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  • Authentic Landscapes at Large:Dutch Globalization and Environmental Imagination
  • Irene J. Klaver (bio)

Mud, Mist And Money

The landscape north of Amsterdam is typically Dutch. Black and white milk cows graze peacefully in green pastures interlaced by small ditches; an occasional windmill on the horizon. It is May and I am sitting in the train to Alkmaar, a town forty miles north of Amsterdam, reading the newspaper and occasionally glancing at the familiar landscapes. The green polder-pasture landscape turns into another proto-typically Dutch one: vast geometrical tulip fields. Some fields are blooming: their bright colors bleeding into the mist of a grey horizon. This grey and the tulip fields made it into a coffee-table book of the most renowned contemporary architect of the Netherlands, Rem Koolhaas. The book is a mosaic of architectural associations and quotations. Under the entry "Dutch Grey" the American architect John Hejduk states: "When we rode along the roads, which moved through the tulip fields I began to understand Mondrian. I always thought him to be an international painter; I found him to be a Dutch painter" (Hejduk, 302-312).

One would expect that the geometrical tracts of the primal-colored tulip fields had triggered the thought, but it turns out that

[I]t was...the density of the sand and earth where the bulbs were planted which reminded me of Mondrian. It was the atmosphere of opacity. The place, the land, the earth was dense opacification. The colored flowers were not the issue, it was the infinite penetration and compaction of trapped light crystal in the earth, which illuminated the air into a grey solidity...Dutch grey.


Grey is the color of the Dutch sky, most days of the year. Also this day in May: an expansive view of land stretches into a limitless horizon and is balanced by a most spacious grey sky. Clouds drift by in intricate configurations, occasionally compacting into an ominous dark grey. The flowering fields, revealing countless bulbs tucked in the soil, make my mind drift to various places I lived in the United States: in New York, NYC and Long Island; in Billings, Montana; in Turlock, California; and Denton, Texas. In each of these places people planted Dutch bulbs, bought [End Page 92] in local American supermarkets, the K-Marts, Safeways, Country Markets, Albertsons, Walmarts, etc. Depending on what was on sale, one bought hyacinths, crocuses, daffodils, or tulips, mostly from the Netherlands. The abundant presence of Dutch bulbs in a faraway corner of the great plains of Northwest America such as Billings, always gave me pause. Isn't it too much for a country a tenth the area of Montana with 16 times its population to play such a flower-power role?

Staring out of the train's window, daydreaming about typically Dutch landscapes, it dawned on me that tulips were not typical for this particular area of the Netherlands. The tulip fields where I used to work during summer vacations—together with other underpaid young teenagers—were closer to the sea, in the sandy lands behind the dunes. The train's trajectory, however, is more inland, which is mainly polder land—that is, land reclaimed from water, in this case from lakes, which were pumped dry, surfacing soil thick with clay. It is ideal land to grow grass, cabbage, and potatoes, but not good for tulips. The clay turns into stubborn mud after the slightest rain in misty mornings; you need wooden shoes not to sink into it. Tulips don't like it; they came from Turkey; they like loosely structured, well-drained soils of sand, they don't care for tenacious clay and wooden shoes.

The older polders were the domains of black and white milk cows. But in the early 1980s too much cow-milk came to mean mountains of butter, which were shipped away as European Community-surplus to Russian tundras. In response the European Union introduced milk quotas and it became more profitable to grow flower bulbs. However, in order for the polders to yield bulbs, their clay soils needed to be transformed into sandy soils. By injecting water into a stratum of sand found ten meters under...


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