Our first stop, Kinderdijk (“Tiny Hamlet”), was a grassy ridge–or at least that’s all we could see of it from where the Embla was attached to it by a gangplank. Our tour guide, her “Viking lollipop” held aloft, led us the short distance up the ridge to the paved two-lane road running along its top. We were overlooking a windmill- and cow-strewn landscape. Immediately below us was a square meadow like a large bathtub lined with grass.
“This is a dike,” she said, “and that is a polder.”
The dike prevents the Rhine River on which our fluss boot rested from filling the bathtub, which is below sea level. It prevents cows, grazing in the polder, from drowning. But the dike itself is packed peat, which gets soggy and lets water seep around, under, and through. During floods, water also comes over the dike. It can all happen very suddenly and no, a finger won’t stop it. So children living near dikes and polders are all taught to swim so they won’t drown.
I knew part of The Netherlands, like our own New Orleans, is below water level. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the people living here are obsessed with water–draining it, sucking it up and redirecting it, building up and repairing things to keep it out. But I didn’t understand that windmills are not about wind as a source of electrical energy. They are a mechanical means to move water.
It wasn’t our tour guide’s fault. As she led us to the windmills she imparted an encyclopedic flow of information in excellent English. I listened carefully to everything she said and could have sworn I understood and retained most of it. She showed us two huge twisting screws carrying surging water upwards and a building in which a big heavy machine was doing something loud and powerful. Somehow I thought all this work had something to do with chasing water away to protect the lives of the cows that eat the grass to make the milk which becomes the cheese which is Holland’s biggest export to Germany.
“Boy,” I said to our guide privately. “Your cheese must be expensive!” She nodded, smiling.
Or was it grass itself which was their biggest export? At one time, I think I heard her say that.
It turned out I understood nothing. All the details, the charts and graphs and maps she pointed to, all the data she quoted, all the blocks of different kinds of wood from exotic parts of the world, which she handed around for us to heft and stroke, all the designs for windmill productivity which she described, explaining why all but one of the designs didn’t work, were for naught. At the end of her first talk I still believed windmills, like wind turbines, produced electricity.
Then we had another talk on the “Delta Works” and it turned out everything I thought I knew about the purpose for windmills and screws turned out to be wrong.
The “Delta Works” is a comprehensive set of civil works throughout the Dutch coast to raise dikes, drain lakes, closing off sea estuaries, and reduce the risk of flooding. “The Delta project,” according to Wikipedia, “is considered by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.”
Windmills and screws are both methods, one powered by wind, the other by diesel engines, to mechanically move water to higher levels and then try to prevent backflow. (Sort of like a mitral valve.) The 19 windmills in Kinderdijk carry water from the polders up to the level of the base of the screw. The screw’s torque swirls the water up to the level of the dike where it is dumped back into the ocean. Then the water leaks back through the peat dikes into the polders. It’s all a battle against time and nature–a losing battle because the race is never over, can never be won, as long as the sea level is higher, since water seeks its own level.
To me, the eighth wonder is that the Dutch go to such lengths to keep bailing out the dinghy while water is still leaking into it. There’s gotta be a simpler way. Some cultures build all their houses on stilts.
I was even wrong about the purpose of the cows and sheep grazing by the dikes. They are employed to chew down reeds so their roots (the reeds’, not the cows’) strengthen the resistance of dikes to sponginess and erosion. You evolutionists probably believe, given the need and enough time, the cows will evolve longer legs.
Good luck with that.
So now I know Holland is a county in the Netherlands, polders are fields below water level, peat extraction and turf dredging are both bad. “Waterschappen“ (“water boards”) are councils whose job it is to fight the water level and to protect a region from floods. I’ve forgotten the difference between post-mills and tower mills but I know that “post-mill” has nothing to do with theology.
Obligatory wooden shoe shot.
(My husband Jerry, who is the closest thing we have to a hydraulic engineer between us, approves this post, saying I have accurately captured the function of the Kinderdijk windmills.)