Inspiring the next generation of stewards

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Inspiring the next generation of stewards to manage natural and cultural heritage in Estonia

by Coralie Hopwood

My recent participation on a NET4 structured training course took me to Estonia, the land of forests, and on an incredible, jam-packed tour of natural and cultural heritage. I shared this journey with seven brilliant professionals from across Scottish heritage, teaching and nature conservation organisations, and though we experienced a myriad of places, projects and landscapes, it was clear that we barely scratched the surface of the treasures to be found there. I’ve picked out three highlights here, focusing ways in which natural and cultural heritage were being protected and made available and inclusive to young people.

After arriving in Tallin to be met by our indomitable guide Maarika Naagel, of Heritage Tours, we got cracking straight away, setting off for the ferry that would take us from mainland Estonia to our island home of the next four days, of Saaremaa. An otherwise hot and uneventful journey was broken by the appearance of a pair of nesting storks next to the highway and once on the island the magical view of 3 common cranes flying above the trees as we drove by below. We arrived at our camping barns that evening and got settled in.

Our days on Saaremaa were chock full of examples of ways in which natural and cultural kinds of heritage overlap, and also how much more sustainable the protection of both can be when they are looked at together. This idea resonates strongly with me. Something that I often come across when supporting Providers of the John Muir Award is a somewhat blinkered view held by organisations and individuals about what ‘conservation’ means, both from a place of confidence and from a place where people feel intimidated by the term. I often talk with people about how they can either: broaden their definition sufficiently that they will meet the needs of the people they work with and the culture within which they are operating to provide meaningful, personal and therefore impactful experiences or; how they can overcome their fear of the outdoor environment being the domain of ‘experts’ and use their own insights, skills, cultural and social knowledge sets to undertake a journey of getting to know wild places and therefore establish their own strong, long lasting and genuine connections to nature.

There has been a historical view both within and outside of the UK environmental arena that nature conservation is the sole concern of environmentalists and nature enthusiasts, and this does us much harm. By othering the whole field we remove a) a sense of ownership and belonging and b) a sense of responsibility to care for it from the vast majority of people. Fortunately, there is plenty of work going on to increase meaningful connection to and engagement with wild places, not least by the John Muir Trust, but we can do better and must keep trying. Almost everybody we met in Estonia self-identified as ‘forest people’, regardless of their profession, education or age, and wore their relationship to their natural surroundings both lightly and profoundly as part of their identity.

Vilsandi Young Rangers

One place which stands out in my memory was the Vilsandi National Park. This park encompasses the Vaika Island Bird Sanctuary, which was created in 1910, the oldest bird sanctuary in the Baltic States. The mere fact of this sanctuary existing and of the National Park it sits within is important given the political history of the region and ongoing upheaval it saw for close to 100 years. Saaremaa Island was considered a ‘restricted zone’ due to its importance as a border region, during the various Soviet and German occupations of the 20th Century. Many ethnic Estonians were forcibly removed from their homes and livelihoods either due to the strategic importance of their land, or that fact that they were educated and therefore a potential threat, and sent to Eastern Russia and Siberia.

The founder of the bird sanctuary, Artur Toom, was employed as the lighthouse keeper on Vaika Island in 1907. Three years later, having shared his daily life and workspace with the hundreds of species of migrating and nesting birds which visited throughout the seasons, his passion for them and this unique landscape, and his lobbying for its protection, led to the establishment of the bird sanctuary, predecessor to the National Park of today. Tragically Toom was arrested by the Soviet occupying forces in the 1940s for ‘counter revolutionary’ activities and sent to a Stalinist work camp, where he perished soon after. I was taken by his simply worded and brisk reflection on how exposure to nature can change our very outlook on life.

He, who has heard bird song and seen bird shit, starts to contemplate what nature is…” Artur Toom

We were hosted during our visit to the Vilsandi National Park visitor centre by two of the participants in their Young Rangers scheme, Martin and Harrold, and Mari, the scheme co-ordinator. The two incredibly eloquent young men talked to us about their involvement in the National Park, the Young Rangers summer camps and their personal motivation for getting involved. Harrold was very driven to pursue a career in wildlife protection and research, having already won a national science prize for a project looking at maternal bat colonies on the island and their landscape requirements. Martin however was more nuanced in his attraction to the Young Rangers activities, identifying other interests of his, including sport, playing the drums and travel. The Young Rangers project he said, gave him and others opportunities to make friends, visit new places and develop confidence which they would use in many others areas of life. “I think this camp has made many young people have a chance to see that nature has something for them. Maybe before they didn’t see this.” Martin-Young Ranger, Vilsandi National Park.
Martin’s view that the conservation of wildlife was not necessarily the primary motivating factor for many of the young people who got involved, rather a vehicle for a wealth of other experiences and development opportunities, echoes closely findings we have made when exploring the relationship between young people and nature as part of our work in the John Muir Award team. Subsequent discussions with a colleague from the Cairngorm’s National Park confirmed that this sentiment is mirrored in young participants of partner organisations across their European network. We need to be mindful of the motivations of young people if we wish to increase opportunities for their engagement in nature conservation and acknowledge that there is a place for a whole spectrum of routes to connection to natural landscapes. By offering experiences which resonate with individuals on a personal level we may open doors to future behavioural change, which is vital in our efforts to protect and conserve natural landscapes and wildlife.

The Young Rangers programmes are advertised in many ways across the island to recruit participants, with social media a major method of communication. Mari asks potential applicants to write a letter of motivation, explaining why they want to join the programme and says this helps the young people to see the value in it, even before they start on the activities. They have very good gender balance on the programmes with equal numbers of girls and boys applying on average and this year, slightly higher numbers of girls than boys. I was very impressed by this and wonder if it has to do with a general approach to education wherein outdoor learning seems to be a standard part of the school day and gender stereotypes don’t seem to lead girls to opt out of hands on, practical outdoor activity as they are reported to do in the UK.
Throughout our visits we came across many strong female community leaders, innovators, teachers, researchers, guides and active, curious learners, leaving me with the impression that there must be a healthy number of role models there for other girls and women to learn from. This may of course have been a skewed impression based on those people we met and unaware as we were of others. Nevertheless, I found it inspiring and with others in the group reflected on the fact that this had drawn our attention.
Sörulase AABITS, The ABC of Culture
One of the inspiring women we were privileged to spend time with was Mari Lepik. We spent an afternoon with Mari discussing the ways in which she had worked with others in the community to rescue cultural heritage from being forgotten and also developed groups and activities for children to become part of this rescue effort and therefore bring it to life once more.
Mari described to us the process of researching, compiling and publishing a book about the culture, language and traditions of the Sörulane region of Saaremaa. During the Soviet occupation and more recently, cultural heritage across Estonia had been redefined as singular, instead of diverse. Books, teaching in schools and public ceremonies had begun to forget and lose connections to the vast array of different cultural influences across the country, choosing instead to identify one language, one costume, one tradition with which to identify national culture. This was intended as a way of rooting out local individuality and identity to further weaken a sense of a national ‘self’, which would be a threat to an occupying force. This, Mari found out through her research, had almost meant the elimination from both history and current customs of many regional variations and traditions of song, food, costume and language. So the idea of creating an ABC or an AABITS for the region came about. Over the many years spent researching it Mari was often met by the resigned view of older members of the community whom she interviewed with “Oh, you’re 50 years too late.” Mari wryly commented, “Well I wasn’t born 50 years ago, what were they doing all that time?!” However, she also received lots of enthusiastic support and together with a dose of tenacity and a couple of creative and determined colleagues, they put together a beautiful guide to the culture of their region, which has since received positive reviews from across Estonia.

We spent time with Mari, learning about the traditional fabrics and pockets she researched and now makes, the old songs and games which she teaches to local children and even experimenting with recipes using what grows in her mother’s garden and how the traditional foods mapped the seasons of the place. Nowadays in Mari’s community the children get involved with the old traditions by joining events, going along to youth groups, children’s play activities and even ‘instagramming’ their own fashion creations following the old patterns of costume and work dress.
As Mari said, “Folk Culture has four legs to hold it up, and each of those legs should be cared for. Do it, Live it, Know it and (vitally important), Share it.”

World Clean Up Day

Throughout our own visit we had the joy of exploring a new place together and connecting with exciting and novel elements of our surroundings, which appealed to all of us in different ways. Some people were stuck to their binoculars, spotting eider ducks, greater crested grebes, herons and a sea eagle wheeling high above us as we travelled in a replica Uisk boat. Others were looking down, identifying rare coastal plants, wildflowers, butterflies, moths, crickets and grasshoppers. Some people took delight in the buildings, the shapes, the shadows and the colours around us. Others took every available opportunity to swim and commune with the natural places directly, through contact and moving through the water around us. All of these experiences were personal, but being in the group allowed us to share them on our own terms as well. We also shared collective shame at seeing the marks and scars left on the landscape by humans, always leaving traces of our activities in the most bizarre places. A fridge washed up on a beach halfway around a coastal walk through the national park. A soviet era patrol boat, now embedded in the landscape as the coastline changes and military detritus is left to rust. Even the rib like remains of a Viking era vessel, slowly unearthed by shifting sands.

In 2008, a group of young Estonians decided they would take action and clean up the litter clogging up the natural environment around their forest nation. They rallied over 5000 volunteers to their cause and spent the day cleaning the country of illegally dumped waste, and so World Clean Up Day was born. What began as a national initiative captured the imagination of people in other countries and over the years more and more groups joined to the cause following an ambitious ‘one country, one day’ formula. Estonia suffered the loss and degradation of vast areas of land during the Soviet occupation as it was repurposed for agriculture to produce food, as in many parts of the world following the Second World War. Nature was viewed as the enemy, wild and unpredictable and propaganda posters of the time show that ‘wresting’ land from nature was considered by the rulers as a righteous pursuit, incredibly at odds with the respect and honour that nature was held in by traditional Estonian practises. Decades later, ‘World Clean Up Day’ is a wonderful flavour of the passion many Estonians feel for their natural environment and a great lesson in how a local but determined group of people can create worldwide change inspiring others across continents. World Clean Up Day as part of the ‘Let’s Do It campaign, is on 14th September and it is anticipated that people from over 150 nations will take part, raising awareness of the issue of waste production and disposal and also going some way to clean up their homes and environments. As their website states: “As Estonia celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, World Cleanup Day 2018 is the country’s gift to the world.”

The NET programmes are promoted in Scotland through ARCH and funded by Erasmus+, a European Union programme dedicated to building vocational and experiential learning in professionals in the fields of conservation, land management, heritage, interpretation and nature protection. We are lucky to have such projects available to us. My week in Estonia, including two ‘wild days’ for the John Muir Trust, was a wonderful experience which has left me with plenty of ideas about the promotion of nature conservation and it’s intersect with cultural and natural heritage through my work with the John Muir Award.

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