Nature, in quotations

I have a new obsession: what “nature” means in different cultures, or even the different interpretations within a single culture. OK, maybe it’s not a new obsession for me – a variation of it has always been lodged in me, but since moving here it’s been reshaped, or at least come to the fore. Last week I went to Tiengemeten, an island in southern Holland that for nearly 300 years was farmland, but which in the last 5 years has been “returned” to “nature”. I put both of those things in quotations because the interpretation of them is highly subjective. Talk to a Dutch forester, and his opinion will be very different from that of a Somali refugee, or a resident of Mumbai. If anything, my trip there brought to light my own biases, or judgements.

As a Canadian (for what I think are obvious reasons, but if not, I’d be happy to explain them), when I hear the words “returned to nature”, I think of something being left fallow. A piece of land which is left as is (and as it was) so that the evidence of human presence there deteriorates, and things are left to grow wild, on their own. It doesn’t involve orchestration or cultivation. It doesn’t mean tearing old roads out and putting in new ones, determining which trees should go, and where a nice, new straight line of them should be… it means leaving everything be, because nature will take it over. There are few things that make me happier than seeing an abandoned asphalted road completely uprooted by things as benign as dandelions.

Tiengemeten was not exactly a shock, more a frustration. Let me explain. The island is about 7 km by 1.5 km – not huge, but in Holland, which has a population density greater than India, it’s a big deal to have that much space to call nature. The 6 farmers that lived on the island were given new farms on the mainland once it was decided that they’d no longer be allowed to live and work there. And as soon as the last farmer left, the Dutch Nature Preservation Society (Natuurmonumenten) set to work. They tore down the worst buildings, but left most of the farmhouses and barns standing. They took away part of one of the original dikes (and others in their entirety) that made it possible to farm on the island from the 1750s onward. That created a swamp in the middle of the island that leaves a great deal of it underwater, but which has brought a great deal of new birds to the area (but which was never there pre-farmers). As I mentioned earlier, they took the old roads out, only to put them in again on another part of the island, and did the same with trees.

This is what it looks like now.

5 years in, I have to say that the most overwhelming thing about the island was how transparent the workings of PR, or branding, or even just a government funding justification were – the whole plan was visible, physically and mentally, in the landscape. In some places that had been flooded, it was clear that one was looking at a former road with water on top of it.

The history was there, and I actually liked that part. It’s sort of the reverse of the those dandelions pushing up through unused asphalt. Or at least the Dutch version.

But I realized two things after I left: that returning something to nature doesn’t necessarily mean returning it to its original state (which, in Tiengemeten’s case, would have meant a large sand bar in the middle of a river) and, that nature takes time. Everything is in place now, the forester told me. All we have to do now is wait. If I’m still alive 50 years from now, you may see another post.