This year we missed a lot: fieldwork, classrooms… but we also managed to write unexpected stories. In one of them, research and education, humans and non humans, get all entangled with a bit of nostalgia in Tiengemeten, a tiny island in the Dutch Delta.
There was a time when quarantine and contagious diseases were part of daily life. In the 19th century, every ship headed for the Rotterdam port, had to go into quarantine for fourteen days at the eastern shore of the island of Tiengemeten. After the quarantine, when a doctor declared the crew disease free, the ship could continue the journey to Rotterdam.
This small island in the Dutch Delta bears many stories. Besides the quarantine, the land was used for farming and harvesting reed. To improve agricultural successes, landlords started around 1750 creating a structural divide between land and water: the polders. Polders are fields protected from water by levees, and kept dry by windmills pumping the water away. There are thousands of these fields in the western and northern part of The Netherlands.
Today Tiengemeten has a very different look, as it has been mostly “depoldered”. In 2007 five meters of levee were taken down. Since then, land and water have been interacting again to increase biodiversity and create a network of natural areas connected by the river. The farmers, their houses and fields had to make room for birds, beavers, and recreational activities.
Socialising water or naturifying society?
In the Netherlands, the fight against water seems to have been replaced by a new paradigm: living with water. The shift materializes into more room for the river and “depoldered” spaces. This raised my interest to research this seemingly new human relationship with water. When making room for the river or for nature, who decides what is “natural” and what is not? Who is allowed to create or modify the landscape, non-humans included? And who is affected by these processes?
To understand this supposed paradigm shift and what it means for life on Tiengemeten, in 2019 I conducted a multispecies ethnography for my Master thesis in “Cultural Anthropology: Sustainable Citizenship” at Utrecht University. Multispecies ethnography considers non-humans as agent protagonists in the transformation of the social and physical environment. While the approach is gaining popularity in social sciences, methodological accounts of how to perform a multispecies ethnography are still relatively limited. So I crafted my own methodology, opting for participant observation with local experts, like a ranger, that interact with non-humans on a daily basis. To capture different ways of knowing, seeing and relating to a place, I also asked the research participants to draw a map of the island. This participatory mapping appeared to be an useful tool to understand how humans represented the space and non-humans.
These maps also inspired me to structure the thesis as a walk along the island. Through the walk we stop at landmarks – chapters – such as the ferry and the breached levee. These landmarks allow to tell symbolically and literally a story of Tiengemeten. Between the landmarks, we pass several animal species, which are featured as interludes connecting the chapters. There we explore how the Barnacle Geese form the landscape today, and to what extend they are ‘allowed’ to do so.
One year after graduation, I presented my research in an article with my supervisor Emanuele Fantini, published in the special issue on “Water socialisation” of the journal “Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia”. While recent trends in water governance and management have been described in terms of re-socialisation of rivers and shores, we suggest that processes like those unfolding in Tiengemeten can also be understood as ‘naturification’: attempts to acknowledge that the social and ecological dimensions of water coexist with the classic modern approach that manufactures nature through technical and bureaucratic interventions. In analyzing such tensions, we foreground issues of social, environmental and ecological justice. Where water – or more generally nature – is re-socialised, what happens to society? Does it become naturalised?
A beaver’s story
The re-socialised life of the beaver illustrates what this can look like. The species disappeared from the Dutch landscape at the beginning of the 19th century, due to hunting, destruction of habitats and fragmentation of natural areas. Almost 200 years later in 1988, the Ministry of agriculture, nature and fishery, together with WWF went to Germany to collect 42 beaver couples over four years. They are nowadays protected by the national ‘nature protection law’, which implies that beavers cannot be captured or killed in their natural range. The law also forbid deliberate disturbance of the animals and their territory. Beavers cannot be kept for transport, trade or any other reason.
In 2019 on Tiengemeten, there were eleven known beaver castles. Specific beaver tours are held for tourists and the beaver also helps to promote the island in its marketing. The extend to which the beavers receive full freedom to be as they are, does have limits though, because they can cause levee breaches. Beavers can build two sorts of homes: a castle or a clay mess. The former is a construction from branches, the latter is dug out in a riverbank, or sometimes in a levee. The latter undermines the construction and solidity of the levee. This has not happened yet on Tiengemeten, but in other parts of the Netherlands beavers were shot to prevent danger to human safety.
While nature-based solutions are often presented as more sustainable and win-win solutions, the story of Tiengemeten recalls that in these process there might not always be only winners. Learning the perspectives of all the different people that relate or related to the island, provided insights in how they experienced a disruption of their local community fabric and their way of relating with non-humans.
A research participant explained that she missed swimming with the birds, since swimming in the harbor was not allowed anymore by Natuurmonumenten, the institution now managing the island. She also lamented the many trees that were cut down at the beginning of the restoration process, the soil that was ploughed, and a new specific nature that was created and managed. In her opinion the island used to have a lot of natural values that were compromised in order to create a new specific nature.
These flooded polders no longer serve as the national symbol of water control for productive uses. There was no space for cultivation anymore: the farmers had to leave the island, since they did not fit in the new natural landscape.
Students in search of inspiration
The article was not the last station of this research. At the end of the summer, the community of IHE Delft Water Management and Governance students was torn-apart by months of social distancing and online learning. A short field-trip in the Dutch delta seemed therefore a good option to rebuild ties and to kick off with inspiration the MSc research phase. The students firstly headed to the Delta Works to witness the infrastructural approach to flood prevention that has made the Dutch water expertise renowned in the world.
Afterwards, we set our camp right in front of Tiengemeten. Barbecue, music and games set the atmosphere to ponder upon thesis ideas and search for inspiration on the island of Tiengemeten. We discussed how to incorporate non-humans into water research, the different meanings of interdisciplinary, and the relevance of local knowledge.
After spending a day walking on Tiengemeten, the students were asked to draw a map of the island and discuss their drawings in pairs. Most maps represented the outline of the island with drawings of things the students saw along the way. But there was also a map with an eye level view, that reflected the chronology of our visit and the height of the land relative to water. All maps were different and personal. One of the students remarked that she learned how her peer looked at the island differently then she does. Together we analysed the usefulness of participatory mapping with research participants.
Nowadays you can visit the island and detect these many stories in the flooded land, you can spot animals and signs of history in ruined buildings now inhabited by swallows and owls. The former agricultural fields are also visible in the straight lines in the landscape. The monumental farmsteads are still in use to facilitate tourism and house the few human residents of Tiengemeten.
The island in its form today evokes, in some people, nostalgic feelings for times when polders and levees were essential to human survival and when the transformation of the physical landscape for productive purposes was considered a virtue. Even though such nostalgia seems to look only at the past, it might inspire future ecological restoration projects to also have eye for collaborations with local communities, their relationship with the landscape, and thus balancing social and ecological justice.
You can find the article at the link here below. Or you can write me ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) to get a copy of it.
I would be delighted to hear from those who want to know more about this research and read your comments.