Sunday, March 14, 2021

Lessons from Travel -- Wooden Shoes

windmill in the Netherlands

Like the windmill, the wooden shoe is symbolic of the Netherlands. But wooden shoes have always seemed pretty awkward to me. I’ve tried them on. I didn’t like the stiffness and was jarred when the hard, unbending shoe hit the pavement. So I relegated wooden shoes to “quaint, old fashioned European customs,” thinking that they were the cheap shoes of 200 years ago or a dated tradition, like local costume. So my visit to the Netherlands taught me an ecological lesson.

I visited the Netherlands for the first time in a tour in 2015. We cruised down the coast, stopping in the provinces of Frisia and Holland. Almost all the land in these provinces has been reclaimed from the sea. A thousand years ago it was a shallow part of the North Sea, flooded at high tide, salt flats at low tide. The Dutch have steadily reclaimed that land. The process was one of, first, building dikes around a parcel of salt flat, then, pumping out the salt water. The resulting fields were almost all below sea level. Seawater seeps in through and below the earthen dike and has to be continuously removed. The iconic windmills do that pumping. Today most windmills have been replaced by more efficient wind turbines, but the function remains the same.

wind turbine in the Netherlands
wind turbine pumping water out of the fields

The below-sea-level pastures and fields, rinsed of salt and cultivated, can be kept productive if you keep salt water out. The coast of the Netherlands gets about 30” of rain, falling all year round. The Dutch cleverly manage to keep the fields wet with rain water, which blocks salt water from seeping in as it moves to seep out. But, fresh or salty, the land is soggy. Canals and ditches run everywhere, draining water to dry the topsoil enough for good crops.

drainage canal, the Netherlands
Drainage canal, next to and below a plowed field.

All of that is obvious to anyone who has studied the Netherlands, and maybe I could have said it before seeing it–but actually seeing it made it much, much clearer.

wooden shoes
Wooden shoes, from because I
don't own any.

And suddenly I saw the wooden shoe in a new light: it is the perfect soggy soil shoe!

If you’ve ever walked in water or soggy ground, you know that the water comes in to soak your socks through the seams where leather or cloth shoes are sewn. A wooden shoe lacks seams. It is naturally waterproof in a way that sewn shoes never are.

Then, imagine walking in waterproof wooden shoes through those soggy fields of Frisia or Holland…the soggy soil will compress (squish!) and the rigidity of the shoe won’t jar as it does on a rigid surface but fit nicely into the muck.

In the low wet fields of the Netherlands, wooden shoes are practical and comfortable footwear.

Travel continually revises what I thought I knew. The environment on the coast of the Netherlands makes what I thought was a clunky shoe into excellent footwear. 

We live in a big complex world and it can be hard to understand people living other places, coping with soggy soil or heavy snows or strong winds, without experiencing them. Being there brings new insights.

Shallow pond in Frisia, the Netherlands
A shallow lake in the Netherlands, with water birds.

This essay feels odd when international borders are closed, but reopening will happen. We will all be able to choose to see some place different, whether it is across the state, across the continent, or across the world. I am eager to be somewhere where context makes me see something familiar differently. Like the wooden shoes.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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