The Fens in Waterland

Kathy Szoke '92

When land sinks below the water-level you have to pump. There is nothing else for it: Water will not flow upwards. The pumps came to the fens in the eighteenth century, in the form of black-sailed windmills, over seven hundred of which once creaked, whirred, and thrummed in the wind between Lincoln and Cambridge. And my ancestor, Jacob Crick, operated two of them at Stump Corner. When the redcoats were storming Quebec . . . Jacob Crick was putting his cheek and ear to the air to feel the direction and force of the breezes. He was leaning and pushing against the tail-poles of his twin mills to set the sails in the right position. He was inspecting his paddlewheels and scoops.

This passage is significant because it represents one of the major themes of the book: the idea that nothing comes easily, that civilization must constantly work at maintaining itself or else it will slip back into a state of nature, will once again be washed into the wilderness. To the people of the fens, the fact that Jacob Crick was constantly working to prevent their hard-won land from crumbling back into the ocean was of greater significance than the battles between the British army and the Canadians. The reclamation of land, Swift notes, is not the same as the building of empires -- and it is clear which he feels is more important.

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