Bicycling around the Netherlands is a real treat and an unusual experience for an American like me. The Dutch are famous for their love of bicycles, of course, and they have a very pragmatic view of them—they are not unlike umbrellas or backpacks, essential urban equipment for getting to and from work, and for taking care of other essential urban tasks.
But there is another dimension to this bicycling culture that has more to do with recreation, and with accessing the surprisingly abundant nature of this small country. In a recent visit to the Eindhoven area I was reminded of just how important bicycle mobility is for connecting with the natural world.
The Dutch have invested much in recent years in creating a network of greenspaces and natural habitats, and in beautiful bike and walking paths that allow you reach and enjoy these spaces quickly and easily. On a recent Sunday I traveled by bicycle from the town of Heeze into the heart of the Strabrechtse Heide, a beautiful area of heathlands, 1500 ha, very close to thousands of Dutch urbanites and a popular bicycling destination on weekends and holidays.
The nature to be found in these heathlands is interesting and diverse, and the natural spaces beautiful. Adjacent to one small lake we saw dragonflies and damselflies, numerous birds, and perhaps the friendliest small butterfly species I’ve ever encountered. It turned out to be a phegeavlinder (Amata phegea), a kind of nachtvlinder, or night butterfly, in other words a moth (or mott, in Dutch).
Sometimes also called a nine-spotted moth, they showed remarkable interest in humans, lingering leisurely around us, returning time and again to light on our hands, shoulders and heads. They seemed not to be concerned with predators and that might be because, as we learned later, this species of moth mimics another species toxic to birds.
This is the kind of nature that the Dutch have close around them, a function of a history of compact town planning and preservation of rich mosaic of woodlands and pasturelands just beyond the edge of cities and towns.
And while the car traffic is still sometimes too frequent and fast moving for my taste, a Sunday such as this was more for bicyclists, and in typical Dutch style enjoyed by every age and walk of life. We passed at several points during the day very large groups of bicyclists, moving along almost like schools of fish. They consisted of extended families and were clearly multigenerational. In the case of one group we encountered it was like happening upon an interesting parade, with the progression of bicyclists sorted by age group—the very young were leading the way, with the tiniest bikes, and the rear taken up by the more elderly grandparents. For some groups it was clearly a familiar matter, but others, it seemed a mix of friends and neighbors, perhaps a spontaneously formed bicycle tour, all enjoying the countryside and the company.
The quality of the bike paths and signage (clearly, and unobtrusively, alerting to distance and direction) make riding in the Dutch countryside even easier. There are cafés and small restaurants along the way, for stopping and watching and taking one’s time.
The Dutch investments in a bike-friendly landscapes and infrastructure, and in a national system of nature preserves, provides unusual access and outdoor activities for elder members of society. The technology and fashion is changing a bit, and reportedly half of the new bicycles sold in the Netherlands today are electric bikes. This may be partly a sign of the times, as even in the Netherlands a more sedentary lifestyle has taken hold. But it probably reflects the greying of the Dutch population, as well as improvements in the technology and product—electric bikes today are much sleeker, less bulky and cumbersome, and increasingly difficult to distinguish from regular bikes. And it is now a common sight at cafés and mid-point stops along the bicycle routes to see electric charging stations for this new fleet of electric bikes.
The Dutch experience leaves little doubt that bikes and nature go well together and that bicycling can represent an important strategy for fostering connections with the natural world. And there are many other benefits evident here: physical exercise, social interaction, fostering connections to place, and independent mobility for both the young and the old.
For the moment I have to put the bike away, but what appeals more than anything is to strike out again in search of my friends, the nine-spotted motts!