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.