In a country as sparsely populated as Estonia - less than 30 inhabitants per square kilometre - you are bound to find a lot of open space. Nature, all there for exploring! Today, I am joining a group of Estonians on their trip through Soomaa National Park. First of all for fun, secondly to find out how much Estonians are atteched to nature.
Outdoor activities are popular in Estonia. Hiking in summer, cross country skiing in winter. At this time of year, many people pick berries and mushrooms for cooking - young and old alike. Late summer seems to be the best season: with good weather and lots of colours. There is plenty of territory to explore. The all man`s right allows people to walk on everything that is not private property. No messing around with signs here, or guided tours and or barbed wire fence. Go wherever you want, but all of it us on your own risk. You may have to share your recreational area with wolves, bears, wild pigs and snakes.
`People used to grow their own vegetables to sell them on the market. The few people who maintained the practise now use the harvest for their own consumption`
Helen (27, photo) tells me that many people in Estonia grow food in their gardens. They used to do that to sell vegetables at open air markets, but since these are no longer held in many places, the home-grown products are now used for people`s own consumption, or to share with family members. Supermarkets have taken over the role of the open air markets, and only bio-shops now sell biological products. At multiples of the original prices. People`s dinners tend to vary slightly with the seasons, with more fresh vegetables in summer. This said, many vegetables are now imported and thus available year-round.
Kadri (22) says that many Estonian people know a great lot about nature. They are very much aware of environmental issues like holes in ozon layers, acid rains and climate changes. Estonians do tend to pay attention to that when out in the wilderness, but a lot less when they are at home. Multi Purpose Vehicles are very popular and they produce a lot of pollution. That seems to contradict the environmental friendliness of the Estonians, but it seems like they see it as two separate things.
Estonians, unlike for example the French, are not very big fans of taking medicine. People are very much aware of the danger of immunity of diseases against medicine. People use it as a last resort rather than taking it to prevent diseases. For insignificant illnesses - cold and gentle flues - people will be more likely to take herbal tea or natural `grandmother` solutions.
Nature and society
The Soomaa National Park consists of large areas of bog land, muddy moss fields with small trees. Rait (27) knows the park and the surrounding area vary well. He shows us where people used to live one day, but many left for the city. Their wooden houses collapsed and rotted away. `That only takes about 10 years after the roof comes down`, says Rait. He also describes us how the place looks different in winter. The bogs are then oftentimes flooded and after the water freezes, big plains of ice are left, with all sort of vegetation randomly sticking out. When the water retracts again, the ice collapses locally causing black lines running from one side of the plain to the other.
Throughout all times, nature has served as a source of inspiration for many traditional folk songs. Rait further explains that nature played an important role in education under Soviet rule. However, during the first 20 years of independence, kids in school spent less time outside because the funding to support such activities was not at hand. In recent times, nature lessons are becoming more common again. To my surprise, scouting is not really popular in Estonia. It reminds people of Soviet times, because at that time, it used to be an important part of youth life. Children now learn their share of nature skills and knowledge when they spent time at their families` summer houses in the country side.
The social part
Today`s walk shows that nature helps the Estonians feel at ease. Hiking is as much of a social event as it serves to discover nature. Food is shared during recent breaks and the walking group feels as a comfortable protection against any possible danger. I suspect that beside singing and Soviet rule, nature is one of the few things that unites Estonians. Not as a common enemy, but more so as an opportunity to bond without having to talk too much.
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