The Romance of a Changing Landscape

If you spend any time at all in The Netherlands, it won’t be long before you notice a plethora of barges, working or not.

You see them parked on the canals of Amsterdam, or on its outskirts,

or on the rivers, plowing towards other cities or towns.

My husband grew up on one of those barges.

He comes from barging families on both sides that go so far back no one remembers how far. When I first met him, he described growing up on the boat with a grin and a twinkle in his eye, and he attributed his becoming a visual artist to the ever-changing landscape of his childhood.

In some ways it’s romantic: even now it’s a lifestyle that requires both more of you and less of you than living in a traditional home. Fewer possessions (because the boat’s your home, as well as a space for cargo), fewer ties, but limited resources like water and heat.

In other ways it’s more difficult. He and his brothers got sent to boarding school at the age of six. Every Thursday evening, his parents would call the school, and after school the next day he and his brothers would get put on a train to the town closest to where the boat was. On Sunday afternoon, his parents would put him on the train back to school.

It was a reality of the profession. Here’s a documentary about that, which was made in 1982.

Not much has changed since then. The lifestyle’s still more or less the same, though made a bit easier with cell phones and computers. The boats are getting bigger because fuel’s more expensive and carrying cargo needs to be more efficient if they’re going to compete with trucks on roads. Young families choose to do it less and less too. But the fundamentals are still the same. I wonder, though, if they will be another 30 years from now.

My husband’s parents sold their boat about 5 years ago and now live on land. They say they don’t miss it, but I wonder how much a static landscape has changed them, rewired their brains even. Just as stepping from a static landscape to an ever-changing one rewires ours.