The Old Grey Widow-Maker

Into the teeth of a rising storm on the North Sea, standing on a sea dike near Husum, Germany.

Kipling’s “Harp Song of the Dane Women” was right. The North Sea is not to be trusted. The day before had been sunny, light winds from the sea, and the seal-spotting boats had been going out, taking tourists to see “Seelöwe.” Not this morning. The wind pushed me so hard I almost lost my footing, and the wind was not kind.

The land behind one of the inland dikes. On the other side, sheep grazed drained land, and mud-flats extended to the edges of the tidal estuary leading to Husum. This was twenty minutes or so before the previous picture, as the storm was rolling in and rain starting.

The dikes are 30-50 feet tall, and very thick. Layers and layers of them extend back from the coast, sea dikes on the shore, then inland dikes with removable gates where roads pass through. Steel plates can be lowered into the cuts to seal off the road and protect whoever is behind the secondary dike, should the sea-dikes give way. The North Sea is not kind. She will devour anything in her way.

There are two terms for floods on the North Sea. One translates as “flood,” and is the same as for any overflow, be it a river or sea or lake. The other, used rarely is “Mandränk,” or drowning. There are two Great Drownings people around the North Sea talk about. One was in the 1362.

The first part of the map shows the area around Husum before the Große Mandränk of 1362. The same storm, over two nights and a day in January, destroyed cities and towns from England (Dulwich) to Husum, and gave Husum a port by removing all the land and islands in the way. The green crescent on the center map was the remaining island. Husum is to the lower right of the center image, where the river leaves the orange bit. The tan shows the mudflats, or Watt.

Then in 1634, the North Sea attacked once more.

Look at the third map. No more crescent-shaped island, more towns disappeared (the little red dots), and the mud flats became open water. No one knows how many people died on land or at sea.

The map is from the North Sea Maritime Museum in Husum, which is a wonderful small museum run by volunteers and that is far more interesting than it looks from outside. If you are interested in the coastal waters and maritime history of this slice of North Sea coast, and of the people who live with the waters, I highly recommend the museum. (Yes, it is all in German. Americans rarely go to this region unless they are tracing family history.)

If you really look at the maps of the region, you notice that none of the old ports—Hamburg, Stade, Bremen, Lübeck, Stettin, Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, Danzig/Gdansk, Hedeby-Haithabu-Schleswig, Kiel—are on the sea. All are in rivers that open to the North Sea and Baltic. Nothing on the North Sea lasts, in part because elevated areas are rare. Instead you have miles and miles of very low, flat land that eventually rises into Geest, or elevated moorland. It’s too dangerous to have a port on the coast, and the storms are too severe. Better to stay tucked a little inland on a river with bluffs and raised islands (Lübeck, Rostock).

One of the most famous novellas* in German literature is set in this region: Der Schimmelreiter**, “The Rider of the Pale Horse.” Theodore Storm lived in Husum and wrote a fantastic ghost story about a young man, the dikes, and the North Sea.

This is at low tide, into the wind.

For the moment, the dikes hold. But on stormy nights, when the sea tears at the walls of earth and stone, when grey-white water slashes and claws at the land, seeking any weakness, the Schimmelreiter appears, riding along the dikes…

And some day, the sea will win.

*In German literature, a novella is not a short novel per se, but also one that has a repeating image and leitmotiv, in this case the sea-waves and a white horse.

** Schimmel can mean a white horse, but also fox-fire on rotting things. And in the Book of Revelation, the fourth horseman rides a Schimmel, the “pale horse.” The title of the story has a lot of meanings packed into it, and the story is magnificent, at least in German. I’ve not read it in translation so I can’t recommend one.

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