The Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow offers a snapshot of the so-called Little Ice Age, a period in early modern history when global temperatures dropped and climates became more extreme. Winter in the Low Countries, Bruegel’s homeland, had always been harsh, but during the Little Ice Age they became even harsher. Hunters in the Snow shows how people coped with the unprecedented cold: The hunters, bringing along greyhounds, bloodhounds, terriers and more, are ready to catch every manner of creature; inns store a forest worth of firewood; and in the background, the women and children of the village can be seen engaging in that most Netherlandish of seasonal activities — skating on natural ice.
To Belgian and especially Dutch viewers, winter landscapes from the Little Ice Age possess a nostalgic quality that historical paintings by other Dutch artists like Rembrandt’s Night Watch or even Vermeer’s Milkmaid do not share. Where the latter depict a world that is forever relegated to the past, the former show a reality that never really stopped existing. The denizens of Amsterdam may no longer wear the same clothes they wore when Rembrandt was alive. Nor do they eat the same food or listen to the same music. But, when winter comes around and the rivers, lakes and canals freeze over, they still reach for their skates with the same enthusiasm as Bruegel saw them do.
The key word here is when — when winter comes around and the rivers freeze over.
When I was a child, this happened just about every year. As far as I can remember, snow and ice in January and February were as much of a certainty as rain was every other month. Now, thanks to global warming, temperatures rarely drop below zero. Talking about the consequences of climate change, people like to point out that by 2050, half of the Netherlands, which is situated below sea level, is going to be reclaimed by the Atlantic Ocean. This is true, but it is not the full story. The full story is that, while climate disruption has yet to destroy Dutch land, it has already destroyed a part of Dutch culture.
The descendants of those skaters today at a different ice-skating marathon in 2012. Elfstedentocht has only been held three times in the past 50 years. Photo by Rene Mensen.
People came out in droves to skate in February 2021, when the rivers and lakes froze over for the first time in more than five years. Photo by Rob Oo.
And no small part of it either. The world’s biggest, skating competition, the Elfstedentocht or Eleven City Tour, is held in the Dutch province of Friesland (on canals that connect these cities to each other), while the English word skate is thought to have been derived from the Dutch “schaats.”
Historically, the Dutch started skating for business purposes. Unable to traverse the waterways connecting their country by boat, they resolved to strapping sharpened animal bones — and, later, metal — to the soles of their boots instead. Over time, skating turned from a logistical necessity into a progressive pastime. As early as the sixteenth century, the ice provided a space in which the norms of ordinary society broke down and people from different classes could interact as equals. This saturnalian effect of skating persisted into the present, with the ice serving as the equivalent of an American cookout, giving otherwise reclusive and self-reliant neighbors a sorely needed excuse to socialize.
The rarer cold winters become, the stranger the emotions they elicit in us.
When, in January 2021, unexpected snowfall covered the streets of my hometown in a coat thick and sticky enough to form into snowballs, my friends and I — despite us being in our mid-twenties — felt compelled to go and “play” outside. Acting like children, we were overcome by a desire for mischief, pummeling people’s windows with snowballs and running away as soon as we saw them heading for the front door.
When, a week later, the rivers and lakes froze over for the first time in more than five years, it was only a matter of hours before the ice was scarred with skid marks. The pond where I had come to skate was as busy as a town square, the skaters gliding from one end to the other with such speed and elegance that from a distance they looked more like birds than humans.
A friend from the United Kingdom who was staying with me said he was impressed by the number of people that knew how to skate, from toddlers to grandmas. I told him that skating was one of those skills you all but automatically acquire if you grow up in the Netherlands. This goes for riding a bicycle as well, and skating — a Dutch saying goes — is a lot like cycling: once taught, it cannot be unlearned.
In the past, the ice would stick around for weeks. That year, the most recent year that we have had snowfall/ice in January, it scarcely lasted three days. On the second day, the ice had already half-melted. The outer edges had broken off from the riverbanks, and cracks materialized around those who moved too slowly.
The Dutch government issued multiple public service announcements urging everyone to stay away from the ice, but its warnings fell on deaf ears. Having waited years to skate on natural ice — and not knowing when the next opportunity to do so would arrive — thousands of skaters risked submerging themselves in water cold enough to send them into apoplectic shock. Some ended up trending on social media, others needed to be taken to the hospital.
Browsing through my family’s old photo albums this year, after a warm winter and even warmer summer, it’s difficult not to see the pictures inside doubling as a record of our warming planet. The glossy, oversaturated images taken with our old 35 millimeter camera between my birth in 1998 and my sixth birthday in 2004 show the same type of winters seen in Bruegel’s art: chilly in temperature, yet warm in atmosphere. These contrast with the more recent, clearer, crisper pictures of our digital camera, which show the type of winters we have become accustomed to today: warm in temperature, chilly in atmosphere.
It is difficult not to see in our dying planet, the imminent death of my culture as well. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the Dutch national character currently has a hole at its center. The Elfstedentocht, which was founded 114 years ago, has only been held three times in the past 50 years, with the last race taking place in 1997. It is unclear of it will ever be held again, since it is only held when the natural ice along the entire 135-mile course is at least 6 inches thick. Worse, we now have an entire generation that has never learned to skate. Not because they think skating is old-fashioned, but because there simply hasn’t been enough natural ice for them to skate on.
If global warming continues — which it will — then my children are destined to look at my family albums with the same wonder I reserve for Rembrandt’s Night Watch. To them, those albums will offer a glimpse of an environment they know existed, but which they never got to experience for themselves.
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