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Judith Linders

Column, review, essay

  • Writer's pictureJudith Linders

The Netherlands, a landscaped park

“There is no nature in the Netherlands, the Netherlands is just one big, landscaped park.”

During the introduction of a documentary photography course, I mentioned that I was going to do a photo project about biodiversity. That I love nature and want to dedicate my photography to it. My fellow student looks at me sombrely when he makes the “no nature” comment. According to him, we live in a country without nature. That comment is far from original, I hear it regularly. The fellow student added that he equates nature with pristine wilderness, which has not undergone any influence from humans. His comment bothers me. But why exactly? I've given that a lot of thought in recent months.

First, there is a problem of definition. A quick search with Google informs me that the word nature has many definitions. For example: all living organisms, their habitat, the ecosystem of which they are a part and the associated, self-functioning ecological processes, regardless of whether they occur under the influence of human action, with the exclusion of cultivated crops, farm animals and domestic animals. Or: everything on earth that is not made by man: plants, animals, mountains, etc. In economics, nature is defined as everything that is naturally present in an economy, natural resources such as natural gas, the climate, animals and plants. Significant in the latter definition is that these resources are regarded as production factors.

“Pristine wilderness, without any human influence” is a definition that raises the question of where the boundary lies. When was nature still nature? And when did that change?

When humans first used tools?

When they learned to control fire?

When hunter/gatherers started growing crops about 4,500 years ago?

Can such a boundary be set at all? Is it not true that man has lived with and in nature from the dawn of time and that there has always been mutual influence? Also, humans are not the only animal species that influences nature. Take beavers. By gnawing down trees, they create open spaces in tree-rich areas, allowing butterflies and dragonflies to prosper there. By building dams they regulate water levels and thus prevent flooding or they ensure that areas remain wet enough during dry periods.

On a June day I am at Tongelaar Estate to take photographs. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. A Brabant cultural landscape that once arose around a medieval motte-and-bailey castle. It's warm and all I hear are insects buzzing. The dry earth smells of summer. Sunlight is filtered through stately, old oak trees. Then I hear the summer sound par excellence. Cuckoo, cuckoo. What a wonderful moment. I wonder what the cuckoo is, in my fellow student's definition. Is the cuckoo nature? Or is it only nature when it spends the winter on the wild savannah in southern Africa, but no longer when it lives in our cultural landscape in the summer?

A second problem is that defining nature as wilderness without human influence puts us in checkmate, because this definition irrevocably leads to the conclusion that there is indeed no nature left in the Netherlands. For some, that is a useful conclusion, because if something doesn’t exist, you don't have to worry about protecting it. You can bury your head in the sand, deny the climate crisis and continue living life, unconcerned, without ever denying yourself anything. Perhaps more unfortunate is that this conclusion leads to feelings of powerlessness and despondency in people who actually love nature. “ Man has destroyed everything, there is nothing left to save.” This way of thinking tells of a longing for a pristine state that never really existed. A longing for a paradise where man lived in perfect harmony with and in nature. Now only loss remains. And cynical contempt for man, that great destroyer.

In my opinion both positions are regrettable because they do not lead to positive action.

I think that the problem with nature is not so much that we influence it. The problem is that this influence has become disastrously out of balance with the increase in scale in agriculture since the 1950s, the incredible growth in industry and traffic in the last seventy years and the skyrocketing consumerism of the last forty years.

It's almost five o'clock and I'm still in bed when one spring morning I hear a bird. Puuuuw, Puuuuw, Puuuuw, Puwiep, Puwiep, Puwiep, Beep, Beep, Beep, Truwtitie, Truwtitie, Truwtitie. And amongst those sounds, some rattles. I have never before heard a bird with such a large repertoire of sounds. Its volume surpasses that of all other birds in the park next to my flat.

As I lie listening I am reminded of what Montaigne wrote about our communication with animals. “How can man, with HIS intellectual powers, know the inner, hidden motivations of animals? From what comparison between them and himself does he infer that they are stupid? And why shouldn't it be as much our fault as the animals' that we cannot communicate with them? The question of whose fault it is that we cannot understand each other cannot be resolved, because we understand them no more than they understand us." With this point of view he went against the grain.

The grain that originated somewhere in ancient times, when man fell in love with his intellectual powers and saw reasons to elevate himself above his natural environment. Plato thought man was special because of his ability to reason and find out how the world works. In monotheistic religions, the idea of a unique human soul was developed into the belief in one God, who created the world and man in his image. The inspired human being was higher on the hierarchical ladder than his environment and was chosen to rule over the natural world. That idea is so important that the Bible opens with it. The philosopher Descartes goes even further. He sees only the intelligent use of language as proof of having reason and a soul, and animals cannot provide that proof. He compares animals to a clock, which consists of cogs and thus functions. Animals have no soul and no feelings; they are mechanical beings that act from reflexes and involuntary actions.

I think every dog owner knows that the latter is not correct. Of course, Descartes didn't know Cindy, the Scottish Collie I grew up with. She was not allowed to lie on the couch or chairs. When we had been away for a few hours, she would lie on the floor when we got home. But if you felt my father's chair, it was completely warm. Asking the dog whether she had secretly been lying on his chair always resulted in a very guilty look, which never failed to charm us out of giving a rebuke. There are countless videos on Facebook of animals showing emotions.

Millennia of philosophy and religion with their unwavering dogma of our superiority have had a major influence on how we now deal with nature. Not with our pets, which we pamper, but, for example, with animals that suffer in factory farming, so that we can eat our clinically pre-packaged piece of meat. The move away from the idea that we are part of our natural environment makes it very easy to close our eyes to the disastrous influence we exert on it.

Tokyo's subway system is a textbook example of human intelligence. It is ingeniously designed and extremely efficient. Scientists in Japan conducted an experiment to see how a slime mould, Physarum Polycephalum, reacts in a petri dish in which oat flakes had been placed in specific places, corresponding to the location of the towns and cities surrounding Tokyo. In the middle was the oat flake that was supposed to represent Tokyo itself and the slime mould was placed on top of it. In the beginning, the slime mould branched out in all directions indiscriminately. But after a few days, fewer branches appeared and they became more efficient at making connections between the oat flakes. Ultimately, the slime mould had created a network that was virtually the same as the subway network. This mould is a life form without a brain or central nervous system. Yet it branched out in an effective and intelligent manner.

Perhaps it would be a good thing if we humans became less arrogant and recognised that although our intelligence is unique, it is certainly not the only kind of intelligence that exists.

When I bought a camera on a whim about six years ago and started doing landscape photography, something very logical happened that I had not expected. I learned to see. And later I learned to hear. In the beginning I mainly learned to see patterns in landscapes and subtle differences in light and colour. Later, when I went photographing in the forest, I started to notice small deviations in the movement of leaves in the undergrowth, a sign of animal activity. I learned to recognise what the rustling of different animals sounds like.

At the Sint-Jansberg, my favourite nature reserve, I once saw a fox out of the corner of my eye that wanted to cross the path I was standing on. I saw it before it noticed me and stood very still. When it spotted me, it hesitated. It wanted to cross but had to assess the danger first. Then it walked on, stopped for a moment, and walked on again, at its leisure, or so it seemed. It crossed the path without looking at me again, like a little child putting its hands over its eyes, thinking that if it doesn't see you, you won't see it. Once the fox reached the other side of the path, it quickly disappeared between the trees. It was an enchanting moment for me, which made me very happy. I had just seen a fox up close!

Another time I wanted to rest on a fallen tree. It had rained heavily the night before and the forest was full of scents. The conifers in particular smelled wonderful, with their seductive perfume of cotton candy sweetness and earthy wood. When I went to sit down I saw dozens of woodlice on the tree stump. They are amazing animals that once moved out of the sea onto land but have retained their gills. These have been adapted so that woodlice can live on land and they are still used to absorb oxygen. Because of this, woodlice must live in a moist environment. As they are nocturnal animals, you rarely see them. As children we often found them by turning over stones or tiles. They are useful animals that contribute to the humus formation of the soil by eating and defecating dead leaves. I observed them at my leisure. I really enjoy being in the forest and discovering new animals and plants. Sometimes I see animals I had never heard of before, such as the little grey bird with the dark head that was curious to see what the photographer was doing. The great app Obsidentify told me it's a Eurasian blackcap.

The wild forest

Yet I am not so naive as to think that nature in the Netherlands is doing well.

The Sint-Jansberg is not a particularly large nature reserve, about 226 hectares and originally it was largely landscaped, except for some patches of primeval forest. It is a nature reserve that is under heavy pressure. That is why Natuurmonumenten, who owns it, is taking firm action. For example, by combatting the adverse effects of nitrogen deposition. Or by implementing measures that prevent the ingress of nutrient-rich water into areas with wet alluvial forests. Natuurmonumenten also ensures that the habitat of the rare stag beetle is improved, so that this attractive forest dweller has an easier time. They are working hard to create a more robust nature reserve, with more biodiversity. Here, human influence is aimed at strengthening and protecting nature. The Sint-Jansberg is not the only area where nature is having a hard time in the Netherlands. Half of our 358 species of wild bees are endangered, for instance. They are crucial for the production of our food. 80% of our edible crops depend on pollination by bees and other insects. But as agriculture scales up, their habitat has become less nutrient-rich and many bees are being poisoned by the use of pesticides.

I understand why my fellow student becomes gloomy and despondent, there are so many problems and they are profound. Sometimes they even seem insurmountable.

But still... there is still so much nature to be found in my country. If you just look at the Sint-Jansberg, you will find deer, wild boar, badgers, various types of mice, pine martens and countless animals that remain invisible to us, such as the rare sedge snail, which is only 2 mm in size. There is a wide variety of plants, some of which only occur very sporadically in the Netherlands, such as the Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage and the Giant Horsetail. The latter are grouped together in large numbers at Sint-Jansberg and I think they are beautiful, they look like a green, fluffy cloud. When I think of all the life that exists here, even if we don't see it, I am filled with wonder.

Giant Horsetail after rain

I take a break on my favourite forest path during a long photo excursion. It is a sunny October day. The air is humid and already smells slightly of decay. Leaves float down and in the sunlight they look like golden discs. The trees here are still partly green. Further away, leaves dance upwards in a sudden gust of wind. Beneath my feet, miles of mycelium connects the trees in a network of communication and mutual assistance. A woodpecker taps on a tree trunk. I feel peaceful and sheltered. I feel connected to my environment, part of the magical forest, which is full of life.

Suddenly I realise why my fellow student's comment bothers me so much. This is because of the lack of connection with our natural environment that it expresses. Viewed in this way, the comment seems directly derived from our belief that we humans are separate from and superior to nature. The comment shows that there is a profound distinction between man and nature. It is high time that we leave that unwholesome belief behind us.

Nature in the Netherlands is rich and varied but is increasingly under threat. This means that it urgently needs people who want to protect it. When you literally stand still in nature, take the time to observe and really see it, marvel at its richness and feel connected to it, something special happens. Something that leads you to make choices that are good for nature, even if you have to deny yourself something to do so. For instance, as a photographer, I choose to remain on the paths in nature reserves, even when the temptation is to get off them, because I think then I can take a much nicer photo.

The despondent “There is no nature in the Netherlands, the Netherlands is a landscaped park” does not lead to those kinds of choices. After all, how can you want to protect something that doesn't exist?


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