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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

The Road That Must Be Taken
with online image gallery


Estonian forestWhenever I visit my wife’s cousins in Kildu, Estonia, I always take the same route on a bicycle, heading west on a straight dirt road that soon leaves the farm lands of potato, rye, mustard, and rapeseed to enter a cool, swampy forest.  The road, sometimes wet, other times dry, heads straight as an arrow deeper into the swamp country, called soomaa in Estonian.  Various roads cross the main one, all fainter, but most equally straight like some perfect grid imposed on the landscape from above.  It’s easy to confuse one road with another, but I know that to make my circular tour I have to turn right at just one correct path, and each time I approach it I know it is the right one because it is a road that one simply must turn down, it is so inviting.

What’s so special about this road, this tiny sootee that separates it from all the others?  Every time I’m there I just know I have to make the turn, but this time I stopped to study closely what defines this road that I must travel by. 

First off it is a road that begins as straight and determinedly as all the others, clearly drawn out with no regard for any curve of landscape, just a set human vision.  But a few hundred meters in, at the limits of what one can see, a slight curve begins.  The road veers to the right, as if telling us something.  I need to go down it to see why that’s the way to go.  At the beginning, the tall pines on both sides of the track are rigid and regimented, all put in the ground exactly at the same time.  Except one, a high sliver of a tree that leans from the left edge arcing over the right, framing the view, making me want to look out that direction further.  Past this one gating tree, the tall pines have been thinned.  I glimpse a large clearing, but smaller trees have started to grow there.  So it’s at least 20 years old, back in a whole different time, when the independence of Estonia was hardly recognized.  When no one owned their own farms, and no one could speak their mind, and if they did, the language they used was that of the oppressed, the annexed, a whole nation who had to tow the Soviet line.

Estonian forestYes, I bicycle down the main swamp road to another that I have to turn down.  I have no idea if anyone else feels that way but this road eventually takes me back to the Kildu farm.  En route I pass about four houses which are always empty, and one at which there is a single barking dog who gets a little older and frailer each time I pedal past.  Why all these roads, and no people?  It is a once-managed, slightly human, cut and planted landscape, but it is unusually empty.  On the one-hour ride there is at most one car driving by and shaking up the dust in my face; often there is no one at all.

Estonia is the least densely populated country in Europe, less than one person per square kilometer outside of its few cities and towns.  Right here that one person is me, cruising down paths over which I have no choice, circling back to the farm that has been in the family for hundreds of years.  Those few people left are certainly grounded firmly to these places, but there seem so few of them.  What counts as a village could be an assortment of houses where your neighbor is close enough so you can see if his fire is burning, but far enough away so that you can’t hear what he is doing.  The flat fields and forests, the swamps and limestone rivers, it’s all been here for centuries, even thousands of years, tended by a people who sometimes see themselves as the Indians of Europe, rooted to this terrain for thousands of years.

But like most small nations, it is also a land that has been occupied by larger powers for most of its history: Germans, Swedes, and most recently Russians, who had this land for almost 50 years from World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Amidst the bucolic farms are crumbling, poorly-built drab apartments where Soviet Estonians were supposed to live as all the farmland was collectivized and run by the state.  These structures are laughably out of place, and are slowly rotting away into crumbling monuments of a cynical desire to rule oppressively in the name of glorifying the workers.

Estonian flag at national singing festivalThe Soviet state left Estonia without a drop of blood being shed.  Nearly one-third the population of the country, a mass 500,000 strong, came together in 1988 to sing forbidden songs of freedom at the huge Song Grounds in the capitol city of Tallinn.  This time when the forbidden blue white black tri-band flag from prewar independent Estonia was flown, nothing could be done—the people had spoken, the enforced lies of Moscow could no longer hold.  This is now called “The Singing Revolution,” and there are a few books and films about it, though around the world the story of a nation that sang its oppressors away with just the power of music is not so widely known.  The louder songs are about guns and war.

The week before this ritual bicycle ride I was at the latest national song festival, now held every four years, with nearly a hundred thousand Estonians and foreign guests, all singing the familiar and unfamiliar songs of freedom and triumph together.  As the many voices resounded as one I felt honored to be part of this one small nation’s particular claim to freedom, as well as part of humanity’s universal need for the same. 

Estonian festival“This is a brief moment,” wrote Estonian poet Doris Kareva, “of ecstatic togetherness, rising almost into the air in a mythical ship of joy and hope, a ship that has proved to be capable of carrying one nation over the most dangerous, most difficult rocks of time.” 

Back in the forest, I recall how so many  people came out of their reclusive villages and forest cabins and used music to change the world.  They gathered because they had to stand up for their nation, and did it at just the right time.  The countryside is empty, even years after freedom was claimed for the nation in the big city.  But these tiny forest routes hold onto their stories.  The pull of the landscape remains down that special road one cannot pass by.

View David Rothenberg's online gallery of 12 photos of northern forests >>
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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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Posted by JutaSeptember 27, 2009 - 10:37 pm
I live in rural Estonia, having returned to the land of my fathers after independence was restored. I was moved by your narrative and your understanding of the spirit of Estonia, which has been deeply damaged by 50 years of idiotic Communist rule.

Posted by MomSeptember 23, 2009 - 05:29 pm
A very well written piece .. wonderful how you
make connections .... This is one to send to PETE !!!!!

love M

Posted by TiiuSeptember 22, 2009 - 07:15 am
This is a touching story being indirectly part of it. Thank you, David, that you wrote something like that. The photos are inviting too.

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View online gallery of
12 photos of northern forests >>

All photos by
David Rothenberg.


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