Topography: Of peat, bogs and fens

Article by Tom Bijvoet

In an incidental series of articles we have been examining how the topography of The Netherlands has been influenced by the requirement of the Dutch to actively manage the water in their environment. As part of an ongoing battle between the people of the country and the water surrounding them on all sides – and that is meant in a very literal three dimensional sense, ground- and rainwater also impact the Dutch on a daily basis – the Dutch build dikes and dams, fill in lakes and reclaim land from the sea. When we concluded our previous article on the subject, which covered place names with the words meer and zee (lake and sea) and introduced a large number of erstwhile lakes that were filled in and are now towns or regions (such as Zoetermeer and Haarlemmermeer), we indicated that an opposite development also had a major impact on the geography of the country. While lakes were being turned into land, new lakes were created, as a side effect of digging for peat. This resulted in some of the most beloved watersport destinations of the country, such as the Loosdrechtse Plassen and the Vinkeveense Plassen. The famous Wieden and Weerribben near Giethoorn, ‘the Venice of the North’, are also the result of dug up peatlands. The Dutch name for this type of lake is veenplas (peat puddle or pool).

All of this goes back to the natural state of the small corner of northwestern Europe which is the main focus of this magazine. The Netherlands is essentially a low lying river delta, in constant flux under the influence of water and weather which results in changing patterns of sedimentation and erosion. It is a large area of natural wetlands. In those wetlands over the millennia layers of organic material formed, were compressed and eventually became peat (or in Dutch ‘turf’).

The Dutch term for the marshy lands where peat formed is Veen. Every Dutch elementary school student learns about the different soil types that define the country and their uses: fertile Klei (Clay, subdivided into Sea and River Clay), inferior Zand (Sand), rare Löss (Loess, only in Limburg) and Veen. Veen is usually decribed in these elementary geography classes as historically useful in terms of the production of peat – a carbon based fuel much less efficient than fossil fuels like coal and oil, but easy to burn – which is no longer used, but otherwise insufficient for agriculture and therefore poor. In the same geography classes, like Klei, Veen was subdivided into two distinct categories: Hoog(high)veen and Laag(low)veen. An area of hoogveen is known in English as a bog. It is fed by precipitation and is dependent on the scant minerals it receives from that precipation. Plant growth is generally limited to various types of mosses. In Canada and Alaska the term used for this type of soil is Muskeg, which covers large regions of the far north of the North American continent.

A laagveen area is known in English as a fen. This name is etymologically related to Veen, as is the Dutch word Ven, which denotes a smallish lake or pool, strangely enough not in a wetlands area, but on sandy soil. Laagveen is fed by groundwater, which is full of nutrients and the fauna of laagveen is therefore much more varied than that of Hoogveen. Hoogveen is found predominantly in the provinces of Groningen, Drenthe and the eastern part of Brabant (especially in the region called ‘De Peel’). Laagveen is common in Friesland, northern Overijssel and parts of North Holland, South Holland and Utrecht. Starting in the middle ages and extending into the early twentieth century peat was dug from these Veen grounds, to be used as fuel. The veen areas of the north east and De Peel were some of the poorest of the country and a peat digger’s life was dismal. Until the early twentieth centuries the laborers who dug the turf lived in primitive hovels, made out of peat, without any kind of sanitation, dependent on the turf they dug for fuel, and were paid wages that were very close to bare subsistence level.

The importance of peat as fuel and the its extraction as an economic activity and almost as a way of life have inevitably left their mark on the map of The Netherlands. The word Veen is used as a suffix in more than 100 names of Dutch places. Many of these refer to proper names, the erstwhile owners or rulers of the area that contained the bog or fen in question. Ankeveen, a small town in the province of Noord-Holland is a notable example. It is known throughout Holland for the skating tours that are organized on the adjacent Ankeveense Plassen (veenplassen are usually shallow and therefore freeze over easily). The national speed skating marathon championships on natural ice (organized 14 times since 1979) are often held on a Veenplas. Ankeveen has hosted them twice. Ankeveen, of course, is the fen belonging to Anke. The same construct gives us among others Klazienaveen, Helenaveen, Waddinxveen and Roelofarendsveen. Heerenveen (Frisian It Hearrenfean) derives its name from the decision made by three ‘Heren’ (Noblemen) in 1551 to jointly purchase a boggy area as a money making venture. The settlement that developed on the edge of the bog became known as ‘s Heerenveen, the Noblemen’s Bog. The archaic genitive ‘s which we still see in place names like ‘s-Gravenhage (The Hague, the count’s hedge) and ‘s-Hertogenbosch (the Duke’s forest) was eventually dropped. Vriezenveen was settled by Frisians (Friezen/Vriezen). Other bogs or fens were simply named for a nearby town. These include Maarsseveen near Maarssen, Surhuisterveen near Surhuizum and Zuidlaarderveen near Zuidlaren. Some names derive from the location of the bog or fen. Zuidveen and Zuiderveen both refer to a fen lying to the south of some reference point. Less obviously the name Zutphen has the same meaning. Hoogeveen was a high lying bog, Amstelveen is near the Amstel River.

Sometimes the area was named for a characteristic of the fen or bog: Deep (Diepenveen), Long (Langeveen), Rough (Rouveen and Ruitenveen), White (Witteveen), Salty (Zouteveen, where the sea occasionally flooded the area).

In addition to the bogs and fens being named for a nearby town, sometimes towns were named in reference to a nearby veen. Overveen is on the other side of the veen. Veenhuizen are houses near a veen, Veenoord a place near a Veen, and similarly we find Veenwouden (forest, woods), Veendijk (Dike), Veendam (Dam), Veenklooster (Monastery), Veenendaal (valley). As we discovered was the case with the word Meer, some places are simply called Veen or Het Veen. Maybe the most fancifully named of the many Veen placed is ‘De Veenhoop’. Hoop in Dutch of course means heap, so one would be forgiven to conclude that the town simply took its name from a pile of peat. But the real origin is much more poetic. Etymologists have decided that the name derives from the other meaning of the homonym hoop: hope. The town was named for the hope of finding peat.

Another homonym, at least historically, is vink, which can mean either finch (the bird) or low grade peat (now archaic). It is from the latter sense that Vinkeveen and also Vinkhuizen and Vinkenbroek derived their names. But Vinkenbuurt near Ommen in Overijssel is supposedly named for the little bird and Vinkega in Friesland and Vinkebrug near Haarlem for a person named Vinke or Finke.

The importance of Veen in the naming of places and towns is reflected, as can be expected, in Dutch last names as well. Van Veen/Van der Veen is the 15th  most common last name in the country, with the Frisian variant Veenstra number 57. Van der Ven, incidentally, comes in at number 41.

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Posted by on Sep 30 2015. Filed under Featured, History, Language. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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