Ice and Heather
There are many stones in Armenia but I had little time for them, as always on my trips. On one occasion I simply asked the driver to stop for a while: so I was able to leave the car and take a few steps on the mountain to look for stones.
In fact, Armenia is made entirely of stone, it is one huge rock, a rocky island amidst the Middle East, a mass grave in history. Armenian stone crosses - hackars - resemble the Irish ones. Armenia itself resembles Ireland. Ireland too is an island, a rocky island. From there I brought home pebbles I’d gathered on the beach, and some shells. The others went to have lunch. I felt I couldn’t go, I wanted to walk on the beach and look for stones. It was low tide, and I found several nice pebbles and shells. It was on the open Atlantic shore, in one of the westernmost places of Europe, where the sun sets into the ocean, and the souls of the dead set off on a journey across it, according to the belief of the ancient Celts and probably of their modern descendants too.
I have been to Lappland twice. The first time was when we had just married. Tiia was expecting, but nevertheless she came on the trip. She was young, tough and happy. We crossed mountain passes and collected stones: white flintstones with black-and-yellow patches of lichen on them. I haven’t seen such lichen nowhere else. One such stone weighed several kilos. It was lost when we moved to another flat; we still have the other, smaller one.
In Lovozero, Luuiavr in the Saami language, we met some Saamis. Most of them were drunk. The Russians and Komis laughed at the small Saamis tottering around the shop. We visited a home where we met two old women who sang for us. One of them sang her personal song, her Schicksalslied, as it is called in ethnographic literature, and then burst in tears.
Here in Estonia the rockbottom, the mother rock, lies deep underground. The stones one can find here - pebbles, slingstones, boulders - don’t have their origins here. They come from elsewhere, from Finland, from Sweden, from Lapland. Even the sandstone and clay have their origins there, in the mountains of Fennoscandia from where the Devonian rivers carried them here. Sand itself comes from there, as does the soil. We too are a result of the persistent toil of eroding, Neptunian forces. We are Neptunian nations, probably different from the Plutonian nations whose homeland is a playground of chthonic forces on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Armenia and elsewhere.
One of the most famous buildings of my native town Tartu was the Stone Bridge, a bridge made of hewn granite boulders. It was a gift from the Empress Catherine to the town, when it had been devastated by fire. In the age of the automobile the old narrow bridge was no longer any good for traffic, but a bus line was still able to cross it. In 1941, when the German army approached Tartu, retreating Russians dynamited the bridge. People say that the boulders were sealed with lead; in order to melt it, they burned heaps of firewood on it for a day and a night. The quantity of explosives was so great that the boulders were slung over the whole town centre. Some were still to be seen on the sidewalks when I was a little child. Later they were taken away. Probably they were ground into gravel. It is also said that, although before the explosion people were evacuated from the vicinity, the military forgot about a man working nearby in a small pumping station. Both the building and the man survived, but he was deafened by the blast. It is also said that the explosion killed some people. I have heard of only one such case that seems certain: a woman who was hurrying home across the bridge never arrived.
At the same time as the bridge was blown up, 192 prisoners the authorities had no time to evacuate were killed. Among them was Leo, a nephew of my mother’s. He was arrested by pure chance: he happened to be at the neighbour’s when the NKVD came to arrest that man. Leo was taken too. Later the bodies of the murdered people were brought out of the prison well and lime pit. This was done by new prisoners: real and suspected communists, some of whom were later executed in their turn. It is said that the bodies found in the well and especially those in the lime pit were so disfigured that some were identified only by their clothing.
This old farmhouse is now the home to me and my family. I have repaired most of the roofs, nailed soft insulation pasteboard and plywood on the walls, made new floors and put concrete curbs in the well. A man with an excavator dug a pond behind the sauna, and I planted about a hundred trees and shrubs on the previous owner’s potato plot. The fastest-growing are the larches: some already overtop the roof; and the birches, oaks and pines are also tall enough for the children to climb. I’ve planted some exotic trees too. A few have grown well, for example the lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta, that comes from North America and differs from our pine primarily in that its needles, sprouts and even twigs are twisted. The Japanese cork too was already a big tree when a cold winter damaged it. Most of its branches died; only a smaller one is still alive. Several other trees have suffered equally from the cold. The firs I like most are often hurt by roebucks who rub their antlers against the trees, stripping their bark: this is how they mark their territory. Sometimes they even attack oaks, linden trees and thujas, but these recover better from injuries.
In reality, this old farmhouse, this arboretum and garden are something more for me than just home. Actually I have many homes, I don’t even know how many. I’ve tried to find them in several ways. One is with the help of trees. When I find a tree that I like, the place where it grows must be one of my homes. This is of course not only true of trees but of other plants as well, of the natural environment as a whole, of the landscape. In trees the spirit of the place, the genius loci, reveals itself with more clarity and force than in other plants, even in animals and people. Maybe with as much force as in stones.
I feel that I definitely belong to an ecosystem, I have a place there, but I haven’t yet found it, or have found only parts, fragments of it. I don’t even know whether this ecosystem exists in the present world. Maybe it is extinct, maybe it is only a creation, a construction of my own fantasy, built up of plants, stones and landscapes that can never be found together in nature. Then looking for my home, my own ecosystem, is as strange a thing as planting this arboretum where an American larch, a Manzhurian walnut, a Caucasian Pterocarya and our own birch grow side by side. People often call the lowland birch weeping birch. Isn’t it strange that even those who don’t like thujas have no second thoughts about weeping birch trees, weeping elms and willows.
My home, my arboretum, is an anthology of possible homes, a collection of places where I could feel at home, and it is possible that these places don’t exist, have never existed. Some of them have been wiped out: the Ice Age, agriculture, desertification, mining or wars have completely destroyed them. Maybe I would feel most myself among plants that grew here in the Tertiary, in the Paleocene when sequoias, gingkos and magnolias were common in Northern Europe. But I don’t know, and probably never will. If it is true that time only flows forward. But what does “time moving” mean, after all?
My poems and prose poems are also attempts to find a home, anthologies of existent and non-existent homes. If I were better acquainted with psychoanalysis, I would believe this comes from the fact that I lost my home as little child and grew up in a flat shared by four or five families in the ruins of Tartu, and in the country at our relatives’ homes. But in reality most Estonians are without a home and a homeland. They are emigrants, refugees, persecuted and taken for strangers even in the land that should and could be their homeland. For centuries we have been stepchildren in our father’s home, kicked and scorned by a wicked stepmother, mocked and scoffed by her wicked children. This explains a lot, but not my passion for trees and stones.
At other times and in other places people had soul animals, totems as they are often called: their relatives on the other side of the border we Christians and post-Christians have drawn between ourselves and other living things. I believe that we still have these relatives, that besides the genus Homo we belong to other genera, whether we admit it or not.
It is possible that this is not a Linnaean relationship, that we are not so much related to a genus or a family, but to an ecosystem, a plant society or a life form. Maybe it means that we are related to the genius loci. In any case we do not belong, solely and sometimes not at all, to the place where we are born and grown up. Our citizenship, our origins and affinities, are much more complicated. We are citizens of the world, although this doesn’t mean we are perfectly at home everywhere in the world. No, everyone of us has his/her own places and spirits of the place here and there. Some Estonians are spiritually more Native American, some are Hindu or Chinese, some are more Irish or French than Estonian. We are seldom able to find where our other homes are, even more seldom to visit them. Only now, as distant places become more accessible, can some lost children find their home. Even when there are several such homes, when they are scattered on other continents, islands and seas. That’s probably the case with me.
Maybe it’s of some importance too that our stones and our sand come from abroad, from Fennoscandia. Our soil has been carried, floated, here from foreign lands; from foreign lands have we come, all the living beings on the Baltic shores. Strictly speaking men are not immigrants but natives only in Africa and possibly in Southern Asia. We arrived here just about ten thousand years ago, we colonized a land where the advancing glaciers had swept away all life, where even the soil had been pounded and the land itself flattened. People came back to the ruins of former landscapes where little by little new soil began to develop, and new plants appeared. The land, the landscape grew with the people. We have grown into this landscape, we cannot remember what was here before. We don’t know among what ruins we’ve built our home. Sometimes this crosses my mind. It’s odd to think about.
In Alta, on a rocky hilltop, I saw clearly the tracks of a glacier. Probably the ice had pushed along a sharp piece of stone that had left these scratches. Similar ice-drawn lines can be found on limestone in some places in my country, Estonia. Their direction makes it possible to say which way the glaciers were moving here. That can also be guessed from the stones and boulders themselves, if we know where the type of mineral they consist of is to be found, we know from where the glacier broke them off and carried them here. These boulders are pieces, fragments of the ruins of Fennoscandia, the Fennoscandia of the Tertiary period, of sequoias and magnolias.
When I flew from Britain to Canada for the first time, the Atlantic was covered by thick clouds, and to my great disappointment I couldn’t see the ocean. I napped, then woke up and put on headphones where a Brandenburg Concerto by Bach was just playing. When I took a look down again, there were no more clouds to be seen, and the plane was just approaching the Labrador coast. Below us stretched a snowy landscape with frozen lakes, rivers, hills and forests. No trace of human habitation: no roads, no towns, no power lines. Neither the aborigine villages nor hunters’ huts could be seen from the height of ten kilometres: I believe there were some below. On this virgin winter landscape I could distinguish - sometimes clearly, sometimes vaguely - lines running from Northwest to Southeast (I think this was the direction). These were furrows ploughed by the glacier, the valleys partly covered with lakes, the ridges with forest and bush. From the earth one can hardly discern the regularity of these drumlins and dales, but it becomes clear from a bird’s eye view, from high above the ground.
Heather is the dominant species in heathland, heath forests and in drier bogs (especially in burnt-out places) and gives its name to corresponding forest and heath plant communities. - - - On burnt-out places and clearings it reproduces itself easily with seeds; in shadow it has few flowers, the stems grow tall, and the plant can easily die out.
The centre of Tartu had already suffered greatly in 1941, when all the bridges were blown up and the Soviet troops kept shelling the southern bank of Emajõgi from the northern bank which was still in their hands. A much more serious blow was dealt to the town in 1944 by massive bombardment by the Soviet air force. Then several historic blocks were destroyed as well as many hotels, cafés, the former Treffner gymnasium, the “Vanemuine” theatre and among others the house where we lived. When we returned to the burnt-out town, we found a temporary refuge at our friends. Some china cups, plates and other smaller things had remained intact in our cellar.
I was mowing behind where the cowshed used to be. Several toads crept away to hide from the scythe. Luckily they kept to the ground, lying flat between the tussocks. Sometimes I’ve hurt frogs and toads with the scythe. When they’re hurt, they shriek. It seems that at the fear of death all shriek and scream the same way, a frog hurt with a scythe, a mouse caught by a buzzard, a hamster, a hare and probably a human being too. I have never heard the death scream of a man, but several of my acquaintances have.
During the war the British and American bombers turned many German cities into ruin fields; for example the one in Dresden covered about eighteen square kilometres. In the centre of Cologne only the cathedral was left more or less intact, towering above the ruins. I’ve been told by a man in Cologne that among the people living in the cellars of destroyed houses the resistance movement gained a lot of support, and was quite efficient, so that high Nazi officials were afraid to show their faces among the ruins: some of them had been killed there.
On the bomb sites vegetation soon appeared - communities of so-called ruderal plants - various weeds, grasses, shrubs and such trees as elder, aspen, willows, elms, maples and ash. Pine seedlings were found in the very centre of Berlin. More exotic species were represented by the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), which were quite numerous, and Ailanthus.
I don’t remember what plants grew in the deserted centre of Tartu. But one could ertainly find willows, willowherb, birch, elder, maple and of course mugwort there.
For several summers a little dark brown spider has nested under the lid of our well. I mean it has produced its young there. At first it guarded the cocoon full of eggs, then the tiny whitish spiders hatched out: in the beginning they were hustling in the cocoon and later they ran away in all directions. The spider doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that the well lid is lifted many times during the day, and under its nest is a five metre deep hole with water in the bottom of it. I don’t know whether it’s the same spider or whether every summer a new one finds a nesting place under the well lid. If the latter is the case, it has either been born and grown up there the previous year or it has found the place by special marks, a microclimate or the remains of cobweb. Under the same well lid, late every summer I find orange moths. I even found their picture and name in an old German book about moths, but I can’t recall the name nor find the book. When I draw water from the well, I usually throw them into the rose bush alongside, but next evening I find them under the lid again. Are these moths the same ones too or relatives of those I saw there last year? That’s hard to believe. Most probably they simply like this shadowy, cool and protected place.
After the war people in Tartu had to clear ruins in their free time. It was mandatory, and it had to be done with enthusiasm, with banners and slogans. It was called rebuilding, although only a few buildings were rebuilt: this was done by German POWs. Sometimes they were allowed to move around the town at large. They knocked at people’s doors and asked for something to eat. Often they were given food, although the authorities didn’t permit it. Most ruins were simply demolished and taken away. Parks were laid on the site of former blocks. Enterprising men gathered bricks from the ruins, cleaned them of mortar and plaster and built themselves little houses. It was the easiest way for an Estonian to get a home.
I’m thinking of the seidas, those stones standing on hilltops which are often called corr in the Saami language. These stones impersonate what I have called genii loci in this book. I think Christianity is agerophobic: God got a home that was built as a fortification. In the early Middle Ages it was considered a castle where the forces of good and light could withstand a siege by the forces of evil and darkness. A Romanesque church was a bridgehead of the heavenly legions into this world ruled by Satan. Under the vast arctic sky of Lappland all this seems ridiculous and incomprehensible. How can people retire into their values, fears and beliefs like snails into their shells? How can one live in this world so egoistically, how is it possible to lose the sense of wonder, to live without noticing this sky, these white rocks, these crowberries, checkerberries, dwarf birch trees and diapensias? How is it possible to turn one’s back on it all and build huge stone castles where there is art, music, colour, aroma and spirituality, where there are just no life and no light of men, no plantain and knotgrass, and of course no heath plants.
My head aches slightly. It’s been raining for several days. The air pressure seems to change. I often feel better with low than with high pressure. It’s nice to breathe warm moist air. It was like that in Vancouver, it was like that in Canton on the South China Sea. The air there was amazingly light and this feeling of lightness is the background to my memories from South China. Even there I had a little time to botanize, to go up to a bush growing on a hillside, to find bracken, honeysuckle, a pepper, a phylodendron and a wild rose with white flowers. The cuttings of the rose and pepper took root, and on my kitchen window sill I have a leguminous shrub that sprouted from a seed and has already grown a span. I couldn’t find out its precise name.
But my plants, my plant relatives in China, are probably not from the Lonicera or rose family, they are something else. I think I find them in the mountains among rhododendrons or conifers. In China you can find several rare and strange species of conifers such as metasequoia. But I have written about this tree before.
On the southern slope (yang) of the promontory reaching into the fjord there is very little vegetation, only grass and crowberries. The northern slope (yin) is covered by a juniper thicket where even the dog gets about with difficulty. In the bushes one can see duck and seagull feathers. I take a feather and let it go in the wind from the hilltop. The wind carries it far away, then it abates and the feather begins falling, flutters to and fro, and finally lands on the bushes. On our way back we find the ruins of a German bunker: they even dynamited their bunkers before retreating. Rusty pieces of armature dangle like broken twigs from the concrete boulders. Here and there on the hills one can find scraps of barbed wire. In the war the German military outnumbered the locals here.
The genus Diapensia belongs to the Diapensiaceae family and in the opinion of some botanists also to a subfamily, Diapensiales. Its best known representative Diapensia lapponica, is a characteristic species of arctic dwarf shrub tundras; here it is conspicuous for its flat or round mats. In unfavourable conditions the shrub grows very slowly: reaching flowering age at 5 - 10 years its circumference doesn’t usually exceed 3 - 5 centimetres. Diapensia lapponica also grows in some isolated areas outside the arctic region, for example in Korea or in Scotland where it was discovered only twenty years ago: proof that even in countries which have been floristically as well studied as Britain it’s possible to make important botanical discoveries.
Some kilometres from our country home are an abandoned gravel pit and, close by, the Chapel of the Cross Lake. It is said that the lake was created when a church built here sank underground. The story goes like this: one Sunday when people had gathered for a service an old grey man came out of a laarge tree (it was probably a pine). He picked up a boulder, carried it into the church and put it on the floor. The church began to sink, but the people had time to run out before it vanished completely and in its place water gathered.
I think this legendary place must have been a pre-Christian sanctuary on which a chapel was later built. The place is next to a crossroads, and crossroads had a special importance in ancient folk religion: our ancestors had certain secret rituals to be performed on a Thursday night at a crossroads.
Sometimes we visit the gravel pit with our children. We gather interesting stones, bring home nice coarse sand that can be found in some places. The boys take tin cans and bottles left there by workmen, throw them in large pools of water and try to hit them with stones. Lately people have begin to use the gravel pit as an illegal waste disposal site. Digging for gravel some big boulders were exposed. One such boulder was brought to my courtyard by a friend of mine who was working on an excavator. I had painted a cross on it with white paint: so he could recognize it easily. Now the boulder stands under young larches: the white paint turned out to be very resistant and I couldn’t scratch it off.
In the beginning the gravel pit reminded me of a desert, especially one part, an expanse of sand with sparse little plants on it. Every year, more and more plants appear on the naked gravel and sand. Little by little bushes, too, make their appearance on the devastated land.
Across the bay from Alta there is a village called Kåfjord. In the middle of the past century a copper mine was founded thereby the English. What remains of this copper mine are huge pits in the ground, huge heaps of slag and some slabs with foreign names in the local cemetery. For example:
THOMAS WILLIAM HOOKER TRENERY
DIED THE 1TH OF AUGUST 1838
AGED 3 YEARS
Happy Infant early Blest,
Rest in peaceful slumber, Rest.
Early rescued from the Cares
Which increase with growing Years.
The graves of the English and other more important people are next to the eastern wall of the church. There rests the early blest infant Thomas W. H. Trenery and a Swedish merchant Carl Johan Ruth, born in Luleå on July the 21st 1818 and died in Kautokeino on November 8th 1852.
Ruth also sold spirits to local people. This was one of the main reasons why he was killed by rebel Saamis from Kautokeino. For the murder two men, Aslak Haetta and Mons Somby, were sentenced to death, and were beheaded in Alta. Mons didn’t regret what he had done: he said he knew God had forgiven him everything. Aslak panicked, he hoped until his last moment that he would be pardoned, and struggled desperately when he was dragged to the scaffold. The heads of both men were sent to the university anatomy chamber in Christiania where they are to this day. The bodies were buried in unconsecrated ground on the edge of the cemetery. In 1883 the writer Magdalene Theresen wrote that the two executed men rested beyond the churchyard “in a gravemound given by Nature itself”. On this gravemound one can see plenty of shrubs, grasses and flowers, as proof “that the earth is as good and kind everywhere, whether it carries a sign of blessing or not.”
The gravel pit is a desert: gravel roads and asphalt roads are deserts too, like town squares and streets. But even the field and the garden plot are deserts where for a short time we give some half-desert vegetation a chance to grow and bear fruit. It is more or less proven that the ancestors of present-day grains - wheat, rye, barley, millet and other annual grasses that don’t store their supply of starch in the roots, but only in the seeds - originated in arid regions South of the glaciated areas. These plants germinate during the short moist winter and spring, grow up and bear fruit rapidly, and wither at the beginning of the dry period. Only the large seed - grains outlive this period. Images of the dying and resurrecting God were born in places where people began to cultivate such grasses. There Jesus could tell his parables about wheat and weeds, there he could say that if the grain didn’t die, it would not bear fruit. Christianity is a cereal religion. Naturally people who subsist on hunting, fishing, gathering acorns, growing taro, manioc or coconuts, have a very different religion. To change these people into good Christians one should first plough up their land, change it into semi-desert. A religion has its own ecology, its demands on the environment like a tree or a shrub. Every religion and god belong to a specific landscape.
Salix polaris - polar willow, height about 1 cm, leaves thick, without nerves.
Salix herbacea - grass willow, height up to 2 cm.
Salix reticulata - reticulate willow, height up to 5 cm.
Betula nana - dwarf birch, height up to 50 cm.
Diapensia lapponica - height up to 3 cm.
Life contracts, keeps to the ground, creeps into fissures, into hollows where there is a handful of turfy soil and detritus; above it the wind, the midnight sun and some ants. Nearby some lichens are engaged in a silent world war - the black lichen conquers some territory from the yellow one, the yellow from the black.
I think that what I want to say is hard, maybe even impossible, to express in human language and easier in the language of those odd plant names invented by somebody motivated by who knows what. Salix, Calluna, Erica, Rhododendron, Diapensia, Loiseleuria, Cassiope, Empetrum, Andromeda ...
If God’s in his heaven, as they like to say, this is the faith of a desert people. Heaven - the sky - is a desert, a blue, black or grey desert. The sky is an unknown territory, as full of dangers as the desert where jackals, wolves or a band of robbers on a raid can suddenly appear.
The sky is the home of an unknown and dangerous God, a desert of a God where you can go to or turn your eyes to, if you have to be alone with yourself. Let’s keep in mind that there are no borders in the sky just as there were until recently no borders in the desert between Chad and Libya or between Oman and Saudi Arabia. The borders you can find in the sky, the borders between clouds and constellations, are fuzzy and changing fast, they are impossible to describe. Norbert Wiener has written about it in his book “Cybernetics”.
The sky is like a desert, like a field. Can anything grow there? It could only be something fuzzy and contourless, something that’s like clouds, light and rain.
He who sows wind, reaps storm.
In the forest close to our house is a place we call “the burnt house”. Of the house itself little remains except foundations partly hidden by sorbaria bushes. There are still a few apple trees, already overgrown by the forest; some currant bushes, lilacs, linden trees and an elm. There’s a story which is told about the destruction of the house in the late forties. From time to time the guerillas hiding in the forest, the “forest fellows”, came here to have a rest and some food. Once, when they were right here, a mop up operation was launched, and soldiers encircled the farm. One of the forest fellows lost his nerve and fired his gun from a window. The soldiers and militiamen answered with a barrage of fire. The house, hit by incendiary bullets, was soon in flames. The people still in the house tried to escape. The wounded woman of the house got out, but the soldiers caught her and threw her back in the flames - this is what people say. Nobody escaped. A son of the murdered woman was not at home at the time, he didn’t know where to go. He was in hiding for a while at his neighbours’, then joined the forest fellows to revenge his mother.
We seldom look at the sky. You can do it most easily lying on your back. Then you discover that in the desert above us there are living beings: swifts, buzzards. When you look longer and more painstakingly you may even notice a star, most probably the Morning Star.
In reality the sky is just depth; it is distance, the third dimension. It is difficult to understand. Even when we know it, when we are well acquainted with the stars. This understanding has no limits: we can always have a deeper and clearer understanding of the depth of the sky.
When we have understood the depth of the sky we may begin to understand the depth of the fields, deserts, forests, or perhaps of ourselves. A field, a desert, every landscape is an echo of the sky and of its depth. We are an echo of an echo of the sky.
My home is first of all a landscape. Like this Observatory Hill on the fringe of Eurasia, in quiet midsummer Helsinki where I suddenly meet several friends such as Kaljo, Kaie and Kalle: white clover, sparrows, honeysuckle and birches trying to grow in cracks in the rock. The rock itself is homely, reminding me of the half-dark kitchen, with a stone floor, from Eoste or Räpina.
The same stone in us all. We are made of the same stone. Estonia too, because we live on what used to be the delta of ancient rivers that carried sand and clay here from the Fennoscandian mountains, and where later glaciers left boulders broken away from their stony lap.
The last Ice Age was a relatively recent event, here it ended about eleven thousand years ago, in the North even later than that. On Svalbard, in Greenland, and in the Antarctic, the Ice Age hasn’t ended yet. In Siberia and the North of Canada the permafrost hasn’t melted yet. And we don’t know whether it will begin to melt or just the opposite: enlarge its area.
We live in an age of disasters that have changed a large part of the continents into desert. The Antarctic and Greenland are ice deserts, the whole northern part of the temperate region is a taxonomic desert. We have lost most of our plant species, maybe even as much as 90% of them: the cedars, sequoias, araucarias, gingkos, magnolias, palms, sandalwood trees... Studying a book on paleobotany I discovered with astonishment that representatives of most tropical plant families grew here too before the Ice Age. Some of them retreated to the South, some died out. What is left to us is devastated land where we can find only the pitiful remnants of earlier forests, only a couple of species of tree instead of several hundred as we can still find in the South. I don’t think that most people living in northern countries bother about it: they like spruce, birch and alder forests and meadows and find them homely. But I cannot forget what has once grown here leaving behind only needles, twigs or pieces of bark encapsuled in amber. I know that this land is not fully my home without these extinct forests. It is as if our vegetation were trying to cover its poverty and absence of character with exuberant growth. Our grasses and trees are tramps, migrants like the brown rat and wolf. We lack our own vegetation. Even our plant societies are the poor man’s meagre variants of real societies that have disappeared or retreated to lower latitudes far away from here.
The lilacs were in bloom some weeks ago, the sidewalk is covered with fallen guelder rose blossoms and a juneberry is full of small berries. Church bells are ringing somewhere in the city centre. The space is very open. Space, full of wind which blows wherever it pleases. Pneuma pnei. Spiritus spirat.
There is no wind in the church. Spiritus is here, on Observatory Hill. Spiritus is the wind carrying seagulls, the babble of a baby, the sound of the bells and the noise of passing cars.
A seagull is standing in front of me, looking at me first with one, then with the other eye. It picks some parasites from under its feathers, shrieks a couple of times and flies away.
As late as the Eocene, araucarias and yellowwood grew in Europe and elsewhere in the Northern hemisphere. Later they spread to the Southern hemisphere and quickly became rare in the North. At that time pines were dominant in the Northern hemisphere, that’s to say on Svalbard, Franz Joseph Land and in other Northern regions.
Conifers are important as a source of amber: according to the latest information the amber-producing species (most probably belonging to the genus Pinus) grew in the Tertiary in Scandinavia from where their remnants containing resin were carried to the “amber beaches” of East Prussia.
The landscape is still there. Landscapes do not disappear so easily. Even glaciers cannot obliterate them. Landscapes are like bones, skeletons: as people in the past believed, a skeleton can acquire new flesh, the bones of an animal can rise to a new life. Can our landscapes too rise, resuscitate, get back their fur coat: sequioas, cedars, cypresses, cinnamon trees? Will we be able to resuscitate vanished species, communities and fur coats? Leave alone vanished peoples? Couldn’t genetic engineering one day create something similar to the prehistoric trees which once grew around the Baltic? We have little time left. Nowadays we are wiping out species faster than they are being born. Maybe in the next million years a new vegetation will develop on Earth. Yes, it’s possible here in the Baltic region, but not on Svalbard, not on Franz Joseph Land. There the ice would have to disappear, the glaciers melt. But then the level of the oceans would rise, drowning the Netherlands, Denmark, West Siberia. The climatic zones would shift, the deserts would move northwards. Terrible famines would hit mankind, hundreds of millions would migrate. But must Svalbard then stay forever under ice? Can forests never grow on Greenland as in the past? I still think it might be reasonable to let the Earth warm up, the glaciers melt. Maybe we could rearrange life on Earth without glaciers. The Antarctic, Greenland and Svalbard would be colonized by those whose homeland was inundated by the sea. It is quite possible that this will happen, but I am afraid that it will happen as a disaster. Maybe the mission of the genus Homo is to introduce the postglacial age, but Homo is himself a child of the Ice Age, a child of the Snow Queen. Could the Snow Queen not take revenge on us for driving her away from our planet?
I don’t know what it is that I like best in heath plants. It is as difficult to explain what features I love in people I do. In a sense it’s all these features one by one - flowers, face, stalk, hands, modesty, smell, voice. The voice of a bumblebee on a heath flower. And then all this taken together. Man, heath, mountain top. I feel that we are somehow similar, that we have similar expectations, that we like one another’s company. I like the company of heath plants and diapensias. I hope they like my company too. Probably I am somehow related to heath plants, maybe I belong to the heath family, to dwarf shrubs. Maybe I am related to diapensias. This doesn’t match at all with modern taxonomy, but here recognition is more important than taxonomy.
In fact trees and shrubs are a part of us, they are simply at a greater distance from our body than hands or feet, so it is possible to think that they don’t feel pain, that chopping away our branches and trunks doesn’t cause us serious injury. But we cannot live without trees. The fewer trees there are, the less we live. In reality we are chopping up and cutting down parts from our own body, we are burning and poisoning ourselves. Instead of the forest new human beings can be born, but they are disabled people, people without branches, without roots, without trees, without Amazonia, without Borneo, without Ruwenzori.
In one of my most beautiful dreams - I have already written about it somewhere - I saw tall heather bushes in bloom on a faraway island. It was like a forest, a heather forest, and I could see the sky through the blossom. It was as if the sky were two-layered: the blue of the upper sky reached my eyes through the violet blossom of the lower one.
If the sky is the Heaven some of us - as it is believed - will be taken to, can we find heather there? Is there a place for threatened and extinct trees, for sequoias, gingkos, cordaites? We are related to them: I am related to heather, somebody else to the gingko, a third one to the dwarf birch. We cannot leave them alone. We have a common destiny. I couldn’t go to heaven, even if they wanted to take me there, without all these shrubs and trees, spirits, genii loci, birds, animals and fish. They are my relatives. I must take them all with me. I have given a promise, taken an oath.
Perhaps we will all be sent to hell where we will burn in an everlasting fire, all of us, ferns, Lycopods and cordaites, some of us as coal, some of us as we are now. Well, I am a sinner, even a poet, but why should horsetails, conifers, rhododendrons be punished? Why create and then fossilize all these wonderful beings? Are God’s doings absurd or is our understanding of him or her and of his or her doings absurd? It’s easier for me to believe in an absurd me than in an absurd God who is conducting horrible experiments in evolutionary biology on planet Earth. It’s easier for me to place God in the end than in the beginning, to imagine him or her waiting for all of us, for all resurrected people, animals, birds, trees, shrubs, spirits, goblins and lichens.
I know that the question “why” is invalid outside our home, even more so in the areas of geology, cosmology and theology. In eternity the why-questions have no meaning at all. Like the questions about suffering, the causes of suffering and the way out of suffering. And I think that there is some eternity in the heather blossom - in its miniature twisted trunk, its tiny leathery leaves, in its huge kin, its acquaintances and friends, bees and bumblebees, wind and clouds - if we only take notice of it: it has the same colour and smell as our own eternity. Or perhaps - it may be more correct to say - it is as colourless and odourless as eternity.
Cf. Flora of the Estonian SSR, volume VIII, page 51
Rolf Weber, Ruderalpflanzen und ihre Gesellschaften
Urania Pflanzenreich, Höhere Pflanzen 2, p. 169