White nights and chicken skin
“Chicken skin” said Nele.
“Beg pardon?” we replied, standing in the open air grassy amphitheater where in 1988, some 60 percent of the population of Estonia had assembled to sing for their independence in the first stages of a non-violent overthrow of 45 years of Soviet rule. We had just remarked to Nele that it gave us a chill, just looking at this wide expanse of grassy park and imagining the strength of those voices, raised as one.
“Chicken skin,” she repeated.
“Oh, goose bumps. We call it goose bumps. Yes, that’s what I am feeling.”
Some days earlier we were debriefing from a speaking engagement at Tartu University, sitting in an open air café, when one of the students took up the argument about human nature and cultural inertia and said it would never be possible to get people to change their habits quickly enough to avert catastrophic climate change and die-off. We remarked that as long as there was a scintilla of hope, we could do no less than to keep trying to shift the paradigm.
“What evidence do you have that you are not wasting your time?” the student asked.
“I have to ask you to just remember how you felt, and how your heart beat, during the Singing Revolution,” we said. “I recall those same deep feelings — and the heart swell — we experienced in the US as we sang and marched in the civil rights movement. For many of us it was life-changing. So think about what your heart says, and ask yourself if history can be changed.”
Nele, who was listening to this exchange, leaned in and whispered, “You will always win the argument here with that.” Our reference to the Singing Revolution had given her chicken skin. It may have affected the student the same way, because he became very silent, lost in thought.
There was a moment in the Singing Revolution in 1991 when the new Estonian freedom government was trapped in the Parliament building by an angry mob of communist coup-supporters. It was in the same crucial days that Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had been arrested in Moscow by the KGB Alpha Group and the military hard-liners, and the coup leaders there had dispatched Red Army tanks which were at that moment barreling toward the Estonian border.
As the communists battered down the doors and entered the inner courtyard, the trapped Estonian freedom government leaders put out a radio broadcast calling for support from the population. All over Tallinn people dropped whatever they were doing and converged on the Parliament building, where their huge numbers dwarfed those of the communist protesters, now themselves trapped inside. What followed could have been a bloody confrontation, as happened later at the White House in Moscow, but instead, the Estonians outside linked arms and began to sing. They parted to form an open corridor, and gave safe passage away to the hard-liners.
Chicken skin. We got it again just writing that passage.
In school we learned that “the Baltics” are three tiny countries, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; European chew-toys since history began. Apart from those who trace their ancestry there, or took a 6-hour cruise ship stop, few USAnians have ever traveled to the Baltics. Even the opportunity to watch part of the Olympics there was squashed by Jimmy Carter when the US boycotted the games over — wait for it — the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Cement block houses and barns of the collective farms of that era still decay in the countryside and we are told that it is even drearier to the south where the brief dot-com bubble of the Baltic Tiger did not extend. In Tallinn, free broadband is ubiquitous from the moment you taxi down the runway.
Estonia now has two skins shedding at the same time, and for most people it is a bit painful. One is the crumbling brutal edifices of the Soviet era (“brutal” being an architectural term for the same 1950s concrete cube architecture seen in the USA and elsewhere), during which over 100,000 Estonians were sent away to Siberian gulags, many never to return. The other is the stainless steel and glass Tokyoization that reflects neon corporate logos onto rainy streets during the White Nights of late May and June.
Built on the brilliance of Skype and a thousand other points of entrepreneurial light, and suddenly unveiled after a half-century of hooding, the fast-riches façade fell hard in 2008, plunging Estonia into the same icy waters where bobbed the other tigers — Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Spain.
Estonia now teeters between a great green hope of progressive change and something more resembling its Baltic neighbors – decollectivized and depopulated farms and forest-scapes drifting back into a Medieval steady state economics grounded in nature.
This is fertile soil for permaculture, so it was no surprise that our weekend introductory course was sold out months in advance and we were invited back next year to give the full 2-week certification edition, with perhaps a mushroom growing workshop thrown in.
Estonians are refreshingly immodest about nudity for a cold country, and as we were chauffeured into Tallinn by one of the genuine heroes of the Revolution — Jüri Joost, the policeman who defied an entire Red Army armor brigade to hold the TV tower for 2 days, armed only with a Freon fire extinguishing system — we could not help but notice the nude backyard sunbathers beside our busy highway. We also noted the willingness of our permaculture students, complete strangers a day before, to doff clothes while queueing for the small sauna in the community building at Lilleoru. Flying in from the uptight West, this attitude was entirely refreshing.
Lilleoru is our host — a small ecovillage south of Tallinn, begun the same year as the new nation. We browsed scrap albums filled with photos of an incredibly young bunch of kids moving to this forest, making a sawmill, and starting to build a community, from scratch. We leafed through black and white stills of nude ice swims in a frozen lake, turning the soil to make gardens, and erecting a Great Plains tipi.
The young leader who emerged was Ingvar Villido (Ishwarananda), a student of Kriya Yoga, who journeyed to India and brought back the lessons learned. He is now a Kriya Yoga master and appropriately Lilleoru is not only a spiritually-based ecovillage, but also (in a separate location on site) a yoga ashram — with guesthouses, common house, and residences for devotees — and a Self-Realization Training Center — with an educational park, yoga studio, extensive gardens and orchards, classes and workshops.
The community kitchen is vegetarian and supplied with fresh milk, yogurt, honey and produce from a nearby biodynamic farm. Freshly baked bread always includes a soft white, a harder rye, and a black bread, Leib, that is a cross between Boston Brown and Pumpernickle – sweet but soft. The Estonian version of bon appetit is jätku leiba — “may your bread last.”
Meals vary, but bread, jam, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled squash, melon slices and yogurt are always on the table. Kohupiim, which is cottage cheese-like, is used in cakes and pastries, such as Kringel, a sweetbread knotted and sprinkled with nuts and raisins. There is also a popular sweet gruel called Kama that is sort of a cross between muesli and lassi. It is made of sour milk or kefir and mixed with grains.
Jüri Joost, who is no longer a policeman but does private security, reminded us of Frank Martin, Jason Statham’s character in The Transporter, and as he put the Audi through its paces in the narrow streets of Tallinn. Rudra Shivananda, Ave Oit and I were alternatively pressed back into our bucket seats and held fast by our seat belts, but the man radiated confidence and wore his well-tuned car like a clean suit of clothes. He dropped us in the Old Town, probably the only part of Europe where you can have a 13th century lunch at restaurants such as Olde Hansa or Stenhus.
There they serve a green beer made of honey and cream called Kahji, although we preferred the hemp brew called Cannabia, with its scratch-and-sniff label, offered in the sidewalk café outside the Von Krahl Theater. After the beers, Jüri whisked Rudra, who had finishing teaching a Kundalini energy class at Lilleoru, to the airport and entrusted us to give an evening talk on “Tipping Points” in the theatre.
Agnieszka Komoch, a Polish friend, commented on our Facebook photo album that the whole country seemed surreally clean. This was no accident. In 2008 more than 50,000 Estonians participated in the country’s first national clean-up or “Lets Do It” campaign. Organizers used Google maps and cellphones with GPS to locate junk, and then volunteers turned out to collect every kind of garbage from tractor batteries to plastic bottles and paint tins and ferry the filthy junk, often in their own vehicles, to central collection points.
School classes cleaned up a site near the central town of Turi, removing old metal, plastic, glass, bottles, and remains of farm medicals and household garbage tossed deep into a forest during Soviet times. “Lets Do It” has now spread to Slovenia, Latvia, Portugal, Romania and Ukraine. In Slovenia this year more than 350,000 people (12% of the population) helped to bring in more than 10,000 tons. Next January it is scheduled to debut in New Delhi.
Toomas Trapido, one of our permaculture workshop participants and a Green Party member of Parliament (there are 6 Green M.P.s now), says that the next challenge is to set up a “waste input” system, so that Estonia can establish cradle-to-cradle reuse. He proposes a Lets Do It World annual conference. As we drove around Estonia, we began to extrapolate to nuclear wastes, plastics, and other global problems. He said he could imagine the Estonian Navy working in the ocean with vacuum cleaners scooping up plastics, although, he had to gently advise us that the Pacific, where the plastic gyre is the size of France, was not really their lake.
We began tossing around ideas for making Estonia the first carbon negative country, using the wastes from its forestry industry and farms to burn in district CHP plants producing biochar. He said I should remember that the people were not all greenies (6 Green M.P.s is only 6% of the government), and that if I looked around many Estonians expressed a clear preference for Volvos, BMWs, Mini-Coopers, Lexi and Hummers, and would go into debt to buy those even before they improved their housing, much of which was still taken from an architectural blueprint that could be seen at regular intervals from Warsaw to Vladivostok. Estonia’s current economic development model, funded by the European Union, involved attracting cruise ships to the casinos in Tallinn.
We asked him if they were also building golf courses. They were, he said, but they had problems with crows, which liked to collect the golf balls as soon as they landed.
If the 2008 stutter in the step of the Baltic Tiger can be understood as a warning, there could yet be hope for an escape from the Eurotrash fashion meme as Estonians exit the Second World and skip ahead to the Great Change. My translator, Ave Oit, a founder and guiding light of the Lilleoru ecovillage, has a family business buying organic and fair trade wares and selling them in her BioMarket. If sustainability, organics and local fair trade can become catch phrases here, then Estonia could already be well ahead of the EU.
Births now balance deaths and in-migration balances out-migration. The old growth forests were stolen long ago, but new forests now reclaim abandoned farms and roadsides and the Estonian population, which sits lightly on a rich landscape, could be easily supported by the fruits of its own countryside, with only horse-drawn distances to modestly-scaled cities.
Climate change will matter, and Estonia is sandwiched between scenarios. Mid-summer frosts and severe winters (over 120 meters of snow last year) become more likely with the slowing of the Atlantic conveyor. Hot, muggy and buggy summers drift up from the scorched continent to their south. Still, if the Singing Revolution is any indication, this is a people who know how to surf on waves of change, and do it with style.