Last Monday we walked into the North Sea. Most of the water was elsewhere at the time, so though we got tremendously muddy, we didn’t get very wet. We had explained to Ninja that we were at a place where the tide goes out for a very long way, and that it comes back in much later, but he was unclear about the time frame. Every few minutes he’d say, “I think I see the water coming. Quick! we’d better head back.” We assured him we had looked up the timetable and we had 6 hours before high tide. He thought maybe someone could have made a mistake with the schedule.
This place with miles of mud is called Wattenmeer, a section of the Western coast of Germany, a World Heritage site, and important sanctuary for wildlife. When we arrived, all we could see was quite a high grassy hill which turned out to be a dike. Climbing to the top we met our first wildlife for the outing, a few dozen sheep. During the course of the day we would see a variety of seabirds and a prodigious quantity of shellfish. All in all, land, sea and air were well represented, and I’ve been unsuccessful resisting the temptation to chant “shellfish and sea birds and sheep, oh my!”
We squished out among the sea grass for a while, sometimes sinking more than expected, sometimes making impressive sucking noises as we worked to extricate our feet with shoes still attached. After a while it became clear that in mid-summer, with bare feet and with a willingness to be quite thoroughly crusted, this would be a promising course of action, but on an exceptionally windy day in chilly April weather and in shoes we would be wearing for the rest of the day, an alternative seemed called for.
Squelching parallel to the dike for a while, we found what looked like a wide ridge of rocks, and thought we’d walk out England-ward on that. It turned out to be dried mud, formed by silt deposited against a long fence-like structure. Two parallel rows of small pilings were set into the mud, with branches laid between them and rope tying things together. Every time the tide comes in, sediment washes up against these fences, leaving a tiny bit more. The pictures show them in several stages: the pilings that are furthest out are mostly uncovered, and the ones next to the dike are nearly buried, effectively adding a little bit to Germany every day. If erosion is the process by which beaches get washed away, what do we call this? Re-rosion?
In reality I don’t know what’s going on here (I have this feeling a lot lately). It seems like the mud is building up and hardening, but perhaps that’s seasonal, and in some other season, maybe it all gets washed away again. This is not a place that fits my assumptions about how things work. Not far away is the uninhabited island of Trischen, which apparently shifts some 20 meters to the east every year. In a place where things like that happen, I can’t make confident statements. Maybe the pilings have been placed there to help maintain the status quo, and not to add to Germany’s square kilometers. As a World Heritage site, it seems an unlikely place for territorial expansion.
But there are places where active territorial expansion is happening, and not that far away from Wattenmeer. I learned in my research that in 1986 the Netherlands proclaimed their twelfth province, Flevoland. They didn’t redistrict, they filled in some sea and grew themselves more Netherlands. The term for land reclaimed from water is “polder,” at least around this neighborhood. But it’s not only around here that this sort of thing is done.
I was aware of certain cases where land has been made–the Netherlands, of course, and Boston’s back bay, but there are quite a lot of other places where land has been added through reclamation, including regions of the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Dublin, Saint Petersburg, New Orleans, San Francisco, Mexico City, Helsinki, Cape Town, Chicago, Manhattan, Toronto, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and the countries of Singapore, Monaco, Belgium and Belarus. Apparently that old investing advice to “buy land–they’re not making any more of it” turns out not to be strictly true.