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The Countryside Strikes Back

The Countryside Strikes Back

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I’ve always thought of home as a place where nothing ever changes. But while I was away, living my life abroad, several experiments in sustainability and green energy popped up in my village, Sint-Michielsgestel. What happened?

BY Ellyn van valkengoed

I grew up in Sint-Michielsgestel, a small town on the outskirts of the larger city ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It has a population of 10,000 and there’s not much to do. The highlights are the pub where kids drink brightly coloured mixers and a pizza delivery shop inexplicably shaped like a pyramid. Small shops sell magazines and chocolates (but not on Sundays). The village square features a lonely clock tower, marking the spot where a medieval church once stood. The church and the village are named after the Archangel Michael, who slew the dragon that tried to claw its way through the walls of heaven. The Book of Revelation, chapter 12. The church’s gothic bones now rest beneath the parking lot of a supermarket.

If you face the clock tower and head west, you cross the bridge over the river Dommel. Loosely translated, ‘Dommel’ means snooze. That seems appropriate: the river is silvery and lethargic in the flat landscape. Everywhere you go, the snooze is a noticeable presence, reinforced by the steady humming of cars on the A2 highway as they make n their way north to Amsterdam and other, more exciting places.

When I was growing here as a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. The trouble with villages is that there is nothing to struggle for. No drama, no dragons that need slaying: for the most part life goes on and things remain pretty much the same they have always been. But have they really?

Gestel gone green

There may not be any dragons in the area, but what we do have is a castle-dwelling noble family, the Marggraffs. At least we used to: the eccentric Ewald Marggraff died without wife or child in 2003, the last of his family. In life, Ewald was committed to keeping all his estates firmly in hand, even though he didn’t have the money to maintain any of them. This meant Ewald spent most of his time dodging taxes (by becoming a citizen of Monaco, for instance) and fighting legal battles against the state.

For as long as I can remember, the land he owned on the outskirts of the village – an estate called Wilhelminapark - has been left to the wilderness: no one ever lived or worked there. Ewald refused to sell it to the town either, despite receiving many offers. He may have unintentionally saved it from becoming another road or house estate: today, Wilhelminapark is an organic farm with hundreds of fruit trees, vegetables, brown cattle and chickens.

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The farm is not just any farm, either. Herenboeren is a membership organisation, meaning locals from the village can buy a share in it. In exchange, they stop by to receive fresh produce every Saturday and organise decision-making meetings throughout the year. The farmer gets paid a salary by the members: since nobody is trying to make a profit, the farmer doesn’t need to worry about the business aspect of working the land. The goal is to reach about 200 members, at which point they would break even.

It’s a smart move, at a time when the demand for local-grown, organic food is growing and farming as a career is barely viable, with EU subsidies providing a minimal income. According to its creators, Herenboeren is a project for education and experimentation. They give students at universities and schools the opportunity to do research into animal welfare, ecology and sustainable farming methods. For casual visitors, a trip to the farm makes you think about where your food comes from: how much land cows take up in comparison to other livestock, for instance.

As for me, I learn that pigs are pretty cute. When my dad whistles they come running to him, ears flapping adorably. We search for acorns on the ground and toss them over the fence. Watching the pigs root through the mud with their pink noses, I feel surprisingly moved. I realise I never see pigs outside, which is the same as never seeing them at all - in a country where 30 million piglets are born every year.

Home is where…

The farm isn’t the only project the villagers have taken upon themselves. The river Dommel now has its own hydroelectric power station, built on a pre-existing dam. The giant revolving screw generates enough electricity to power 200 households on a good day. It was made possible by crowdfunding: around 500 people from the village bought shares, making them partial owners of the power station. Combined with investments from local business, they raised over 750.000 euros.

What’s going on? Why are my sleepy village and its surroundings suddenly environmentally conscious? Many people I talk to around town mention being concerned about climate change, just like my parents: it’s become increasingly difficult to ignore the footage about the melting polar caps and the subtle shift in familiar weather patterns, meaning torrential rain in the summer and no ice in winter. Migratory birds showing up weeks early. The sadness of it.

But what can a handful of inhabitants of a small village do to change the course the world is on? Not much, it seems; but they’re determined to try. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the old days when things were less complicated, less mass-produced and not as ‘globalized’. By investing in their own area and community, they’re getting back in touch with nature and the rhythms of village life as it used to be. It’s an old lifestyle, revolving around harvests and the passing of the seasons, made possible by new ideas and technology.

Having a stake in the success of these projects strengthens our connection to the land.

Thanks to the internet, the idea of sharing ownership and responsibility for local projects has really taken off. People have figured out you can still get satisfaction from planting fruit trees or cooking dinners with left-over vegetables without being a full-time farmer, or even owning any land. Smartphones help bring them together: there’s even a new YouTube channel where the village farmers share their favorite recipes, and an app that monitors the amount of electricity produced by the Dommel power station.

My father and I walk past ‘his’ power station often: ‘to see if the blades are still turning.’ He’s joking, of course, but he looks proud too. If the village’s efforts are just a drop in the ocean in the fight against  global warming, at least people feel like they’re doing what they can to gain some control over what they consume. And there’s another effect I hadn’t counted on: having a stake in the success of these projects strengthens our connection to the land.  

As if we hadn’t really realized how beautiful it was here; the smell of the woods after rainfall; the sun dipping into the river and the pale shadows of cows in the half-light. Horses raise their shaggy heads to watch me as I pass them by. Returning home from a walk I see a kestrel, rapidly beating its wings to suspend itself over the fields. As if it’s praying.


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ELLYN IS AN ARE WE EUROPE STAFF WRITER FOCUSING ON EUROPEAN IDENTITY AND OTHER ISSUES