Looking for traces of peat in Dutch landscapes

This post is made possible by the scholarship and support of the Home Turf Project team in the University of Wageningen, led by dr Roy van Beek. This new series of blogposts helps me explore themes and questions that the team’s research – and visting the places themselves – prompt in my artist’s practice. Any errors unwittingly included are entirely my responsibility.

The Netherlands seems to be brimful of peat cultures and expertise on all kinds of peatland lives. The Home Turf Project’s research on human-land relations is a cauldron of ideas. There are many bogs to visit … conversations to develop … museum archives …  a dazzling array of connections to make.

On a foggy January day, I focussed on a book called Hoogvenen that is edited by Jansen and Grootjans, and published in 2019. Hoogvenen means literally ‘high bog,’ and refers to rain-fed bogs (as distinct from fens, known as laagvenen).

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As a book, Hoogvenen covers the landscape ecology, conservation, management and restoration of Dutch peatbogs. It gives a detailed introduction to peatland landscapes and the history of peat extraction in the Netherlands. The nineteen surviving peatbogs considered in the book are inland; their eastern counterparts were reclaimed long ago.

It is common knowledge that large parts of The Netherlands have been claimed from coastal wetlands. However, I am slow to take in the scale to which people have dug away expansive areas of peatbog.  I want to acquire an ‘eye’ for these changed Dutch boggy landscapes.

Hoogvenen is visually rich – with photographs, reproduced paintings, postcards, diagrams and colourful graphics.  As a warm-up exercise, I made quick copies to stop myself getting lost in detail. The TURVER pen has already imbued a sepia tinge, and this colour cast persisted as I learnt more about the historical extraction of peat (also known as ‘Brown Gold’).

 

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Quick drawing from a 17th century painting by Jacob Sibrandi Mancadan titled ‘Veenderij in volle werking‘- in Bourtangerveen. (Hoogvenen, 2019:126).

Mancadan was one of the earliest landscape artists to depict peatbogs. He gave this turfcutting enterprise a luxurious skyscape when he painted it in the seventeenth century. The foreground is populated by labourers who are cutting their way into a strangely bumpy landscape, with boats to transport the peat. The authors discuss this vaulted landscape (gewelfde); my limited language skills led me to keep looking at the pictures in the book.

Chapter 10, by Hans Joosten, describes the demise of Dutch hoogvenen.  How can the illustrations in this chapter help me imagine the extent of peat extraction?

 

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Quick drawing of a photograph by HHJ Mas (1909) in Het Goud van de Peel. 

A quote from HHJ Maas, an early twentieth century writer, refers to a vastness that had been growing under the surface for centuries – until a profit-seeking human eye discerned hidden treasure. At this time, peat was being extracted at an industrial scale, exemplified by the stacks of cut turfs in the photograph.

 

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Quick drawing of a 1980s map of fields to the east of Utrecht separated by ditches, indicating how villages were displaced as extraction expanded. (Hoogvenen, 2019:102).

The drawing above gives an impression of areas that were reclaimed between 1000-1300 CE. This period was called ‘De Grote Ontginning’ – The Great Reclamation. The motive was agricultural  rather than for turf-cutting. These areas are called veenweide-gebied and are situated in the central and western Netherlands. Maps show such areas as long meadows (polders) separated by ditches (sloten) draining the peatland.

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Quick drawing of a postcard image,  Kinderdijk by Gebroeders Verloop, Alblasserdam. (Hoogvenen, 2019:103)

From the fifteenth century onwards, windmills were built to pull water from the peatlands into rivers flowing to the North Sea. A postcard of the Kinderdijk, an iconic Dutch scene, shows an ordered cultural landscape. The typical landscape of strips of meadowland separated by ditches can be seen in more recently reclaimed lakes in north-western Netherlands as well as a result of The Great Reclamation. These processes are very different from what happened in the raised bogs in the ‘upland’ areas.

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Quick drawing from an aerial photograph of an area near Eernewoude  (Hoogvenen, 2019:103).

Sometimes agricultural land reclamation went so far that it created artificial lakes, called plassen. Aerial photos show the contours of these new watery landscapes.

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Quick drawing of the titlepage of De Turffis by Martin Schook, 1658. (Hoogvenen, 2019:104).

The economic importance of peat to the Low Countries is witnessed by a sixteenth century manuscript, De Turffis – heralded as the world’s first scientific book about peat.

 

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Quick drawing of men working at peat-cuttings, postcard image by R. Mande, Nieuw-Amsterdam.(Hoogvenen 2019:105)

The turfs were largely dug manually with handtools, but still at an industrial scale of peat-digging that has a different feel to a Scottish postcard staple of a Highland crofting family cutting their winter supplies.

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Quick drawing from a postcard image by MD de Lange, Veendam (Hoogvenen, 2019:105).

New canals were dug to transport the products of the Peat Colonies (Veenkolonien). Towns such as Veendam in the northern province of Drenthe developed at the canal endpoints.  Drenthe is widely perceived as the peat cutting area of the Netherlands: other parts of the Netherlands were historically rich in peatlands, but perhaps the ways in which these older cultural landscapes were created are harder to retrieve from collective memory.

In my exploration of Dutch landscapes, I still find it hard to realise the extent to which so many places have been carved from open peatbog. The book Hoogvenen has helped build up a visual vocabulary of diverse signs of a changed landscape – such as re-shaped horizons, a characteristic field pattern of polders and ditches shown on maps, and (in some places) increased surface water.  I learnt from the image above that typical northern townscapes, seen in postcards, emerged in in the nineteenth century when straight canals were systematically developed and lined by houses and roads.

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Quick drawing of a photograph of an industrial building near Maarsseveen (Hoogvenen, 2019:107)

 

I puzzled at a particular photograph, a strange image that took me aback.  What does this show readers? A woman stands underneath a small industrial building. It appears she is acting as a measure of how the ground level dropped as the former wetland dried out. The shelter was built in 1939, and the ground has sunk by 1.80 metres since then. Silage bales are stacked on one side of the building, witnessing the new agricultural use of former peatlands. Hot and dry summers are becoming more frequent, creating strange spectacles.

Changing times mean that peatland extraction is recognised as unsustainable and nature-based solutions are urgently sought.

As an artist, I am thinking how to nudge the meanings that a peaty vocabulary might convey.  The Home Turf team have pointed me to further texts that consider words; I find that these might invoke a sense of movement between places and also of being at work on the land.

Placenames can reveal previous landscapes. Veen (meaning peat, or bog) is common; for example on the motorway to the northern provinces you have the choice of going to Hoogeveen (High Bog) or Heerenveen (Gentlemens’ Bog).  Studying toponomy, or the place names in a region, can lead to both discoveries and further questions – as Lotte Matthu uncovered in her Bachelors’ thesis of 2017. The placenames Matthu considers evoke subtle differences in height as people over the centuries differentiated between land that was too low and wet to inhabit, and those that could be farmed and provide shelter.

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The Dutch word ontginning encompasses the concepts of land exploitation and  reclamation. Peat-cutting was one method, but stopped during the mid-twentieth century.  Herman Crompvoets (1981) collated a specialist dictionary of peat-cutting terms in the Dutch language, creating an encyclopeadia of words that may now be disappearing together with the generations who used them.

Crompvoets’s somewhat dry book offers damp and embodied possibilities, a sensuous suction into past depths and labours of peat-cutting. A short section on onomatopoeia gives a collection of words which came about because their sound was reminiscent of an action. This is a test for my studies of Dutch language!

Perhaps ‘woep’ means the sound of a footstep in peaty low-lying land?

Flodderen, florsen and vlossen might capture the sounds of dredging?

Google Translate defies me from arriving at the meaning of words such as lobberig, flab, pletsen, knip and knitteren. Perhaps these pronunciations should be rehearsed when moving through glutionous, squagy, lusciously damp peaty ground.

These three diverse scholarly enquires have let me glimpse how Dutch language, art, and photography inform the creation of environmental history. This has offered some pointers for developing a creative vocabulary to evoke peatlands’ presence.

 

References:

Hoogvenen:

AJ Jansen and A Grootjans (2019) (Editors) Hoogvenen,landschapecologie, behoud, beheer, herstel.  (Landscape Ecology of the Conservation, Management and Restoration of Peatbogs.) Noordboek: http://www.nordboek.nl

H Joosten, De teloorgang van het Nederlandse hoogvenen. (The demise of Dutch raised peatbogs). Chapter 10, pp. 101-107, in AJ Jansen and A Grootjans (2019) (Editors) ibid.

Peat terms:

H.J.G. Crompoets (1981). Veenderijterminologie in Nederland en Nederlandstalig België. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Matthu, L. (2017). BSc thesis. What’s in a name? Typical geographical names in a raised bog landscape and the relation with environmental conditions. University of Wageningen SGL-2017-021

 

A place for shelter and spending the winter.

On a windy February lunchtime, I set out for the Natuurtuin (natural garden) in Wageningen University grounds.

The board explained that the garden was laid out using local soil types. Along the edge of the path leading to the large pond, heaps of earth have been brought to the surface.

Green shoots were springing through the mole-hills.

A gentle sound of bricks being tapped into place came from the adjacent block of ground, with a swish of sand being swept across them.

A pump suggested underground construction. I had learnt from the notice-board that rainwater from the large pond is used as grey water in Lumen (one of the university buildings).

 

Further along the path, I saw that the natural garden is bounded by a heap of rubble. I am learning to see this as a sculpture – a work in more-than-human progress.

I was prompted to read more about this artwork which was created in 1996 by the sculptor Krijn Giezen. He was known for re-using debris to create structures that might eventually be seen as a natural part of the landscape, as plants grow over them. Giezen proposed a hollow wall that would with time provide shelter for wildlife, including bats.

This proposal for a Shelter and Overwintering Place for Flora and Fauna seems to have been criticised by staff. Some people were uneasy about the use of waste materials, and could not envisage what the completed work would look like. The installation was also complicated by the municipality’s requirement for both a building and environmental permit.

Despite being reduced in scale and scope, Giezen’s work survives as a refuge amidst new building work.

Trees are slowly becoming established. This work really grows on me too.

I returned on an even wetter day to see what creatures might be using the shelter, and realised that this artwork must be watched over time. Perhaps video conveys the place better than a photo can; you can see and hear the raindrops on this short clip:

Parts of Giezen’s wall seem to have become a research site. I assume the way some trees are wired up means that they are being studied.

A Coot was foraging by the banks of the large pond, unperturbed by the water-drops running off its back.

 

 The natural garden affords different kinds of foraging and shelter; it is a place with heaps of possibilities within a University of Life Sciences. I appreciate the pioneering environmental art of Krijn Giezen: right behind the bike-sheds, he has created a place that rewards attention.

Postscript

The next day, the builders took the barrier tape away. Pieter Slim kindly guided me to the focal point of the wall which I had not been able to see earlier. At the western edge, there is a tailor made entrance for hibernating bats – protected from martens who are also catered for.

This post is one in a series of #wetlandsketches in and around Wageningen University, a centre of expertise in the Life Sciences. As author of this post, responsibility for the content, and any unintended errors, is all mine.

My thanks to Pieter Slim for highlighting Giezen's project. 

Reference: Jansen, B, Ruyten L, de Windt, R and Zaal, A. (Editors) Lumen, Gaia, Atlas: Architectuur, kunst en tuinen van de gebouwen van de Environmental Sciences Group. Wageningen University: 2010.

Blue Room

Why might a nature reserve be called ‘De Blauwe Kamer’? In English this means: ‘The Blue Room’.

I visited this enticing place on a sunny Friday in February and worked out that this reserve was created in 1992 to give room for the river. This was an early project in what is now a national programme. The dyke was deliberately breached and the Nederrijn gained space for its ‘highly dynamic’ flow.

Board walk at Blauwe Kamer, 7th February 2020

I went again on Tuesday 11th after Storm Chiara had passed over. The river certainly had claimed room for itself.

Board walk at Blauwe Kamer, 11th February 2020

A section on the reserve noticeboard describes this changeable landscape. It notes that Wageningen University benefits from a rich range of soil-types for study and research. This includes swamps and raised bogs that grow in particularly wet parts to the north of the river.

Another noticeboard offers cyclists a rich choice of routes, giving the bodies of water clear blue edges.

Despite the recent storm which had created white crests on the water, the ferry to Opheusden was running as normal. We crossed fast-flowing water from inland Europe.

Coming back along the river dykes from De Blauwe Kamer, I saw how the dykes create a series of meadows with shifting water levels.

After I had returned to the calm of the university, a friend sent an email with a link to a compulsive video. This shows a familiar riverside cafe crumbling into the River Teviot in Hawick, Southern Scotland.

River levels are beginning to attract my automatic attention. I appreciate the firmly placed blue measuring posts you can see stretching into the sky along the dykes of the Nederrijn.

This post is one in a series of #wetlandsketches tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University, a centre of expertise in the Life Sciences. As author of this post, responsibility for the content, and any unintended errors, is all mine. 
Kate Foster 
Follow #wetlandsketches on twitter: @peat_cultures 

Missing Bog Moss

Water lifts its wings in Sphagnum Moss

This line encapsulates the dynamic relationship between rain and Bog Moss, and was written by Jos Smith (poet and academic at the University of East Anglia, UK).

My line-drawing responded to the idea that Sphagnum species (bog-forming mosses) are typically 85% water.

Sphagnum moss growing in a pool at Fochterloerveen, Northern Netherlands.

The green in the photo above is made by a species of Sphagnum moss that especially loves water. This was taken in January in Fochterloerveen (Drente Province, Northern Netherlands). The bog pool is surrounded by Molinia grasses that are beautiful in their own right, but whose success can pose questions for land managers.

Domination of a peatbog by Molinia grass might be the legacy of fire. Usually, a strand of Sphagnum moss has just one head (called a capitulum), but these plants can respond by growing many heads if a fire burns just the top layer off (as described by Dr Emily Taylor, recorded in a previous post).

I miss the presence of Bog Moss in the landscape, and went to look for it in Wageningen University Library. The botany collection has a definitive book on Dutch Bog Mosses: De Nederlandse Veenmossen by ACAM van der Pluijm and GM Dirkse.

The diagrams in this book describe typical Bog Moss structure, and give information about how to key out different species. All Bog Mosses have hyaline cells that expand when the plants become saturated with water, within their varied structures. Before now, I have experimented with how lines can show the presence of water in the hyaline cells of these remarkable plants.

Thank you to Jos Smith for permission to quote from an unpublished work, ‘Upstream Thinking’, created in celebration of peat restoration projects in south west England. 

This post is one in a series of #wetlandsketches tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University, a centre of expertise in the Life Sciences. I am also making connections to other artwork on wetland themes. As author of this post, responsibility for the content, and any unintended errors, is all mine. Kate Foster

Follow #wetlandsketches on twitter: @peat_cultures  

From the Miocene

The World Soil Museum is an independent foundation in Wageningen University with a display of soil monoliths and an extensive reference collection. ‘Monoliths’ are vertical sections of soil that are up to two metres deep and show the varied layers of soil. As a collection, the diversity of soil colours and textures is striking. I have to make frequent visits to learn to draw from this splendid array.

A different kind of object stands upright in the museum: it seems to be a sculpture of a tree trunk.

I draw to learn about it’s form. A series of ‘knots’ hint at a ring of branches.

The museum label tells me that this 6 million year-old fossil was once part of a forest of Glyptostroboxylon tenerum. Googling tells me that contemporary mammals had largely evolved in the Miocene era, but I fail to track down the shape of the tree itself. It seems many upright trunks were found, but very few that were lying down. What happened? I cannot envisage the environment in which this tree once grew or how it became a fossil.

However, the museum label does help imagine the place where this upright tree trunk was found – an open cast lignite mine at Hoensbroek in the south of The Netherlands.

Detail of label for Glyptostroboxylon tenerum in the World Soil Museum, Wageningen University.

Lignite, or brown coal, is peat that has been compressed by the layers above. It is still widely mined in western Europe, as detailed here. While I draw, tonal scales combine with timely reflections and my tongue rehearses names and concepts that are new to me (such as N.V Maatchappij tot Exploitatie van Bruinkoolvelden ‘Carisberg’ – The Company of Exploitation of Lignite Fields at Carisberg).

A small detail brings this fossil’s more recent history to life.

Until recently, it was displayed in the Soil Science and Geology Department (now Soil Geography and Landscape) in Wageningen University. Four drawing pins mark a previous label.

Later, I meet a former student of Soil Science and wonder aloud if it had been tempting to touch the object? No! I am assured that this specimen of Glyptostroboxylon tenerum was well out of reach in the stairwell. I appreciate the close-up view that I am now able to enjoy.

I am marking World Wetlands Day by spending a week tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University. Maybe the biodiversity of peatlands can be tracked down in the archives, in the landscape, in artwork, in libraries… ?  This project also seeks connections with artists working elsewhere on wetland themes. As artist and author of this post, responsibility for the content and any unintended errors is mine. Kate Foster

Follow #wetlandsketches #art4wetlands on twitter – @peat_cultures  

Aspen, perhaps

As homage to Betje Polak’s scientific drawings of pollen, this morning I studied a leaf found on wintery peatland ground in the Hoge Venen / Hautes Fagnes in East Belgium. From the length of the leaf’s stem, I thought it might be Aspen.

Seeing these leaves on the ground had reminded me of how scarce Aspen is in Scotland. The edge between our bogs and forests are often sharp lines of plantation spruce. I once tried to soften such a line, in an earlier project where I cultivated aspen.

Leaf – perhaps an Aspen – with a photograph by Ed Iglehart of Silver Flowe, Galloway, Scotland.

Back in Wageningen, I pinned my sample leaf on a noticeboard – imagining the presence of aspen in a panorama of Silver Flowe (a Ramsar site in south west Scotland). Aspens are known for how their leaves move in wind, making a rustle that can reach a crescendo in autumn. The leaves edges are toothed – a definitive shape that I need to learn.

The tree bark has whitish areas, with a diamond patterns.

This sketch followed. I thought about how a leaf can be collected and stilled. The intricate tonal range caught me.

I was tempted to keep working, but then decided to use this leaf as a pointer to take a breath outside, where the sun is shining.

It takes a hot summer to bring Aspen to flower: perhaps I may learn more about the ancient history of curious and beautiful tree from Betje Polak’s innovative studies of pollen in peat.

I am marking World Wetlands Day by spending a week tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University. Maybe the biodiversity of peatlands can be tracked down in the archives, in the landscape, in artwork, in libraries… ?  This project also seeks connections with artists working elsewhere on wetland themes. As artist and author of this post, responsibility for the content and any unintended errors is mine. Kate Foster

Follow #wetlandsketches #art4wetlands on twitter – @peat_cultures  

What a nice plant!

I have adopted a small cactus in a jar. She was on the table that has become my studio in the Home Turf Project. As Dutch phrases form slowly in my head, a statement bubbles up: Wat een mooie plant! It’s a bit like you might say if you happen to be given a bunch of tulips: Those are nice flowers! The typical oilcloth I have been lent for my table contributes to this homely appearance, a comfort and inspiration as I start work.

An image of a cactus in a jar with some earth, maybe peat, and gravel.

An uncomfortable question surfaces however. The jar has layers of brown amongst the white pebbles, it is a kind of soil that looks very like peat. I struggle with how to express these diverse little words in Dutch: Waar komt haar aarde vandaan? Where does her soil come from?

I am marking World Wetlands Day by spending a week tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University. Maybe the biodiversity of peatlands can be tracked down in the archives, in the landscape, in artwork, in libraries… ?  This project also seeks connections with artists working elsewhere on wetland themes. As artist and author of this post, responsibility for the content and any unintended errors is mine. Kate Foster

Follow #wetlandsketches #art4wetlands on twitter – @peat_cultures  

Thinking about Angus

Angus is a Black Grouse whose afterlife persists in an atmosphere of geographical enquiry.

Questions come to mind. Who hunted the moorlands where he came from? Who transformed his body into this pose, and where? Investigating such a skin creates the task of travelling back and forth in time and place: I know this from a previous encounter with another quintessential moorland bird, a female hen harrier (in Dutch blauwe kiekendief, or blue chicken thief). Shared investigations led to reflections on the ongoing persecution of birds of prey to conserve the interests of those who hunt gamebirds for sport. Scottish cultural geographers, Hayden Lorimer and Merle Patchett, added new lines of enquiry to a study skin held in the University of Glasgow Hunterian Zoological collection.

The name that Angus has acquired creates a Scottish connection within a hub of European Life Science, Wageningen University. I am mindful of our contemporary concern over intensified human management of moors that produce grouse. But perhaps this bird originated on the Hoge Venen, the High Moors – perhaps in the Ardennes or the former peat colonies in the North of The Netherlands?

This skin indeed offers a spectral presence of not only one bird’s life but also the ecological web that created it, and the human histories that are imbricated.

I am marking World Wetlands Day by spending a week tracing how peatland lives might ‘appear’ in and around Wageningen University. Maybe the biodiversity of peatlands can be tracked down in the archives, in the landscape, in artwork, in libraries… ?  This project also seeks connections with artists working elsewhere on wetland themes. As artist and author of this post, responsibility for the content and any unintended errors is mine. Kate Foster

Follow #wetlandsketches #art4wetlands on twitter – @peat_cultures