This week I got to know the work of religious study scholars from Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, after I talked with a scholar from Lithuania, who has been rooting in Belgium for a long time. She recommended a paper of a scholar who is also interested in tree spirits, sacred nature like me. The paper describes the existential experiences in nature of contemporary secular people in Sweden, Denmark and Estonia and an interconnectedness between people’ experiences in nature and that of previous generations’ experiences in church.
When the Holy Forests in Estonia are calling you
Last summer I encountered already an article on National geographyic about Estonia’s Holy Forests threatened by Industrial tree farming (August 2020). I was not interested for the Baltic region for a long time, but this article sparked some interest. In the same period, I got also in contact with a Belgian artist who was just in a process of moving to a forest in Estonia. Since some weeks, I am dreaming to do the northernmost pilgrimage: St Olavsleden. I would not call myself a religious person, but pilgrimages have attracted me for a while, first Santiago de compostella, but when I heard about the Scandinavian version, I got called by this. I thought it was connecting Nidaros cathedral with a Swedish coastal town, until I asked one of my best friends what he knows about the trails. He asked me: “You thinking of going from Estonia, Sweden or just the Norwegian part?”. And I startled: wait, I could continue to Estonia? Yesterday I talked with this Lithuanian researcher and got this paper. After 2020 (and finishing my PhD in some months), a pilgrimage from Norwegian trolls to Estonian trees seems like a great plan to celebrate and transcend. Expect to read more about Scandinavia and Baltic tree practices in 2021.
Many ethnic Estonians believe in tree spirits
The idea of a special connection existing between the Estonian people and nature has been put forth in a semireligious way by the neopagan movement Maausk (Earth belief). Conceptualized as an ani- mistic, indigenous nature religion developed “together with Estonians’ ancestors,” this movement presents itself as the defender of natural sacred sites (Västrik 2015) and it has brought about a consolidation of the nationalistic “forest nation” identity. Sociological data show that 63 percent of ethnic Estonians believe in “souls of trees” (LFRL 2015), a belief that is generally interpreted as the continuation of ancient animism" (Thurfjell et al. 2019)
Elbstein wrote also an interesting paragraph abut this Maausk:
"Forests, though, have values beyond those of the carbon absorption or wood products they provide. For Lõhmus, the key to a healthy forest ecology is a baseline understanding that forests shouldn’t have to be for any human use—an understanding, he notes, that jibes nicely with Maausk, a movement that has revived the old tradition of forest reverence. Maa is Estonian for “the land.” Maausk is sometimes translated as “nature worship” or “Earth believers” or even “neo-pagans.” For his part, Sepp, the linguist, likes the word “heathen,” a Germanic word that suggests one who goes to worship in the heath—the moor outside town. By linguistic coincidence, he notes, “heath” resonates with hiis, the Estonian name for the sacred sites, and both carry the shared memory of the beliefs native to Europe in the ages before its indigenous faiths mostly disappeared, along with the heath itself." (Elbstein, 2020)
Pilgrimage – as a way to repair broken nature connections
The search for landscape experiences and transcendence through nature connection around the Baltic has roots that extend back to the romantic tradition beginning in the late eighteenth century, but there is a difference how the church experiences are connected with the nature connection experiences. While Scandinavian churches has been grounding in nature connection for a longer time, the relationship between Christian church and nature connection is less clear.
Despite its cultural marginalization, however, Christian terminology is sometimes used to signal intimacy and solemnity in connection with nature and nationality—as can be seen in expressions like “the forest is the church of the Estonians” (Pilvre 2017) or “for Estonians, walking in the forest and owning a country house are religious practices; the forest is the substitute for religion” (Mikita 2015: 48).” (Thurfjell et al. 2019)
A significant proportion of Estonia’s land is covered by forests. The forests are part of the history of many Estonians, serving as a refuge for the Forest Brothers, the resistance movement to the Soviet (which sounds like a Robin Hood story, after I read the wikipedia page about it), to the place to collect mushrooms and feel home. And some forests even serve higher needs:
"The forests of Estonia are spoken of as having a transformative potential between this realm and otherworldly ones. They are often referred to as being “magical” or “sacred,” or simply “different” places outside of everyday life that evoke experiences and feelings—frequently of connectedness with “something” that s hard to put into words but that is referred to as being “bigger.” (Thurfjell et al. 2019)
Losses of ecosystems and nature connections
Interestingly, the Lithuanian researcher and I talked about the loss of nature connections. I told her about my dream to spend some months in the North, after finishing my PhD, and we talked that there is indeed this romanticisation that the nordic people seem to be more connected to nature than Belgians (because of hashtag Friluftsliv, for example), but the society is still as extractivist as the Belgian society. The Scandinavian people just have more land and forests, so the effects of the resource extraction is less visible to everyday experiences than in a small and very densely populated Belgium. In the same National Geographic article, they also mention that Estonia had one of the highest rates of forest loss in Europe. Before, we had sacred sites where you should not fell. This is not only the case in Estonia. In the Kiso valley in Japan, the samurai implemented also death penalties on cutting trees, which were only meant for temples or their castles. In Bhutan, some mountains are holy and forbidden domain for the humans. Pilgrimages in buddhist tradition exist of going around mountains, not climbing these mountains.
The big challenge we face is to reverse the trend of anthropocentric worldviews, take care there are again sacred sites where people should not interfere and come. As our world is secularising, the questions are: do we have to give new dresses to ideas like sacred (forests, mountains…) and pilgrimage?
This blog is inspired by the following academic article: Thurfjell, D., Rubow, C., Remmel, A. and Ohlsson, H., 2019. The Relocation of Transcendence: Using Schutz to Conceptualize the Nature Experiences of Secular People. Nature and Culture, 14(2), pp.190-214.
The other consulted newsarticle is Elbstein S.. 2020. In tiny Estonia, a fraught debate: What are forests for?. National Geographic. Accessed at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/08/estonia-holy-forests-threatened-by-industrial-tree-farming/
The instagram posts which function as illustrations, are from Laura Brusselaers of ForestEdgeAtelier, a Belgian Printmaker and Woodcut artist, living on the Estonian island Saaremaa. She made also the wood prints for my fiction book “de witte droom“. She has her own Etsy shop: click here to view and buy her work.