During the middle ages, the northern point of Jutland developed into a thriving center for trade and agriculture. It was well situated as a central hub between the Scandinavian countries and offered a connection to mainland Europe. In 1413 the largest and most northern city, Skagen, was given market town rights. By contemporary Scandinavian standards, it was a large city, with approximately the same number of inhabitants, 2-3000, as the Danish capital, Copenhagen.
The local population consisted mostly of farmers, fishermen, woodcutters and peat cutters, living off the land and the natural resources. Around 1500, the flourishing economy and consequent expansion of the population led to an increase in grazing farm animals, peat cutting and woodcutting for construction, heating and lighting the lighthouse needed to guide the trade ships. The increased use of land and natural resources led to the gradual clearing of forests and new vegetation. This in turn led to the exposure of the top soil and in particular the sand deposits left from the ice age. In combination with the ever present western wind, the exposed sand started to ‘fly’ or drift, creating dunes, ‘miler’ that ‘wandered’, or migrated, inland while growing in size and leaving a trail of infertile sand grounds behind. These dunes could travel at speeds of 100 meters per year, engulfing and completely devastating fields, farms and entire villages in their course. The individual peasants and small communities could predict and see the sand approaching, but were helpless against the slow destruction.
From mid-1500 up until early 1900, the sand ruled the north. Several laws were enacted to prohibit behavior that would break down the natural defenses against the sand. The first ‘sand act’ was issued by King Christian III and dates from 1539. It carried heavy penalties for disturbing the top soil, overgrazing or cutting down too many trees. Too heavy apparently for anyone to report any wrongdoing; nobody wanted to cause the imprisonment or death of their neighbors by accusing them of something everybody was guilty of… This developed into a vicious circle, exacerbating the sand drift. During the 17th and 18th century smaller local initiatives tried to reign in the sand, but to no avail. In 1795 the church of Skagen was abandoned, leaving only the church tower protruding above the unstoppable sand drift.
In 1857 the government finally stepped in with decisive and coordinated action. By now, the north was an impoverished area, cut off from the rest of Denmark. Migrating dunes covered roads and lakes. Whole villages had been relocated or buried during the previous centuries. The landscape had completely transformed. From oak forests, fertile pastures and small lakes and streams, it had turned into arid dunes and heaths, unable to sustain crops and livestock.
The government started planting imported fir trees, grasses and rose bushes that were capable of surviving and even flourish in the harsh conditions. In doing so, the new growth bound the sand and kept it from drifting. This approach proved successful. Although it would take many generations to transform the landscape sufficiently to make it fertile again, at least a modus operandi that worked had been found.
Times, however, were changing. The rural communities of the late middle ages had been left behind by the industrial revolutions and urban development. A new bourgeois class had emerged and new economic, social and political models had led to leisure time for the middle classes – modern tourism had been born. By the turn of the 20th century, a recently settled artists’ colony in Skagen had romanticized the rural and impoverished life they had found there. This led to a new appreciation of the barren landscapes as backdrops for both the simple, ‘real’ lives of the fishermen and farmers, as well as for the artists chosen lifestyle of refuge from the modern world. Poets and painters mused about the beauty of the dunes, and started criticizing the governments’ policy of trying to contain the sand. Consequently, the largest migrating dune, Råbjerg Mile, was preserved and allowed to continue its movement across the land.
The renewed interest also led to an influx of well-to-do city dwellers who built their summer houses in the by now attractive sand dunes close to the beach and sea. One of those was my great grandfather. In 1920, he built a small summerhouse in the sandy surroundings where once the village of Råbjerg had been.
Råbjerg is mentioned on several old maps. It was a thriving community with its own parish, but by the 18th century it had disappeared from the surface of the earth. Or, rather, below the surface of the earth. A few scattered farms and an isolated 13th century church was all that remained. The rest had been covered in sand, and the inhabitants had been forced to relocate.
A couple of old farms still stood in the vicinity of my great grandfather’s house, Vejs Ende (End of the Road). As a lawyer from the wealthy suburbs of Copenhagen, he had little in common with the farmers, but as neighbors they could buy fresh milk and produce, and his children would ride the farmer’s ponies. My great grandfather was also a hobby painter and he painted several paintings of the landscape and the old farms. When he passed away, the house went to his eldest son. The second son built a house of his own next to it, and his youngest daughter and her husband, my grandmother and grandfather, purchased a hunting cabin in the vicinity in the early 1950s. Thus, a family colony of summerhouses was born. In 2020, the descendants celebrated the centennial of the first house.
Throughout my childhood, I spent many summers in Råbjerg. I was vaguely aware of the history of the region and always intrigued by the idea that farms and villages lay buried in the dunes. By then, the sand drift was under control. The vegetation consisted of heath and fir plantations, still binding the sand and slowly transforming the soil. The beaches were broad, made up of the finest sand imaginable. The farmers were long gone and the nearby farms had either been abandoned or refurbished to luxurious houses. Skagen has become a national and international tourist hot spot with museums dedicated to the painters of the old artists’ colony. The old fishermen’s houses have been turned into high-class timeshare apartments, and the once rough and inhospitable nature is now the destination for thousands of hikers, bikers and campers each summer.
In recent years, however, the results of the government’s efforts to reestablish the original landscape began to show. The arid landscapes have become wetter, allowing for oak and birch to grow again. Combined with warmer all year temperatures due to climate change, this has led to a distinct increase in mosquitoes and wood ticks carrying Lyme’s disease. Also, the imported plants, Mountain Pine, Beach Rose, and Marram Grass, have spread out of control, making the landscape less attractive to tourists and summerhouse owners. A certain nostalgia has developed as well as a recognition of the uniqueness of the dune and heath landscapes as they were in the first half of the 20th century. Consequently, the government initiated a nature conservation program that aims to halt the transformation of the landscape and try to preserve the dune and heath landscapes – without endangering the relatively fresh growth that still holds the sand in place.
But these landscapes were never ‘natural’ in the first place, but landscapes in a dramatic transition process caused by human interventions. Why preserve them now? Because of the romantic imagery of the Skagen artists’ colony, which has since become the mainstream notion of ‘Danish-ness’? Because of the wealthy city-dwellers with their summerhouses, who wish to preserve the memories of their childhood? The tourist industry, which provides the economic foundation for the entire region? Or, from a more utopian perspective, could it be a way to learn how to deal with the greater issue of how to live more harmoniously with nature?
But regardless of the motives: How do you preserve transition?