. And the artists they hired, who shared their culture and values, obliged, creating luminous, transcendent images of ordinary life and normal people.

(In the long term, the Dutch perspective prevailed. Although we have plenty of symbolic and mythological art, a quick glance at Flickr or Instagram shows that what we produce, share, and look at most often is that which takes the ordinary world and makes it memorable.)

As for me, I’ve come to accept that my notion of wilderness was as mythical as anything in a Baroque painting. I was assembling pieces of the world around me to construct an idealized scene: Eden itself, a world unspoilt by human intervention. It’s a powerful image and an easy road to tranquility. But it’s also a profound lie about the real-world elements I was using to build it, and they are luminous enough in their own right and in their own context.

So in the end, that intricate silhouette of civilization really is the heart of beauty, not only in the polder, but in all of our landscapes. I simply had to come here, where it’s visible, to see it clear.

Open landscapes are good like that.

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 13 Comments

And what is this new sense of time?

What is this weight in my mind?
And what is this new sense of time?
It’s the open fields and the friends that are gone,
And I’ve been in the lowlands too long.

—Gillian Welsh, “Lowlands”, who didn’t mean it the way I’m hearing it now.

The sun is sinking behind the clouds on the horizon. The official sunset time on the internet is still about ten minutes away, but the air temperature isn’t going to take account of that nicety. I stop and put my jacket on over my cardigan. It’s not quite enough, but I’m keeping the gloves and hat in my front basket. Sometimes the promise of more warmth later is better than the warmth itself.

This is a good spot. The bike path runs between two strips of water, both bright with reflected sky. To my right is a narrow patch of reeds, its leaves beginning to turn purple-brown with autumn. The last light of the day gives them a bit of its orange, a parting gift of warmth and richness. To my left, the fields stretch out for kilometers, flat and treeless. Only the livestock and the woodwork—bridges and little stretches of fence—break the landscape between me and the outlines of the distant trees and towns. Above it all, the sky is full of light.

Then the sun disappears and the land goes grey. Time to mount up and ride on. I’m still about forty-five minutes away from my village, and I’m getting hungry.

Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been out here without a good reason. Six months ago, I was indifferent to this vast, flat, wet landscape. My heart has always been in the mountains and the desert. When I moved to Scotland, I learned to love the terrain by analogy. The rolling hills of the Borders have a lot in common with those near San Francisco1. And the way that the bones of the land show beneath the heather in the Highlands echoes the California desert and its sagebrush. The places aren’t the same, really, but the similarity is enough to make a bridge. It’s enough to find a way to love the landscape.

But there’s no bridge from anyplace I’ve lived to the Dutch polder. This is nothing like anything I have ever known. If my love of California came through the front door and my love of Scotland through the side, this sudden, inarticulate love of the Netherlands is the unexpected guest who appears one day in the living room, ringing no bell and answering no invitation. And yet here it is, and it draws me out of the house and away from the cities every bright day. I go out for half-hour rides and come back three hours later, windblown and bright-eyed.

And the Noord-Hollands polder through which I’ve been riding is the real deal: the unfiltered, unadulterated Dutch landscape, served neat. It’s undiluted by tulips and uncut by the tourist trail. It stretches out northward from the urbanized shore of the IJ to the Afsluitdijk, making up the land between the North Sea and the IJsselmeer. The fields are punctuated by towns and villages: Purmerend, Volendam, Alkmaar, Heerhugowaard, Den Helder, Edam, Enkhuizen, Hoorn, Schagen, Heiloo. Straight, elevated canals and swift roads cross them, taking the people and the freight to and fro. But the land between is filled only with a kind of vastness: long, straight lines of pasture under the endless, endless sky.

This land was reclaimed from the water in the sixteenth century, and its first crop was Dutch democracy. The hoogheemraadschappen, the water boards that manage drainage and flood control here, are among the oldest democratic institutions in Europe. 2 They have endured in the face of centuries of authoritarianism, a living assertion that the best way to get a thing done is to empower the people who do it. The landscape here is their mute, stubborn, enduring proof, an irrefutable argument in mud and grass. The water boards are the reason that Dutch political culture, which demands cooperation between fundamentally different points of view, is known as the polder-model. This land was built by people who did not agree with their neighbors, but who worked with them anyway, and the people who live here do not forget it.

But that’s history, and this is working farmland. The old wooden pumping mills have been moved to the tourist attractions and nature reserves. What remains are long, narrow fields, divided by sloten (canals used primarily as drainage ditches3). Just as the Scots make fences from the stones they clear from their land, so the Dutch make them of the water they drain away from theirs.4 Because the sloten are sunken, the only visible fences are the short, gated stretches that prevent the livestock straying along the roads the tractors take from field to field. So the land has an odd, ragged look from a distance, as if some force had destroyed all but three meters of every fenceline.

Apart from the fences, all that stand above the fields are strips of reeds beside the water, wooden bridges carrying bike paths and roads over the canals, and the occasional bench where one can sit and look out over the landscape. I don’t think there’s anything to see, sitting on those benches, but I’m always half-afraid to stop and find out, lest a further undiscovered passion take me and I never get up again.

I’m only half-afraid, mind, because it’s not just the polder that draws me, but the act of cycling through it. Noord-Holland is interlaced with networks of bike paths, all well-marked and well-paved, used almost exclusively by Dutch people. My experience of the landscape is inextricably linked with the little thrums and whirrs of my bike as I ride, the steady progression the of ground beneath my front wheel, and the occasional nods and terse greetings shared with my fellow-travelers. I treasure this feeling of going somewhere, past these indifferent cattle and disinterested sheep, over bridges and beside bright stretches of smooth water, moving always toward the intricate silhouette of civilization that marks the boundary between earth and sky all around.

It’s not a landscape for secrets. You see whom you’re going to meet well in advance, and the prosperity or ruin of the next farm over is apparent at a glance. Even the rain comes well-heralded, sweeping across the open pastureland. I’ve read many theories that the Dutch bluntness and honesty comes from the openness of their land, that it grew alongside the polder-model in these fields. I don’t know if it’s true, or provable, but cycling here, I find it entirely plausible. This clarity and openness gets into a person’s head and won’t leave it. I can’t even imagine growing up immersed in it from birth. This is an area where many of the older generation still do not have living-room curtains, but choose to spend their leisure time in full view of their neighbors.5

And yet, despite that ceaseless visibility, it is a place of surprises: the tiny clover blossoms still showing beside the cycle track; the ruined propeller of a World War 2 plane that came down in the fields, a monument to the crew that bailed out over the North Sea and died; the cable ferries that take me across the broad canal, pulling themselves along on a metal rope suspended above the water6; the honesty-box stand where I buy six new-laid eggs, still grassy, for €1.50. And underneath those lies the constant rediscovery that this land is the work of human hands, and that it is pleasant because the people who built it valued the people who would live there enough to make it so. It is a perpetual gift from the past to the future, and I am perpetually humbled to receive it, like a stranger invited to dinner and fed the best food in the house.

I’m conscious that I’m finding it hard to disentangle my sudden passion for this open land from my steady, growing understanding of and affection for the people who live in it. Indeed, I get the sense that the two are deeply linked, that I journey into this culture the way I cross these open fields, and that the destination of the two is a single thing: home.


  1. Though something in my subconscious insisted that their greenness meant it was always spring, even in the snow.
  2. Making Light readers know that I’ve voted in their elections.
  3. Unsurprisingly, Dutch has a lot of complex technical vocabulary for waterworks.
  4. In the Netherlands, by the way, Robert Frost’s neighbor is right. Good fences make good neighbors here; an un-dredged sloot can endanger all of the fields around it at flood time.
  5. The younger generation do have curtains, albeit usually left open, and self-adhesive plastic that looks like etched glass to blur the view in.
  6. I asked the operator how ships got up and down the canal. She explained that they can loosen the cable so that it lies on the water bottom; they do it twenty or thirty times a day in the off-season, and a good hundred or so during the summer.


Originally posted on Making Light

Part two: The Voyage of Discovery

Posted in Blog, Things Dutch | 8 Comments

Babylon 5: The Coming of Shadows

Spock: Edith Keeler. Founder of the peace movement.
Kirk: She was right. Peace was the way.
Spock: She was right. At the wrong time.
The City on the Edge of Forever

Somewhere in my gut, storytelling and polyphony are mapped to the same pattern. They both start with a known base state which has some kind of harmony or stability. Then things get complicated: voices move away from one another and explore the melody; characters act. Dissonance, or conflict, occurs. Conclusion is resolution, a return to some kind of harmony.

(It’s an inexact analogy, and probably reveals as much about my ignorance of music theory as it does about anything else. But bear with me here.)

A short story is like a short composition: the voices don’t stray far or for long, because the resolution is coming right at us, counting down from the three minutes and fifteen seconds we had at the start. So false resolutions are rare and tricky things. But a longer piece may tease us with the hope of early resolution and snatch it away, just to show us how deep the dissonance is, and how far we have yet to go before harmony of any kind can be restored.

This is that episode. It’s the demonstration that this is going to be a long, long piece, because even the hope of resolution is a false one. The medium of this message is the story of one of the saddest characters of the series: Centauri Emperor Turhan.

Emperor Turhan wants to go to Babylon 5. His prime minster doesn’t want him to; his health is poor, and the trip will be strenuous. But he’s determined. He goes, leaving his wig behind1: “I will go among them as I am.”

G’Kar is, unsurprisingly, outraged at his coming:

G’Kar: He’s a monster…an aberration…a criminal! His family is directly responsible for strip-mining my world. His father personally ordered the execution of a hundred thousand Narns!
Sheridan: But he himself did nothing. Am I correct?
G’Kar: A technicality!
Sheridan: In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the current emperor has gone out of his way to offer your world concessions and return lost territory.
G’Kar: Stolen territory!

Essentially, G’Kar is offended that the Emperor’s wig is coming to Babylon 5. He’s offended enough to plan an assassination attempt2. But when the man, not the wig, arrives, the conflict in this episode seems resolvable. The Emperor’s mission is to apologize:

Franklin: He wanted to say he’s sorry.
G’Kar: What?
Franklin: He came all the way out here, risked his health and endangered his life, so that he could stand beside a Narn in neutral territory and apologize for all the things the Centauri have done to your people. For all the things his family did. He said, “We were wrong. The hatred between our people can never end until someone is willing to stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry’ and try to find a way to make things right again. To atone for our actions.” He said it was the only choice he ever made in his life. And now that seems to have been taken away from him.
G’Kar: I had…I had no idea.
Franklin: No, I’m sure you didn’t. Maybe that’s the biggest tragedy of the whole damn story.

It’s tantalizing to contemplate what could have happened, had the Emperor not had his heart attack on the way to the reception. Maybe it would still have failed; maybe G’Kar would have succeeded in his assassination attempt, or been killed while trying. Had he been captured but not killed, I suspect the Emperor would still apologize.

(Also, it’s a little irritating that JMS again uses an overt mistiming to rob his characters of useful encounters. I was OK the first time he did it, when Delenn goes into a cocoon before having a necessary conversation with Sinclair. But repeating the technique is starting to feel like poor plotting. It throws me out of the story a little.)

The other mistiming, equally painful, is that G’Kar goes looking for Londo after Franklin has delivered the Emperor’s message. It’s too late for that peace offering as well: Londo has already taken his next turn toward the darkness and called the Shadows in to attack the base on Quadrant Fourteen.

But the truth of the matter is that no perfection of timing would have saved the situation. Suppose it had all run straight: imagine the Emperor had apologized at the reception. Presume that G’Kar had bought Londo that drink before the latter promised Refa that he would do “something extraordinary—something unparalleled—to stand out” from the crowd of people maneuvering for the succession.

The Shadows would still be out there, looking for cracks in the unity and good order of sentient species the way that water looks for cracks in a dam. The anger of the Narn and the pride of the Centauri run deeper than an Emperor’s apology or an ambassador’s acceptance of it can heal. Refa would no doubt use the apology as evidence of the Emperor’s weakness and work to overthrow him, with or without Londo’s help; perhaps one day soon he’d get a dark-haired human visitor asking, “What do you want?”

And Refa has none of Londo Mollari’s virtues.

We’ve been given a promising harmonic between the sopranos and the altos, but the basses’ themes are still anger and war. The B-plot is a potent reminder of this: Sinclair sends a message to Garibaldi (and, at the end, Delenn) explaining that he has agents—rangers—throughout known space. He has his troops in place for the conflict to come. “There is a great darkness coming. Some of the Minbari have been waiting for it for a long time.”

Trying to stand against this, Emperor Turhan becomes an almost tragic figure: the Edtih Keeler of the story. Like Keeler in Star Trek, Turhan is absolutely correct that peace must be made. The Centauri owe the Narn more than an apology, but an apology would be a good start. But also, like Keeler, he must fail, or the darkness that’s coming will overwhelm everyone.

As Turhan tells Sheridan, he’s made virtually no choices in his life:

I have never chosen anything. I was born into a role that had been prepared for me. I’ve done everything that I was asked to do, because it never occurred to me to choose otherwise. And now, at the end of my life, I wonder what might have been.

In the end, he has one intention and one desire. He means to “seize that one last fragile moment” to make peace—but we see that fail in this episode. And he wants to see a Vorlon. That, he does manage to do. But Kosh’s presence is not a comfort:

Turhan: How will this end?
Kosh: In fire.

Second only to the emperor in futility in this episode is poor Vir, still trying to be the angel of Londo’s better nature:

Londo: Find Mr Morden. Bring him here.
Vir: Londo, don’t do this.
Londo: I have no choice!
Vir: Yes you do! Londo, please, please, I know you don’t listen to me, but I’m asking you just this one time, don’t do this. There’s no turning back once you start down that road.
Londo: Do I have to go find him myself?
Vir: No. No, I’ll go, and I’ll bring him back. And someday I’m going to remind you of this conversation. And maybe then—then you’ll understand.
Londo: I understand just fine. By this time tomorrow, we will be at war with the Narn. May the Great Maker forgive me.

There are effective choices made in this episode, and there is hope. Sheridan dissuades G’Kar from his first, murderous impulse to dealing with Londo. Using the information the ranger passes to Garibaldi, he saves the Narn civilian population from death or enslavement in Centauri labor camps.

And although G’Kar regrets his turn toward peace with Londo, it’s a genuine one; what he says over their drink is a foretaste of his own redemption and the foundation of the two’s future complex relationship:

I believed your people capable of only murder and pain. But apparently there is still a spark of decency in your genetic code. It’s not much of a foundation, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a start. I never thought I would be saying this, Mollari, but to the health of your emperor. And perhaps to your health as well.

Over in the tenor section, they’re singing of better things.


  1. From what we know of Centauri society, that’s a significant choice: he’s abandoning status markers in a stratified and competitive context.
  2. Even making, in a gesture that’s more chilling now than it was when the show was filmed, a video record of his reasons for the murder

The next writeup will discuss The Coming of Shadows

Index of Babylon 5 posts

Posted in Babylon 5 | 4 Comments