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tu commenças ta vie / tout au bord d'un ruisseau
tu vécus de ces bruits / qui courent dans les roseaux
qui montent des chemins / que filtrent les taillis
les ailes du moulin / les cloches de midi
soulignant d'un sourire / la chanson d'un oiseau
tu prenais du plaisir / à faire des ronds dans l'eau
(Pierre Barouh)
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By the waterside

Des ronds dans l'eau* is the first French chanson that gives me goose pimples. It's on Pastorale, a long-playing record by Dutch singer Liesbeth List, released in 1968. At the time, I have no idea why the song makes such a deep and lasting impression. I am barely eight or nine years old. Every day, carrying mon cartable, I walk to school, but the glad tidings that Paul is le frère de Marie and Marie is la sœur de Paul have not yet reached me. I don't know a word of French. Maybe I'm just smitten with the singer. She's pretty and she clearly sings my name, doesn't she? Many years and countless boring French lessons later, I find out that she does not sing Gabriël but cabrioles. A bitter pill to swallow. It almost feels like being turned down. However, now that I understand what the song is about, I like it even better. For all its simplicity, the somewhat shorter version by French singer Françoise Hardy just blows me away. The song brings to mind memories of a carefree childhood, endless summer days, and blissful hours spent musing by the waterside or roaming the forests of my birthplace Beernem. Exactly the kind of childhood singer-songwriter Pierre Barouh, the author of the song, draws his inspiration from. It is only while doing the research for this introduction that I learn he's recorded the song too. Sadly, the combination of a rather bland, out of tune voice with a somewhat clumsy arrangement is a letdown. But the lyrics and the melody are still great.

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Burn pits in paradise

Not a trace is left of the brooks and pools of my youth. They are vaulted, replaced by concrete pipes or simply filled in and built over. Until the beginning of the 1970s, my favourite playground is the small wasteland we call the Burn Pits. The name refers to a pair of pits lined with asbestos sheets that the adjacent furniture factory Bauwens uses to incinerate its waste. Dioxins? Never heard of them! At the time, Seveso is still an obscure Italian town and anything but a household word. The factory is built in 1962 and Bauwens hires my father as chief electrician and jack-of-all-trades. On the satellite image below, two red rectangles indicate the location of the pits. The red circle marks my parental home. Green coloured areas indicate the meadows, woods and overgrown fallows that are now completely built over with houses and the new offices, production units and car park of the factory. The pale green part, with a surface area of at least one hectare, is the area I refer to when I tell mom I'm going to the Burn Pits. The sandy soil is covered with broom, heather and some young spruces that make good Christmas trees. There are four small abandoned sand quarries filled with groundwater (indicated in blue). In the one opposite the burn pits, the factory dumps its waste oil and its paint, solvents, varnish and glue residues. The filthy, orange water reeks of turpentine and kerosene. Nevertheless, local farmers use it to rinse the tanks of their liquid manure spreaders and herbicide sprayers. In the next, much smaller pool, dozens of unmarked leaking metal barrels pollute the water with unknown but obviously deadly substances. Moorhens breed on its rushy banks, but there's no life in it. The water of the third, even smaller pool is less polluted. Common water striders glide over its surface and from time to time a common frog can be observed to risk its life by jumping into it. But the last quarry pool, bordering a beech forest and just about as large as the first one, is teeming with life. The water is almost crystal clear. In one of the steeper banks, each summer a small colony of sand martins breeds. To me, this is paradise.

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O tempora, o mores!

The seemingly obligatory eco-drivel produced by nearly all companies and captains of industry is becoming increasingly nauseating. Today, the website of Bauwens claims they "try to contribute to the protection of the environment". Other times, other manners. I presume the company no longer burns its waste in open-air pits or dumps it into quarry pools, but I don't harbour any illusions. The environment is the least of their worries. On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with that. To survive, companies have to make a profit. When they do that without breaking any laws, that's just great. But to enhance profits, stay ahead of competitors and create more shareholder value, they will always be tempted to exploit just about any loophole they can find. They get away with it because they create jobs. Politicians and officials know better than to thwart their plans and ambitions. They stand by and watch, often ready to turn a blind eye. Some call it nepotism or even bribery. I prefer to call it reciprocal back-scratching or chimpanzee barter: I groom you, you groom me. According to the zoning plan Bruges-East Coast, the area occupied by Bauwens today is a residential expansion area. Strange, because when in 1977 the zoning plan is officially approved, the factory already has been spewing out furniture for fifteen years. By then, the burn pits and quarry lakes are built over with new production units and right next to the municipal cemetery (upper right corner) the company's erected a large sawmill. In Beernem the dead don't rest in peace. One day, in the shadow of the factory chimney, to the subdued accompaniment of cranes, forklift trucks and shrieking circular saws, my parents will be buried here. On that day, I shall curse Bauwens, Beernem, Belgium and, by extension, the entire universe. Is there still room for mourning?

* Circles in the Water. An English translation of the shorter version of the song can be found here.
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Long live the lokketissen!

"I wondered why it is that we're all such bloody fools. Why don't people, instead of the idiocies they do spend their time on, just walk round LOOKING at things? That pool, for instance – all the stuff that's in it. Newts, water-snails, water-beetles, caddis-flies, leeches, and God knows how many other things that you can only see with a microscope. The mystery of their lives, down there under water. You could spend a lifetime watching them, ten lifetimes, and still you wouldn't have got to the end even of that one pool. And all the while the sort of feeling of wonder, the peculiar flame inside you. It's the only thing worth having, and we don't want it." (George Orwell)

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Whenever I run out of books to read and don't feel like going to the city to stock up on a new batch, I pillage my wife's library. That's how I happen upon a Dutch translation of Coming up for Air, a 1939 novel by George Orwell that is truly visionary. It hits me amidships. On the eve of the Second World War, the slightly pathetic and nostalgic protagonist decides to spend a couple of days in his hometown. But it's been twenty years since his last visit. After the previous war, the town has changed so much he barely recognizes it. The surrounding farms, fields and forests have all but disappeared. The lake by the old mansion where he's spent the most memorable hours of his youth has become a garbage dump. The building itself has been turned into a mental hospital. The message is clear: There's no way back, both literally and figuratively. The town of his boyhood no longer exists and neither does the boy himself. The theme is as old as literature and probably nearly as old as humanity: Nostalgia for a golden age, boosted by revulsion for a destructive present and fear of a disastrous future. The flowering of youth, the fading of adulthood and the decay of old age with its inevitable outcome. It can make you cry and it can make you laugh, occasionally at the same time. Somehow, I find solace in songs like Des ronds dans l'eau and books like Coming up for Air. I feel connected to their authors. We truly are soul mates. I suppose only true friends, art and – for those who believe – religion can offer this kind of comfort. According to some, in this respect, science comes up short. But that's like criticizing a fridge for its inability to bake muffins, isn't it? Science is not aimed at providing comfort, but at improving our knowledge and understanding. It teaches us that life is but a splendid accident, devoid of purpose or meaning. In this sense, science removes all gravity and makes life light. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, probably his best-known novel, Czech-French writer Milan Kundera explores our inability to cope with this lightness. As a rule, we tend to take things seriously. Human, all too human, I am no exception.

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The year of revolt and tights

1968. In Czechoslovakia, Soviet troops and tanks crush the Prague Spring. Leuven becomes Flemish* and in Memphis Martin Luther King is assassinated. Liesbeth List releases Pastorale and Richard Nixon is elected the next president of the United States. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive makes the Americans look bad and in Paris students occupy the Sorbonne. The sexual revolution gains momentum, free love is an honourable aspiration and Dutch public television broadcasts the first episode of De Fabeltjeskrant**. Far more important, however, is that in 1968 mom still doesn't wear those newfangled tights or panty hoses, but only good old-fashioned nylon stockings. She keeps them up with suspenders dangling from a salmon pink rubber girdle with air pads and a distinctive chewing gum smell. Worn out or badly laddered stockings are put aside. My brothers and I use them to make dip nets. For visitors of this site (and, to be honest, just for the fun of it), using one of my mother-in-law's old stockings I have made a net just like the ones we used to make all those years ago. All you need are an old broomstick, two fencing staples, some steel and tie wire, a nylon stocking and the dexterity of an eight year old. The result is a dip net that is ideal for fishing newts and other animals out of brooks, pools and ponds. Monstrous dragonfly nymphs, funny looking caddisfly larvae, sparkling great diving beetles, backswimmers, leeches, pond skaters, freshwater amphipods, water lice, ramshorn snails, water scorpions: I've been fascinated by them from childhood. When I observe them in the garden pond today, they bridge the gap between the boy I once was and the bloody fool I've become. "And all the while the sort of feeling of wonder, the peculiar flame inside you. It's the only thing worth having, and we don't want it."

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Please do not touch the exhibits

Orwell is wrong: Most people don't give a damn about "all the stuff" that's in a pool. It leaves them cold. Now and then, my brothers, friends or even my little sister join in on my newt fishing expeditions. But they lack the sacred fire burning in my heart, that "peculiar flame" that draws me to the water and the woods. Armed with a bucket and my DIY dip net, I often set out on my own. The increasingly polluted brook at the back of my all-boys elementary school and the one clean quarry pool of the Burn Pits have three species of newts: the smooth newt, the palmate newt and the alpine newt. We call them lokketissen, a delightful ancient Flemish word hardly anyone uses anymore. It is these lokketissen that ignite my interest in nature. The other creatures I discover in my dip net fan the fire. Today, both in Flanders and in the Netherlands, all indigenous amphibians are protected. Fishing for newts is prohibited, let alone taking them home. Surely there are sound reasons for this, but I'm still not happy with it. Doesn't a prohibition like that defeat its purpose? From Buffon to Cousteau, from Darwin to Attenborough: Almost every biologist and naturalist, including the majority of our park rangers and nature guides, are reformed hunters, anglers and collectors. Many swapped their guns, tackle, nets, traps and cages for binoculars and cameras. They only shoot pictures now. Others still catch animals, but only as part of some indisputably crucial field research. I do not begrudge them the pleasure they get out of it and I am grateful for their contribution to our knowledge. But the heartbeat of a starling in your hand, the itchy sensation of a cockchafer crawling over your skin, the wriggling of a newt in a wet nylon stocking: No study, documentary, biology class or trip to an environmental education centre can possibly beat that. I fear nature in the Low Countries is slowly being turned into an open-air museum, a sanctuary for a handful of pampered species that ordinary mortals are only allowed to set foot in under the supervision of the initiated. How do children discover they have a gift for and enjoy drawing, writing, acting, singing, dancing, designing, cooking or playing tennis? Certainly not by being dragged to museums, libraries, plays, concerts, ballets, fashion shows, gourmet restaurants or Roland Garros. Right?

* Leuven (Louvain) is a Flemish university town. Until 1968, the Catholic University has both a Dutch and a French speaking division. Dutch speaking Flemish students and nationalists demand complete separation and the abolition of the French division on Flemish soil. After a long and turbulent struggle, culminating in the resignation of the Belgian government, Flemish students and nationalists win the day. To accommodate the French division, a new city called Louvain-la-Neuve is built on the other side of the language border. To someone not intimately familiar with the history of the Low Countries and Belgium, this is all very hard if not impossible to understand. But there you have it.
De Fabeltjeskrant was a popular Dutch television series for young children featuring animal puppets. It ran from 1968 to 1992. From 1973 to 1975, it was broadcast in the United Kingdom on ITV as The Daily Fable.
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The green frog complex

I'm as excited as a kid on Christmas morning when, in the first spring after its construction, smooth newts, palmate newts,
common toads and common frogs turn up in the garden pond. Only alpine newts and green frogs, two amphibians that prefer to stay put, are missing. It's not until the exceptionally dry spring of 2011, six years after the construction of the pond, that a couple of green frogs finally turn up. It concerns two male edible frogs or, as they are known in Dutch, bastard frogs. All summer long they hold impressive, boisterous croaking contests. More than likely, their home pools dried up, leaving them with no other option than to pack their bags. Unlike the common frogs, that are nocturnal and inconspicuous, they rarely leave the pond. Sometimes they can be seen sunbathing on a large water lily leaf or even on the patio, but usually they lie in ambush on the banks or hide among the water plants, lurking for prey. From time to time they fall out. The fight is short but fierce, pretty spectacular and perfectly predictable: the biggest bastard always wins. Infuriating neighbours, however, are not the only problem these frogs have to deal with. They also face an existential quandary: they don't exist. If that doesn't give you a complex, nothing will!

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Ill-gotten genome prospers

The Netherlands has three kinds of indigenous green frogs: the European marsh frog or larger green frog, the pool frog or smaller green frog, and the edible frog or – you guessed it! – middle green frog. In Flanders, the marsh frog is an exotic species, believed to have been accidentally introduced in 1975 near Wetteren by a Bulgarian truck driver. Until that day, most green frogs in Flanders are edible frogs, a fertile cross between pond and marsh frogs that arose about 200,000 years ago. In the vegetable kingdom, fertile hybrids are warp and weft, but in the animal kingdom they are less common. Animals that reproduce sexually, normally inherit just about half the genome of their parents. The DNA of the edible frog, however, contains the entire genome of both the pool frog and the marsh frog and sometimes one of them in duplicate. Therefore, in a strict sense of the word, it is not a true species but a klepton: a hybrid that steals the genome of a parent species. That explains the 'kl.' in Pelophylax kl. esculentus, the scientific name of the edible frog. (In case you are wondering: Yes, the edible frog is the frog the British nickname for the French refers to. Of course, all non-poisonous frogs are edible. Seasoned with some salt, pepper and lots of garlic, their skinned legs taste quite good.) A cross between an edible and a pond frog produces edible frogs, while a cross between an edible and a marsh frog produces mostly marsh frogs or edible frogs. When the eggs of a female edible frog are fertilised by a male edible frog, they are either inviable or develop into edible frogs or, though rarely, marsh frogs. Together, the two true species and the klepton form one of Europe's three green frog complexes. In appearance, the edible frog often resembles either the pool or the marsh frog to such a degree that it is hard or even impossible to identify it in the field. Male edible frogs have a soft spot for the much larger female marsh frogs. In Flanders, this sexual selection threatens the native edible frog to be supplanted by the exotic marsh frog. In the vicinity of Wetteren, where the species was first observed, already 98% of all green frogs are marsh frogs. According to some, the edible frog faces local extinction. I don't think it will come to that. Anyway, even in the worst-case scenario, no genetic information will be lost. Simply cross a male pool frog with a female marsh frog and the bastard is back in town. However…

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From complex to perplexing

Patience used to be a virtue, but these days it's almost a mortal sin. We want everything and we want it now. Waiting six whole years for a green frog to turn up in a pond? Are you crazy? We smuggle tadpoles out of distant holiday destinations or simply buy half a dozen so-called Egyptian frogs in the local pet shop. In reality, they are usually Anatolian, Levant or Iberian water frogs. As always, some escape. By 2010, already half of all green frogs in Flanders are exotics. Some 70% of them are European marsh frogs, but the march of other exotics, headed by the Anatolian water frog, seems unstoppable. They hybridize with one another and with the native green frogs, when they don't just eat them or out-compete them to the brink of extinction. Nobody can predict the outcome of this genetic and ecological game of roulette. In Flanders, however, the future of the always relatively small pond frog population certainly looks bleak. In the longer run, this would seal the fate of the edible frog in the region too. Strangely enough, in the Netherlands everything seems peachy keen. While Belgian herpetologists sound the alarm, their Dutch colleagues don't seem worried at all. In the Dutch press, you won't find alarming articles about exotic water frogs that colonize pools and lakes, threaten native species and terrorize whole neighbourhoods with deafening croaking contests. A matter of time?

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Wish to fish…

"As soon as you think of fishing you think of things that don't belong to the modern world. The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool – and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside – belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler. There's a kind of peacefulness even in the names of English coarse fish. Roach, rudd, dace, bleak, barbel, bream, gudgeon, pike, chub, carp, tench. They're solid kind of names. The people who made them up hadn't heard of machine-guns, they didn't live in terror of the sack or spend their time eating aspirins, going to the pictures, and wondering how to keep out of the concentration camp." (George Orwell)

Just like Orwell's protagonist in Coming up for Air, every once in a while I think about buying some fishing tackle and spend some of my days mindlessly staring at a bobber. To someone who enjoys fishing or used to enjoy it, you don't need to explain the attraction of this utterly meaningless and in many ways barbaric activity. To anyone else, you simply can't explain it, so I won't even try. It's no use. Meanwhile, it's been over a quarter of a century since I last cast a line. Do I miss it? Hell yes! Will I ever do it again? Probably not. Perhaps the growing popularity of fishing today would have puzzled Orwell, but he definitely would have abhorred the way it is practised. There they are, sitting right next to each other, at prescribed distances, equipped with tackle worth half a fortune, angling for eternal fame in the local angling community or a portrait with a whopper in a fishing magazine. Each to his own, but this is far from the kind of fishing that Orwell claims to be at odds with the modern world and that I enjoyed so much when I was younger. To me, angling was anything but a sport. It was a contemplative activity, a form of deep meditation. Zen without pretence. And, preferably, without meddlesome onlookers too.

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Strangers in the pond

The photograph above shows fry of the three fish species that populate the garden pond. From top to bottom they are the
golden minnow, the golden rudd and the gudgeon. To the left you see some young and adult individuals of all three species. The gudgeon is an indigenous species, while the golden rudd is an artificially bred coloured variety of the native common rudd. In the pet shop where I purchase five gudgeons and sixteen rudds, there's also a fish tank with tiny orange fish, labelled goudelrits or golden minnow. When asked, the shopkeeper confirms that the fish are a coloured variety of the indigenous common minnow, so I buy some twenty of those too. Back home, however, surfing the Internet for more information, I soon find out that they are a variety of the American fathead minnow. This exotic is introduced in Europe in the 1980s as an aquarium and pond fish. Pike anglers also use it as live bait. Today, it's already common in many Belgian and French waterways. From time to time, the species is also observed in Dutch brooks, rivers and lakes. The fathead minnow is a vector of enteric redmouth disease, a bacterial infection that can be fatal to amphibians and fish. It is considered the main cause for the spread of the disease in Europe. I consider fishing them back out of the pond and feeding them to the chickens. But they are such fun to watch and they can't escape. Besides, I'm upset. Upset with myself for allowing myself to be fooled once again, but even more upset with the stupidity of our legislators. Where is the logic in prohibiting the breeding and sale of some native species, while allowing that of disease spreading and possibly invasive exotics? Why is the commercial trade of native amphibians banned, when Anatolian water frogs or Italian crested newts are for sale in just about every specialist shop? That's just asking for trouble. The solution is simple: dump all those lists of animals that can only be traded with special permits and draw up a single, so-called positive list for every continent, nation and region tabulating all the animal species that can be traded there. The list should include all indigenous species, provided they are captive bred or not endangered. This approach would have prevented the accidental introduction of exotic fish in my garden pond. Most likely, I'd have bought three and ten-spined sticklebacks, two endearing native species I couldn't find anywhere. Just saying!

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Can amphibians and fish coexist?

With the exception of the chickens and our two adopted rescue cats, the three species of fish are the only animals in the garden that did not arrive here of their own accord. Four years after their introduction, their presence does not seem to have had a negative impact on the amphibian populations. Quite the contrary: Since the arrival of the two male edible frogs, the only regional amphibians still missing are the alpine newt and the fire salamander, an ovoviviparous species. Fire salamanders prefer moist deciduous forests in hilly areas and will never show up in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat. So out of the six native amphibian species that occur in the vicinity of the garden, five species already discovered the pond. Except for the edible frog, and with varying success, they all breed in it too. So do the fish. The pond's depth does not exceed 80 cm and its semicircular, gently sloping bank is overgrown with moss, rushes, creeping jenny and other perennials. In these conditions – and as long as the pond isn't stocked with large voracious predators – fish and amphibians appear to be compatible. Other pond creatures also do well and from time to time new species turn up, such as the great diving beetle. As far as I can tell, only backswimmers are clearly less numerous than they used to be. These bugs colonized the pond as soon as it was filled and dominated it for several years. They are still present, but in much smaller numbers. The fish are clearly food competitors, but I suspect they also eat the eggs and/or nymphs of the backswimmers. After all, we don't exactly overfeed them. A kilo of flake fish food easily lasts a year.
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Sources and links to more information

  • David Attenborough, Life on Air – Memoirs of a Broadcaster, BBC Books, 2010.
  • Pierre Barouh, Des ronds dans l'eau, 1965, full text.
  • Pierre Barouh, Des ronds dans l'eau, video on YouTube with Barouh's own interpretation of the song. A bit of a letdown.
  • Charles Darwin, Autobiographies, Penguin Books, 2002.
  • Françoise Hardy, Des ronds dans l'eau, one of the many videos on YouTube with this shorter version of the song. Highly recommended! I could not find a site featuring Liesbeth List's cover.
  • Gemeentelijk ruimtelijk structuurplan Beernem, kaartenbundel informatief gedeelte, 2008.
  • Griet Holsbeek, Exotische groene kikkers in Vlaanderen, Presentatie, 2009 (PDF).
  • Griet Holsbeek et al., A cryptic invasion within an invasion and widespread introgression in the European water frog complex: consequences of uncontrolled commercial trade and weak international legislation, 2008 (PDF).
  • Robert Jooris, Griet Holsbeek, Groene kikkers in Vlaanderen en het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest, Natuurpunt Studie, 2010.
  • Wim Kayzer, Een schitterend ongeluk, Uitgeverij Contact, 1994.
  • Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Faber and Faber, 1985.
  • George Orwell, Happend naar lucht, Uitgeverij Atlas, 2007. (English copy of Coming up for Air on eBooks@Adelaide.)
  • Frank Spikmans et al., Plaag Risico Analyses van tien exotische vissoorten in Nederland, Nederlands Centrum voor Natuuronderzoek, 2010 (PDF).
  • An Vanden Broeck, Exoten – Impact van genetische vervuiling en exoten op inheemse soorten, Inbo, 2010 (PDF).
  • Dominique Verbelen, Amfibiee╠łn in Vlaanderen: over Vacil Boev Mancev, de paddenindex, exotisch geweld en kikkerkoorts, De Spille nr. 2, 2009 (PDF).
Geraardsbergen, 19 February 2012.
Latest revision: 3 September 2014.