Estonia: Happy by Nature

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By Carrie Weager, John Muir Trust

In the first week of August 2019 I joined a varied group of people from Scotland’s natural and cultural heritage sectors on a visit to Estonia. The course was funded through the Erasmus+ programme, and developed by ARCH network. Our host for the week was the wonderfully passionate Maarika Naagel of Vitong Heritage Tours.


In my position as conservation ranger with the John Muir Trust, I was especially interested to learn about Estonia’s natural environment and how it is managed, and was keen to see how nature and conservation are perceived by Estonians. I was also interested to see to what extent low-impact land management techniques and traditional crafts are used in a country with a reputation for closeness to nature, and whether any lessons can be learned for the incorporation of these techniques to help minimise our own environmental impact. More personally I wanted to experience how Estonians embrace their cultural and natural heritage, as I feel that in Scotland we have to some extent lost our connection to both.

Throughout the trip we learned about the country’s turbulent history, from the Soviet and German occupations of the previous century, back through the era of serfdom from the mid-17th to early 19th centuries (during which time Estonian people were viewed as a peasant class by an elite Baltic-German aristocracy), and back through the numerous invasions and occupations endured through preceding centuries. The hardships and challenges faced by Estonians during these times was illustrated through visits to places such as Tallinn’s old town and its Museum of Occupations, the former Soviet nuclear base at Paldiski, the various museum collections held in Kuressaare Episcopal castle, and a volunteer-run military museum on Saaremaa’s Sõrve peninsula.

Estonia underwent its first ‘national awakening’ in the mid-19th century, when the people began to fight to establish equal rights, leading ultimately to the declaration of an independent Estonian Republic in 1918. The first Estonian Song Festival was held in 1896, and this celebration of Estonian language and culture was central in re-asserting the people’s sense of identity.

The freedom gained during this period was not to last long however, and as the country came under occupation during the Second World War, song and dance again became covert activities. A second ‘time of awakening’ came in the late 1980s, and the Singing Revolution saw thousands of people singing for their freedom. The biggest protest came with the ‘Baltic Way’ in 1989: an incredible act of unity and friendship across the Baltic States, when approximately 2 million people held hands over 675 kilometres across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, in peaceful protest and to raise international awareness of their plight.

Baltic Way

The Baltic Way

The Baltic Way continues to be celebrated

As a result of these struggles the Estonian people have a deep appreciation of their culture and heritage. At the forefront of the effort to restore and revive the traditional way of life on Saaremaa’s Sõrve peninsula is Mari Lepik, who spoke to us of the old way of life in Saare County, and the lives and role of women in particular. Mari’s achievements – her passion and enthusiasm to almost single-handedly preserve and revive the area’s traditional skills and values, while raising five children and gaining a PhD in biology – are incredible. She and her children demonstrated runic singing, a form of rhythmic singing that was common across Estonia until the mid-18th century. Runic songs often tell long stories, and their rhythmic nature gives them a meditative quality. Their subjects encompassed everything from everyday farming activities to holidays and family life, and were often closely related to nature.

Estonian runic singing began to decline as European influences took prevalence. When I heard this I was reminded of a passage in a book called ‘Soil and Soul’ by Alastair McIntosh, when he described a ‘loss of cultural self-confidence’ that occurred in Gaelic culture with the advent of television and radio. The singing that used to accompany activities such as weaving, rowing and ploughing gradually fell silent.

Mari described a feeling of responsibility to nurture and revive the traditions, skills and local language that were in danger of being lost. She and a group of volunteers sought out people in the older generation who remembered techniques such as shoe making, and the correct way to hold needles and knit heels, before they were lost. Using this knowledge a book – Sörulase Aabits – was produced, using the once-oppressed local dialect, recording and preserving these traditions for future generations.

Mari Lepik at Anseküla community house, Saare County

We also visited the information centre of Saaremaa traditional costume, where Mareu Rannup spoke to us of the country’s rich custom of regional dress, and showed us a collection of clothing dating from approximately the mid-19th century.

The use of traditional Estonian dress is not confined to museums and history books however. Our guide Maarika described the steps she is taking to make her own costume, and meeting a group of traditionally-dressed women on Muhu island showed us that this is a part of Estonian heritage that is still very much alive.

Wild flowers in the grounds of Kihelkonna school

We also visited a small school in the town of Kihelkonna, which is facing the challenge of having only 20 pupils starting this term due to rural depopulation. This school was an inspiration, particularly due to the dedication of head teacher Aivar Kallas to the inclusion of food production using organic methods as a central part of the school’s curriculum and ethos. Such gardens used to be common in every school, but are now disappearing due to concerns such as lack of space, increased teacher workload, and health and safety considerations. Aivar owns and runs a small eco-farm, and explained how the merits of teaching gardening go beyond learning about food production, sustainability and soil health – the children also learn about maths, economics and history, as well as learning social skills from all age groups working together. We heard from parent Katrin Heinam that the value of this form of education is becoming more recognised, particularly by people moving away from the city in search of a better quality of life. Sadly however rural life in Estonia has similar problems to those seen in the Highlands, such as lack of employment, a shortage of doctors, high fuel costs and a lack of affordable public transport. I came away feeling encouraged by the school, but was reminded that success of such schemes is too often dependent on the enthusiastic leadership of a single person.

During this visit we learned more about the direction of agriculture in Estonia towards a more industrialised system, something that saddened me very much. As soon as we left Tallinn on the second day I was immediately struck by the abundance of wild flowers – in hay meadows, on road verges, and on almost every piece of unused land. Even in the city we saw no obvious signs of herbicide use on verges, no rings of dead grass around trees or lamp posts. On exploring the area around Paldiski, our first destination after leaving Tallinn, the background hum of grasshoppers brought the landscape to life: a sound that stayed with us throughout the trip.

I wish I could convey how precious this is, and how easily lost.

In the UK, due to the intensification of agriculture following the Second World War, we have lost 97% of our once-common unimproved flower-rich grassland. Where I work in north-west Sutherland, places like the machair are rare and precious (but isolated) refuges for insects, and wildlife such as corncrakes, that were once much more widespread.

20190804_155551.jpg Tallin’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Trees are undoubtedly an important part of Estonian culture, and as a group we were immediately struck by the wealth of mature trees in Tallinn. In places it had the feel of a city in the forest, rather than simply being a city with a lot of trees. Estonia is 50% wooded (the European average is 37%), compared with Scotland’s 18% (only 4% of which is native woodland). We were told that in the city people were not concerned about wind-blown trees damaging property. Our host Maarika explained the way Estonians view their place among the trees when she said:

‘We are a forest people. We don’t even think about it: we have always lived in the forest and we are used to it’.

I was keen to hear more about how Estonians feel about nature conservation. On a visit to the former sea plane and ship building harbour at Papissaare, we learned about the Vaika Bird Sanctuary, one of Estonia’s oldest nature protection sites, and the first in Tsarist Russia. The area was first protected when in 1909 ornithologist Artur Toom procured a private lease of the Vaika islands off the western coast of Saaremaa in order to protect nesting birds from egg collectors. The reserve now forms part of the Vilsandi National Park, which hosts upwards of 247 breeding bird species. We heard again how people are generally accepting of nature protection measures simply because they are used to it.

Sea plane harbour, Estonia
Papissaare harbour (photo by Maarika Nagel)

I found the desire of the Estonian people to reconnect with and nurture their cultural heritage very encouraging, as that culture was shown again and again to be closely associated with nature, as is often the case. I believe the separation of a people from its culture goes hand in hand with a disconnection from nature and place, and to lose a culture, or a language, is to lose valuable knowledge and a unique perspective of the world.

Throughout the trip I found the positive, forgiving and forward-thinking attitude of the Estonian people we met very refreshing, considering how recently the country gained independence. The enthusiasm and expertise of many of our guides showed the important role high-quality, personal communication has in visitor engagement, which I found far more effective than the written or recorded information we encountered. This is something that I have taken on board when thinking about visitor engagement, which forms a central part of my job. I already try to include elements of local culture, Gaelic language and traditional land and plant uses in the guided walks that I lead, however this trip has inspired me to finally bite the bullet and sign up to Gaelic classes (a part of my own heritage that was not passed down by my great-grandparents). On the Sandwood estate where I work we are also developing a plan to gather unrecorded Gaelic place names from older members of the community, to see what more they can tell us about the area’s people, history and ecology before they are lost forever. This trip has inspired me to believe this is a project well worth undertaking.

A final lesson I have taken from visiting Estonia is that nature conservation and a productive, peopled landscape need not be incompatible. When people view nature as part of their identity, the will to conserve it comes naturally.

A field by the village of Kaali, Saaremaa

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