The Estonian coast is still dominated by wetlands, flying squirrels, and respect for solitude––one’s own and that of others. But to protect these long-existing treasures requires a new consciousness. Luckily, it’s already being born.
“Do you like the swings?” Andreas doesn’t wait for an answer. I chase after him, this big, baby-faced boy making his way towards the village, his shoulders swaying from side to side. His leather boots crunch on the stones. Estonians are uncompromising when it comes to footwear. No ridiculous sneakers in the early spring, no plimsolls in the fields. Life here is one step away from nature, and you have to take that into account.
Behind us lies the undulating coast of the Baltic Sea, the headlands and bays covered with erratic blocks left over from various glaciations. In front of us are old fishing buildings: log cabins with thatched roofs, mangers, stables, and a well with a sweep by the path. In this small village in Lahemaa National Park, living history meets current trends. Stylish new wooden buildings have sprung up next to the ancient farms. The old ones were used by fishermen 150 years ago. The newly built ones belong to holidaymakers who come here from Tallinn, an hour away. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, country houses are pricey again. Formerly used to living in seclusion, Estonians have remembered that cramming together in cities is not in their nature. There is a return to favor for rural cabins and their modern equivalents, where one can tend their solitude and secrets all year round.
“When I was little, I was very curious about what other people were doing in their homes,” says Andreas, looking through a window into one of the cabins. “We all have hobbies here. We have to have something to do when we’re sitting inside for hours on end during the dark winter months. But we’re reluctant to talk about it, I don’t know why.” He shrugs. I cast him an inquisitive look, to which he responds: “Me? I play the piano, the saxophone, and the drums. But the piano is the most important. If you can play that, you can play anything. Come on!” he says, racing off. I don’t think he’s capable of walking slowly. And I think that before fall comes around, I should find a hobby, not necessarily a secret one.
At Home in Nature
The cheerful giant finally stops to check if I know how to use a wooden sweep to draw water from the well. I pick a full bucket and he brushes a few mosquitoes off the surface and tells me to try it. “You won’t drink better!” he assures me. It’s ice cold and delicious. Now for the real test. Like every village, this one has a kind of central playground for adults, with a mast flying the Estonian flag, a hearth surrounded by stones, and a giant swing. This one is twenty-six feet high, made entirely of wood, and you have to stand to swing it. Andreas climbs onto the platform opposite me, tells me to hold on to the bar, and crouches down, pushing the swing with his body weight. He instructs me to do the same. A moment later, I’m screaming––in excitement and fear. Suddenly, we’re almost upside down, the reshuffled world spinning beneath us: the cloudy sky has swapped places with the pale coastal grass. But that’s nothing––we stop short of doing a full rotation, the favorite discipline of Estonians. These games are usually played during the midsummer celebration of St John’s Day, when several people at once pile onto the swings, laughing and usually drunk, and spin like they’re in a mill wheel. At that time of year, the sun hardly ever sets, the sky only turns slightly gray at night, and the earth is lit up with the flames of huge bonfires and singing. There is something special about this holiday. This is the one time when people are willing to give up their seclusion. For that weekend, the cities empty, and life flourishes in the countryside and among nature. On a day-to-day basis, Estonians treat solitude like a treasure. That’s certainly not to say that they’re unfriendly or don’t like to chat. They just know how to be alone and take up little space.
By the sea––in one of the bays that Andreas and I reached through a pine forest that suddenly ended, giving way to boulders and a narrow strip of sandy beach rolled into the shape of a croissant––we met a woman out walking. Her face was calm, and her movements and body seemed to communicate the freedom of being solo. Not a trace of fear, uncertainty, or consternation. I watched in awe as she walked slowly, with no obvious destination. She was at home in nature. As she passed us, she nodded slightly––neither spurning us, nor inviting conversation. Neutral, as if she were passing a tree or a bush. In the summer, when more people appear on the Baltic beaches, the etiquette here is simple: you don’t set up camp near other people, you step aside, you look for a spot where you won’t disrupt others, nor they you, from being a part of the world.
Singing for Freedom
Andreas and I sit on the boulders by the sea and look into the distance. Somewhere out there, fifty miles from where we sit, is Finland. In the past, when the winters were harsh, the Baltic Sea froze many miles deep, opening up seasonal roads here and in other parts of the country. This is still how Estonians move between the islands today. Anyone driving on an officially demarcated ice road is obliged to unfasten their seat belt, maintain a minimum speed of 43 mph, and not to stop under any circumstances, to avoid the ice cracking beneath the vehicle. Despite all this, there are plenty of daredevils keen to test the unofficial trails. Every year, someone drowns in the icy water.
Andreas grew up on an island in western Estonia. “There was one Russian man there, and a lot of older women. There weren’t many cars. If you wanted to go anywhere, you had to get the ferry. Well, except in winter,” he says. He used to skate, ski, or sleigh to visit his aunts and friends. His beloved uncle was able to smell through the cold weather when his mother had made pies. “He’d suddenly appear out of the cold and reach for the freshly baked goodies. Then he’d go for a dip. He used to plunge into the freezing sea in just his underpants. I learnt from him. I can last two minutes!” he says with a shudder. “I hate being cold, but it feels great when I surface. Tingling all over, like I’ve been born again!”
Winter swimming is a popular pastime in Estonia. Every year on Independence Day, which falls on February 24, people try to stay in the icy water for as many seconds as years have passed since the birth of their independent republic in 1918. It’s also a day when they especially love to sing––and cry with emotion––after all, they sang their way to their second independence, gained in 1991 from the collapsing Soviet Union. In the 1980s, the performance of traditional national songs became a form of resistance, a way to preserve one’s identity within the regime imposed by Moscow. Every Estonian who tells me about it (and there are many) puts a hand to their heart and apologizes for welling up. In July this year, they will cry and sing together at the festival of Estonian songs, which takes place every five years. An amphitheater with great acoustics, located on a hill in Tallinn, will fill with thirty thousand choristers and nearly one hundred thousand spectators singing along.
The fact that the regime was defeated with singing is one of the most beautiful episodes of recent history in these parts––alongside the human chain created by Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians on August 23, 1989. That day, two million people stood holding hands, forming a chain 420 miles long connecting Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius in protest against the Soviet domination. Two years later, they were free, but their new countries had no money. The republics, ruined after decades of socialist economy, were left with empty cash registers and defunct trade relations with their only partner for years, Moscow. However, the Estonians also had sensible leaders who drove the transformation and ensured political continuity with the state that was established after World War I. The free government, made up exclusively of thirty-somethings, reinvented the country. They focused on education and new technologies. But while Estonia quickly became an innovative e-state, it did not put its history aside. On the contrary––on almost every corner, it is evident that the past matters here.
In a Glass Bunker
Two of the most popular urban districts in Estonia are Kalamaja in Tallinn and Supilinn in Tartu, both still lined with wooden houses. Once inhabited by workers, today these areas are adored by the middle classes and artists, praised for their atmosphere, tranquility, excellent ventilation, and ecological structures. Nearby are apartment buildings and minimalist villas in the style of “modern barns,” although they are far from the simplicity and charm of the century-old buildings. The Rotermann Quarter, with its former docks, mills, and factories near the port, has recently become a prestigious part of the capital and is now a district of luxury boutiques, hotels, offices, and restaurants. There are almost as many historic and newly revitalized buildings there in sixty thousand square yards as there are in the medieval Old Town, a two-minute walk away––one of the most beautiful in Europe, full of well-preserved houses and churches surrounded by intact defensive walls. Wandering these streets feels like being submerged in a lavish fairy tale.
While the rebuilt Rotermann Quarter features plenty of cool steel and glass, its most valuable features are the brick walls, gates, and factory chimneys preserved over the centuries. They sustain the myth of a city founded by the Danes that built its international position on Hanseatic trade, was dominated by the Germans and Russians in later centuries, and finally, in the 20th century, was almost cut off from the world by the Soviets. Now Tallinn is cherishing its international ties again. Every two hours, a powerful ferry to Finland departs from Tallinn’s port, like a scheduled bus. The city also provides technological inspiration for the world through virtual channels.
When I leave Tallinn before dawn, the train is full of students. I set off on foot from the wooden station in Tartu, Estonia’s cultural capital. On the outskirts of the city stands a breathtaking structure that presents the past using the most modern methods. Touching a cardboard ticket to a screen translates the on-screen text from Estonian to English. I watch a video from mid-1997. Then-president Lennart Meri is holding a press conference in an out of order restroom at Tallinn airport. He is ashamed and determined. He promises innovation. He has just returned from Japan, where he learnt a lesson in progress. He pledges to start the reforms with a modernization of the airport. The TV with a square kinescope displaying this episode of recent history is one of hundreds of unique exhibits in the new Estonian National Museum in Tartu. The university city has a population of 150,000 inhabitants, the country’s oldest university, and this extraordinary museum––a world-class building resembling a combination of a runway and a glass bunker. It stands in the place of the former Soviet military airport, among fields and meadows. The building, 1,150 feet in length, has two floors to explore, both focused on Estonian ethnography and culture. The exhibits highlight how Estonian roots stretch back to the villages of the Urals, and the traditions of Finno-Ugric peoples, as well as the anthropology of everyday life: from the first minted coins, through samovars and decatized jeans, to locally constructed satellites and smartphone apps.
A new national museum is an unusual thing in 21st-century Europe––they are not built anymore. As I weave my way between interactive exhibitions and groups of school students, I begin to understand that Estonians are looking for a new answer to the question of what a nation is nowadays, and what constitutes a common culture. For example, the culture of protest, which this small society of 1.3 million people is now training in a new direction: towards protecting the environment.
Forests like a Chessboard
“People are calling and writing in, worried about trees being cut down. And our forests are starting to look like a chessboard, with huge bare areas,” says Jüri-Ott Salm, combing his hair nervously before clasping both hands around a cup of hawthorn tea. We are sitting in the shared kitchen of the Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF), the country’s most important nature conservation foundation. Above the door to the building hangs a logo with the image of a flying squirrel. These small, gray animals, which move through the trees by jumping up to 115 feet at a time, are the pride of Estonia, but also among its most endangered species. Today, they can be found in exactly 111 places in the country. The flying squirrel is an apt patron for an organization that has been protecting nature for forty years, and also teaches Estonians about the role of nature for their ancestors, and for all of us today.
Jüri-Ott was a co-founder of ELF and has been involved since the beginning. He is a geographer and specializes in the protection of bogs, the greatest treasure of local nature. We are joined by Siim Kuresoo, an energy specialist (sipping yerba mate through a metal bombilla) and Piret Pungas, a researcher of culture and natural traditions (and a fan of green tea). A mountain of sleeping bags in the corner of the room indicates that the foundation’s volunteers are preparing for a field trip. They will be filling in ditches and building dams; undoing historical mistakes is hard physical work. And although Estonia is famous for its natural beauty, there is a lot to undo. From the windows of the train, I saw large empty patches of freshly felled trees. Since an EU directive classified wood as a renewable energy source in 2009, the timber industry has boomed in Estonia; companies are pushing for ever more logging, as are the government, who own half of the country’s forests.
“Most of our trees go to make coal. We produce nearly 390 million cubic feet of wood annually, and we burn around 210 million. Overall, our forests emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they store,” says Siim. He goes on to indicate how logging threatens biodiversity. More wetlands need to be drained to increase forest cultivation. A quarter of Estonia is occupied by bogs, some of which are between six- and ten thousand years old, and protected terrain. Many of them have been victims of the energy industry for over two centuries. First, peat was mined, then oil shale––still Estonia’s main energy source. Oil shale is considered extremely harmful, because a lot of carbon dioxide is released through burning the rock, while the energy gain is small. Peat extraction, shale mining, and tree planting require the same thing––digging drainage ditches and draining the land. Many locations around the country have been scarred in this way. In places where nature is protected by the state, former mines can be restored to their natural, marshy state (nearly fifty thousand acres have been successfully restored, and the same area is in the process of being restored). This is what ELF does, negotiating with the government and farmers to renew the water course so that the water remains in the soil and the peat is reformed at a rate of about 0.12 inches every twenty years.
This attempt to recreate the bogs in the era of energy voracity somehow resembles the fight between Carnival and Lent. “Farmers understand that water in the soil is necessary, they support ecology, but not in their fields. It’s hard to make a living in the wetlands, nothing can be cultivated. But their value is huge,” says Jüri-Ott. At my request, he begins to list the benefits of the peat carpet, full of undecomposed organic matter and soaked with water. “Where should I start? Bogs cover only 3% of the Earth’s surface, but they store half as much carbon dioxide as all the forests combined. They store water, play a crucial role in regulating the climate, and protect against floods. Many species of plants and animals breed in these areas,” he explains. He could continue for a long time.
But humans don’t live on nature alone; there’s culture, too. “In the past, bogs were used to scare children,” says Piret, who wrote an article a few years ago about how descriptions of bogs have changed in Estonian literature over the centuries. “According to folk legends, they were inhabited by monsters, snakes, and spirits of the dead. It was said that you could get lost in the mists, that the marshes were bottomless, they sucked people in and killed them. They have long been feared and resented for being worthless. At most, one could hunt there or pick berries, but that meant knowing how to navigate the marshy terrain.” However, the inaccessibility of the bogs and the peat islands formed within them meant that they were often a shelter for refugees, oppositionists, and more recently––during and after World War II––anti-communist partisans. The first wooden walkways allowing the wetlands to be crossed with dry feet were built in the 16th century, but most often they were traversed in winter, when they froze.
Not so long ago, Estonians would have said of a lost cause that it had “gone to the bog,” and described the wetlands themselves as unwalkable land and unnavigable water. Now they spend their Saturday mornings strolling along the narrow wooden platforms that form tourist paths through the bogs all over the country. Some of them also have wooden lookout towers from which to admire the perfectly flat landscape, dotted with small ponds, covered with moss and the occasional stunted tree. “Everything started to change in the 1970s,” says Piret. “That’s when the first activists appeared, highlighting how much good lies in the wetlands. The truth is, they remain our only primeval landscape.”
“That’s right,” agrees Jüri-Ott. “There’s practically no virgin forest left, but the oldest bogs remain untouched. There’s no oxygen in the peat, the organic matter is intact. They contain biomass thousands of years old.”
In the second half of the 20th century, Estonians fell in love with the wetlands: their undisturbed silence, the allure of the clear lakes formed on the surface of the peat, and opportunities for berry picking. “If beauty is defined as something different from everyday life, then the bog is its quintessence,” says Piret, his face lighting up for the first time. “The oldest swamps are oases of peace, separated from the world by forest, where time stands still. The surface of the water, and the landscape, are undisturbed, you can experience with all your senses. The soil is soft, so you move slowly, watch the birds, breathe in the scent of the pines. More and more of us are appreciating these areas as therapeutic places, helping to regenerate our life forces.”
The Oldest Spa in the World
“I love the bogs in August!” Andreas announces as we walk through the Viru Bog, one of the most famous wetlands. “You arrive at four in the morning and watch as the mist slowly rises and the sun shines through. It’s completely quiet. You jump into the water and feel how warm it is just below the surface, and how cold it is further down, where the sun doesn’t reach. Because the water takes on the tone of the peat, the sun’s rays don’t get that deep,” he explains, stepping down from the wooden platform onto the peaty surface. He starts jumping. “Feel how it shakes. Like a huge, waterlogged sponge!” he says. And sure enough, I can feel everything trembling beneath us, swaying from the impact of his seven-league boots.
In the Fotografiska gallery in Tallinn, a cashier tells me how she encountered a moose walking with ease along a wooden trail on a bog. And that there’s no better spa treatment than taking a dip in the bogs in July, despite the dizzying scent. Indeed, a distinctive plant called marsh Labrador tea, with small white flowers, is ubiquitous here. I rub it between my fingers and the aroma is strong enough to induce lightheadedness and headaches.
Impressive data from multiple sources have shown that a quarter of Estonia’s area is wetland. However, despite the efforts of the government and environmentalists, the bogs are shrinking. “What the statistics don’t say is that most of the bogs were drained at some point. Or they’re drying up now due to climate change,” explains Jüri-Ott.
“Last year, after an exceptionally hot summer, so many images appeared online of pale, wizened berries, totally inedible,” says Piret. “The changes are starting to worry not only researchers, but also ordinary people who feel that nature is part of their identity, a real treasure. Parliamentary elections will be held this year and for the first time, politicians from several parties are saying that if they win, protecting the bogs will be their priority. There’s never been anything like that!”
The team at ELF are testing ways to combine wetland protection with renewable energy generation, which sounds encouraging. Attempts are underway to install wind turbines and solar panels on the bogs undergoing restoration. “There are many unknowns ahead of us, taking measurements and checking we won’t be disturbing the wildlife,” explains Jüri-Ott. He won’t allow himself to be optimistic.
Siim, who has been frowning throughout our several-hour-long conversation, is keen to voice the foundation’s credo. “It’s impossible to protect our forests or bogs without a reduction in the energy demands of the modern world,” he says. “We can sign resolutions and launch wind farms in the Baltic Sea, but that won’t change much if we continue to need more and more electricity. Did you know that 2% of all the energy in Estonia is consumed by a single engine in a paper pulp factory where 120 people are employed? Have you ever wondered why empty gas stations need to be lit in the middle of the night, consuming tons of electricity? We don’t have to live like that. That’s why we’re urging people to reorganize, to take a new approach to energy in our lives.” A new consciousness is already being born, but it’s growing like peat––slowly, one tenth of an inch at a time.
River of Beer
The water foams and thunders. “I haven’t seen such a spectacle here for a long time!” says Andreas contentedly as he walks across the boulders, breathing in the water-saturated air. The Jägala waterfall is only around twenty-six feet high, but in flat-as-a-pancake Estonia it offers unprecedented drama. Especially today, when the water level is high. It swirls, sloshes, and shimmers various shades of brown, from the waters of many bogs in the south and central parts of the country. The waterfall resembles an overflowing pint of dark beer.
Estonians wait all year for sights like this. Spring arrives suddenly here. The frozen waters are liberated in dramatic fashion, and spectators who gather at the bottom of the cliff can admire the ice floe as it falls, releasing the water accumulated through the winter. It flows out west to the Baltic Sea. From then on, the bogs become more accessible, green, and tempting with each passing day. Experienced amateurs walk in regular shoes; those who are more careful use special attachments, like snowshoes. A warm season of long days and short nights begins, bringing close encounters with bears, and starry skies perfectly reflected in the bog lakes.
Meanwhile, in Tallinn, the trees in Kadriorg Park on the seafront bloom, and the overworked locals line the beaches stretching to the east of the port. The restaurant on the roof of Fotografiska fills with customers eager for views of the Baltic, and the stalls of Balti Jaam market are piled high with fruit and vegetables. Only smart devices, screens, and apps remain indifferent to the seasonal changes. And those little self-driving delivery robots that pass me every day on the sidewalk. Those meals get delivered, come rain, shine, or snow. The robots zoom by, flashing their cautionary orange lights, and I keep my fingers crossed for their journeys. Then I frown like Siim and think about the battery usage of each of those nimble vehicles. Walking to get lunch saves energy and aids the digestion. That which is new can be smart. But only the bogs steam with a thousand years of wisdom.
Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster
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