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GoetheInstitute

24/05/2007

Underwater

Dutch author Hans Maarten van den Brink on the Dutch obsession with that lap, lap, lapping.

Climate change is altering the face of the planet. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung asked writers from zones far and wide for first-hand accounts of how it is affecting them. Read also Leo Tuor on thawing snow in Surselva, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on a stifling Christmas in Nigeria, Romesh Gunesekera on how the rain foiled the plans of the perfect farmer and Kiran Nagarkar on the smogs of Bombay. All the stories here.

Not far from where I live in Schagen, a carpenter called Johan Huibers has built an ark. It's moored in a narrow polder canal and towers 13 metres above the flat meadows of the province of Noord-Holland. A fantastic sight! It could have come straight out of a children's Bible with its rounded edges and cabin atop the 70 metre-long deck. It is fashioned from a new, light wood, pleasing to the eye. Noah had three sons, Johan only has one who helps him out on Fridays and Saturdays. Johan has done all the rest himself. But he's no mad eccentric or straggly-bearded prophet. He's a jovial, hands-on sort of person. The kind who sees challenges not problems. He's an athletically built, Christian businessman with a Clark Gable moustache who one night, ten years ago, dreamt that his country would be swallowed by the sea.

Actually it's a perfectly rational dream. After all, the northern part of Noord-Holland inhabited since the birth of Christ, has been flooded and then re-settled, and only dried up in the 16th century thanks to a series of dykes and pumping stations. Now the region is blossoming, with ample space for farming, industry and water sports. Most of this activity already takes place below sea level, that is below the current level of the nearby sea.

The Dutch grow up with the myths and legends of battles with the sea. I was virtually born with my finger in a dyke. Since time immemorial this battle wasn't just a practical one, it had a moral and theological dimension. The individual served the community in the name of the country. But unlike customary battles where defeat is a result of human failure, a flood is also a punishment meted out by God. And therefore it's always just. Was it pure coincidence that the rapid secularisation in the Netherlands in the seventies and eighties occurred at the same time that the last large coastal facility was completed? Since then the belief has spread that it's better to move with the water and that recovering land tends to create more problems than it solves.

This feels like a liberation, both physically and morally. "Let God's water flow over God's fields" meaning, "Lay your hands in your lap and let the loving God be a good man" is an age-old Dutch saying which for centuries has wagged the finger at sinful idleness. Today it's a guiding principle for architects and town planners dreaming of swimming buildings and blue cities floating blamelessly on the consequences of climate change.

But something in me says this solution is too simple. It's a win-win situation which just can't happen in the history of mankind, a denial of the inescapable tragedy of transience, mortality and of God who did not create the Netherlands on his own, but together with us. When water laps at the gates of Amsterdam and Schagen, it will be too late to put away the surfboards and ruefully return to the sandbags. In the meantime the sun is shining and we go on carefree. Johan Huibers' ark is not just about spreading the word of the Bible. He wants to make it into an amusement park. There's a religious reason for that; after all he's spreading a happy message. But there's also a practical one; it's the only way to get a bank loan.

*

The article was origally written in Dutch and appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 4 April, 2007

Hans Maarten van den Brink, born 1956, is an author and journalist. In 2000 he published his second novel, "On the water".

Translation from the German: Abby Darcy

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