27 September 2013

Wild Land Ahoy!

In the Oostvaardersplassen.

Oostvaardersplassen?  A pithy way of saying, more or less, "The place through which ships sail on the way from Amsterdam to the East Indies".

As ships once did.  When the land was a sea. 

But the Dutch never saw a sea that they didn't want to dehydrate. Especially when it washed the shores of Holland, the most heavily populated part of a very crowded country. So, in the 1930s,the Dutch began to dyke off and dry out four massive areas of land to the east of Amsterdam, at the southerly end of the Zuiderzee.  However, even the best laid plans of Dutch hydro-engineering can go astray.

And inadvertently become the subject of the most amazing film I've seen in years. 


By 1968 three great polders were created, with all of the reclaimed land earmarked for industry, agriculture, and sparkling new towns such as Almere (now pop. 200,000) and Lelystad (76,000).  That wave of development crashed in 1973 thanks to the oil crisis and economic recession.

One large area covering about 56 square km (22 sq mi.), the Oostvaardersplassen (where the arrow points on the map above) -- which had never been fully drained -- was left behind and became home to egrets instead of factories.

Sensing opportunity, a determined group of conservationists set out to "strategize, proselytize and wheedle" the Oostvaardersplassen into being as a nature reserve unlike any other: a tract of re-wild land in the heart of one of the world's most densely populated nations.

Today, the Oostvaardersplassen is the world’s most visible example of rewilding, the idea of reintroducing the megafauna that man wiped out as he spread across the globe.

The New Wilderness

The idea of reintroducing the large fauna that lived there thousands of years ago came from Frans Vera, a government biologist working for the state forestry service, an organization charged with managing the nation's nature reserves. Unfortunately, most of the needed species are now extinct, killed off by humans as they moved in and cultivated European lands.  So Vera stocked the new wilderness with their nearest modern equivalents: Heck cattle, a German attempt to recreate aurochs, the original wild cattle of Europe, and Konik ponies from Poland, said to be descended from tarpans, the last of Europe’s wild horses. He shipped in red deer, which were among Europe’s original inhabitants.

These large grazing animals are kept out in the open all year round without supplemental feeding, and are allowed to behave as wild animals (without, for example, castrating males, or vaccinating or tagging animals).  The ecosystem developing under their influence is thought to resemble those that would have existed on European river banks and deltas before human disturbance -- vast, grassy plains where wild horses, cattle and red deer move in massive herds.

The Real Twitter

Vast numbers of birds flew in, including 29 endangered species:
Marsh harriers flapped and cruised overhead.  Red-headed smews paddled, dipped. A flotilla of coots chelped companionably as they cruised down-dyke. White butterflies settled on scat. The landscape felt riotous with life.
...Overhead, a goshawk—the first wild one I had ever seen—lifted from the grass and glided away, scattering smaller birds as it flew. A sea eagle took flight from a willow, leaving the tree-top shivering, dipping off on its vast wings, its primary feathers stretched out like a swimmer's fingers. 
Sea eagles came here of their own accord five years ago, moving down into the area from Scandinavia. They were charismatic proof of the conservation ethic of the Oostvaardersplassen: increase scale, reduce management inputs, resist species farming, avoid deliverables and goals, and let wild nature take its course as far as possible.*
 The world before humans

EMS FILMS had exclusive access to the Oostvaardersplassen in all seasons, and they worked there for three years. Their new feature film, De Nieuwe Wildernis (The New Wilderness) has just been released. It is magic.  I was lucky enough to attend the première -- with the Metropole Orchestra playing the powerful theme music, live** -- in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Monday evening!

Open the trailer now. 

Great Nature in a Small Country

For once, there's not too much hyperbole about it: this spectacular film enters into the soul of an extraordinary experiment:
We simply need…wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures—a part of the geography of hope.  (Wallace Stegner, Wilderness Letter,1960)
The beauty of nature in the Oostvaartsplassen is overwhelming yet the film makes no bones about the struggle of animals left to their own devices.  Nature's 'circle of life' (for better and for worse) is red in tooth and claw, and dazzling, in De Nieuwe Wildernis.  

Yesterday, the film opened in 90 theatres in The Netherlands and Belgium.  Text is minimal and dialogue non-existent so you don't have to wait for translation into your native language before begging or buying (or, if need be, stealing) a DVD of this unforgettable film.

* Robert Macfarlane, 'And there's another continent', writing in The Economist's Intelligent Life magazine, November/December 2012.  He erred, however, in ascribing the death of the trees to 'dehydration' (in The Netherlands, of all places!?!); rather it was a consequence of overgrazing.

** Now released as a single by Don Diablo:

Sources: In addition to the website of De Nieuwe Wildernis, I have used 'Amsterdam's Wild Side' in The Economist, 14 Sept. 2013; Robert Macfarlane, 'And there's another continent', Intelligent Life magazine, November/December 2012; Emma Marris, Conservation Biology: 'Reflecting the Past, Nature 462, 30-32 (2009); Elizabeth Kolbert, 'Recall of the Wild', The New Yorker, 24 December 2012; and Wikipedia's on the Oostvaardersplassen .


Modified Google map via Wolfstad.com (Our Visit to Oosvaarderplassen).

Common Kingfisher (in Dutch, IJsvogel), one of a pair, possibly the first specimens to be spotted in The Netherlands in our lifetime. Photo credit: Wolfstad.com (Our First Dutch Kingfishers): Every few minutes they dove in the water and picked up a small fish. If the fish was still moving the bird would hit it really hard against the branch until it stopped and then swallow it. This was a lot of fun to see, and the tiny birds ate an exceptionally large amount of fish.

Other illustrations from the website of De Nieuwe Wildernis

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