Archives for the month of: April, 2021

Last weekend I went to buy some vegetables at the lone biofarm for miles. The weather was nice, not too much wind, a lovely bike ride through the fields. Far off I see tractors plowing, spraying and seeding, although I am not exactly sure what they are using. Slowly a green sheen starts to appear on the clayey surfaces. 

It is the month of Earth day (April 22), it is also the month of international day of peasant struggle (April 17). A few days apart, only one day a year. I wonder how many people think about the relationship between the focus of these days. 

Last year I was fortunate to be witness of a process of language revitalization, within a land-based knowledge system where language, cultural practice is intimately related to the surrounding land. Respect for the land is at the core of thinking and doing. 

Along my years of working in bio and biodynamic farms I have learned a thing or two about the importance of the land for us people. How taking care of the land, your natural environment, gives so much in return, much more than mere sustenance. 

Even though I have always enjoyed nature and shared that with family and friends, I realize that within the culture I was raised, northern Europe, I didn’t get educated with the same kind of respect for the land on a day to day basis. Of course, awareness is growing that we are doing our supportive environment a disservice with our current, often exploitative, behavior and we need to change. We also (begin) realize nature can heal us, and we seek nature’s therapeutic assistance. 

Cycling and walking along the roads through the fields that are dissected by narrow ditches, endless view, a land dotted with farm houses and barn, but nearly a soul in sight, I ask myself what I am doing here. Not in a so much in an existential way, although a bit, but more from a practical viewpoint. Is there something I can do. How do I nurture the kind of respect for the land that I have experienced elsewhere. I wonder how wealthy countries like the Netherlands like to ‘do good’ elsewhere, but seem to neglect their own hinterland. Respect, I start from the backyard, and contemplate the challenge ahead of me further afield.

Walking across the land, trying to optimize my wind exposure in such a way that my home stretch is driven by tailwind. My paths lead along ditches that criss cross the fields. Although the fields are not always hospitable to the birds, I get acquainted with a specific set, the waterfowl. The ducks fly up in tandem when they sense my approach. Always a female and male mallard, always just two of them. They are not monogamous, something I thought seeing them in this way, they are serial monogamists, each year they form a new couple. That is different for other couples, swan couples. They are not as abundant as the ducks, but wherever I look there seem to be a swan couple somewhere in the field. My daily morning runs provide me with some wonderful sightings, unfortunately I don’t carry my camera all the time while doing short runs. Swans are partners for life, and their persistent presence in the fields make me wonder if they have some special meaning in this cultural landscape. 

There are some other indications that this may be the case and I don’t have look far. From my bedroom window I see the top of my neighbors house carrying two stylized swans. Uilenbord in Dutch, ûleboerd in Frisian, is something that I cannot translate in English, but ‘uil’ means owl. So what has an owl to do with swans. 

The uilenbord, is an architectural element, a triangular wooden cover on the side/top of a gabled roof. The board functions as ventilation while protecting it against water entering the interior. The hole also allows owls to fly in and out. The presence of an owl on the farm is considered a good omen and the owl is also a welcome guest who eats mice. The top part of the board, the stick called ‘makelaar’ and the swans are stylized elements.

View from my current window and roof elements

I remember seeing similar elements in Germany, north of Hamburg, where I lived before coming to Friesland. Here however, it was not swans but horses that adorned the roofs. Time to break down borders. Friesland, where I live now, has long been a part of the Netherlands, but historically it is much more connected to the regions along the coast, covering present day northern Netherlands, northwest Germany and Denmark. And even though the presence of these boards may date back only to the 16th century, the symbolism of swans and horses is likely more ancient, going back to old Nordic mythology. At least that is what some people argue and it makes sense to me. For those of you who read Dutch the article by Boppo Grimsma tells an interesting story (see link below). 

Around my previous home north of Hamburg

The Frisians, a germanic people who came to present day Friesland via northern Germany, migrated back to Germany in the 12th century, especially the region north of Hamburg, das Alte Land, the region where I just moved from, the region with the horse symbols. 

There is a lot of speculation about the meaning of the swan and horse symbolism, but there seems to be some general consensus that swans are companions of the sun, specifically, they take the sun in the fall and bring the sun in spring. They are in this way related to the seasons. In old nordic mythology a similar role is suggested for both horses (earlier) and swans (later), accompanying the sun during the day along the living world and during the night around the world of the dead. The change of seasons, day and night, the living and the dead. Interesting stuff. I am happy to see the swans in the fields.

Schild-dak image: Arend041, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons