Hero of Haarlem: a dragon in disguise?

It was a Yankee by the name Mary Mapes Dodge who wrote ‘Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates. A story of life in Holland’. The book was published in New York in 1865. It is about poor, 15-year-old Hans and his sister Gretel. Gretel wins the Silver Skates. The price for winning an ice skating race. After that, everything turns out for the best, and the Brinkers are one big happy family. The book also contains the story of the Hero of Haarlem. It is the world-famous story of a boy who sticks his fingers in a leaking dike and prevents a disaster. But, did he really?

The Hero of Haarlem was a boy of 8 years old, who delivered a cake to an old, blind man, one day. But the boy had forgotten all about time. When in the evening he rushes home the following happened:

“Just as he was bracing himself for a run, he was startled by the sound of trickling water. Whence did it come? He looked up and saw a small hole in the dike through which a tiny stream was flowing. Any child in Holland will shudder at the thought of a leak in the dike! The boy understood the danger at a glance. That little hole, if the water were allowed to trickle through, would soon be a large one, and a terrible inundation would be the result.

Quick as a flash, he saw his duty. Throwing away his flowers, the boy clambered up the heights until he reached the hole. His chubby little finger was thrust in, almost before he knew it. The flowing was stopped! Ah! he thought, with a chuckle of boyish delight, the angry waters must stay back now! Haarlem shall not be drowned while I am here!”

It was at daybreak, after a very chilly autumn night, when he was discovered by a clergyman. Still he had his finger in the dike. And this is how the dutiful boy saved the city of Haarlem.

Building dikes: an arms race

Hans Brinker and the Hero of Haarlem is the type of stories confirming the almost supra-natural believe that by keep building stronger, fatter and higher dikes the dangerous sea can be warded off forever. That we can control nature. Sayings like wer nicht will deichen, der muss weichen (German), or wie niet wil dijken, moet wijken (Dutch), are chauvinistic regional classics and mean ‘who does not want to dike, has to give way’. But the enormous bulwarks that have been built along the southern North Sea coast, from Belgium all the way to Denmark, are the people’s enemy in the long run.

Dikes have a long history. At the tidal marshlands, dikes have been built from the beginning of the first millennium. These were so-called summer dikes. Low dikes at the silted-up salt marshes. To protect the marshlands from the salty sea during summer, all under normal weather circumstances. That way making the marshes more suitable as arable land and for livestock most of the year. But summer dikes did not protect the tidal marshlands from the standard storm floods of autumn and winter. For that they were, purposefully, too low.

From the eleventh century onward, higher dikes were being built. This concurred with large scale, commercial peat excavation (read our blog post on this brown gold) along the southern North Sea coast. Here, behind and underneath the salt marshes, existed huge peat areas. Besides contributing to global heating already in the High Middle Ages, namely unlocking vast amounts of carbon, commercial peat extraction resulted also in massive land-loss during great floods, all along what is now the Frisia Coast Trail. Sometimes even whole islands and towns disappearing in a single night. Read our blog post How a town drowned overnight. To halt this massive land-eating process, summer dikes were replaced by the bulwarks of today. At present, these snake-like monsters rise a staggering 12 MoD (Meter above Ordnance Datum) and still rising. A true boa constrictor.

Think the Low Countries were the avant-gardists of dike-building? No, sorry to say. Heavy dike building started already with the Sea Bank built at the end of the ninth century, sealing off the Fenland in England.

Constructing high dikes was not something unique for the sea coast, either. For many centuries this arms race also took place at the central river lands along the lower reaches of the mighty rivers Rhine and Meuse. Here, every community and village had to build its own dikes. If yours were higher and stronger than those of your neighbor, your neighbor would be jammed. Not you. The much celebrated Dutch ‘tolerance’ explained in a nutshell, but this aside. It were the people of the town of Sliedrecht, a small town at the River Beneden-Merwede (a branch of the River Rhine), who became the ultimate river-dike constructors. For this Darwinian achievement, its descendants have been awarded with world’s leading dredging companies. Their skills turned out to be indispensable when constructing the 30 kilometers long Enclosure Dam (Afsluitdijk) almost a century ago.

village of Wierum, the Netherlands

But the dike-constructing race came with a price. Sealing off land from the influence of the sea means first of all that the land behind it no longer silts up. It even dries out and shrinks. Indeed, it turned into the contrary-land of Hans Brinker and the Hero of Haarlem. We can also name it Bathtub Country without a drain. Furthermore, before dikes existed the waterwolf could flow out over a vast area of tidal marshlands during storm floods. People lived on terps, artificial settlement mounds, that were on average not much higher than 4 meters above mean sea level (MoD). Higher was simply not necessary. The sea just flowed out during storms over a huge salt-marsh area without, in general, causing too much damage because of this enormous storage capacity.

The highest terp of all is the one at Hogebeintum, namely almost 9 meters above mean sea level. Why the people of the village Hogebeintum built such a high terp when 4 meters was already enough, we do not know. Was it perhaps to show off? Look us having a big terp! Want to learn more about terps, read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps.

Low summer-dikes surrounding the terp on the tidal marshlands, functioned also as small barriers to quiet down the waves during storms. After the heavy dikes had been built, the North Sea was, and is, being pushed up with onshore winds. Resulting in a sea level during storm floods that is on average 1.5 meters higher than before. Therefore becoming much more dangerous if dikes do not hold. Maybe this is the reason why from around the eleventh century onward, when big-dike building began, the number of deaths along the former Frisia coast sharply increased. Read our blog post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster…

Sea is such a diva

And now earth is confronted with rapidly rising sea levels, because of global warming. Within Europe the Frisia Coast Trail area happens to be one of the most vulnerable areas to be affected. Can habitation along sea shores continue in the long run? Should the dikes be enforced and made even higher and fatter?

More and more people, even scientists, plead to stop, or at least, to nuance this arms race. Leaving behind the ancient reflex wer nicht will deichen, der muss weichen. Their plea is to restore as much as possible the dynamics of the sea. Give the sea, just as has been done with the rivers before, space. That way land can silt up again, and risks of dikes leaking and breaking will be less. No more Heroes of Haarlem needed. Besides that, it will contribute to a spectacular more diverse natural landscape.

Not controlling the sea, but managing it. Make a compromise. Work with the waterwolf, not fight it. So, when the sea level rises, the land will rise with it. It has been done already during the many centuries before high dikes existed. Why not again?

The inhabitants of the small terp-village of Holwerd in the northeast of province Friesland in the Netherlands have quite advanced plans and the financial means for opening the dike, and to give way to the sea again. It reminds us of a quote from the former Iraqi Minister of Information:

“We are going to cut this snake in two.”

Mohammed Saïd al-Sahaf (2003)

Anyway, cutting the dike in two, creates inland tidal marshlands and a rich nature area. The project is named Holwerd aan Zee, ‘Holwerd at Sea’. Check it out.

Nearby, at the terp-village of Blije, another grassroots (of course, Puccinellia grass) initiative exists. Here the community is building a new terp on the other side of the dike at the salt marshes. This project is called Terp van de toekomst ‘terp of the future’.

Similar developments have taken place at National Park ‘t Zwin in the northwest of Belgium, which happens to be the very starting point of the Frisia Coast Trail. In 2019, a dike has been demolished to make way for the sea there as well. But also the sluices of the massive Haringvliet storm-surge barrier in the Netherlands are being left slightly open since recently, to give salt water and migrating fish permanent entrance. And then there are the plans, being implemented as we speak, with the Enclosure Dam (Afsluitdijk) of which a fish migration river will be part of. Again, to restore a more dynamic relation between salt and sweet water, between sea and land. Although, the dam is also reinforced and heightened too.

Lastly, universities like the one of Wageningen in the Netherlands are experimenting with salty agriculture. To be prepared for the future, and because the process of (re)salinization is already taking place in coastal zones. The University of Wageningen also identified adaptation pathways for the Frisian coast how to cope in the long run with rise of the sea level, including some of the antique solutions of former Frisia.

Although it is all still very small scale, these initiatives might be the first signs of a new way of thinking. The idea that total control and a total engineer-able world is not the sole solution. Not even fully possible, in the long run. The world and nature are just too complex. Do not put all your eggs in one basket.

Focusing at the sea and its coastline, the consequences are that people should ‘accept’ the sea and its salt. With a growing and thus rising sea level, there is a greater need for additional water storage during high(er) floods. This can be combined with the need to halt the land behind the dikes from shrinking and let it silt up again, where possible. This will be more reliable in terms of safety. Above that, it will greatly enrich nature. As the Frisians in region Nordfriesland in Germany say today when their Hallig-islands (see further below) are being flooded, “After each storm the island has grown”.

But people have to adapt and must learn to be more symbiotic and less parasitic in their behavior. Perhaps an additional side effect can be achieved too. Through enlarging the surface of wetlands along the coasts worldwide, more carbon will be captured and locked again, since wetlands specifically are very effective in doing this. That way helping to damp global warming in the meantime as well. There are many initiatives around the world to conserve and foster wetlands, including the Convention on Wetlands.

For those readers who think it is not possible anymore to live without dikes, know that just south of the Danish border at the Wadden Sea coast of Germany people still do dwell in the full dynamics of the sea. They are still regularely surrounded by water during high floods. Indeed, we talk about the Nordfriesen or North-Frisians and their islands and Halligen in Nordfriesland.

Landunter, Nordfriesland

With all this in mind, we can take an example from the grassroots along the Frisia coast, where communities slowly turn to the sea again and want to embrace it. Almost literally, with the huge sculpture of artist Jan Ketelaar on top of the bulwark-dike at the village of Holwerd: a naked woman and man with their arms spread open, with their feet firm in the clay of the dike, waiting for the flood to come (see featured image of this post).

Let’s understand that the Hero of Haarlem is, in fact, a Dragon in Disguise. Let’s take those fingers -gradually- out of dikes. Let’s make the wetlands of the Frisia Coast flourish again! Or, inspired by the words of a certain former American President:

“TEAR DOWN THIS DIKE!”


Note: We work on a back-up plan as well, namely that the sea level rise will be mitigated by exporting the additional water to desert areas on the planet. Salt wetlands in Chad, Egypt and Algeria.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Klerk, de A., Vlaardingen in de wording van het graafschap Holland 800-1250 (2018)
  • Knottnerus, O.S., Sea level rise as a threat to cultural heritage (2003)
  • Nieuwhof, A., Bakker, M., Knol, E., Langen, de G.J., Nicolay, J.A.W., Postma, D., Scheper, M., Varwijk, T.W., Vos, P.C., Adapting to the sea: Human habitation in the coastal area of the northern Netherlands before medieval dike building (2019)
  • Oosthuizen, S., The Anglo-Saxon Fenland (2017)
  • Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)
  • Ruyter, de P., Vloeiend landschap. Over de toekomst van het Friese landschap (2016)
  • Schroor, M., Strategies for future flood protection in the Wadden coastal area: Exploring adaptation measures with cultural-historical elements in Fryslân (2019)

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