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