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Word of the Day: duin (dune)

The Dutch dune lands are mainly terra incognita, untrodden earth. Much of this coastal zone is off-limits because it is a nature reserve. Another part is a water-collection area and therefore ‘verboden toegang’ (no admittance). I suspect that lots of beach and sea addicts have never set foot in those dune areas which are open to the public. Why?


To appreciate the dunes, you need an acquired taste. Dunes are not sublime or dramatic in the way the Alpine mountains are. They are not as mysterious and uncanny as the forests and the heaths of the Hoge Veluwe. They are not even exciting because there is no spectacular wild life. For many Dutch people the dunes are excruciatingly boring.
But not for me!
I love the thousands of shades of green and yellow. The ridges of low hills behind each of which – you suspect – the sea is hiding. The sound of the wind through the shrubs mingling with the continuous rumbling of the unseen swirly surf. Around every corner another surprising vista opening up to you.

Young playful rabbits run towards you with their wicked brown eyes and then quickly vanish in the bushes. A lonely hunched tree whispers the creaking story of its lifelong fight with the winter storms and the freezing snow.

On your lips you sense the nearness of the salty sea while smelling the fresh perfume of the berries. And when the sun sets, shedding its bright golden light over the vastness, there is no boundary between the dunes and you, or you and the dunes. The dunes have become you.

No, I am not the only dune lover in the world. How do I know? Because I am a jealous lover. With envious eyes I immediately detect a rival. And among artists there are many rivals, dead and alive. Poets sing her beauty. Painters revel in her colours. Composers use her as their muse.

One of my fiercest dune loving rivals is Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944). When he was in Zeeland’s Domburg (the name was originally ‘duinburcht’, stronghold in the dunes) from 1908 and in later years, he painted several majestic dunescapes.

In Domburg there was a colony of artists who stayed there because of the famous Zeeland light. Jan Toorop (1858-1928) and Piet Mondriaan painted the sea and the dunes which he joined for a while. My favourite dune on canvas is Piet Mondriaan’s ‘Duin V’ which he painted in 1910. See here.

In 1914 he wrote to H.P. Bremmer: ‘Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things.’

During the first World War Mondriaan returned to Domburg and it is said that the seascapes and dunescapes inspired him to paint his famous abstract linear paintings which culminated in the unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie painted in New York just before his death in 1944 (and now to be admired with many of his other paintings in the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag).

Why do I love DUIN so much? And here I mean the word (het) DUIN… Maybe because it is one of the few words in Dutch that are of Celtic origin. In Irish ‘dūn’ means ‘hill’ or ‘hill fort’ and it can still be found in place names such as Dún Laoghaire (near Dublin).

DUIN is one of the oldest Dutch words. The Old Dutch word ‘dunos’ dates from the year 887 when it was written down in a Latin text: ‘sua lingua dunon appellant’ (what they call ‘dunes’ in their language). In English it has survived as well as ‘dune’ but it also occurs as ‘down’ as in the name Watership Down.

O, there is so much to be said about dunes. About the way they come into being. How they erode and are blown off. The ‘old dunes’ came into existence some 5,000 years ago. They now hide underneath the elevated city centres of The Hague, Voorburg, Rijswijk, Leidschendam, Wassenaar and other coastal towns.

The dunes along the Dutch coast that we know so well, are called ‘young dunes’. These ‘young dunes’ were created by sand that was washed ashore some 1,000 years ago.

Yes, I must stop here. My love song could go on and on. I have not even discussed the dunes as the paradise of our youth yet. The place where so many young Hagenaars had their first explorations and adventures in love. Maybe some other time. I’ll end for now with this beautiful love poem by Herman Gorter (1864-1927).

Mijn gouden blikken blozen. Van zoete schaamte
Dat ik u liefheb. Zoals ‘s avonds zee.

En van de zee komt stil een zacht roepen,
Of dat zij komt, of dat ik komen moet.

Oneindig verlangen schijnt nu langs de duinen
Te waaien, – en schijnt gouden langs de duinen.

My golden glances blush. With sweet shame
That it’s you I love. Like sea at night.

And from the sea a soft calling comes,
If she will come, or if I must come.

Endless desire now seems to be blown
Along the dunes, – and shines golden along the dunes.

(© translation Ruud Hisgen, 2013)