How the Dutch Made a World Out of Reeds
Erik Raschke takes an intimate look at the outsized role that reeds have played in the architecture and culture of the Netherlands.
Dutch culture and history can be reduced to one word: water. Dikes, windmills, and canals all represent the subjugation and displacement of water. Most of Amsterdam is built on sand, and its growth was made possible by reclaiming land from water.
Today, 17 per cent of the Netherlands is covered in water. Hundreds of years ago, before the early Dutch settlers pumped, drained, and lifted the land out of the water, that figure was much higher. In fact, much of the Netherlands was nothing but wet expanses of marshy swampland, stretching thousands of square kilometres. This soggy morass was blanketed, for as far as the eye could see, with tall, green, swaying reeds.
Archaeologists surmise that, more than 3,500 years ago, reeds carpeted the lowlands and were used to fortify some of the first Dutch dams. But dams were just the beginning. Today, the Dutch have created dozens of different categories of reeds, all having different weights and flexibility and, therefore, different applications.
In the Netherlands, reeds are used for everything: furniture, roofs, insulation, fencing, musical instruments, medicine, bedding, and, if roasted like chicory, as a substitute that can be mixed with coffee.
The list goes on. Wicker chairs and tables are woven with reeds, as well as many older carpets, runners, and doormats. Several years ago, when refugee housing was built near the town of Ypenburg, reeds were used to isolate the roar of the nearby highway.
But reeds have other purposes, too: less practical, but no less important. I discovered the more intimate side of reeds on a canoe trip last summer, to visit a vast refuge for this delicate-yet-durable component of Dutch culture.
Absorbed by the waves
My 10-year-old son had been struggling under the weight of his mother and father’s co-parenting and the still-simmering conflict from our distant divorce. I had experienced similar strife when I was his age, but my backyard was the Colorado Rocky Mountains, where my dog and I could flee. The Netherlands, by contrast, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Here, nature is quartered, bordered, and vigilantly groomed. Escape, like the landscape, must be carefully plotted and planned.
My wife suggested we take a weekend trip outdoors. She understood that the Colorado boy in me struggled with European camping: pitching a tent on a grassy plot, cramped amongst 30 or 40 other campers, the midnight clang of the outhouse door a reminder that we were more herd than hermetic.
“There’s the Biesbosch National Park,” she said. “It’s supposedly one of the few places you can get away in the Netherlands. The campsites are only accessible by canoe.”
I had fond memories of canoeing with my mother down the Arkansas and Green Rivers, especially the sensation of arriving on land the way people had arrived since the beginning of time.
I wanted to give my son similarly warm memories, so a few days later the two of us jumped in the car with our dog, left our home in Amsterdam, and were soon paddling out toward the Biesbosch in a rented canoe.
Fresh water crashed and spilled on us as we traversed the lake. Absorbed with the intensity of the waves, my son often forgot to paddle, bringing me back to the whitewater rapids of my youth.
Woven with water
Though reeds have a hundred different uses, in the end they mostly come down to home building. Reeds have been used as roofs on Dutch homes since the first century CE. As insulation, reeds are cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and provide good ventilation during the wet, moldy Dutch winters.
Many Dutch still cover their roofs in reeds, especially in the towns around the royal palace. Reed roofs are more expensive due to the skilled labour involved, but they are watertight, can last anywhere from 25 to 40 years, and have a certain cultural prestige.
In 2014 we decided to renovate our apartment in Anne Frank’s old neighbourhood. When we took down the ceiling, we were flooded to our knees with dusty reeds.
The three-foot-long stalks had been locked behind drywall since the 1920s, used effectively as insulation and soundproofing. The apartments in our neighbourhood were built quickly to accommodate the influx of Jews fleeing from the east. It is strange to imagine load after load of dried reeds hauled into Amsterdam, then layered into block after block of apartments.
Into the reeds
On our canoe, with the lake behind us, we drifted through thickets of lush, green, towering reeds (Biesbosch literally means “forest of reeds”). They were tall enough that even if we could have stood up in our canoe, we wouldn’t have been able to see over them. There was no cellphone reception so we relied on a map and compass, navigating through narrow waterways where the current parted the forest.
“I used a compass in scouting,” my son said with confusion, a dash of pride, and a hint of amazement, “but never in real life.”
As we slid past submerged trunks and knotted tree roots clumped with mud, we were never far from the roads or pasturelands. But the reeds isolated us from most urban sounds, as well as from other kayakers or boaters, who sometimes passed within feet (only quiet electric motors are allowed in the Biesbosch).
The brackish, penny-tinted water was full of mossy life, fresh, filtered, and devoid of the fetid smell so common in marshes. The water rippled away from the canoe’s bow, like an ant column split by a child’s foot.
Every breath of wind sent the reeds around us singing in a hoarse chorus, as if millions of leaves were applauding gracefully. It was strange to think that we were still in one of the most populous countries in the world, only an hour’s drive from Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
Bent but not broken
Reeds are also a subtle yet irrepressible symbol in the Dutch artistic consciousness, a muse for Dutch painting and poetry. Guido Gezelle, a famous 19th-century poet, writes: “Verwerp toch ook mijn klachte niet: ik! arme, kranke, klagend riet.” (Reject Thou not, My sad complaint, for I, too, am a poor, lamenting, sickly reed.)
This subtle connection with the symbolism of the reed was, perhaps, why our trip felt so meaningful: a whispering of understanding between us and the Biesbosch.
We were pressed by the wind of our struggles, bending in the direction blown, but also in control of our own navigation and destiny as father and son.
As evening settled, my son, dog, and I found a relatively high spot of ground, several kilometres from where we set out. As we sought a place to pitch our tent, our dog went through the reeds in the same way he travels through deep snow, each blind, bounding movement a small conquest. Eventually we found a narrow, flat spot to make camp.
After a dinner of macaroni and cheese, we lay on our backs and relished the silence. There were frogs everywhere, beavers slithering from the muddy banks and into the reflective waters, heads erect and steadfast, coursing an invisible current.
The night was silent and the stars furious. My son and I talked about everything from his friends at school to the reasons why his parents separated. Here, held silently by the reeds that once built a world, we found the peaceful reflection and self-recognition I hoped for.
Erik Raschke is the author of two novels, his latest being To the Mountain by Torrey House Press (2021).