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Dorthe Nors
translated by Caroline Waight
22 September 2022

The great storm surge is coming, it has always been coming in the borderland between Denmark and Germany. Here, Danish writer Dorthe Nors visits the Frisian island of Sylt, which lost its connection to the mainland in 1362 when it became a thin isle in the Wadden Sea during a flood known as the « Great Drowning of Men ».

« Borderland » is an excerpt from A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast, in which Nors chronicles her year traveling up and down the coast's « storm-battered trees and wind-blasted beaches », exploring its history, geography and her own relationship to this wild landscape. The book is forthcoming from Pushkin Press on 6 October.

It’s the same moon. In my memory, it’s hovering above the transformer substation in the divide between our place and the neighbour’s farm. I often used to play with the neighbours’ boy, Peter, and had to pass it on the way home. But the substation doesn’t exist anymore; the divide no longer matters. It vanished with the expropriation of my parents’ land. For a long time, the farmhouse was left with all the windows ripped out, emptied of its contents, exposed to the parish. Then the Roads Authority removed the whole thing and laid the new road. Now and again, I drive over the spot in my car, but everything is the wrong way round. South of the road is the farm where Peter’s family lived. It’s been bought by a pig farmer, but the apple trees still bear fruit. The deer, foxes, birds, mice and motorists who stop to take a piss eat the fruit. The order of our little world is gone. As though washed into the sea.

But it’s the same moon as always, and what’s gone still lives in me. I’m standing on top of a dune in Listland, on the island of Sylt in the Federal Republic of Germany. I’m absorbing the landscape’s peculiar balance of the recognizable and the alien. It’s utterly self-contained, this countryside. It does not speak Danish, Frisian, Southern Jutish or German. It speaks body language, it unfolds in memory, and it does as it pleases. The sun is setting in the west; the moon has risen, immense. The first stars are appearing above a colossal migrating dune to the east. I can’t tell if I’m in Colorado, playing a part in a western, or if this is the world as the world looked before humanity shaped spears, made fire, formed clans, put up fences, called upon god, scratched boundaries and built towers to place on them. But I’m middle-aged, and the last ferry to Denmark leaves from List in an hour. I’m going home before nightfall, yet in my mind the moon is hanging over the substation. I’m on my way home from Peter’s. At his house, there are pictures of Jesus in black-varnished frames. In one of them, he’s wandering through a desert of inconceivable dimensions, clad in a pink robe. At our house, we’re members of the Church of Denmark, and that’s it. But at Peter’s, Jesus wears nice sandals. Jesus sandals. Only I can’t call them that in front of Peter’s dad. They were in fashion when I was a child, actually; people wore them. I wasn’t allowed to swear at Peter’s either. We did on our side of the divide. Yes, in my fatherland we swore.

It’s May but cool, and I’ve got to make the ferry. It’s been a clear day on the island with three names: Sild in Danish, Söl in North Frisian, Sylt in German. It doesn’t care what we call it, and what it calls itself is none of our business. It has changed hands over time, but risen above it. This landscape is greater than lines in the sand. Always in the process of becoming, always dying and resurrecting, and I’ve been driving around the island all day long. The cliffs, the dunes and the sandy beaches are like the ones back home. The buildings remind me of the West Frisian styles I’ve seen on Rømø and Fanø, even as far down as Den Helder in Holland. The Frisians like houses with big thatched hats. They are broad-gabled, and the walls rear high above the front door. A walk through the village of Keitum and into the history museum there took me straight back to Johanne’s house on Fanø. The tiles, the same. The treasured artefacts, the whaling and long voyages of the past, the same. The Frisian spirit has crossed the water in order to suffuse everything. And yet, all day, Sylt has seemed to me like a German island. Not just because of the language, but also the way of being in the landscape. You sit in numbered beach chairs with footrests, sheltered from the wind, on large terraces overlooking the beach. In Denmark, you’d sit on a blanket you’d brought with you and put up with the wind. But they don’t stint on equipment in Germany, and certainly not on Sylt, which has been called the Federal Republic’s answer to St-Tropez. And I can’t put the difference into words any other way. Would I know I was in a foreign country if I hadn’t written DON’T FORGET PASSPORT on my palm? Yes. I would know it the way I knew something had changed at the substation.

I have driven from north to south on Sylt. It’s the biggest and northernmost of the German Wadden Sea islands, but still easy to get the lay of on a Saturday. In 1920, at the fateful referendum that drew the border based on national allegiance, it voted to join Germany. Its sister to the north, Rømø, went to Denmark. Now each belongs to its respective country, although as landscapes they are similar, and subject to the same ever-present threat of erosion and ruin.

When it comes to erosion, it’s storm surges that are most dangerous. The earliest one on record is Saint Marcellus’s flood in 1362, known in Danish as the Great Drowning of Men. A superstorm announced its arrival in January of that year. It caused the ice to crack into large pieces, which acted like battering rams against the dikes. Thousands of people and animals drowned, great tracts of land disappeared, and a number of the islands we know today were formed in a single night. South of Sylt—which during this storm surge, incidentally, lost its physical connection to the mainland and became a thin island in the Wadden Sea—the town of Rungholt vanished into the water. For many years, it was assumed that the tales of a Northern Atlantis called Rungholt were just that, tales. But mentions of Rungholt were later found in old documents, described as a flourishing merchant town. And between 1921 and 1938, the tides changed in such a way that remnants of embankments, buildings and wells suddenly began to materialize in the Wadden Sea. Based on these finds, it was estimated that the town had been relatively large. In addition to fragments of buildings, they found pottery, coins, gemstones, remnants of a ship from Crete and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, not to mention an anchor from the Minoan era. A Northern Atlantis indeed, but difficult to excavate because of the tides, and anyway, you’re not allowed to go digging up a World Heritage Site. The current theory about the city is that it had been a centre of coastal trade since ancient times, until one January night in 1362, when a single storm surge of climate-catastrophic dimensions washed it into the sea and altered the coastline.

Storm surges come and go. They’re part of the organic, changeable and violent life of the coast, but from time to time one comes along that’s worse than the rest. The All Saints’ Day Flood, for instance. It swept an entire parish into the sea, and that same November night in 1436, the town of Ejdum on Sylt was engulfed in the waves as well. In the period after the most violent storm surges, people didn’t dare live in the Wadden Sea at all for fear of drowning. They tried to keep to the Geest, the higher-lying areas of land within the marsh. But with each generation, important understanding falls away, and in 1634 people were settled once more on the fragile border between sea and land. One of these people was the Dutch engineer Jan Leeghwater. He lived in that year of our Lord on the German–Danish border, behind a small dike by the village of Dagebüll. He lived there with his son while working on a drainage project nearby. On 10 October he dropped in for a chat with the local carpenter, Pieter Jansz, but he hurried home to his boy when the wind picked up. As the evening wore on, the storm worsened and became a hurricane. Jan and his son went to bed with all their clothes on, but couldn’t sleep for the noise. Later that night, the boy—Adriaan was his name—noticed something coming from the roof. « There’s saltwater dripping on my face, Father, » said the boy in the dark. It was the waves, which had clambered so far up the dike that sea spray was now raining down on the house. The storm roared in the ears of father and son. It was like the Lord himself screaming in their faces. Small foxes in the cave’s sodden darkness; and then came a knock at the door. Warden Siewert had arrived, and he wanted them to come with him. It was now or never, and they ran through the storm. They ran with Siewert in an inferno of flying planks and boards. They were seeking shelter at the local manor house, and somewhere in the night Siewert shrieked that they needed a miracle. Miracle or not: they reached the manor. So did eighteen other residents of Dagebüll. They sat around the tallow candles and prayed for mercy to the god whose deluge was now upon them.

In his testimony after the disaster, Jan stated: « I have been to the beach, where I have seen terrible things. Countless dead people and animals, as well as beams from houses, shattered carts, scores of trees, straw and rubbish. »

Jan Leeghwater and his boy survived. It was a miracle. Pieter Jansz, the carpenter, and everyone in his household drowned, and they weren’t the only ones. The storm surge of 1634, later called the Burchardi flood in English and in Danish the Second Great Drowning of Men, took between eight and fifteen thousand lives. On Nordstrand, then an island south-east of Sylt, the sea broke through forty-four dams. Six thousand out of nine thousand inhabitants drowned, and nineteen of the island’s twenty-two churches were carried away.

It’s always out there, the great storm surge. You know it’s coming. The dikes grow and protect, but Sylt, which is thin around the waist, is in constant danger of snapping and breaking off into several islands. Geoscience and technology institutions around the world are researching the superstorms of the future and how to resist them. So that Mandø stays where it is, so that Rømø still arches its back, so that the forces of nature aren’t allowed to change the picture that’s been drawn. The gaps between the major storms are getting shorter. And the dams are getting higher, the breakwaters longer: we are doing our best to resist, but « there’s saltwater dripping on my face, Father. »

Illustration by Signe Parkins

Yesterday—it was Friday—I crossed the border at Rudbøl. Which is to say: first I ate a large piece of rye bread cake at a pub in the village. Afterwards, I fell into conversation with an elderly local at the bar. I asked about the situation at the border that day. He told me the Germans were supposed to be blocking it off at some point because of roadworks on their side. I shouldn’t let that stop me having a go. I could always do a U-turn, he said. He said, too, that Danish roadworks meant there would still be a way through, because they only closed one lane at a time. But with German roadworks you usually couldn’t get across. They shut down both lanes, even if they only had to repair something on one.

« That’s the way it is, » he told me, and with that he had nothing more to say on the matter.

Still, he had in a sense said all he wanted, and that’s why it can be difficult to be a stranger in the borderland. All that’s spoken between the lines. All that cannot be spoken. All the markers transmitted invisibly between nations, as well as between people in a bar.

I must admit: I’m in love with the windswept character of the marshland, with the locks, with the sheep on the dikes, with the style of the buildings, with the watermills and windmills and what they call værft, mounds of earth the people heaped and built their farms on, safe from storm surges. They look like little castles, each with its own chatelaine. I love the language of South Jutland. Its connections to North Frisian, Low German, Dutch, and the way it breathes life and music into my own mother tongue—I love it. I love, too, how the word værft runs south through the marshland under similar names, like wierde, woerd, warf, warft, werf, werve, until early on it reaches the marsh around the Rhineland as terp. It has crossed borders, this word, and my West Jutish grandparents used it too, when they heaped gravel, soil, dung. The latter—mødding in Danish—is still shovelled in Scotland in the form of midding and medding, for good words travel where they please. Water, too, respects no bounds. It takes what it wants when it wants it, and I have visited all the locks: Chamber Lock, Kongeå Lock, Ballum Lock, Vidå Lock, Højer Lock. I have seen the wooden columns, bolt upright, that mark how high the waters came during the Burchardi flood of 1634, during the Christmas flood of 1717, during the November storm of 1981, during the hurricane in 1999. I have seen the locks close, shutting out an accompanying river in the world with a large and beautiful brick-built gatehouse. I have walked along the dikes and imagined the watery hell on Earth that is a storm surge, but for me, the marsh is still like a paradise, where the eye can rest. Margrethe Polder, New Frederik’s Polder, Old Frederik’s Polder, land reclaimed from the sea, are all true royalty. I admire the capacity here for survival, the vaulted sky, the outlook, and the eternal interchange of starlings, culture and people. Yet despite my unconditional love, when I stay in the borderland, I’m always afraid of saying the wrong thing. Not a word about Jesus and his sandals. One time, I caught a lift to the station with a South Jutlander from the local college, where I taught. I was getting a train to Copenhagen. As we crossed the river Kongeå, I said:

« What’s this little stream? »

I knew perfectly well it was the Kongeå! I knew perfectly well it marked the border between Denmark and Germany from 1864 to 1920. That it had severed families, lovers, siblings, the course of lives. I knew it was the difference between life and death to be on one side or the other of that river, if you were a young man during the First World War. I understood that it was a sacred river in Danish history, and I knew it was charged with sorrow and trauma, but in my fatherland, we swear. We say silly things when we mustn’t, and the driver was angry.

Every time I cross the Kongeå or simply hear it mentioned, I feel ashamed, because this was a thing whose scope I did not understand. The fact is, I don’t see all the invisible dividing lines in the borderland. They speak their allegiance in code. The people I meet have traumas, inherited as well as current. They know loss, and they know that everything that is won can be forfeited again. If it isn’t the storm surges it’s time: all this is only borrowed unless you fight for it. I know the old maps, where I can see with the naked eye that the border is painfully wrong. As though someone had pulled a sock much too far up a slightly too thin leg. And I know that the soil of the borderland has absorbed both blood and saltwater in a way that’s difficult for a person who grew up on a desolate parish heath north-west of Herning to fully understand. My childhood region is far from history-less. But comparing the Danish–German borderland to the heaths of central and western Jutland is like comparing a picture book to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: seven volumes and a madeleine. In this case, rye bread cake: the Southern Jutish bake sale’s version of a sponge.

But back to Rudbøl, because I drove across the border there yesterday. And I was ready to do a U-turn. I had the old A–Z on the passenger seat. It has helped me up and down the coast in a calm, curious fashion. But the thing about physical maps printed in colour on paper is that they stop working at borders. On the Danish side of Rudbøl: a clear and detailed roadmap. On the German side of the border: empty land, a few isolated place names here and there, but no indication as to how to get from one place to the next.

« We’ve got to draw the line somewhere, » they said at the National Survey and Land Registry. « This far and no further, » and so moving across the border at Rudbøl was like driving onto a frozen field where the snow has just fallen.

It wasn’t long, either, before I ran into trouble. The man at the bar had been right. I hit a traffic jam by some roadworks. But before I got too badly stuck, I turned off and let the GPS lead me down the little roads of North Frisia. I drove on dikes, down winding routes past proud farms on old terps. The moon rose above the landscape and hung round and clear in its lapis lazuli sky. Somewhere to the south-west was Rungholt, with its secrets intact. One day the storm surge will return. People will lie in the darkness and think about the dams. A father’s face lit by the phone in the dim bedroom. He can’t sleep, what with the news about the water level. Late at night, the evacuation buses are driving back and forth, picking people up. The adults carry sleeping bags, ground pads, children their teddy bears. They have to sleep in the local sports hall. Just until the storm lets up, says their mother. The adults are given soup in coffee mugs. The children get a chocolate biscuit, but then they have to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, and so they lie down among neighbours and strangers. They try to get some rest from the crackling fluorescent light. From the storm that keeps going. They’re safe here, but what about the sheep, the cows. And the dog that didn’t come with them. And the cat.

« It hid in the roof space, » whispers the child.

« Cats have nine lives, » the mother whispers in the dark, and thinks of the clattering tiles, the salty rain, the future. For the storm surge is coming. But not today, I thought yesterday. Not tomorrow, I think, driving past the border shops in the German town of Aventoft. I didn’t go in; I was headed further north. At the pub in Rudbøl, I’d asked the man at the bar whether the crossing at Aventoft was still working as usual.

« Yes, » he said, « but it’s not called that. It’s called the Møllehusvej border crossing. »

Understood; and that’s how I fall and get back to my feet in the borderland. Setting out across the polders. Driving my path-finding car over dikes, over rural roads. Raising myself above unsolved riddles, sinking into my seat. The light is changing constantly: sun for moon, front for front. The archive of memory is open, and here there is only one road to follow. It leads from you into everything you come from, and it is driven by longing for a place you haven’t yet seen. When I get there, I will be silent, but until then I sing. I sing out loud, a single line. I sing the line again and again; it moves. Look now, the sun is going down, and I’m driving onto ferries. Crossing borders, and giving a sad thought to the fallen, the drowned, while flocks of starlings rise above the forests of reeds. The storm surges are coming. Cats have nine lives, but on my side of the border we have only one.

Portrait of Dorthe Nors by Astrid Dalum

A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast is forthcoming from Pushkin Press on 6 October.

Irene Petersen, « Sandkorn vidner om katastrofal superstorm i Danmark » (« Grains of Sand Testify to a Catastrophic Superstorm in Denmark »), videnskab.dk/kultur-samfund/sandkorn-vidner-om-katastrofal-superstorm-i-danmark, 4 March 2013.

Michael Pye: The Edge of the World – How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are, p.44. Penguin Books 2015