"The windmills belong to the Dutch landscape, to such an extent that we cannot imagine this landscape without them, at least not without feeling that something valuable is missing." -Frederick Stokhuyzen
Windmills, along with tulips, wooden shoes,
and cheese, are among the cliches we think of when imagining the Netherlands in our minds. And while I recognize that there is much more to Holland then these four things, I also think there's a good reason why this small country has so many windmills. That's what I set out to find out in this post. What purpose do windmills serve in Holland? What effect do they have on the people and the landscape?
Windmills seem to serve three major purposes in Holland: mill corn, drain water from the land, and serve industrial needs. All three are very important, but I'm most fascinated by the water drainage. The Netherlands wages a constant battle against water, with 27% of the land and 60% of the population lying below sea level. Throughout the history of this area, the population has competed with the water. The land in Holland is extremely fertile, when it can be claimed from the water, and therefore people have been trying to use it for millenia. In the first millenium AD, villages and farms were built on manmade hills called terps, which over time were connected by dikes. As early as the 1100s, government committees existed for the sole purpose of fending off floodwaters. The ground level, even today, continues to lower as more water is drained off and the underlying peat compresses as it dries. The peat was also mined to be used as fuel until the 19th century, contributing further to the problem. By the 13th century, windmills were being used to drain water from the land. At first they were used only to drain water from areas below sea level, but they were later used to drain lakes as well, creating Holland's famous polders, basically a crater of land, lined by dikes, and surrounded by water.
Windmills went out of fashion as better technologies came along at the
turn of the 20th century. Over the next hundred years the number of windmills declined from 10,000 working windmills to 1,000. Now recognized as an important cultural symbol (and lucrative tourist attraction), Holland is diligently working to restore its windmills, and their number is slowly on the rise. Many amazing feats of engineering have since been employed to keep Holland safe from floods, but it remains among the nations most susceptible to the effects of global warming. Until then, Holland's reclaimed lands bring us some of the world's most beautiful flowers, as well as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, and its agricultural exports rank third in the world in value.
The video below, shot by a windmill keeper, shows a lovely working windmill in the south of Holland, with views of the outside and the inner working parts as well.