Windmill galore, to save the sinking land. Holland has been sinking since the Middle Ages, and it never stopped doing so.
What is causing this ? And how did the windmill save the sinking land ? A general notion - God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.
That's what they say, and there certainly is some truth in it.
Around here, as you know by now from previous pages, the concept of nature is indeed pretty relative. All man-made, basically. And during most of history, the people of Holland did not foresee the dramatic consequences of their actions, like this subsidence. Sounds familiar ? man-made land - waterland Sure, the Netherlands were always those low lands by the sea.
But under sea level ? No, of course not. That would have been pure science-fiction a thousand years ago. In its natural state most of central Holland was an immense peat bog, a wilderness. Wet, certainly. But way above sea level, and not even that flat at all as the constanly growing peat accumulations resulted in a somewhat sloping landscape.
In any case, it was all very uninviting for permanent human occupation. Few people lived there, surviving on fishing, and hunting waterfowl. If possible combined with a little bit of agriculture on those few spots that allowed it : on riverbanks, fluvial deposits, and at the dryer edges of the territory, towards higher grounds. Gradually people found that with proper draining techniques, they could change the bog into excellent farmland. A thousand years ago, this form of land reclamation started in earnest. Pioneers from all around headed into the empty wilderness. Digging ditches and canals. Backbreakingly plodding away. A hard life.
According to an old saying, it took three generations : the first found death, the second distress, only the third generation found bread. However, already a few generations later, people noticed a disturbing fact : the hard-fought land was subsiding, everything was going down. To their horror, they understood this was the result of their own doing.
Draining the land caused it to sink ! Slowly but surely the rivers and lakes became higher than the surrounding land. The building of dikes started, and dams in the rivers. dike building With the land becoming ever lower and wetter, ever harder to keep the water out, and most land became unsuitable for crop growing. Resulting in a forced change to dairy farming.
The basic fact that the land could no longer feed and sustain the growing population caused a dramatic change of destiny, as explained in urban society. As for the water level, at a certain point, natural drainage and sluicing away surplus water with the tides simply couldn't do the job anymore. Doom seemed once more inevitable, as heavy floods swallowed ever more land, creating new lakes. Or rapidly enlarging others, the so-called "waterwolf" at work.
In fact, by the late Middle Ages almost half of the land was lost to sea and lakes. Just in time, the windmill was adapted to the needs of water management. At one point an amazing 10.000 of these mighty machines were working around here, about half of them pumping out water. Dike and polder | Water windmill Unfortunately once started, the subsidence process becomes self-perpetuating. And there's a limit to as how high a windmill can raise the water. Again, just in time, the even more powerful steam engine was introduced. And later diesel and electric pumps.
Nowadays, that story is still continuing. Ever more people. The land sinking, and the sea level rising ... Cycling in the countryside of Holland, you'll see all elements that contributed to what was after all an ecological catastrophe.
And you'll be able to put a few things together that had consequences for many developments in history. Not for the Netherlands only.
There even is a reasonable chance it affected the history of your country as well. See country-links in Resources - 17th Century. dike building A general notion :
You can't build a dike on your own : We all flourish, or we all perish ! The simple and basic fact that, in this country, there is an absolute need to join forces if you want to keep dry feet. From early on in the Middle Ages, very strict rules were established for construction and maintenance of the all important dikes. Concerning all the people protected by that dike. Everybody was compelled by law and social rules alike to work and to contribute to common safety. This had an immense influence on Dutch mentality, and the way this country functioned and put itself together. Organisations taking care of the complicate water defence and regulation system were founded some 700 years ago. And they still do the job today. See Water Boards. Regional history continues on page > An urban society since the Middle Ages. to top of pageto top of page
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