A Report on Three Flemish Men Building a Dam in the Traditional Way

Éireann Lorsung

This 35-minute performance, which I witnessed in the Flemish Ardennes in March of 2011, consists of the performers building a dam in a small stream in order to redirect the flow of water from the stream through a drainage pipe embedded in the soil, emptying into a marshy pond about twenty meters away.

The dam is constructed of mud pulled from the stream banks and bed. Root networks allow the mud to be pulled out in large clumps and hold it together in the current. Along with mud, the men use matted grass, flat rocks (brought one by one as necessary from a field across the road from the site), handfuls of gravel from the stream bed and road, and woven sticks.

The smallest of the three men squats on his haunches and weaves thin willow sticks into a mesh.

In the distance are the sounds of the Belgian countryside. Cars pass on the road up the hill. A neighboring farm-turned-holiday-house is full of girls in bikinis. Their shrieks increase in volume when the doors to the pool-room in the basement is opened. The valley magnifies the noises they make. Their bright bathing suits stand out against the land. It is March and things are barely beginning to grow. Grey, brown, yellow predominate. Very faintly: a hint of disco music. Then the sound of the stream.

What have the three Flemish men been doing? They have found a sheet of plastic and are experimenting with it, making a cover for the drainpipe where it empties into the pond. The one in the dark jacket yells something in a West Flemish dialect as the water overflows upstream. Across the road, a magpie takes off in the field. Two of the men feed pieces of paper into the pipe to see if they will travel all the way to the pond. Then a stick. Then a flat piece of sycamore bark. Then another sheet of plastic, crumpled to fit.

Along the bank, the one in the jacket pulls out a huge clump of mud and roots. The smallest one directs. The third one has gone to find the willow tree and pull branches off.

Although it is sunny, late-afternoon sun, it is cold enough to see their breath.

The crumpled plastic comes through the hole. The levels of the pond rise. Some of the smaller plants by the edge of the water, near the pipe, are covered now. A few stones are underwater. The damn is being shored up with more woven willow, more mud, clumps of leaves. One of the men has found a bowl and is using it to carry gravel from the road.

Because of the angle of the sun, the windows of the pool-room across the field have become opaque. The girls have closed the glass doors. We can only assume that behind them, they continue to use the small sauna, the shallow pool. Someone has left a towel on the short grass around the house. It is red-and-white striped. The house shrinks against the hills behind it. What began as an experiment, a way to fill time this morning becomes the evening's preoccupation.

My thighs are cold. The stump I'm sitting on is damp. The men continue to carry things from the field across the road. The smallest man has stopped weaving willow branches and is shoring up the dam with mud. His hands are very white in the water. His cuffs are soaked. The field is grey. The water is clear.

One of the men brings back a stick, a very thick one. He is trying to put it through the pipe. The dam is almost knee-high above the water. The upstream pool is deep and still. The other two men crouch and look from the far side. The man at the dam pulls a clump of mud out of the pipe. The water levels keep rising.

Underwater there is a stillness not unlike the stillness now in the valley. Almost dark. Lights along the road on the ridge, none on the nearby road. They still have their hands in the water. Fixing. Below, the pond fills and gurgles. A noise, could be a bird. They are talking quietly. In any case it's a language I don't understand.

The sky is heavy and low. Above the ridge there is a glow. The water reflects darkness. A note: how did it become evening so quickly?

At the dam the men wedge empty glass bottles in the mud. They stand along the top. A little light catches them. A little wind echoes in them. Brown glass. The work is done for the evening. The men rinse their hands and shoes in the still pool. Birds settle in the sycamore near the road. Its seed-balls shake. Lights are on in the house across the field. No girls in the pool.

There is a sense of holding very still and being very quiet. A sound of water and the men's voices. In the morning the valley is a flat and shining plain.