‘siel–a repulsive termination, that seemed appropriate to the whole region’

As Lloyd (notDavies) points out vividly in his post about Wangeroog, the sea and the land are constantly at war in this part of the world. When it comes to the islands of East Frisia first encountered by our heroes on October 15, it’s not that clear who’s winning. But on the mainland, I’d say the land is generally doing OK, largely thanks to the dykes and the ‘siels’ that Carruthers is so rude about.

Hooksiel_Siel_rück

Hooksiel Siel (By Benutzer:AxelHH (Benutzer:AxelHH) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s probably fair to say that without the dykes and the siels, a lot of East Frisia wouldn’t really exist. A very large proportion of it has, over the last 1000 years or so, been created from land reclaimed from the sea. As the old local saying goes: ‘God created the sea, the Frisians the coast’.

Since the Frisians wouldn’t really have much a country to live in if they hadn’t dyked up the place and sluiced it regularly, it’s fair to say that this kind of engineering is pretty fundamental to the place. As Otto Knottnerus writes in his essay ‘Culture and society in the Frisian and German North Sea Coastal Marshes (1500-1800)’  [and crikey how my general reading has changed rather a lot since we started this adventure!]:

Dike-building and drainage… were essential to almost every aspect of culture and society: from agriculture and trade to protection against human enemies and natural disasters.

I think Childers wants us to think dark thoughts about dykes, seeing them not so much as sea defences, but more like castle walls, with the siels as the portcullises or drawbridges. The long dyke at Cuxhaven, for example, definitely makes the place look like a fortress when Carruthers and Davies sail past it. And generally it feels like the Frisians have been rather busy putting up massive ‘keep out’ signs everywhere, as if they have something to hide – a secret of some sort, or a ‘riddle’….

Ostfriesland_um_1300

East Friesland as it was in 1300 (with a dotted line marking the contemporary coastline): By Onno Gabriel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Having read a bit of ‘The History and Heritage of Coastal Engineering‘,  edited by Nicholas C. Kraus, [you see?! *another* book I would never have read before we started on this  project], it’s rather clear that the whole business of land reclamation (or ‘poldering’ ) maybe doesn’t start as a war-like business, but once you’ve created a new coast for yourself, it’s amazing how quickly someone else wants to come along and invade it.

It’s perhaps not very surprising if the East Frisians became somewhat defensive about protecting the land they’d won back from the sea. Let’s not forget that the biggest dyke in the UK is King Offa’s construction designed to keep the English out. And in roughly the same way as the Frisians, Hereward the Wake use the dykes and ditches of Ely to protect his own little kingdom from the Normans.

In effect, once you dyke off the land and sort out drainage using siels, you’ve essentially built yourself a potential battleground. What was a peaceable arable farming project over time starts to look a lot more like militaristic engineering & architecture programme.

To the untrained English eye, you might even say the Germans were obsessed with invasion and fortresses and gatekeeping. Perhaps all along, though, it was simply part of the ongoing war not with other nations, but with the sea.

p.s. If you want to know how sluices/siels actually work, check this out: http://www.ecomare.nl/en/encyclopedia/man-and-the-environment/water-management/management-inland-waters/sluices/

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