‘My Attention to Slow Worms Contains a Large Part of Socialism’

Kos van ZomerenFigure Frank Rider

Same lap or new terrain?

“I get up at 6 a.m. every day, and from 8 to 10 a.m. I walk the dog. Monday and Tuesday I usually take the same trip, a little way up the Veluwe, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left. There are minor variations. I find habit formation fascinating, also in animals in general.

“In my old working weeks, I gave myself Wednesdays off. Then I often made a trip in one day. First somewhere by train, then walk for four or five hours. I don’t do that anymore. I’m 76 – I won’t say it again – and the grace of old age is that you don’t want to do the things you can’t do anymore.

“Even when my wife Iris and I are in the mountains, we still go unnoticed for about four or five hours. We are not people who look for a nice place and sit there and enjoy the view. I can do that for ten minutes. When you sit still, you automatically start observing the sky. You come across things as you walk. If you want to see plants, you have to walk. Those plants are standing still, they are like waiting for you. Anyway, I also wrote: If you sit on the balcony all your life, everything will probably come along’.

Walks with or without a dog?

‘With the dog. Because of the atmosphere of quiet camaraderie. In 2015 my Border Terrier Stanley died in the Alps and I was without him for a few months. Back then, I didn’t actually drop off anything on my walks. Even the stupid evening walk around the neighborhood I still did out of habit.

‘For three summers I kept track of the slow worms I encountered during my daily walks with the dog. With these sporadic observations, I wanted to make my walks with the dog productive. Anything that becomes interesting to me becomes interesting because eventually I can write about it.’

Write about it or talk about it? (1)

‘I like to write more. Talking often leaves a huge trail of uneasiness in me. Writing is calming because of the control you have over how you express yourself.

‘I have a lot of patience with writing, with reading too, with all the other things I don’t do. I write something and then three days later while walking the dog I suddenly think: oh yes, I should have used that word in a sentence like that, what a shame I didn’t. I have a typewriter, not a laptop with a word processor, so I always have to choose: should I copy the whole piece or leave it as is? Usually I copy the page, sometimes even a whole chapter.’

Idealistic or pragmatic?

‘With either setting you can go in the right direction as well as in the wrong direction. Ideals are about: what ideals, how do you spread them, how do you relate them to other people? I think it’s helpful if people articulate well why they’re coming back to positions they’ve previously held. I did that myself, of course, when I broke with that party as one of the founders of the forerunner of the SP. I came from SP with a deep distrust of ideologies.

‘Writing about nature replaced that SP back then. I wanted no more to do with politics and social life, I wanted to focus my attention on something I enjoyed. I had no activist intentions with it. My attention to slow worms contains a large part of socialism, attention to the oppressed, right? The book starts with a piece about woodlice, and my very last contribution to it NRC was about dung beetles. Besides all the fun and exciting animals out there, I like to look at animals that others don’t notice.’

Do you see a wolf or a slow worm?

think. ‘Meeting a wolf would be more spectacular, but I don’t know how it will react to my dog. For myself, a wolf is not as dangerous as the Scottish Highlander that came after me this morning.

‘In 1979 I wrote an article with ecologist Harm van der Veen, who asked about wolves in the Veluwe. I think to myself: imagine that you are a wolf and that you have to live here in the Netherlands, it seems terrible to me. I also don’t see the wolf as a crown on Dutch nature. The presence of the wolf says relatively little about the quality of our nature, while it is presented as such by wolf friends.

“Most importantly, the wolf came here on its own; no wolves were taken from Siberia and released here. Then you just have to accept that the beast is there and is under the protection of the law.

“The smear campaign against the wolf is really amazing. Anti-vaxxers, Putin-friends and nitrogen deniers come against you as one front. Well, then you automatically become a wolf friend. There is a broad movement in the Netherlands of people who feel unappreciated, who seem to think: that wolf gets attention and I don’t. A wider discontent is being expressed through the wolf, that is quite clear to me.’

Write about it or talk about it? (2)

‘Besides the pleasures I have given myself, I also describe in my work that the same problems have existed for forty years. With water, with air quality, with nitrogen. In recent decades, these problems have been solved in the interest of farmers, never in the interest of nature.

‘Nature has become a container concept, just like ‘Europe’ or ‘Brussels’. It stands for everything that is difficult. The merit of that book…’, nods All of nature on the table, ‘…I think it’s about tangible phenomena that can be observed by everyone. The concept of nature must be filled with the life that takes place there.’

Proud or angry with the farmer?

‘I’ve lost a lot of sympathy for farmers in the last year. The farmers themselves should direct their anger elsewhere. They think their enemies are with GroenLinks and D66, but VVD and CDA in particular have spent years paving a dead end.

‘I watched Johan Remkes’ press conference about his report with astonishment. Remkes was shocked by the ‘sincere despair’ in the eyes of the farmers he had spoken to. He apparently knows the difference between fake and real desperation, so let’s assume it was real desperation.

‘I’m cynical about it. What do climate activists or benefit parents need, tractors or true desperation in their eyes? If the government starts helping everyone who turns out to have real desperation in their eyes, we’ll be living in paradise tomorrow. If Remkes had looked closely, he would also have seen dollar signs in the eyes of some farmers. And we’re all going to pay now.

“The underlying message was that terror works. Many fascists in the circles of – mind you, I say ‘in the circles of’ – Wilders and Baudet will take note of this.’

Read back or remember?

‘IN All birds To quote Darwin – I’m paraphrasing now, or I have to go to my study – one of the most beautiful human qualities is the ability to pay attention to something, to let things work on you thoroughly. And then communicate about it with other people.

“I once observed how the river lampreys were busy making a nice bed in a stream where they could lay their eggs. They did it under a bridge, I saw how the fish dragged stones. It is one of the most beautiful things I ever experienced.

‘At the presentation of the book, I read my text about those river lampreys and I realized: I remember what I wrote, but I hardly remember the event itself. I know where it was, who it was with, but otherwise I saw what I wrote. So something is lost there, in that process.’ mocking laugh: ‘It is my gift to mankind. You might sacrifice enjoying the moment, although I always knew I had to look carefully now because I would write about it later.

‘I wrote about the river lampreys that they are primitive fish. The word primitive has a negative connotation in our language, but primitive is actually admirable. If you are primitive, you have been there a long time, then you have long proved that you are allowed to be there. “Lamprets have been doing what we’ve seen them do for hundreds of millions of years—except, of course, there were no bridges in the beginning,” is how I described it. That sentence after the hyphen is Van Zomeren for me: placing a small observation in the perspective of the passage of time.’

Kos van Zomeren: All nature (except birds). The labor press; 1080 pages; €59.99.

Kos van Zomeren

1946 Born in Velp

1965 Debuts with poetry collection Hank’s bike race

1967-1971 Works at a newspaper The Free People

1971 Is one of the founders of the party KPN/ML, from 1972 SP

1975 Breaks with SP

1975-1985 Journalist New Rev

Novel from 1983 Otto’s War

1992-2011 columns i NRC Handelsbladincluding on the front page

2002 Prince Bernhard’s Culture Foundation Prize for Nature Protection

2017 All birdsJan Wolker’s oeuvre prize

Anthology from 2022 All of nature (except birds). Koos van Zomeren’s oeuvre now includes around sixty novels and nature books

Koos van Zomeren lives with his wife in Arnhem.

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