Written by Prof. Bert van den Brink, Dean of UCR

January 18, 2021

This weekend I got into my car and drove along the coast. How I love the coastal landscape, which our Southwest Delta offers in spades. Its never-ending rhythm, its winds, and liberating vistas help set free the mind. The cold freezing winds and the Corona lockdown made the landscape sparsely populated. And out came all those structures in the landscape that are built to facilitate use of it.

I take not just pleasure but insight from observing our Corona governed world. As extraordinary, isolating, and sad the situation is, it is a highly interesting phenomenon as well. So I make use of the opportunity to study it. These deserted landscapes are part of my little study.

dune with stairs

Parked bicycles make landscapes messy and in Summer, Zeeland’s beach entrances are littered with a colorful disarray of two-wheelers. In their absence, the highly organized nature of this little landscape becomes visible. A landscape is a tamed space, organized for use by humans. If there would be just one bike in this or the next photograph, the eye would be drawn to it as a sign of human presence. It would satisfy us and give the scene a sense of purpose. What we see instead is a landscape that lies in waiting, a landscape ready to welcome us.

sand dune with stairs

In organizing the landscape people recognize needs they have — or think they have. So landscapes tell us a lot about the behavior they expect of each other. Park your bike here! Take these stairs! Keep your distance!

The landscape serves as the great (or not so great) outdoors and is associated with a sense of freedom. But freedom is always framed and guided by both internal intentionality and external structures, which tend to be both enabling and limiting. More often than not, we acknowledge and obey the structures, which poses interesting questions about the limits and scope of our freedom and autonomy.

dyke with stairs

Watch the photograph above. Would you obey to the expectation that through traffic (‘doorgaand verkeer’) should take the route indicated? This traffic constellation has existed for years, no-one constructed it as a metaphor for the lockdown. I find the scene highly interesting because is it utterly serious and hilarious at the same time. Indeed, the sign is not a joke at all: you are expected to understand this element of the landscape as a thoroughfare in a land characterized by a heroic struggle against the sea. The landscape expresses what its inhabitants have to relate to — and who they have become.

So let us start a little project together. Now that we will be stuck in a largely online lockdown for some time again, do not forget to walk away from your screen from time to time. Do your Dean a favor, go out on a walk every now and then and photograph the beautiful, ugly, sensible, serious and hilarious ways in which the landscape around your parts is organized. What do you see, what does it express about what human beings aim to be — and who they have become? Put your photographs in a little reflection such as mine here and send it to UCR’s Community Diary. By the end of semester, with other contributors, I would like to edit a little online book about deserted landscapes in times of corona.

In the end, all of this is meant as a celebration of the human relation to the landscape. All our reflections and observations start from the fact that humans can have deeply meaningful and satisfying relations to the landscape, as these two gentlemen in Westkapelle demonstrate:

man who goes fishing