A sense of sand

I grew up on the shores of the Lake of Geneva, its waters bathing the feet of the Alps on the French side. Standing with my back to the lake, my gaze embraced a gentle slope covered with vineyards. This neatly combed slope with its deep history has always made me feel I am standing on firm ground. In the 12th century, monks from Burgundy cleared the forests to plant vine. Also, the road traveling along the slope is known as the Roman paved road. Connecting Lyon to Geneva and Basel, it turns out to be older than Roman times. To go even further back: this hill is the last of a range belonging to the 65 million years-old Jura mountains.

Having come to live in The Hague almost twenty years ago, I want to explore my experience of living at the sandy northern seashore. ‘Oh oh The Hague, beautiful city behind the dunes’, as the popular song with a heavy local accent goes. A broad beach and sand hills gradually make way for a large dune area with pine trees and rich vegetation. For many years, I had a strange feeling of floating, of unsettledness when walking in the dunes. Sand is about continuous movement, whether under our feet or slowly flowing down in an hourglass as a reminder of the time passing. Sand prompts our thoughts to flee to other, more idyllic places. ‘I am moving my boots in the cold sand and dreaming of myself far from here’, as the Belgian band Zita Swoon sings.

Contrasting with this reverie, the information boards in the dune area proudly refer to the engineering works accomplished over the years. In France or Italy, one would be likely to read a note on the history of the spot or a poem on the landscape. Here it is about tons of sand being moved. The Dutch pragmatic approach is widely acknowledged, but it keeps astonishing me. Of course, it is easier to transform a sand landscape than a heap of rocks. But still.

Take the dune area where I walk in all seasons. The municipality tells us the Westduinpark was formed by ‘young dunes’ appearing in the 12th century. Young dunes. Geological time, I love your slowness. Once a hunting territory of the rulers and subsequently an area which did not get much care, the Westduin area was developed in the 1930s to become a park. Dunes were consolidated and young trees were planted. The Germans contributed to the landscape as a part of the defence wall along the whole Atlantic coast during WW2. Bunkers connected by tunnels emerging here and there look like the carapaces of silent subterranean monsters, still carrying in their belly the sounds of canons and war sufferings. The dunes are overgrown with grass, nettle and plants such as the ravishingly acid sea buckthorn and blackberry bushes – a delight for those who love cooking berry jams. These dominant plants are very happy with the loads of ammonia coming from the sea and nitrogen dioxide that we produce. However, they have left less chances for other plants such as beachgrass to grow. Its meters-deep roots keep the sand of the dunes together and protect us from the sea. At the same time, small plants can freely grow, many of which are edible, as I discovered in a guided walk under the Bosbaas’ enthusiastic guidance. This invisible, yet merciless transformation process from open dune to forest had to be countered. So, tons of plants and trees were uprooted and a desert-like landscape was created. In this way, the boards at entry points of these protected areas tell us, the sand, wind and water have ‘free rein’ or ‘free game’ (vrij spel).

My bewilderment culminated with the Sand Motor (Zandmotor). This rather unpoetic name refers both to a huge experiment initiated ten years ago and to the landscape that was created and have constantly evolved as a result. The coast just outside The Hague was reshaped by the pouring of more than 20 million tons of sand to broaden the beaches and so to protect the inhabited areas just behind the dunes against sea level rise. The Sand Motor now is a long stretch of sand where seals like to bask in the winter and a pond where kitesurfers defy the wind. On this beach the occasional fossil pops up, even a rhino jaw last year, since the sand poured there comes from deeper waters some kilometers off the shore. Although I am fascinated by fossils, my own jaw drops at two simultaneous thoughts. Not only has the landscape been remodelled and continuously keeps being reshaped by the waves and the wind, which have ‘free game’. Also the layers of time have been messed up, reshuffled and ruthlessly exposed to the sun for the first time since thousands of years, disturbing the animals and plants’ petrified rest in the depths of the North Sea.

The Sand Motor is praised as a project of ‘building with nature’, not against it. While I don’t deny the usefulness of such drastic measures to help maintain biodiversity in the dunes and address sea level rise, I am still stupefied by the terms used, referring to freedom and nature, to describe what I perceive as human-made interventions. Giving it a second thought, I realise my romantic tendency to look for pristine nature in contrast with culture may be not be of great help to read the landscape. The distinction between nature and culture is blurred, as it is in most places now that we have landed in the era of the Anthropocene. In this connection, the The Embassy of the North Sea offers a quite radical and refreshing perspective, as it explores what it means for us ‘emotionally, juridically and politically’ to acknowledge rights to the sea and its non-human dwellers.

As a trained historian, I am interested in human agency, but also in the realm of emotions stored in collective imagination (l’imaginaire). I have been looking for old tales and legends as a source for reading the landscape. Think of sandwolves howling in a clearing under a full moon, a lost hunter seeing mermaids dance at night, wooden crates full of gems buried by pirates and never found. I have searched in vain. Fantasy about the dunes is better represented in contemporary art, such as Theo Jansen’s imposing and sweet beach beasts or strandbeests moving by themselves with the wind. To be fair, Dutch painters have celebrated the rough sea and the dune landscapes, literature has more than hundred poems I still have to discover, and the once neighbouring village of Scheveningen surely has old fishermen’s songs that only local people in the community remember. Also, upon finishing writing this piece, I stumbled across the wonderful platform Dunes and people (Duinen en mensen), which gathers pieces of research on cultural history and biology featuring the Dutch dunes. I will gladly explore these to nourish my experience of the dunes and ‘dream of myself’… right here.

Sandpath in the dunes


Jacob van Ruisdael



It is now January 2021. Over the past year, our mental horizon exploded as it had to expand to a world-scale disease that is still impossible to fathom. At the same time, our physical horizon has been much more constrained to the area we live in. This situation none of us has ever wanted might allow our hearts to dilate, create their own stories, and find solace. Confinement has helped me at least acquire a sense of place, a tenderness for this landscape that I see evolving over the seasons, with its everchanging nuances in the diverse palette of greens, greys and yellows.

I am walking on the beach. The interplay of water, wind and sand is unfolding around me. Going up on the dune, I pause for a moment and look around. In a small valley of naked sand, a crippled black bush stretches its meagre branches in an attempt to give the landscape the desolateness of U2’s The Joshua Tree album cover. The sound of the waves weakens, the wind sings its relentless song through the bushes, and magpies, crows and seagulls flying around converse in their mysterious language.

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