I never imagined a 12-foot tower of orange rubber work gloves could be so sublime. Before walking around the Schipbreuk- en Juttersmuseum on the little Dutch island of Texel, beachcombing meant a shell or two picked up on vacation, something to decorate the bathroom, a sand dollar if I was lucky. The jutters (beachcombers) of Texel have brought the regurgitated goods spat up from the North Sea and built from them a new city of salvation.
The Juttersmuseum on Texel is 70 years’ worth of beach-combed curiosities, collected and displayed for the general public. Texel is one of the Frisian islands in the Wadden Sea, meaning Texel can also be described as “remote.” It lies west of the Netherlands, the first island in an archipelago that arcs all the way to Denmark. If you started sailing north from the tip of Texel you wouldn’t hit anything until you reached the Arctic. Maybe dumping stuff on the beaches of Texel is the sea’s way of connecting Texelers to the great big world out there.
Orange and yellow buoys dangle everywhere — on the sides of wooden shacks, inside the shacks, tangled up in ropes on the ground, stacked in rotting wooden baskets. A cone of round buoys stacked like a profiterole croquembouche reaches all the way up to the trees. Life vests and life preservers and cans of preserves and rusted cans with winking Dutch ladies holding buckets of milk. Frisbees and cosmetics, broken-up parts of ships and lots and lots of shoes. In the courtyard are hundreds of plastic beach toys and baby things in various shades of summertime — buckets, scoopers, sippy cups, pacifiers, and sandcastle molds strung up on a fence. A sign says they were collected over just two winters. One plastic bucket swallowed by the surf is just a tantrum. But a wall of lost toys is a museum of a thousand tears.
Beachcombing is the profession of thieves, bums, people who have forgotten how to make their own crafts or never knew how in the first place, people who live off the bounty of shipwrecks and chance. We once were fish, evolved, walked on the shore, and began to steal from it for our new life on land. It was a good racket and made us humans what we are today. Melville was the first to write down the word “beachcomber,” which in his time was an out-of-work sailor or castaway wandering the islands of the Pacific. In the centuries before Texel became a Mecca for German vacationers, impoverished Texelers would scour the beaches of their treeless island for driftwood to build and warm their houses. When the last of the Nazis were kicked off Texel in 1945, locals returned to the shores for essentials once again, gathering food and fuel from blown-up ships that never made it to where they were going. They’ve been combing ever since.
Our personal desires and needs don’t decide what makes something treasure or trash; there are legal boundaries. The law of treasure trove varies from state to state, country to country, and can be terribly complicated. Like, “if the object is not a coin, it must be at least 300 years old and at least 10 percent precious metal by weight to be defined as treasure, or if the object is a coin, it must either be one of at least two coins in the same find which are at least 300 years old at that time and are at least 10 percent precious metal by weight; or one of at least 10 coins in the same find which are at least 300 years old at that time” (this comes from the UK). On Texel, the rules are sketchy. Whoever happens to be mayor at the time gets to be chief wreck-master, and the wreck-master assigns several wreck deputies to stand charge of the island’s chaff. It was decided in 1931 that all items combed from the beaches are the official property of the government, and if you ask, beachcombers will tell you about their ongoing run-ins with the law. So there’s the whiff of the bandit wafting through the halls of the Juttersmuseum.
A million meters of multicolored rope tied neatly in bundles blanket a chain-link fence. There are flags of the Netherlands and flags of Belgium, and semaphore flags sticking out in all directions, and a soggy old ship’s log from the ’80s that looks like a tattered medieval book of hours and a crate of what is either raw amber or dried chunks of glue. There are nods to natural history here, a handful of interesting shells with hand-scribbled labels next to them placed in a thrown-together vitrine, and a vitrine of pinecones near a vitrine of lighters.
Schipbreuk means shipwreck and walking around the Juttersmuseum you remember that not all wrecked ships sink. What must it feel like to walk in the open air surrounded by capsized shipping containers disgorging their cargo of exploded televisions? On March 14, 1994, the inhabitants of Texel went to the beach and found it covered in wooden 2x4s. Sometimes entire boats land on the beaches of Texel and sometimes they are on fire. On November 22, 2006, an empty helicopter washed ashore.
Lying, as it does, just off international shipping lanes, wrecks of all kinds come to Texel. When they do, everyone comes out to look. The Juttersmuseum was destined to be a community project because once you discover how beautiful collecting sea crap can be, walking on the beach is never the same. Beachcombing is addictive, entrancing. Being at the Juttersmuseum for 10 minutes you want to run immediately to the shore, grab what you can find, run back, and giddily stick your stuff on the ceiling to join the rest of the Juttersmuseum’s booty. “This is my house,” says the woman selling tickets at the door, “and I work here, too. I donated my farm to the museum. There’s a group of us — we bring the things here.” You know what they say: It takes a village to tidy up after a storm.
There are bottles, so many bottles, shelves and shelves of bottles, liquor bottles, mostly, which you would expect as they’re the easiest to lose, but there are messages-in-bottles too, lonely souls searching for pen pals and desperate SOS calls tossed overboard at the 11th hour.
You’d expect the Juttersmuseum on the little Dutch island of Texel to have an air of melancholy or something like that. Its raison d’être is loss. But the Juttersmuseum is the site of what-once-was-lost-now-is-found, no regrets, no apologies. It is a place of redemption, reclamation, more like a church than an orphanage. There’s a type of beachcombing that is the hobby of the virtuous, who try to comb all evidence of humans from the beach. They are enemies of pollution, stewards of nature. The beachcleaner wants the beach to be clean, for the greater good of people and nature alike, and cleaning the beach is an act of generosity on the part of the cleaner. Still, there is a hint of contempt in the beachcleaner. The beachcleaner finds manmade debris exasperating, infuriating, knows secretly that because beachcleaning is a Sissyphisian task, it is the work of martyrs, and beaches are the cause of perpetual heartache. The beachcleaner wishes, ultimately, to cleanse the beach free of us for us.
The jutter is different. She sees the garbage of the sea as accidental treasure. There is no condemnation at the Juttersmusuem. Whether by thoughtlessness, carelessness or happenstance, every item in the museum has followed its own unique path, and how it got there is more interesting than why. Plastic shovels are sometimes simply stolen by the sea. Others are thrown in by willful, raging little hands. The shipwrecks and smashed-up shipping containers are mostly victims of hubris, pushing through a storm in the name of deadlines and bottom lines. Messages in bottles were put into the ocean with the sole dream that they be found by a jutter.
Standing in the Schipbreuk- en Juttersmuseum on the Dutch island of Texel I felt what Walt Whitman was feeling on the beach long ago when he wrote,
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets, comets, asteroids,
All the substances of the same, and all that is spiritual upon the same,
All distances of place, however wide,
All distances of time—all inanimate forms,
All Souls—all living bodies, though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes—the fishes, the brutes,
All men and women—me also;
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages;
All identities that have existed, or may exist, on this globe, or any globe;
All lives and deaths—all of the past, present, future;
In the spirit of the jutter I add: all plastic cars, all flags, all TVs, dolls, flotsam, jetsam, billboards, cigarettes, bananas, whatever and et cetera. On the beach, land and sea, people and nature, are one. The beach is a vast similitude interlocking all — the fishes, the brutes, the Frisbees, all men and women. Me also. • 5 August 2010