Long before I knew his name, I knew Hendrick Avercamp’s paintings. They show a merry Christmassy world of funnily dressed people disporting themselves on frozen canals: paintings I knew from jigsaw puzzles and holiday cards. Here was a young couple gliding over the ice, love in their eyes; there were people exercising picturesque professions — a skate sharpener, a bird catcher, a chestnut seller.
But if you kept looking, you found a good-natured scabrousness. Behind that spidery tree was a man defecating, and over there was a woman who’d slipped and exposed her red buttocks, and there, beside the village inn, was a drunken fool being fished out of the ice. No artist ever captured winter fun as well.
These scenes were so iconic, so Dutch, that I felt a bit bereaved, when I moved to the Netherlands more than 20 years ago, to realize that the world they showed was gone — and that thanks to climate change, it wouldn’t be coming back. Even the Elfstedentocht, the skating race through the 11 historic cities of Friesland that is one of the country’s most beloved national traditions and has been held 15 times since 1909, was passing from memory. The ice has to reach a certain thickness for it to be safely held, and the ice no longer reaches that thickness. What I found, in place of the sparkling white winters of the old paintings, was month after month of tepid drizzle.
It’s hard to overstate how excited the Dutch still get about the Elfstedentocht. Spirits rise as the mercury sinks. There are daily meteorological reports from little towns that are rarely mentioned in any other context. The race has its own vocabulary, in the Frisian language that the non-Frisian Dutch find adorable: “It giet oan” means the race is on — or, if the ice isn’t thick enough, “it giet net oan.” Since I moved to this country, only the latter has been heard. A whole generation has grown up since the last race, in 1997, though it almost happened in 2012. Every year, when it gets cold, the possibility of the race comes roaring through our screens.
What nobody can bring themselves to say is that the Elfstedentocht is gone.
Living in a country protected from the sea by huge manufactured barriers, we are starting to understand that even these heroic constructions will not be strong enough for climate change. I’ve often imagined the collapse of dune and dike, and the cultural losses such a cataclysm would bring. If the western Netherlands — all those cities, at or even below sea level, with all those museums and libraries — were swept in the sea, which treasures would we miss most? (I’d stuff the Frans Hals group portraits, in his museum in Haarlem, into my little lifeboat.)
And when we imagine the losses to cultural heritage that global warming entails, we often think of things we’d try to rescue, or buildings we can’t move or a few striking images: snowless Alps, drowned Venice. We don’t always think about the immaterial losses that warming will bring — or, in the case of the Elfstedentocht, that it already has. When the freak hurricane, the unexpected drought or the unbearable heat wave passes, we get on with our lives, unable to admit that some things are not coming back.
That’s why it’s always so poignant for me to hear about the Elfstedentocht. Nobody can stand to say that it’s over. You’d hate to be the prime minister who told everyone to forget about such a beloved national tradition. Instead, barring some freak storm, it just somehow will never happen again. Years will pass. (Twenty-six already have.) Younger people, for whom the tradition means nothing, will eventually forget about it. The race will fade from the communal memory, and with it, a whole way of life — a whole way of structuring and giving continuity to human experience — will disappear.
How can such nonmaterial losses be commemorated? As long as we are unable to see them as losses, we can keep refusing to see what has caused them and keep hoping that they still, someday, might be reversed. The Elfstedentocht is like a relative whose small plane went missing a few years ago and whose loved ones still hope that he could, one day, stumble into town. They all know he’s dead, of course. But it feels too cruel to be the first to say it — too painful to erect a gravestone without so much as a corpse.
This denial has consequences. For the past few years, we have heard about the passing of another way of life in this country — the life of the country’s farmers. The word “farmers” sounds idyllic. But Dutch animal agriculture, which is stunningly productive and even more stunningly polluting, is mainly the province of heavily industrialized and heavily subsidized agribusiness. These corporations are a source of great cruelty to animals and also a source of precisely the same gases that have poisoned our entire world. There’s nothing traditional about mass factory farms. But their lobbyists have been able to convince a large percentage of the population that attempts to reduce pollution are an attack on a traditional way of life. Caroline van der Plas, the leader of the pro-farming party, told the Guardian in late 2022: “In the outlying areas, you often hear that in The Hague there is no eye for the human dimension and the small things that are so important in the countryside.”
Maybe if we could find a way to mourn the Elfstedentocht, we could understand that there is a price to refusing to see what inaction on the climate has cost us. If we refuse to look at it head-on — to name and remember these losses — we’ll find ourselves like those older people in Friesland, glued to the weather reports, measuring the thickness of the ice, sharpening their skates for a race that will never come again.
Benjamin Moser, the author of “The Upside-Down World: Meetings With the Dutch Masters,” wrote from Utrecht, the Netherlands, where he lives.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X and Threads.