Wetenschap - 14 november 2013

Ode to the ordinary

Roelof Kleis


What can we learn from a typical square kilometre of Dutch countryside? In Zeeland, say. What is the story behind the Zeeland village of Dreischor? Between them, the villagers and a group of Wageningen scientists are bent on telling that story.

Imagine: you are flying business class on a longhaul KLM flight and you order a white wine. The wine you are served is of Dutch origin, from De Kleine Schorre vineyard in the Zeeland village of Dreischor. A vineyard in the flat Zeeland countryside? There lies a story, for sure. In search of that story I phone Reissenaar Leo Schoof. (A resident of Dreischor is called a Reissenaar.) Schoof works as a volunteer at the local district museum and the archives of Schouwen-Duiveland municipality. Could we meet? Yes, but not just yet. He is at the police station right now. But not because he has blotted his copybook.

Leo Schoof is giving some of his DNA for a project aiming to identify some of the unidentified victims of the disastrous flood of 1953. And there lies another story. In Zeeland, 1953 is never far away. Joop Schaminée, professor of Plant Ecology, likes these kinds of stories. In fact, they are the stuff of his latest project. Stories about Dreischor: its landscape, the people who live there and the links between them as well as with the outside world. ‘Window on the world’ is the project’s name: in his own words ‘perhaps the very nicest project I have ever tackled.’ ‘We are taking one square kilometer of countryside and telling its story. Heart-rending stories about the lives of the residents alongside the stories that science can tell us about this area. We are bringing together these two worlds, of residents and scientists, with the ultimate aim of revealing the interconnections. Interconnections within the square and with the outside world as well. With an emphasis on the significance of an arbitrary selection of countryside, and thus the significance of any tract of countryside.’

More the 30 people of all descriptions work together on the Dreischor square kilometre. Their project aims at publishing a book, but it is already attracting so much attention from the media and the art world that quite a few spinoffs are in the pipeline. Plans already include a documentary, a radio series, a series of articles in the provincial newspaper the Zeeuwse Courant, a website and an artwork inspired by the project.

Loveliest circular village in Zeeland
The idea of the square kilometre study was inspired by the book Pig 05049, by Christien Meinderstma. Schaminée: ‘She shows what happens to a pig after slaughter. Different parts of the pig go all over the world. Apart from meat, it is also turned into munitions, brake blocks, heart valves and loads of other products. Crazy, but fascinating too. Our communications advisor Bert Jansen came up with the idea that you could do the same with a section of landscape. That has links with the whole world too.’ The concept of a square kilometre soon emerged and the choice fell on the Zeeland village of Dreischor, picked out by Schaminée and his colleague and co-project leader Anton Stortelde on their way to a lecture in Terneuzen. Is Dreischor an arbitrary bit of the Netherlands? Well, no, not all that arbitrary really. It is not for nothing that the village claims to be the loveliest circular village in Zeeland. This is a reference to the way the village is built in circles around its resplendent central point, St Adrian’s church. The ‘window on the world’ that the project will document is the southern side of the village together with the fields that border it. It includes the edge of the village, with the Aolus mill, the Goemanszorg museum, the church graveyard and the former Beldert harbor. And De Kleine Schorre on the southern dyke.

The grape harvest is expected to produce about 70,000 bottles of wine.
The grape harvest is expected to produce about 70,000 bottles of wine.

In 2001, sprouts farmer Krijn-Jan van de Velder planted the first vines on his land in an attempt to take his business in a new and more profitable direction. His son, Johan van de Velde, who has owned the farm for three years, can now make claim to the status of biggest wine grower in the Netherlands. The harvest, now in full swing, is expected to fill about 70,000 bottles. Not bad for someone who ‘had no interest at all in wine.’ De Kleine Schorre produces white wine. ‘Because white wine goes best with Zeeland products such as fish, mussels, oysters, crab, and salt marsh vegetables such as marsh samphire and sea lavender,’ explains the wine grower. ‘Right from the start we aimed for that compatibility with Zeeland, the most beautiful province in the Netherlands.’ But there were practical reasons too for opting for white wine. The Zeeland climate is simply too cold for red wine. Both the chalky soil and the climate are more suited to growing white wine. ‘Altogether, this area is a bit like the Mosel region around Trier,’ says Van de Velde. The choice of grape variety is based on this. Van de Velde grows classic grapes such as the Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Auzerrois and Rivaner, and a cross between Rivaner and Riesling.

Wine queen

That a vineyard should thrive on Zeeland soil does not surprise soil scientist Rein de Waal (Alterra) in the least. De Waal is one of the Wageningen scientists participating in Schaminée’s project. He will be writing up the story of Dreischor’s soil on the basis of existing knowledge in archives. This is largely Wageningen knowledge. ‘There are very detailed soil data going back to the time of Stiboka, the Wageningen-based Soil survey institute.’ By way of illustration, he brings out a 1947 soil map of Schouwen-Duiveland. The colourful map shows the history of the area at a glance and in great detail. It is a history of land reclamation and floods. The former island of Dreischor is easily identified by its soil types. The square kilometre has personal significance for De Waal. ‘My ancestors lived in Dreischor. At number 35 on the Ring, on the edge of the square kilometre. Three generations of the family lived there between 1660 and 1750. There are still a lot of De Waals in Bruinisse today.’ But besides this personal link, his chief interest is in the soil and in why wine grower Van de Velde is doing such good business. That is because of the chalk. ‘The clay soil is very rich in chalk,’ explains De Waal. ‘Part of the farm is on the old island and another part is on the Dijkwater, a former sea arm which was dammed.

Joop Schaminée: ‘Maybe this project will lead to a new philosophy of landscape.’
Joop Schaminée: ‘Maybe this project will lead to a new philosophy of landscape.’

Those recently dammed sea arms are very rich in chalk and vines thrive on those high chalk levels. And on top of that Zeeland enjoys a high number of sunshine hours by Dutch standards.’ De Kleine Schorre now boasts 10 hectares of vineyard. The company has enriched village life with a party centre and an annual wine festival with a real live wine queen, and it is a tourist attraction in its own right. The vineyard is a prominent feature of the landscape, and a satisfactory successor to the flax cultivation that was important around Dreischor up until the nineteen fifties. This period is still commemorated on the annual Flax Day in August, as well as by the dozens of tar-coated wooden flax barns which are listed buildings in this historic village. As well as in the district museum, of course, which revolves largely around the flax-growing history of the area. Which brings us back to Leo Schoof, volunteer at the museum and the local archive, who lives on a former flax farm on the Bogerdweg, a stone’s throw from the vineyard. Pensioner Schoof is an immigrant to the village, having been born six kilometres away in Oosterland. Schoof is a walking encyclopedia. No wonder Joop Schaminée went to him for information about the false flax plant, or goldof- pleasure, which was indigenous to the area but disappeared a long time ago (see box).

Floating corpses
And in conversation with Schoof we come to that defining moment in Zeeland’s recent history: the disaster of 1953. Leo Schoof was seven years old at the time but he still has vivid memories of the flood. From the attic of his family’s farm he saw one farm after another give way to the pressure of the water. ‘Cows and horses were swimming around in desperation until they eventually drowned. That is what hit me the hardest.’ He does not remember any fear or panic. But he does remember the sickening sight of floating corpses. A neighbour with a boat brought Schoof’s family to safety, but not everyone was so lucky. Schoof lost his grandmother, aunt, uncle and niece who lived in Nieuwerkerk. ‘All four of them drowned. We know that for sure because my current neighbour over the road saw it happen. They had climbed onto the roof of their house to get away from the water. The house collapsed and the roof floated away and tipped over. That was in the late afternoon of Sunday 1 February 1953. The bodies of my uncle and aunt were found but those of my grandma and niece never were.’


The false flax (Camelina alyssum) is a weed that commonly grew as a weed in amongst the flax. A subspecies of camelina, it has not been seen in the Netherlands since 1931. According to Leo Schoof, its Dutch came (huttentut) only appears in books from 1820 onwards. It was one of the earliest cultivated crops in the Netherlands, where it was grown in the iron age. Oil was extracted from the seeds for use as lamp oil. The false flax probably developed as a field plant in the course of flax cultivation, and was often grown along with flax. Its seeds are the same size as those of flax. The oil of the false flax is used as massage oil and has a healing effect on eczema and psoriasis.

The disaster cost more than 1800 lives. The bodies of some of the victims were never found or identified. There were 38 dead in Dreischor. But if you go to the churchyard on ‘the kilometre’ you will find far fewer graves than that. The rest were never found. On the Schouwen-Duiveland peninsula there are 37 graves of unknown victims, says Schoof. Currently DNA matching is being used in a last effort to do justice to the dead and their descendants. ‘The flood is still an open wound to this day,’ says Joop Schaminée. ‘Throughout Zeeland there are 200 small monuments like this one in the Dreischor churchyard. We are going to map them out. Stories like these are what interests Schaminée. ‘Stories that show how complex the world is. Stories that show that there are links that you normally never stop to think about. I want to show that there are interconnections that are highly valuable. I want us to learn to listen to local stories better. I want to increase awareness among local people. An awareness of the importance of exercising caution with all kinds of changes to the landscape. And of the fact that you can destroy a lot without realizing it or meaning to.’ The project is really a kind of ode to the ordinary, realizes Schaminée. ‘An ode to the world that is close to home. To the nature that is nearby, the ditch around the corner.’ Which might sound a bit pretentious, he continues, thinking aloud. ‘But maybe this project will lead to a new philosophy of landscape.’

Photo's: Wim van der Ende en Dirk-Jan Gjeltema