On a sunny Saturday morning a ferry takes me to Schiermonnikoog. Upon arrival I rent a bike and make my way onto the island. While cycling along the grassland, I take in deep breaths of the fresh sea air and enjoy the quiet. You can only hear the sound of the occasional bird flying over and the sea in the distance.
My bike ride takes me to the most desolate house on the island, called De Kooiplaats. When you go further east beyond it, there is only nature.
De Kooiplaats is the home of Theun Talsma (83), who has lived on Schiermonnikoog his whole life. The beach comber has always lived by the motto “Culture, Nature, Adventure”.
When I arrive I have to circle the barnyard twice before I find Theun. He has just returned from the duck decoy which belongs to the farm.
In the cosy kitchen, Theuns wife Margot is making tea. He tells her about the geese he found on the beach this morning.
“They are dying, bird flu. Some were still alive, but I left them there. I don’t want to risk infecting the ducks.” Those ducks are living in the decoy that belongs to De Kooiplaats.
A duck decoy is a special trap designed to catch ducks. When Talsma’s father moved to Schiermonnikoog in 1927 to work as a decoy operator, the ducks were captured to be eaten.
Image 1: The inside of a duck decoy. Photo: Pexabay. Image 2: Decoy De Kooiplaats. Photo: Else van der Steeg
For a small period during World War II and for a longer period in between 1958-1980, the duck decoy was in disuse. In 1980, Talsma had the decoy restored and has been tending it ever since. Not for eating the ducks, but for research. Talsma catches the ducks, rings and documents them and then sets them free again.
He has always had a heart for wildlife on the island, as an avid bird watcher and a volunteer for the EHBZ, which offers first aid for seals. He rescues ducklings and wounded birds by bringing them to the decoy.
Aside from rescuing animals, Talsma has always scoured the shore as a beach comber, looking for artifacts that washed ashore. “Beach combing to me is culture, nature and adventure all in one” he says. “But you have to be lucky: once you go actively looking, you won’t find a thing.”
Talsma has been combing the beach for as long as he can remember: “After a long day’s work on the farm we would go down to the beach to unwind, enjoy the wind and the birds and to see if something had washed up on shore. If it was something I could use, like pieces of wood, I would take them home with me.”
Beach combing is an adventure for Talsma. He says: “You never know what you will find. It can be anything, like a container full of coats, animals, or even sometimes a body.”
When exactly he found the body, he cannot remember. “It’s a long time ago now”, Talsma says. “He was lying in the water, face down. I called the police.”
“I remember that”, Margot says. “I was working at city hall when that happened. I saw the police car leave, but I had no idea you were at the beach at that moment. Horrible.”
Talsma nods: “I’d much rather find some nice pieces of wood. But it happens. Not so much now, but a hundred years ago it was a pretty common occurrence. There is a cemetery on the island just for people who drowned at sea.”
In 1953, the North Sea Flood covered the province of Zeeland in sea water. A strong storm put so much pressure on the dykes that the sea water managed to break through and flooded most of the province. Many people lost their lives in the flood. The distance between Zeeland and Schiermonnikoog is about 300 kilometers.
A few days after the disaster in Zeeland, Talsma found a cow washed ashore on Schiermonnikoog. “I had just finished milking the cows at the farm and walked to the beach”, he says. “It was still dark, when I suddenly saw a big shape laying there.”
The cow had drowned during the flooding in Zeeland and had floated all the way across the North Sea to Schiermonnikoog. In the days that followed, other remnants of the flood washed up, like doors and windows.
The last time a large amount of wood washed ashore was forty years ago. “The whole beach was covered in wood. There was so much of it that you could get trapped in the pieces. I used a lot of it to build a stable.”
“Back then, they didn’t secure the cargo on ships as well as they do now”, Talsma says. The wood would just lie on the deck. Whenever there was a storm, a lot would fall overboard.
The storms were a lot rougher then, Talsma recalls. “I remember one time, in 1962, when the dyke on the island broke through and flooded our farm.” Talsma was 26 at the time. He and his brother were returning from the village when it happened.
“We had helped to secure the dykes near the village and were walking back to the farm, when all of a sudden we saw the water come right at us. We turned and ran as fast as we could.”
When they got back to the farm, the ditches started to flood and soon the animals were standing up to their bellies in the water. They cut the animals’ ropes and sent them into the dunes. Everything flooded and wheelbarrows were floating across the barnyard.
“I wasn’t scared at that moment. We didn’t have time to be scared” Talsma says.
“Your parents must have been”, Margot adds.
“They were” he agrees. “But for me and my brothers, it was exciting. We were young, it seemed like an adventure.”
After the flood, the grasslands were infertile because of the salt water. This meant that apart from milking the cows, Talsma had no work to do on the farm. So for a year, he took a job as a lighthouse keeper.
“It was really beautiful. You can see everything from up there. And people don’t notice that they are being watched by someone.”
The fact that he was alone in the top of the lighthouse for each six-hour shift did not bother him. “I don’t mind the peace and quiet. It was just beautiful, I could overlook the whole sea.”
Over the years, Talsma has gathered a large collection of items, which he keeps in the attic of what is now a holiday home. “My private museum”, Talsma calls it, but Margot manages to persuade him to give me an exclusive tour. “Careful, the ladder is shaky”.
His collection takes up the space of three full rooms. The first room is filled with coats. “They are in perfectly fine condition.” He takes one from the rack and jokes: “Do you need a new winter coat?”
Two bathroom doors are standing in the back of the room. “Probably from a sunken yacht.” The collection on the shells spans from golf bags to German soccer collectable dolls and elephant figurines to old bottles still filled with liquor.
Talsma in his private museum. If you can think of it, Talsma probably has it somewhere in his collection. Photos: Else van der Steeg
Back in the kitchen, Talsma unscrews the lightbulb from the lamp that is hanging above the table. “A load of these also washed ashore once. They’re made of plastic, so they didn’t break. The pillows on the chairs are also from the beach.”
“So are the decorative candles”, Margot adds. Talsma points at a stool. “You might remember these, they were on national news when they washed ashore in early 2019. The whole beach was covered in stools. The mayor thought it was a disaster.”
“I think it was a good thing the stools washed ashore”, Talsma says. “Otherwise they would float towards the ocean and add to the plastic soup. Now, we could clean the beach. The army came, the whole village and a lot of tourists helped. Three days later, the beach was completely cleaned. And everyone left with a stool.”
The mayors are usually not from the island. “They don’t understand that the things that wash ashore aren’t waste”, Talsma says. “They can still be used.” More often, when something washes ashore, it is taken to the mainland and burned.
This is the real waste, according to Talsma. The neighbouring island, Terschelling, collects those items and takes them to charities. “We should do the same”, he says.
“I sometimes give an item from my collection as a birthday gift. Why not? A lot of things look as good as new. And it is extra special to say that you got it from the sea.”