On Estonian nature writing

by Kadri Tüür

On Estonian nature writing

Timo Maran, Kadri Tüür1
                                You look at the lake,
                         and the lake looks at you through
                                the eyes of your own.
                                    Jaan Kaplinski


The present article is one of the first attempts to sketch the story of Estonian nature writing. The significance of nature writing on Estonian culture is by no means smaller than in the internationally renowned traditions of nature writing in the United States, Canada, Norway and Finland. One reason for the shortage of earlier overviews could be the tepid academic interest in the field shown by the representatives of both literary history and the natural sciences. On the other hand, writing about nature is often regarded as something that goes without saying.
In modern humanities, two main attitudes towards the natural environment and its description are currently widespread. The followers of the structuralist tradition, who rely on the theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss, regard the opposition between culture and nature as the basis of culture’s self-consciousness. From this viewpoint, nature descriptions are written in order to designate the boundaries of culture, and they express culture’s superiority in relation to nature. In addition, post-structuralism introduces the perception of the constructed and arbitrary essence of any description of nature, providing the researcher with a (dangerously) great freedom to deconstruct and revalue these descriptions. Although such approaches have, to a certain extent and in certain cultural contexts, borne fruit, neither offers a clue to the understanding of the identity-creating role of nature writing in Estonian culture that this article sets out to explore.
In nature descriptions that constitute a point of contact between culture and nature that represent culture’s attempt to understand what lies at its border or outside, the typical features of both culture and the natural environment blend into one elaborate whole. Sometimes they are quite indistinguishable, for example the description of the chaffinch’s (Fringilla coelebs) song in Estonian folk tradition: Siit, siit metsast ei saa mitte üks pirrutikk (You shall not get a twig from this forest), which sounds very onomatopoetic in Estonian. This sentence expresses two things at the same time: a sonant description of a bird’s call, and an ancient observation that the chaffinch is one of the most frequent birds to issue a warning call in old, mature forests.
And although the times when a timber-stealing peasant in a forest could find himself in deep trouble because of the chaffinch’s vigilance have irretrievably vanished into the depths of centuries, the children of today’s Estonia still learn the chaffinch song using the same formula.

How Estonians came to be seen as people of nature  

It may well seem unexpected, but in discussing with nature writing it is most important to keep in mind the historical perspective. On the one hand, Estonian nature writing exhibits hidden traces of animism, of a mythological perception of the world, but also of the pragmatic attitude towards nature of the peasants – phenomena that have largely disappeared from the present-day Estonian mainstream culture. On the other hand, the historical perspective enables one to understand the cultural reasons why the tradition of nature writing has developed into a more clearly distinguishable part of literature here than in other European cultures (the only comparable tradition being perhaps that of Norwegian nature essays).
The recognition of Estonians as a people of culture can be related to the European philosophy of the Enlightenment that gave rise to an interest in the local people on the part of the educated Baltic German nobility. The German author and philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) who worked as a pastor in Riga, the capital of Livonia, in the 1760s, was among the first people to study Latvian and Estonian folk culture. The Estophile activities of the educated nobility were often not appreciated, neither by Estonians nor by the Baltic Germans. For instance, the Baltic German nobleman Peter August von Mannteufel (1768-1842) who was among the first to write short stories in the Estonian language, was called ‘the mad count’. Relations between Estonians and their natural environment were touched upon in the texts by the late 18th-early 19th century writers Otto Reinhold von Holtz (1757-1828) and Otto Wilhelm Masing (1763-1832), among others. An effort to convey a peculiarly Estonian perception of nature can be detected in the pastoral poetry of Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-1822). The first period of national awakening in the late 19th century was characterised by the search for identity of the educated Estonians who were simultaneously drawing on the Baltic German high culture, and opposing themselves to it. In a situation where the peasants mainly identified themselves with the land, calling themselves ‘the people of the land’ and their language ‘the language of the land’, it was only natural that the basis of the identity of the emerging national intellectuals should be the village culture.
The interest in the worldview and life of the peasantry resulted in various campaigns and projects that were to provide ample material for the subsequent tradition of nature writing. During the large-scale folklore collecting initiated by Jakob Hurt (1839-1907) in 1888, a considerable amount of nature-related oral lore was recorded: observations about the relations between the signs of nature and changes of weather; numerous instructions about the usage of various herbs; and also beliefs connected with animals and birds, as well as place-related legends. This wealth of material was generalised and interpreted by several intellectuals with a European educational background, such as Johann Matthias Eisen (1857-1934) and Oskar Loorits (1900-1961) who were eager to present Estonians as a people of nature. As a result of their work, a number of pseudo-mythological essays and books were published. Thus, in printed word, the Estonians became even more of a people of nature than they could ever have imagined themselves. 
Nature descriptions in the vein of national romanticism and myths dating from the early 20th century should still not be regarded as pure fabrication. The tendency to present Estonians as ‘noble savages’, as people who have achieved a deeper understanding of their natural environment and are thus purer than the over-civilised Europe and the rather barbaric East, was easily derived from the existing heritage material.
The activities of later nature writers and philosophers seem more an interpretation of the old folklore-based sense of nature, rather than the construction of a new myth. Following the spirit of the times, more attention was paid to either the aspects of nature education (Johannes Piiper (1882-1973), Kustas Põldmaa (1897-1977), Edgar Kant (1902-1978)) and nature protection (Osvald Tooming (1914-1992), Juhan Lepasaar (1921)), or to a spiritual perception of nature (Uku Masing (1909-1958), Tiit Leito (1949), Jaan Kaplinski (1941), Fred Jüssi (1935)). However, the core of the tradition itself – perceiving the wonder of the natural environment – has persisted, unquestioned.
Strange as it may seem, the impact of the Soviet regime on nature writing in Estonia was surprisingly positive. The protest discourse certainly developed thanks to the role of the forest brothers, as they were known, still strong in people’s consciousness. These men who had, either on their own or in groups, waged guerrilla war against Soviet invaders in forests and swamps, were highly respected. Because of their activity, fighting for freedom was equated with knowledge of nature and the skills necessary to survive there.
Later, writing about nature became another concealed possibility to express one’s quest for freedom in the framework of the official culture and literature. At a time when censorship made the direct use of any kind of symbols related to the Estonian national identity impossible, a number of authors found their means of expression in writing about nature and the perception of nature – topics that were permitted by the ruling regime. In such writings, nature was carefully and skilfully associated with the sense of home and the ancestral heritage, as well as with nature protection (Fred Jüssi, Osvald Tooming). In a situation where the danger threatening the local natural environment and Estonian national identity was the same, i.e. large-scale Soviet industry and the related immigration of a foreign labour force, ideas concerning nature protection and the protection of Estonian nation blended. As a legacy of the protest discourse from the Soviet period, Estonians associate their outstanding natural objects with national identity more than most European nations do.2 
In today’s open world, some Estonian intellectuals also seem to have found a way to associate national identity with nature, as a means of protection from the reductive influence of globalisation. They talk about the associations between biological and cultural diversity, the roles of the typically Estonian dispersed settlement and the wooded meadows as prerequisites for the emergence of both biological diversity and a way of thinking that is in harmony with nature. There is still enough reason to write about nature.

The printed word as a signpost to nature

The tradition of Estonian nature writing can be traced back to Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803-1883), Johann Voldemar Jannsen (1819-1890) and Carl Robert Jakobson (1841-1882). The first two tried to broaden rural people’s horizons by translating stories about foreign countries and exotic animals into Estonian. Jakobson, however, paid more attention to the descriptions of Estonia, its land and nature. The stories in his school textbooks about Estonian fauna, flora, rocks and minerals, merge scientific facts with folklore in a didactic presentation.3
Most nature writers gained prominence as the Estonian-language natural science developed in the first decades of the 20th century. Having acquired their education abroad (mostly in Russia or Germany), they undertook the task of describing the nature of their homeland more thoroughly than it had ever been done before. They were first-generation intellectuals and stood sufficiently close to country people to be able to popularise natural science in a way easily understandable to people. They were also able to complement scientific facts with relevant observations about nature stemming from the farming peasants’ knowledge.
The popularisation activity of the geographers Johannes Gabriel Granö (1882-1956) and Edgar Kant laid the foundation for the tradition of large-scale local history research. Edgar Kant’s Travels and Wanderings4 encouraged people to walk around in the countryside with open eyes, that in a way resembles H.D. Thoreau’s essay Walking. For Kant who represented the phenomenological approach, the vivid description of nature was a landscape-scholarly method and also offered enjoyable reading.
The aesthetic aspect of nature is emphasised in the writings of Johannes Piiper, Professor of Zoology at Tartu University. He describes his travels to various places in Estonia that are famous for their natural and cultural history. His main work, Pictures and Sounds of Estonian Nature, has been re-issued three times during different regimes.5 In his speech given in the early 1930s, Songbirds and the Sense of Beauty, he suggests that listening to and learning various birds’ song should be included in the official study programmes at schools.
Kustas Põldmaa, a long-time teacher and naturalist, introduced Estonian nature to younger readers using a manner of expression that resembles that of Piiper, but content-wise his works are richer in factual information. The majority of nature writing by Kant and Piiper consists of travelogues, whereas Põldmaa found material and examples mainly in the familiar places in his native Western Estonia. His texts are made vivid by nature-related recollections from his childhood; they are observations and thoughts of both a local inhabitant and a serious scholar. A splendid example of his intense experience of nature is his essay Remembering the lake at home and other fishing-sites in which the author sketches the course of his life as related to the bodies of water where his most memorable fishing trips have taken place.6

Nature protection in nature writing

The years after WW II brought along remarkable changes in the way of life of Estonians, as well as their relationship with nature. Under the pressure of the ruling regime, an extremely utilitarian attitude towards nature prevailed. In Estonian nature writing, an approach focusing on nature protection emerged in the 1960s, more or less at the same time as ecological topics gained importance in the West. A highly significant event in this respect was the translation of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring into Estonian by Ain Raitviir that appeared in 1968. A story significantly bearing the same title appeared in the collection of short essays by Fred Jüssi, one of our most prominent nature writers.7
Carson’s work seems to have made a strong impact on the writings of Osvald Tooming. In his book There Is a Forest Behind the Trees, short stories about foresters and wild animals alternate with reflections about the relations between man and nature.8 The author asks to what extent man is entitled to alter nature, what becomes of nature when the development of some animal species is constantly favoured at the cost of others, and presents a whole set of dangers threatening the biosphere. At the same time he believes in the common sense and ethics of mankind that can oppose these dangers.
Despite being focused on particular cases, Tooming’s reflections give an excellent idea of the intellectual climate and prevailing attitudes towards nature in the socialist Estonia in the early 1970s.
The writings of Juhan Lepasaar, who comes from eastern Estonia’s largest forest and marsh area, are more straightforward. He believes in old-fashioned village life and an experience of nature that is passed from one generation to the next, rather than in the solutions offered by modern science. Lepasaar’s books depict situations such as the peaceful co-existence of the brown bear and herds of elk with the inhabitants of solitary farms. He often presents those people’s particularly shrewd observations about the relationship between nature and man.9

To understand or to perceive

In the second half of the 20th century, Estonian nature writing was dominated by a personal-intuitive presentation of nature. Aesthetic values were not primary as regarded approaching nature, nor was its social-economic value stressed – it was presented as a philosophical question instead.
An approach rather different from those of the authors discussed above is offered in Uku Masing’s autobiographical work Recollections of Plants. Masing describes nature from the vantage point of his own personal feelings and experience, delegating all scientific explanations and information to the background. It is remarkable that Masing is mostly fascinated by plants, the observation of which requires a lot of time, determination and absorption. One of the most significant images in Masing’s poetry is that of a tree. One of the most intensive nature recollections from his younger days is the feeling of communion with trees growing in his home garden. He did not esteem people for whom “meaning was more important than the tree itself”.10
Masing’s approach that finds poetry in the immediate nature experiences of ancient peoples lives on in Jaan Kaplinski’s short stories Ice and Heather and Through the Forest.11 Kaplinski, however, has also written essays in a very rational vein in which he observes nature as an object of science or culture, and not as something that needs to be perceived.
The journalist and nature photographer Tiit Leito has written miniatures about the islands of Western Estonia. They often end with intuitive generalisations or recognitions that seem as spontaneous as a haiku. His attempt to convey the expanse of the sea and the islets, and the peace that can be found in solitude, is expressed in the title of his most important collection of essays, Colours of Silence.12 Leito’s latest photo album At the Blue Edge of Water contains free verse and nature descriptions by Tõnu Õnnepalu, one of the most well-known writers in contemporary Estonia.
Probably the most influential person engaged in writing, talking and popularising nature in contemporary Estonia is Fred Jüssi. His nature essays are usually based on a particular place, plant, bird or animal; through personal recollection the author conveys vivid pictures with both emotional and scholarly precision. Jüssi’s descriptions of nature are openly personal, and perhaps for that reason they are all the more impressive. In his nature writings, sounds, smells, dampness, wind, temperature – all that can be perceived with the senses, is included in the descriptive text. His nature depictions must be felt, just as the author himself did before writing them down.
The primary aim of nature writing, after all, is to share one’s experience of nature with the reader and encourage him or her to find their own immediate connection with nature. Personal relationships with nature can only emerge when we perceive its significance.


Cow Parsley
(Anthriscus sylvestris)


A sudden gust of wind made the cow parsley move.
There are winds that cause the calm sea to flinch. They are followed by other winds that first ruffle the expanse of water, and then whip up the foam. These, however, are not the same winds that whirl clouds of dust in city streets and spin, bored, ice cream wrappers and all sort of rubbish in front of them. The touch of wind is by no means always similar. It must have been a peculiar kind of wind as well, the one that made the field of cow parsley gently swing in the abandoned garden.
At first sight, cow parsley seems to be a rather coarse flower. This is at least how I remember it from my childhood when I used to make blowpipes from its stalk: when the blade cut through the hollow stalk, a weird croaking sound emerged and the air was filled with a peculiar pungent smell. In its own fashion, it is quite a sun-loving plant. Thriving wildly in the gardens, it also seems a bit inexperienced, unreal, but not sad. A patch of land filled with cow parsley is truly abandoned, but it becomes sad only if you take a scythe and cut it down. Put your garden ‘in order’. The paths that wind their way through chest-high cow parsley are delightful, especially on days when butterflies are fluttering around. Going to a forest on a quiet day I always make a little detour in order to wade through a garden thick with cow parsley. Sometimes I halt and wait for a gust of wind to make the cow parsley swing in that special way. On windy days, however, I take the direct route.

Fred Jüssi