David Storrar Meldrum.

Home life in Holland online

. (page 16 of 31)
Online LibraryDavid Storrar MeldrumHome life in Holland → online text (page 16 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

as feels. And the boer, her man, took my fancy because
of a dozen likenesses to a boer at home, and not least
because he also has a deep zest in the game which both
of them called the " dambrod."

The fen-colonies which we are to visit next lie to
the south of Groningen and extend away down into


Drente, the province of waste lands. From Groningen
to Koevorden almost, and from Meppel to Ter Apel,
must be imagined a great stretch of heather. In the
middle of this stretch is the moorland proper, with
villages encircled by their strip of agricultural lands.
The white, long-tailed sheep crop here all the year round,
while the shepherds knit stockings as they tend them,
and swarms of bees are brought to make honey in the
heather when the colza season is over. It is impossible
for one who has not seen it in the rainy season to
imagine the desolateness of this moorland, when from
the soft, slaggy roads the sodden heather stretches away
like a vast foreshore of seaweed left by the tide ; with
tawny patches, and muddy and sandy hollows, and pools,
and inland seas with rippling waves, and birch clumps
here and there that loom like headlands through the
mists. Beyond these sandy heaths, and also heather-
covered when undug, are the high fens, the famous peat-

The reader must understand, however, that the peat-
beds of Holland are of two kinds. Hard peat, or korte
turf, as the Dutch call it, is found in the low beds, lying
below the normal peil. When the bed is opened, the
peat is dug and kneaded and treaded and mixed into
a paste, and then removed to straw spread upon the
neighbouring ground, and so brought by the sun and
the pressure of human foot, or occasionally by machinery,
to a consistency at which further manipulation of it is
possible ; after that it is cut, stacked, dried, and ulti-
mately sent to market. Such is the history of the fine
hard peat that is used in the stoves of houses and in the
footstools with which my lady keeps herself comfortable
in church.

The exhaustion and non-draining of low peat-beds,
often at the expense of fine agricultural land, was the


origin of many of the stretches of water the inner waters
which covered the face of the Dutch lowlands in
earlier days.

The high fens, again, are beds several feet in thick-
ness, of peat of a lighter, softer, more fibrous nature.
On moorland and fen, forests once existed. In time
they disappeared. On the moorland sand they were
cut for fuel or for building, fires blasted them, the north-
west winds overturned them, the cattle turned out upon
the ground stopped the growth of the younger timber.
In the undrained, moister stretches, fen began to form.
The roots of the oaks rotted, the great trees fell and lay,
as they are found to this day, pointing to the south-
east. Firs followed the oaks, and birches and alders
the firs, all of them to destruction ; and then in place
of trees came the undergrowth and the grasses and reeds.

The rotting vegetation fed the fen, and a brown
gloomy marsh covered half a province. There were no
roads across it. The villages on this side and on that
were cut off from each other by weary, desolate, trackless
regions, shunned by animals and untrodden by men.
Such, three hundred years ago, was the fen that stretched
unbroken from near Groningen down the east of Drente
to its south-east border, and encircled the moorland
fringes of Friesland and Overyssel. There are tracts of
it here and there in Drente still to aid the fancy in
picturing how this whole region looked a century or two
ago. But except in them, you would not dream that
desolation ever brooded over it, for the marshes are re-
claimed and under the greenest of green crops, the canals
that intersect them are crowded, and in the long streets
of the fen-colonies there is stir and traffic. This is one
of the wonders of Holland.

The better to exhibit it in its latest developments I
will link them with some impressions of a visit to a high


peat-bed on the Drente border which I made several
years ago.

A short railway journey from Groningen ended at
Zuidbroek, where a horse-car stood ready to carry us to
Veendam, and so on through the fen-colonies. Veendam
even then I remember as one long, never-ending street,
or rather as an interminable canal lined by interminable
single buildings set next to one another, houses, shops,
a church or two, a school; with the fields beginning
immediately behind them ; and when at last the con-
ductor announced that here was Wildervank, there had
been no break in the row to mark that Veendam itself
was left behind.

Somewhere beyond Wildervank, but where exactly
I was not certain, there lived a farmer, one of the clever
Drente fen farmers, I had been informed, among whom
reside the highest agricultural skill and enterprise in the
country. To him I was to present myself with an
informal introduction. I was to mention a name that
(so I was assured) would be " open sesame " to his good
graces, and was then to say, " Sir, I have come through
divers perils by land and water near to the end of the
world here, to see a high peat-bed, and if you do not
assist me then shall my travail have been in vain."

With this weighing a little heavily on my mind, I was
borne as far as the tram-car would take me, which was
still along an unbroken line of village; then, alighting,
was directed to a destination, estimated by the Dutch
method of calculation to be distant " one hour walking."
The way was not uninviting. The hot bright monotony
of the landscape was varied by vicious rain-clouds that
gathered and broke in a flood of shadow. In the fields
around were the green and golden proofs of the clever
Drente farming: and its material rewards seemed
indicated by the handsome farmhouses facing the road,


each, within its enclosure and little cluster of sheltering
trees, having the air of a mansion. At length the one
owned by the Unknown pointed itself out to me, and
before I realised my rashness I was reciting to him my
extraordinary tale.

The pass-word did not appear to be immediate
" open-sesame." As I approached his front door, I had
seen the farmer seated at a little window-nook that
commanded the bridge spanning the canal from the road
to the gateway, his unwavering eye upon it, the ruminant
pipe between his lips. Now as I stood before him on
his doorstep for he had opened for me himself that
eye was upon me as unwaveringly, while he bade me
repeat the talismanic name, and inquired, with long,
pondering puffs between, the manner and the purport of
my journey.

Then, suddenly, he threw open hospitable portals,
and set me down before a cigar-box at a table in a large
and stark huiskamer, while he departed, clearly to get
into the suit of tweeds he had abstracted from the
cupboard at my back. Returning duly, having shed a
little of the patriarch, I thought, with his broadcloth, he
brought me through his kitchen usual ingress and exit
past cowhouse, pig-shed, stable, right out to his fields,
where he scraped away the few inches of soil with his
fingers, getting down on his knees to do it, so eager was
he to show me the sand and peat admixture in which
his fine barley was rooted. Then, behind a horse of
Guelders breed, lightly harnessed in his gig, we were off
to the high peat-bed.

It lay at the end of a two-hours' drive, and the
ultimate black, terrifying steppe in the world it seemed.
Entering upon it, drained though it was, the foot sank
deeper at every stride, and the imagination pictured the
horror and despair of the forwandered wagoner of


earlier times when he found himself and his horses and
cart sinking slowly into that infernal moss, where the
antiseptic peat would preserve his bones till the digger
of later days should rake them out.

A hundred yards in front of us, where the horrid
black tumuli of peat are thickest set, there is a digger
at work. He is a swank man, middle-aged, clean-shaven ;
his coat is off; besides his shirt he wears tight knee-
breeches and green stockings, blue stockings weather-
stained to green. His shoes have flat, extended soles,
to prevent his sinking in the sloppy hole in which he
works. His curiously shaped spade has a blade the
breadth of a peat, and sharper than the north wind that
whistles across the moor in spring. With it, with
practised skill, he slices through the pulpy bed ; first
vertically, standing upon the level of the moor, then,
down in the pit, horizontally ; next with the same spade
he lifts the peats, one by one, and flings them in perfect
order upon the open barrow beside him. When it is
filled the barrow is wheeled up to the stack, and by a
deft movement capsized so that the cubes fall in an
orderly heap. So the peat is dug from the bed to a
depth of several feet.

A rain squall scurries across the moor, and we take
shelter in lee of one of the stacks of drying peat. The
cubes, as the moisture evaporated, have shrunk to a
third of their original size, and are estimated at ten
thousand to the stack. This leads me to the calculation
(unimportant now) that this man, digging hard in the
season, from the middle of March to the end of June,
may make from ten to fifteen guilders a week. He has
been out on the moor since four this morning, and will
not leave it until six to-night. He brings his coffee
with him ; his coffee-pot is kept warm on the little tuft
of burning peat yonder, from which a wisp of smoke


battles with the rain. Lying near him is his little tin
of oil, with which he rubs his hands to keep them from

" How many diggers are there in the peat colonies ? "
I ask him, when the storm is past and we cross to him again.

" Seven hundred men in Drente alone, not counting
the women and children," he replies, and I almost believe
I hear the brogue. " The women and children do the
stacking and drying," he goes on, " three guilders a
week ; but it's not a woman's work."

"What ! Are you a Socialist?" says the Drente farmer.

" No, not a Socialist. But it's not woman's work,"
replies the digger stoutly, and scans the moor before
stepping off again to his digging.

This, I have said, was some years ago, and our
moor (as I may call it) is unrecognisable now. The
corn is green upon it, and it grows in the fields around
a flourishing town. The frontiers of cultivated land
have been carried hundreds of acres south. But follow
the diggers there, and you will find them at work very
much in the same manner as our sturdy little fen-man
at New Buinen. And from there we can return on our
tracks all the way to Zuidlaren and Groningen, with an
understanding of the wonder we have seen.

At the outpost moor they are removing the peat,
and it may be two feet of it, it may be twenty, down
to the sandy underground ; men digging, the women
drying; all according to the latest plans of the fenland
government and the Drente regulations. The cutting
season is short, from March to June, and the workers and
their families, or many of them, live in houses among
the peat-stacks, that doubtfully comply, one imagines,
with all the clauses of the new Dwellings Act.

Understand : they are lifting a moor. It is lying
all round in stacks of peat which when ripe will go back


in boats to the factories at Groningen, or perhaps to
brick-kilns as far away as the Vecht.

Enough for the peat. We go back a little way on
the road we came, and stop at fields already reclaimed.
These a year or two ago were fen. It was drained and
treated like the other we have just left. The soil of
these fields is the sand that remained when the peat
had been cleared, but with a thin layer of the topmost
surface worked into it, perhaps a little of the clay from
the " terps," but at any rate a large dressing of the
artificial manures, the enormous quantities of which in
the Dutch Board of Trade returns puzzle any student of
them who knows nothing of the latest things in those
so-called dalgronden,

So we go back ; always on the new low level where
rested the dug-off moor ; and always along the canal
system which was the line of advance into this new kind
of polderland, from which the peat has to be shipped
to the rear. Now we begin to understand the intermin-
able row of buildings which we passed in the morning,
and find still stretching out here in the afternoon.
When a countryside is levelled thus, so must its
townships develop.

The fields stretch deeper the farther we go. The
canals are busier. Saw-mills hum on them. There are
vessels on the slips. Shops become more numerous
among the houses. We are back again in time among
busy thoroughfares, but always along the canal. There
is Veendam how grown in these few pages !

Beside the rye-fields has sprung up a cardboard
factory. Distilleries and oil factories and potato-meal
mills are fed by the barley and potatoes and beetroots
in the fields lying round them, where not so very long
ago was only sullen Drente moor.

There is the history of the Dutch fen-colonies.


IN Amsterdam last summer I received a letter from a
friend at home who is inclined to smile at my
enthusiasms, in which he asked me if I had discovered
the secret of Holland yet. I understood him to be
mocking my account to him of the surprising present-
day prosperity of Dutch agriculture, into which no doubt
there entered something of the whirling glamour of the
polderland in June from which I wrote it. And I
answered him (according to his banter) that indeed I
had found the secret of Holland's affluence its pivot
and lever and mainspring and prime-mover all in one
magic agent, to wit, the cycle or " bike," the rywiel or,
as in the country itself it is vulgarly called, the

Whence this last name derives is known to none.
It comes out of the ages (for ages have rolled with it in
thirty years) when the thing itself was still a world's
wonder. Did some burgher in the distant Seventies,
schooled in the French as folks were then, dub it a Vite!
Or did another in amaze make lips fly off his teeth with
a Fiets ! to express its whisking motion ? These things
are hid from the pundits of Leyden, to whom no
secret of Javaansch and Norse and Sundanese and all
the tongues of Malay and Araby but stands revealed.
Twenty years ago in Holland the fiets was still a


novelty. Ten years ago it rode down some formal
barriers which previously youths and maidens seeking
communion had clandestinely to steal round ; and one
could predict that old Dutch etiquette itself, a ponderable
code, would be spirited away by its revolutions. And
that is what has happened. Dutch etiquette now is (so
to say) merely the polite rule of the road.

To come to plainer figures, available since they tax
thejiets in Holland, there were in use in the country a
decade ago 95,000 cycles, which was one for each sixty
persons. To-day they number more nearly 450,000, or
one for every twelve. In the province of Groningen, I
am told, the proportion is more nearly one for every
eight. Astounding figures ; and wonder grows in seeing
the wheels they stand for whirl. They have cut down
distances in this little country by a quarter ; they have
indeed eclipsed reckoning itself, for here, where a place
is not estimated as " so many miles distant," but as " so
many hours, or quarter-hours, loopen (walking)," nobody
walks ! Man, woman, and child " bikes," for profit or
for pleasure. The A.N.W.B., the Tourist-bond for Nether-
land, has 30,000 members in a population of five millions,
and is a power in the land. Without a wheel the village
labourer would not reach his out-field or garden, the boer
could not attend the meeting of his Bond. The trades-
school and the winter-courses would wither. Punctured
would be the packman's round. All the activities of
Holland would go on half-time. When the Georgics of
her rural revival is written, it is the fiets that it will

Though it was in banter that I cited the cycle to
explain the activities of modern Holland, it does very
well to introduce a chapter upon them, for not only is
it really contributory to them, but they seem to me to
be typified in its homely yet effective service. And of


none is this so true as the industry to which I specially
applied it.

The flourishing the bloeityd, as they say in Holland
of Dutch agriculture needs no argument. It is
notorious. It has indeed reached the inconceivable pitch
of prosperity in which the farmer has ceased from grum-
bling, and, casting down his eyes, with a shamefaced
chuckle admits that he is doing very well.

What he is doing, and how well he is doing it,
was the subject of an earlier section of this book. The
farmer himself is so local, yet so characteristically Dutch,
indeed, that the chapters devoted to him could not
describe all his variety. But this we can say of him
everywhere: he believed he knew his own business,
and he was very jealous about being left alone to do it.

And for long Fortune smiled upon him. Very often
he is to be found very " warm," still, from the glow
of her earlier favours. A quarter of a century ago, how-
ever, there set in a change. He stuck to his old manner
of life and work, preserving his inherited tradition within
the confined precincts of his boerdery, and the world
moved away from him. It left him an anachronism. He
lost his market. And as the Old Rhine, lying stagnant,
became a public menace and a nuisance, and had to be
lifted up and out to the sea again, so antiquated Dutch
farming was a danger to the nation, which determined to
cut a new passage for it somehow into the stream of
the world's traffic.

That was ten or fifteen years ago, and already the
industry is flowing in a full flood, the sight of which, as
the reader perceives, excites my naturally staid pen.
How has it been done ? That can only be learned in
the white books and green books and reports and tabu-
lations which are issued from the Landbouw Huis in the
Hague, for the severe indigestion of the foreign student


who attempts to absorb them. Yet it can be fairly
stated in a sentence. The Dutch turned Socialists to
do it.

In true Dutch manner " a plan was made," and it is
still being elaborated. All over the country agricultural
schools have been built and lecture-courses established,
with professors and teachers, certificated of course.
Skilled advisers in dairying are assigned to each pro-
vince. A central testing bureau has been equipped, and
Government blesses pure butter with its Mark. Scientific
advice is dispensed from half a dozen experimental
stations. Contagious diseases are baffled in a serum
institute. Horse-rearing, cattle-breeding, the improve-
ment of the strains of pigs and goats, rabbits and
poultry, and even of bees, are the business of a Depart-
ment of State. The Government inspects and certifies
dead meat and pedigree-stock, and the products of
nursery, garden, and orchard.

The State co-opted in this effort the work and the
subsidies of the provinces and the communes, as well as
of private bodies. The dairying school at Bolsward was
originally founded by a private society. The horticul-
tural school at Frederiksoord is the Adriaan van Swieten
school on the famous colonies of the Societe de Bien-
faisance, incorporated in the national scheme. In the
same way have come into it the courses in forestry of
the ubiquitous Netherland Heath Society. I believe
that the experimental garden at Naaldwyk, of which I
have spoken, attached to the winter school there, is a
contribution from the " Westland " Gardeners' Associa-
tion. These are a few examples of the co-operation in
agricultural education of State and local effort " local "
in a particular manner of speaking, for local effort in the
wider sense of communal and provincial aid is the
groundwork of all Dutch administration.


It is the same with the State control of the industry.
I need only instance the Government Mark for butter,
which is practically an official guarantee of efficient
private control of butter manufactured by members of
the controlling societies; and note that the so-called
zuivelconsulenten (one of whom, by the way, resides in
London) are not State officials, but advisers in dairy-
ing appointed by the provincial administrations, and,
originally, in the employ of the provincial agricultural
societies. Agriculture, in a word, shows innumerable
instances of this interlacing of State and local efforts.

But these would have been futile had not the boer
responded, and it was far from certain that he would.
His fixity was the evil. All the conservatism of his race
was concentrated in him. If it was tenacious, he was a
limpit. If it was stubborn, he was rock. Yet he moved.
There must have existed some happy chance in the
revival. The seasons smiled. Older forces may have
come to effect, earlier experiments to fruition. Perhaps
the miracle was worked only at " the horny point of bare
distress." The State was feeding the boer in a hungry
place. At any rate, he moved.

The dry bones in the lowlands stirred. There was a
rumour of success in the countrysides. The port of Har-
lingen was crowded with the produce of Friesland.
Germany protectionist Germany took the North Hol-
land fruits, and called for more. Auction-rooms appeared
on the Westland canals. Tram-loads of garden-stuffs
ran down the roads to the Hook. New barns rose in
the bulb-land. The fen-colonies stretched and stretched.
North and south, factories sprang up beside the fields,
working up their potatoes and straw and sugar-beet.

The horizon widened round the boerdery not much,
perhaps, and not of course everywhere. But new wagons
appeared in many a barn. Beside the antiquated harrows


with wooden teeth rested others of American make. In
country carts clanking along muddy November roads
from the station, one noticed there were bags of phos-
phates. And changes crept into the life of the farms,
too. The butter-churns were silent, for the milk now
went to the factory. The farmer was less often at
the market, and when he did go he sought speech of
the travelling teacher or the consulent, and instead of on
the notary he called at his loan-bank ; and he no longer
bought medicine for his cow of the blacksmith. At night
his boy, sometimes his girl too, set off to the agricultural
school. He himself mounted his fiets and rode to the
inn if his Bond was holding a meeting in the big room

The Dutch farmer is not to be represented, indeed,
as a sudden convert to science. He leaves that to the
younger generation, and I confess that I do not find it
exactly swarming up the splendid superstructure of
instruction which is crowned by the College on the
heights of Wageningen. But he has seized the meaning
of co-operation. The boer, prickly with individuality
and hoary with tradition, whose ideal it was, and
may be still, to live in his polder with nothing to break
his horizon, and no one about him save his wife and
children, now sells his milk and his produce, buys his
seeds and manures and foodstuffs, insures his cattle, hires
his reaper, and borrows his money, all in association, and
does it because it pays.

And the cost of the experiment? Its cost must
be enormous. It seems to me, however, to have been
fortunate in winning the favour of the nation which pays
the price. From the first it has engaged the interest
of practical men. The whole country has leagued itself
in this conspiracy of an economic Socialism. It believes
it sees its money coming back. And certainly in the


haymaking days of last May and June the land was
flauntingly prosperous, and Holland looked the Summer
of the World. Agriculture is having its bloeityd, and
" when all is well with the boer," the Dutch say, " all is

Now, these principles of State intervention and co-
operative effort, underlying the revival of its agriculture,
are visible in most of the activities of Holland to-day.
And it is one of the anomalies which we promised our-
selves to find, that these principles are opposed to the
salient characteristics of the Dutch.

A political Socialism is not making great headway
among them. It makes a show of strength, true, in the
industrial towns, but with the prosperity of the farmers it
declines in the country. The Liberal party has split on
the rock of Individualism, and at the moment is a wreck.

Online LibraryDavid Storrar MeldrumHome life in Holland → online text (page 16 of 31)