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.

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13 Responses to The voyage of discovery

  1. This articulates, better than I’ve ever managed, why I find the Dutch landscape so exhilarating. It’s because the whole place is a human artifact, not despite that fact.

    I remember you and TNH and I driving across Flevoland, the province entirely composed of land dredged up from the Zuiderzee. I don’t remember which of us it was that first observed that this is what the inside of a generation starship would look like. And spectacularly beautiful for all that. But I’ve yet to see a still picture that conveys it.

  2. Vermeer has always been on of my favorites, for precisely that ability to identify the sacred heart within the mundane scene.

  3. PNH @1:
    Fascinating. So the thing that bounced me off of the place for so long is the thing that draws you to it.

    By the way, it was you who made the observation about generation ships. I’ve actually done a few things on the Worldbuilding section of this blog that run with that notion, playing around with life on the entirely hypothetical De Nieuwe Batavia.

    Mac @2:
    that ability to identify the sacred heart within the mundane scene.
    Yes, precisely. Even among the Golden Age painters, Vermeer is special.

    But they were all at it, after their own fashions. Rembrandt’s work reminds me of the gruff, bluff ways that crusty blokes hide tender feelings. Hals strikes me as the kind of guy who falls a little in love with everyone he meets, and throws parties mostly to introduce people to each other.

  4. praisegod barebones says:

    I’m struck by the fact that two of the books that I’ve most enjoyed in the past few months have had as a central theme the idea that what seem to us like natural landscapes have been deeply shaped by human purposes. One of them is (of course) ‘Among Others'; the other is China Mieville’s ‘Railsea’, which I finished this morning. (And that’s got me thinking, because of what I know of Mieville, about the political implications of acknowledging that a lot of what we take to be natural more generally is the outgrowing of human purposes. Of course, if I were just a tiny mite sharper, I’d have got there without that detour, just by thinking about some of the other things you’ve said in your Netherlands posts…)

  5. praisegod barebones @4:

    Among Others, and the Livejournal entry that gave rise to it, were definitely part of the soup of ideas and concepts in my head when I started going out onto the polder. I haven’t read Railsea, but it looks like I’m going to have to.

    And that’s got me thinking, because of what I know of Mieville, about the political implications of acknowledging that a lot of what we take to be natural more generally is the outgrowing of human purposes.

    Oh, my, there’s a heck of a lot in there. Off the top of my head: the natural history of the Scottish Highlands; pretty much everything that happened to the Plains Indians after the importation of the horse; many of the urban wildfires of the American west since the appearance of both Smokey the Bear and suburban sprawl. I’m sure there are more.

  6. OtterB says:

    I have sitting on my TBR shelf a book entitled “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,” by Emma Marris. Book description says “A paradigm shift is roiling the environmental world. For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature. Humans have changed the landscapes they inhabit since prehistory, and climate change means even the remotest places now bear the fingerprints of humanity. Emma Marris argues convincingly that it is time to look forward and create the “rambunctious garden,” a hybrid of wild nature and human management.” I have read a couple of chapters and found them sufficiently thought-provoking that I put the book back down until I had time to think – which was probably an error.

    Also, this? ” I had to learn to see the transcendent beauty of the ordinary works of man.” This is is a wonderful sentence and concept.

  7. ACW says:

    Something in this post has brought me almost to tears, with an inner voice exclaiming, Yes. This. I have spent perhaps half an hour in Holland, and the post makes me want to go give it a careful look.

    There’s a resonance here with one part of My Dinner With Andre, when Wallace Shawn argues, to me very convincingly, that there is exactly as much reality to be found inside a tobacconist’s shop as there is on the summit of Everest, and that the apparent sublimity of the latter is illusory.

    I would love to hear a similar analysis contrasting Dutch literary esthetics (of which I know nothing) with those of the rest of Europe, especially with England (of which I know something).

  8. OtterB @6:

    That sounds like a very interesting book. But it also sounds very American to me; the British, at least, already have a very different notion of “pristine”.

    Some background: My family have long been members of the California Native Plants Society. My uncle runs a native plants nursery, and is the kind of guy that gets called in to restore damaged habitats. I grew up in the mindset of Marris’ starting point.

    Then I moved to Scotland. It’s post-glacial land: the ice retreated 10,000 years ago, and the humans came shortly thereafter. Although the media discusses wildlife in terms of “native” and “introduced” species (rhododendron is a particular problem), even the native species are really “introduced-long-enough-ago-to-find-a-niche” species. Ecologists tend to avoid the dichotomy and talk about the dates when things arrived.

    When they were planning the Millennium Forest for Scotland, which is actually a network of related replanting projects, forestry officials avoided phrases like “virgin forest”, generally focusing on “restoring the forest as at the time of Robert the Bruce”.

    The more I poke at the notions of virgin ecosystems that I grew up with, the more uncomfortable I get. It’s reasonably clear, for instance, that many Native American tribes used to set fires to control plant growth and reset the ecological cycle to a point that was more amenable to their needs. So if they were doing this—and many other things about which we don’t know—for centuries before the Europeans came, then how is it possible to know what a true virgin ecosystem was? It strikes me that pretending that pre-European equals virgin is another way to elide or deny the complex societies that lived in North America for thousands of years.

    Besides, you can’t unring the bell. Pampas grass, Eucalyptus and Scotch broom are all established in California, and they’re not going away. Organizations like CNPS are important, for cataloging and preserving long-established plants, but the goal of truly restoring any historic ecosystem is probably unrealistic, and we should balance the resources we put into it with those we put to finding new ecological balances.

    </rant> It sounds like an interesting book, and a more realistic approach. I’ll have to take a look.

    ACW @7:

    I haven’t seen My Dinner with Andre. It occurs to me that I might want to. But I recall a bit from Clutch of Constables, by Ngaio Marsh, where a group of people discuss whether a piece of litter whose color adds just the right visual balance to a natural scene is a good thing or not. There’s some deep similarity there, but I’m not quite sure how to connect it up.

    I would love to hear a similar analysis contrasting Dutch literary esthetics (of which I know nothing) with those of the rest of Europe, especially with England (of which I know something).

    Unfortunately, my reading rate in Dutch is far too slow to manage this. And I don’t know anything about Dutch literary esthetics at all, in any period.

  9. otterb says:

    Abi @8, yes, the key is the idea of finding a new balance because any return to the old balance is illusory – what old balance, and when? And also that it’s a recipe for despair to believe that an impossible return to an illusory past is the only way to Do Environmentalism Right. And you’re correct, of course, that the British will necessarily have a very different view of wilderness than Americans.

    This also makes me think about the British – and Dutch, of course – who went out from a more-developed, more human-affected landscape to explore and colonize the rest of the world. They carried with them a mental model of what a civilized landscape looked like. Those who were born in New World territories would have had a different mental model. It took some time before the wilderness changed from something to conquer into something to protect.

    The liking for human-caused change in the environment is often related to how new it is. The graffiti someone carved into a tree last week is deplorable. The initials dated 50+ years ago are fun. Carvings or paintings that date back centuries are viewed as worthy of their own protection. “You kids get off my ecosystem!”

    Huh. This is reminding me of Steven Gould’s Wildside, which I haven’t reread in a long time but probably still have around somewhere. I remember that on the wild side of the door the characters found flocks of passenger pigeons and a large predator of some kind, but I don’t remember any more than that about how he described the environment as different without humans.

  10. ACW says:

    Abi @8: My Dinner with Andre is probably worth the hour and a half, as long as you don’t mind the concept of a movie in which nothing happens except conversation. The movie is an interesting litmus test. The two characters have very different cognitive styles and temperaments, both of fairly familiar types. People seem to react, almost always, by saying, “I love how the move skewers the P type of personality and shows Q type to be better.”, but they disagree on which type was being skewered!

    Be cautioned that the movie was not filmed extempore: it was carefully scripted, and the two characters are not intended to be the actors’ real-life personalities. Wallace Shawn has said that he would like to do a remake and take the opposite role, just to illustrate this.

  11. OtterB @9:
    This also makes me think about the British – and Dutch, of course – who went out from a more-developed, more human-affected landscape to explore and colonize the rest of the world. They carried with them a mental model of what a civilized landscape looked like. Those who were born in New World territories would have had a different mental model. It took some time before the wilderness changed from something to conquer into something to protect.

    The interesting personality to examine in this light is John Muir, who moved to the US from Scotland at the age of 11. His early life in America was on a farm (again, nature as a thing to be used for the good of mankind). He later went on to live in Yosemite and argue for its preservation from sheep-grazing. He founded the Sierra Club, and has a firm claim as one of the fathers of the modern concept of wilderness.

  12. mike shupp says:

    And now I find I’d like to see Holland for myself — not something that would have occurred to me even back in the days when I was reading Nicholas Freeling mysteries at the rate of one a week…

    Your writing is lovely. Thank you for this blog.

  13. A great piece abi. Some of the connection is a bit less obvious in the East and South of the Netherlands where I grew up. But there is still the realization that everything is human influenced to a large extent, and that is is quite possible to enjoy the landscape despite that.

    It seems wondrous that so many things came together at the same time. That made landscape. The Calvinism limiting obvious ostentatiousness, while also looking down of the art subjects of the middle ages. Merchants competing to show off within the limits of that religious culture. Perhaps there is some deeper interconnection that made this effect likely to occur.

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