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No matter the weather: honours students explore the 'wilderness' in Wassenaar

With a combination of incidental sunshine, torrential rain, and wind chills, weather conditions were not ideal for a hiking excursion. Even so, last Saturday, honours students braved a trek across an estate and a golf club in Wassenaar to learn about the relationship between gardens and nature. From drifting dunes to Chinoiserie gardens: nature proved to be as varied as the weather.

Since early March, a group of dedicated students has been learning all about wilderness and the relationship between man and nature through the Bachelor Honours Class 'Wild Things, Wilderness in the Anthropocene'. Students look at the subject matter through different lenses , such as history, philosophy and anthropology, says honours student Pim. 'For example, we discussed how wilderness was perceived during the colonisation of North America. How Europeans wanted to dominate nature, very interesting. The enthusiasm of our teacher, Mr Peeters, makes it an incredibly fun course as well.' 

'Cosmetic surgery'

After several weeks in the lecture halls, an excursion took place last Saturday. Armed with umbrellas, the students set off to the Backershagen estate in Wassenaar. Cornelis Backer had a country house built there in 1730. The garden was originally a so-called French formal garden, explains lecturer Norbert Peeters. 'Formal gardens consisted of straight paths, a symmetrical layout and everything was trimmed and pruned. The idea was that nature was only beautiful with the intervention of man The work of the gardener had to be visible throughout. A kind of cosmetic surgery, but applied to nature.'

In 1772, there was a radical change of tack. ‘From then on, the garden had to resemble 'real' nature as much as possible: winding paths were laid out, hills and unpruned plants and trees were planted everywhere – so that, when taking a stroll, you imagined yourself in the wilderness. Many exotic trees and plants from America or Japan, for example, were planted. And various buildings were erected; from a Chinese tea pavilion to an artificial shell cave. It makes you wonder how 'natural' such a garden is.' 

Across the dunes

Over time, people have obviously looked at wilderness in different ways. Fences used to protect man from nature, and now we put up fences to protect  nature from man. A place where the complicated relationship between nature and man becomes apparent, rather unexpectedly, at the next stop of today’s field trip: the Koninklijke Haagsche Golf & Country Club.

The students are in luck, as the course is almost deserted due to the bad weather, and they are allowed to walk right through the dunes. 'Dunes are of course characteristic of the Netherlands, but even in Scotland, where golf was invented, they played golf in the dunes. With their hilly landscape, golf courses all over the world often imitate dune landscapes,' explains Peeters.

The Dutch dunes used to be considered dangerous because of the sand displacement. 'To prevent this, the well-known beach grass, among others, was planted along with later, Scots pines,' Peeters says. In other words: although these dunes seem wild, they – like the golf course – are carefully managed.

The sun comes out

Rob Sanders, a member of the golf club, explains that the club takes their relationship with nature very seriously. For example, they carefully consider the extent in which they intervene in the dunes and how to conserve the natural wealth of the dune landscape. Afterwards, the students enjoy their surrounding landscape for a while longer as they climb the dunes despite the strong wind. At last, the sun comes out – and for a moment it almost feels like you really are in the wilderness.

Text: Iris Kole
Photos: Buro JP

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