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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

The Rural is Real: Report from Estonia

I’ve lived many places, from city to country, but I don't think I ever really understood what rural life was about before I started spending time with my wife's family in Estonia.

This is a country on the shores of the Baltic with a population just under one and a half million, a tiny spot on the world map but still bigger in size than Denmark or Switzerland. If it's known at all it's for the speed at which it has bolted forth from fifty years of Soviet occupation to become a futuristic, fast moving place with free internet access for all who can afford a computer and uncertain growth that rises with angular Scandinavian lines from the rusting gray ruins of collective farms and empty, unfinished factories. People are reticent yet hopeful, looking forward to some global future but desparate to preserve their cultural identity as the population slowly dwindles and the image of a place in the European Union seems to offer a place in a different kind of vast, cooperative dream.

That's the official picture. What you see if you spend time there is instead a paradox: just minutes from the bustling ancient and modern capital, a beautiful countryside, somehow empty of people. Where have they all gone? A pristine coastline, but few houses on the shore? Why not? The Russians would not allow it. All along the beaches and marshes are rusting guard towers, where the border-watchers would shoot to kill. This was, after all, the most sensitive of the Empire's many borders: along a shallow, placid sea, the democracies of Finland and Sweden are not so far away. Yet hardly a boat got through, so diligent were the watchers of this edge between reason and misery.

But I don't want to talk about politics, nationalism, or fear of outsiders or fear of not being able to fit in to the wiles of the world. My experience spending summers in Estonia has primarily been a rural one, living among cousins and in-laws close to the land in a way different than all those American and Scandinavian farms I have previously spent time on.

Estonia is a genuinely much more rural place than these others I have known. One of the primary reasons is economic: with a per-capita income of $4000 a year, and a cost of living that is just half of what it would be in the United States, people really have very little money. Thus it is economically significant to grow a few vegetables and fruits on your own small plots of land, and home-cooked food becomes the only honest way to enjoy luxury.

David and family enjoying lunch in Estonia.But then again, it is not just a matter of economics. Because of increased freedom in trade often Spanish potatoes might be cheaper than Estonian potatoes in the marketplace. They may look cleaner or brighter but they are still less popular. Why? People trust what comes from their own country. This trust in the nation is the source of its strength. Estonian potatoes, carrots, leeks, cabbage, maybe beets. Everything else comes from abroad, and because of that it's less popular. To be rural means to eat what can be grown on your own land, or if not, on your neighbor's land.

We eat the same food every day. Potatoes, mostly boiled, sometimes fried. Cabbage, carrots, all boiled for a long time. Sausages, pork, occasionally fish, although there are not so many left in this Baltic Sea, not anymore. Herring is the most available. And we even eat plates full of much smaller fish, that look like minnows to me. The bigger trout all come from farms.

Even modern country houses might choose not to have plumbing, instead sticking with an outhouse. No shower but the traditional sauna, always wood-fired, used to heat both the dry room and water for washing. They're all efficiently hand-made, all slightly different, so nothing will be wasted.

Who has the time for all this? Time, not a commodity. There is always more of it than we think.
We spent a week in a wood bungalow in a pine forest by the sea. We could cook on wood, or on an ancient electric burner that took about forty minutes to boil a pot of water, or twenty minutes to warm one side of toast. At first I was impatient, outraged, demanded to complain to the people who rented us this crumbling shack! But then I got used to it, realized it was all quite nice. Came up with a new favorite food, "slow toast," cooked gently all the way through. Why not wait an hour for lunch? Listen to the cicadas swelling in the high branches, watch the impeccable blue of the sky.

There is as much time as we want there to be. None of us are as busy as we think. Busyness has become some kind of desirable state in our non-rural America. Instead of saying "I'm fine" when someone asks how we are, we say "Great, I'm so... busy." Am I ever really busy? No. If I was, would I be happy about it. No way.

Grandmother and grandchild in Estonia.Am I really a rural person? Absolutely not. Not in the Estonian way. I don't want to work so hard. My work is supposed to be sitting at a machine, staring at the sky or the screen, and dreaming up some ideas that have not been seen before. That's impossible, ethereal, far from the delineation of a land that says eat just this, this, and this, because none of it comes from far away. I can be a rich tourist in this developing land, because of globalization and the consequences of geography.

I have married into this culture so it is now a part of me, though I'm not always sure how to break in. Estonians keep their feelings to themselves, they do not emote, they do not say thank you or ever gush with blame or praise. I ask questions and sometimes get answers, but no one asks me anything back. So it is hard to tell if my curiosity is appreciated.

Best to sit back and enjoy it, do things the way they are done here. Watch my two year old son running through the garden at dawn, looking for the days new berries to pick for breakfast. Strawberries in June, cherries and currants in July, gooseberries and raspberries in August. Cook everything simply and eat always in the sun. The days seem to go on forever, but it's best to take them in now. Remember, in a few months it will be dark and gray, and winter will stretch from October to May. Seasons so extreme make the Earth matter all that much more.

People silently enjoy the warmth of summer but there are exceptions. The most talkative of all Estonians I have met is my wife's grandmother, who is ninety-five years old. Here she is at a midnight bonfire with my son. There is ninety-three years difference between them.

There is no limit to her curiosity. There is so much she wants to know. "Describe a typical day in your life in America. Please give your views on this moral dilemma in today's episode of The Bold and the Beautiful." Yes, shatter the illusions. Estonians deep in the countryside with no plumbing watch old American soap operas. They're even on at night, in prime time. Grandma notices most the arrangements of flowers on the set, since she was a horticulturalist. "When are you moving to Estonia? When are you going to cut your son's hair?"

David's son on an Estonian beach.She is an avid collector of proverbs from many languages, even those she does not speak, like Swedish, "Eplet faller inte bort från treet,"-the apple never falls far from the tree. We make up our own proverbs about the black cat: "No matter how much milk a black cat drinks, he still won't turn white." "At night all cats are black." She speaks no English, we communicate through gestures and translations.

I wonder why this indefatiguable woman is the only one who has anything to ask of me here. I think it has to do with the Russians, with the fifty years of oppressive foreign rule that most Estonians have lived with for most of their lives. The mistrust. The strange individualism that totalitarianism breeds-you trust no one, not even your family, not your friends. Just you-and the state. It takes years to rub off.

But for grandma, this occupation was just about half of her life. She remembers Estonia's brief decades of glimmering independence after the First World War. She's still around for the celebrations after the statues of Lenin have fallen.

Life in the countryside, now, is it the same or different after all these changes? There's more TV now, but we're all eating the same foods. There is still a great ability to discriminate the nuances and tastes of different kinds and ages of potatoes. The summer days are still long, the winter nights short. The wood still crackles in the sauna, and water thrown on the glowing stones turns to steam that burns your foreign eyes.

Rural culture lasts longer than the upsets of history. I'll spend all morning making toast, then I'll run in the sea. There is time now for everything.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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