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.


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.


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.



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.

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5 Responses to Peter Quince on the Polder

  1. Nix says:

    I was walking down from Ely Cathedral to the Ouse waterfront today and thought exactly the same thing. A bright, crystalline autumn or winter day (or night!) is simply lovely in great wide flat countryside like this (and indeed we are living in essentially the same countryside, built by the same people, on opposite sides of the water).

  2. janetl says:

    As a child, I took the train in West Flanders to and from boarding school as sunset approached in the fall. That slanting golden light across endless land!

  3. Nix @1:
    I should go to the fenlands someday, now that I’ve lived in the Netherlands. It’s a subtle kind of twinning, isn’t it?

    janetl @2:
    It’s not something one ever forgets, I think.

  4. Nix says:

    Abi, it’s more twinned than most twin towns, for sure: built by the same people in the same sort of environment at the same sort of time and still so similar that if you avoid taking photos of road signs, a photo of one locale could just as well be a photo of the other.

    One reason not to come, of course, is that it’d be just like staying at home, except the rail companies actively discriminate against cyclists here…

  5. Tim Hall says:

    I need take my camera outside between mid-October and mid-March. Too easy not to make the most of sunny days in the winter.

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