It was when Anya’s mother was dying that I got into the habit of visiting the old windmill.
For a while it occupied a special place in my life: it became a kind of shrine, a place where I could escape the turmoil of ‘normal’, everyday life – and go somewhere far away and also, close-by.
The windmill was in a nearby park; 20 minutes walk from our little apartment. The park was appropriately named the ‘Southern Corridor Park’ (zuidelijk randpark): it was a long strip of land, maybe 200 meters wide and two kilometres long, sandwiched between suburbs and apartment blocks on one side, and the main highway from Rotterdam to Amsterdam on the other.
‘Corridor Park’ – a long slither of land in one of the most densely populated nations in the world which had been turned into a recreational area: an oasis of green, in the midst of a big city; open grassy areas, trees, small lakes, walking paths, bike trails – and the old windmill.
Old, alright, that old windmill: dating from 1731 (and restored of course). Strange idea: when that windmill was built there were no houses or villages in the area; there were only cows grazing on grassy low-lying land enclosed by dykes. It was one of dozens of windmills, which pumped water out of the soggy land and into a nearby canal.
Now it was on its own, marooned in a strange place; like me.
Two days a week, it was possible to take a look inside the windmill. On one of my visits, I did just that.
I was impressed. There was a complex system of shafts and cogs – clockwork – all of them made from wood. In its time, the old windmill was a complex piece of technology.
I became interested in windmills. The old ones I mean.
To my mind, the old windmills are so much more attractive than the new ones. Maybe wind energy will one day form a genuine alternative to fossil fuels, but really, let’s be honest, they’re so damn ugly. In those gigantic modern windmills, those slender towers of concrete, lies the inevitable march of progress.
The modern windmills: you could see them everywhere in The Netherlands these days. There were gigantic windmill parks in the sea. Pity they were so soulless.
On a website I learned that the windmill in the corridor park was 21 meters high, which in the 18th century was an average height for windmills (windmills of 40 meters height were not unusual). Windmills were used for a variety of purposes besides pumping water: cutting planks for houses and ships; grinding pigments for paints and seeds for oil; grinding cocoa and coffee beans – and milling flour. In other words they were just as functionalist as the concrete windmills these days, only they were so much more beautiful, being constructed from wood, bound reeds and canvas.
The old windmill loomed over the park like a huge statue. It had an aura of stateliness, of nobility, which was impressive; it reminded me of a high church steeple. Maybe that was what I was looking for – me, an atheist, convinced there was nothing beyond death. Still, I was experiencing the same sadness, the same fears, that anyone experiences with the passing of a loved one.
What was I trying to do? I mean my regular visits to the old windmill?
Escape from the pain of living and dying?
There was more though.
I was trying to find some little piece of the past, some fragment of lost time.
You see, there were the stories: the stories told, the stories relived, by a mother and her daughter during their last days together.
Anya’s mother’s name was Geertruida (pronounced ‘hear-tro-dar).
Anya and her sister were determined to help their mother die at home – her ‘home’ being an apartment in an outlying suburb; one among thousands.
She was a tough old bird. Stiff upper lip and all that. Typical for the Dutch people hailing from the northern provinces. Protestant work ethic mentality and all that. But it could be a problem. She was so reticent about complaining, even when she was in great pain. It made the job of the nurse who came in every day to check the correct morphine dose rather difficult.
‘Mum you have to tell us when you’re in pain, you don’t have to bear it you know…’
In her last days, Geertrudia talked a lot about the past, when the family was living in a small village in the north of The Netherlands. The name of the village was Spijkerboor (pronounced ‘spake- a- boar’). You couldn’t talk about Spijkerboor, not like it was then, without mentioning the windmill.
The two went together: Spijkerboor and its windmill.
In 1949 Geertruida went to live in Spijkerboor after she got married to Anya’s father, a man named Harko. Spijkerboor consisted of a dozen houses plus two bakers, a blacksmith, two cafes and a few shops situated around a small lake at the end of a long, straight canal. The lake was there for a good reason. This was where the barges traveling along the canal could turn around before going back. Those barges were nothing like the huge ones you see today on the Maas and the Rhine rivers, on their way to Germany. They were much smaller and made entirely of wood. The shipper and his family lived on board; there was a barracks- like hut at either end of the barge and between them, an open hold. Some of the barges came to the village to collect potatoes and sugar beets – two crops grown in the area – and others came to load sacks of flour at the windmill.
The windmill, situated a way outside the village and on the canal, was known as ‘the Giant’ – so named because it was over 30 meters high. It was used to grind flour from wheat, barley and rye – three staple crops in the area. The grain was bagged up, taken with horse and cart to the windmill, ground up. The flour was then bagged up before it was loaded into the hold of a barge.
The Giant was the hardest worker of them all. A local poem about the Giant went:
This is the Giant of Spijkerboor
High in size, great in power,
A free king in all his might,
And a worker by day and night.
Geertruida and Harko and their three children lived in a half a house owned by Harko’s father. The house was almost directly opposite The Giant. As the cancer ate away at her, inexorably, Geertruida reminisced about the past, the village, and the years that she bore her three children. Anya too lived in that past; the two women went on a journey together.
Horses were used to plough the fields and because the ground was so soft and watery, the horses’ hoofs were fitted with the equivalent of wooden clogs, which were strapped on to their iron shoes. The work in the fields – planting, weeding, harvesting – was done by agricultural laborers, a class of people whose entire existence revolved around working manually on the land. The wheat, barley and rye, was scythed; the cows milked by hand. Life revolved around the seasons. And in the midst of that life, rain or shine, winter or summer, there was the Giant, its long sweeping blades turning in the wind clock- like: the giant, the soul of a small village. In the spring the cows were let out onto the rich green fields; the flowers came out and the storks appeared and the geese departed. In the summers, the kids swam in the canal and fished for eels. In the autumn the barges appeared on the canal. During winters, when the canal and lake froze solid, everyone donned their skates.
In the world Anya grew up in, there was silence. It was silence punctuated by the sounds of lowing cows and neighing horses and by birdsong and sometimes the motor sounds of the barges or the local bus. There were no motor cars. People walked or rode a bike.
When the breeze blew, there was the sound of the turning blades of the Giant.
Anya could remember the first time in the late ‘50’s that she saw a tractor. Progress was on the march. A war ravaged country was being transformed. Harko head to distant Rotterdam in search of work and thereby joined the ranks of thousands of other immigrants for whom Rotterdam was a place of hope. Rotterdam: the work city, the place where a poor person could find a decent existence. A year later his family joined him.
Yes, progress was on the march: windmills became increasingly obsolete as their work was taken over by machines driven by petrol and electricity. They were pulled down: 9000 of them, with no thought given to their heritage value. In the 1960’s the Giant was pulled down and the canal was filled in. Spijkerboor became just another dot on a map, another place devoid of any character or charm. The Giant, the symbol of a village and its history, vanished.
At some point, someone realized that pulling down the windmills was foolishness writ large: what did we stand for, if our country no longer had any windmills?
Windmills were a part of the Dutch identity.
There was no identity in the modern windmills that was for sure. Only the old ones: they were unique to The Netherlands
Identity: it was an important value, one which only came into view after the harshest insecurities of life had been banished. Identity: it lay in the past, a past which none of us wanted to return to. The past when life was hard, often short, and almost always very unfair.
Windmill organizations sprung into existence, determined to preserve these precious icons from the past. As a result, the windmill in the park avoided the fate of so many others including the Giant in Spijkerboor. That beautiful old windmill – sandwiched between row upon row of mind numbing apartment blocks and suburbs on one side –and the noise and exhaust fumes of one of the busiest highways in Europe. It seemed like sacrilege.
Yet for a while, it was my place of refuge, a sanctuary, at a time when these were hard to find. When I went there, I heard the voices of a mother and her daughter sharing memories of the past, reliving times gone by. I saw the village as it once was and I saw the Giant, in winters and summers, the heart and soul of a village.