I had found myself in a small water reserve south of Zandvoort on the West coast of the Netherlands. The dykes and dunes of the Dutch had been puzzling me for a few years. I still couldn’t get myself to believe that this land was below sea level, on the precarious edge of submergence. They seemed to be resisting what I always considered the inevitable. How long until the sea prevailed and took back the land that had been stolen from it?
In the first year, I found this place soothing, an area of dunes and waterways dotted here and there with woods. Deers and foxes roaming freely, weaving their way amongst the trees and the streams. It came close to fulfilling my craving of something both natural and cultural. Many of the dune formations had been planned but they were also allowed to shift as they pleased. It was approaching that elusive hybrid that appears to hold so much possibility. Nature formed from culture. Or was it the other way round?
The network of dunes and waterways had recently been opened to supply us to Amsterdam. The Waterleidingduinen. I gathered later that this name was three words stuck together: water, piping, dunes. This was a no nonsense name, straight to the point. In the humans’ plight to avoid the harsh grip of Cholera that was infecting so many cities, clean water was key. Only 2 years ago, in 1851, the company N.V. Duinwater-Maatschappij (96% of which was English-owned) was set up to ‘manage’ us. The idea that they had quantified us into percentages was of great amusement to many. Personally, it scared me. A military engineer had noticed that many breweries in Haarlem were using pure dune water as their basic ingredient. He had borrowed this idea, and added to it a cast iron pipe. He began to pump a flow of us, clean and filtered, into the ever-growing city. Now, at 1 cent a bucket – 2 buckets per person, per day – we could be collected at Willemspoort and people ceased to dip their buckets into the fetid canals. Since then there had been no sign of cholera in the greater Amsterdam area.
I had spent much time surrounded by vibrio cholerae. Often vicious, merciless and yet clingy, they did not generally make good company.
comma shaped bacteria
lurking in brackish* water
neither salty nor fresh
at one cell pole
covered in pili*
catching it like velcro
till its host has nothing left to
Anyway, we were rid of them here – almost. Many of us were happy to have left the vibrio cholerae behind and did what we could to stay in the Waterleidingduinen. A calm place, a place where we could flow as we pleased – almost. I had learnt a trick of latching myself onto a grain of sand when I felt the sudden pull of the pipe. I wanted to stick around for a while. Though a part of me was restless and wanted to explore, I knew that this was a place of luxury. One that should be appreciated while it lasted.
I was also wary of letting my secret out. As I said, most vibrio cholera were to be avoided, but not all. Some remain dormant. Undetected and harmless. I had befriended one of these gentler creatures and they had travelled with me, they had needed protection from their active counterparts and I had taken pity. Now I, or should I say ‘we’ held a surprisingly powerful position. For what we understood, all but my companion vibrio cholerae had been banished from greater Amsterdam. At first this unnerved me. I did what I could to conceal this companion. We stayed mostly towards the bottom of the waterways, now and then soaking a little way into the sand bank to hide. My nerves were apparent but my companion always calmed me. This dormant friend clearly had experience in operating outside of the mass, keeping inconspicuous and making sure to avoid attention. I learnt a lot in those months. Mainly, how to fend for oneself. How to slip to the edges, carve out one’s own channel, aside from that which you would otherwise be swept along.
Over the years I was there the Dutch and their engineers grew increasingly greedy. More and more they turned on the pumps to drain us out through the pipe. Lower and lower our levels fell. New infrastructure started to creep its way in to the Waterleidingduinen. Small mechanical locks were fitted here and there to stop us flowing where we were not wanted. Fences were erected around the perimeter. We were finding it harder and harder to follow our own flow. Culture was encroaching further and further into nature. The whole thing had been too good to be true. My companion was reserved, but would occasionally tell me tales of the spread of cholera. How they had moved from city to city, carried by the steamboat traffic, reaping havoc and death wherever they went. These tales always described how others had done these deeds, my companion always kept themselves removed from the story. A bystander, a witness. There was a similar bitterness towards humanity that I had heard from much of the water around me. A disappointment at their egocentrism. Their need to anthropomorphise everything they came in contact with… With these stories and the ever growing thirst of Amsterdam, my own bitterness grew. I started to loath their control over us. I wanted to master their engineering and use it against them. My companion had grown stronger over the years and in this strength came the active strain that had been lacking for so long. No longer was this a particle to pity. Instead, a weapon. Eventually, we set a marker in the bank. The level we would have to sink to before we volunteered ourselves up to the pipe and eventually the lips of an Amsterdam resident. Me and my lethal companion.
Let chemical chaos ensue.
*(of water) slightly salty, as in river estuaries.
*a slender thread-like structure, especially a microscopic whip-like appendage which enables many protozoa, bacteria, spermatozoa, etc. to swim.
*a pilus (Latin for 'hair'; plural : pili) is a hair-like appendage found on the surface of many bacteria.
From Leaky, Orin Bristow