Excerpt from: A Trip to the End of the World.
I sit in the passenger seat as Sabina drives me to Leeuwarden in Friesland, the Netherlands in her new blue Peugeot “auto”. We leave Hoorn. It is a beautiful harbor town of the former days of VOC around 1600, The Dutch East India Trading Companies of the Golden Age. The old part of town is a pristine Dutch village of brick homes and shops. There are several museums to commemorate the age of seafaring that made the little nation a wealthy power even to this day.
We leave the province of North Holland behind. The road is straight on the flat land. On either side of it are fields of green with grazing sheep and brown dirt where the tulips will grow again in February for export. The sheep crop grass in a miniature landscape separated by water gullies called sloots (sounds like coats). These act as fences. I remember my former father-in-law describing to me how when a sheep falls in the sloot it dies because its wool absorbs water and becomes too sodden for the sheep to right itself and climb out of the water. He told it in a serious, quiet voice of respect for the plight of the hapless sheep.
The landscape is dotted and edged with sculptured trees and neat brown fields. It is a picturesque view of all the attention the Dutch take with the land. Sabina points out an old windmill on the right hand side of the road. It is of the traditional type made with reeds. The craftsmanship defies centuries of change in its form. She tells me it was just repaired by the son of a family who has handed down the knowledge of windmill building and repair from father to son. Sabina has tried several times to interview the family for the weekly newspaper that she is the editor of in Alkmaar, but they refuse all invitations for interviews from anyone. Their skill is so deft that they can go into a mill in need of repair, look it over and without measuring anything they make the needed repairs. We pass a second mill that looks identical to the first. Sabina says that the father and mother of the son live there. It stands in the landscape like an etching, with its brown sloping sides and many-sided roof, it appears as it was centuries ago. It fits with my ideas about the pastoral past of Holland and the sheep.
We are driving to Friesland where I can visit some of my friends that I spent time with over the six years that I lived in Leeuwarden. Friesland lies to the east of North Holland over the Afsluitdijk. This is the bridge that joins the east and west of the Netherlands. It is part of the dike that closes off the Ijselmeer, which is now a small inland water, which shines on my right just yards away, as boats and birds bob in that semi-light between rain and sky of this area. The Afsluitdijk protects the land from the North Sea. There is a passage for boats that leads to and from the ocean. Along this stretch of the highway to our left is a high even man made hill that parallels the roadway for miles. It is the earthen dike that keeps the North Sea from flooding over North Holland, Friesland, Groningen and other parts of the country that are below sea level. This dike at its most northern point is known as “the end of the world”. I smile to myself; I know that just before we reach the end of the bridge on the Frisian side we will see sheep grazing on the dike. There they are!
Note: Sheep awareness became prominent in my mind as I read Mary O’Reilley’s book about “The Barn at the End of the World” during my travels. My assignment for school, at the time, was to write a critique of the book. O’ Reilly wrote about her time learning to care for sheep and the arduous work of just trying to keep them alive and thriving. Her book also was about her spiritual journey. That part of my paper was well written, but not of interest to me anymore, I prefer to think about sheep.
Sabine comes to pick me up to go back to the West and I must say goodbye to my good friend. I am sad to leave someone who is a good and trusted friend. We promise to see each other again.
Sabine wants to go to Franeker to see a museum of the oldest, continuoulsy working astronomical clock in the world. It was built in the 1700s by a wool maker, in his spare time, in the ceiling of his front parlor. The family is portrayed on the flyers sheering sheep in the back garden where there was once a place for sheep. The workings are above the ceiling and are on view to the public through a glass partition.
Sabine says to me, “Imagine being this man’s wife and living with that in your living room!” We go below to view the clock. That is a beautifully hand painted astronomical clock of the sky that still runs perfectly, in 2004, in a living room in Franeker, Friesland. It is exquisite. It took years to build. The planets hang from the ceiling and move with the universe about us in perfect harmony with our view of the celestial path across the paintings of the constellations.
Maybe I would say, “See what working with sheep will do for you?” Or better yet, what I might say to Sabine now is: “I guess everyone wants to have their piece of sky.”
Sheep may not seem like something you think about with food, but they and all the other animals and plants that provide us with food and clothing are not just symbols, but the living proof of our ingenuity to perfect and maintain our food sources. Keeping our biodiversity is critical in a time when so many traditions and patterns are being lost or swept aside for better or worse.
Support your local farmer. Think sustainability.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afsluitdijk Retreived March 24, 2011.