Siim Preiman

Curator's foreword

“We have never lived as well as we do now.” This is what some economists claim, believing that they have experienced all sorts of different times. But take a look around: most nations have never done as poorly as they do now. Likewise for the trees and flowers, wild boars and bees, mosses and lizards. The sea has never been as poisonous; even the fish cough. What has caused this? Now we can finally answer: it is the economy that has caused this. All beings are tired of the economy. Death to economy!”

Hasso Krull, Modern Asceticism (Tänapäeva askees)


For the past five years1In fact, there are several opinions on how long it has lasted. It has been five years according to Asko Lõhmus’s annual summaries published in the weekly Sirp newspaper. There are also those who believe that the heated debate on Estonian forestry policy has been ongoing since the restoration of independence. there has been a public conflict in Estonia, which the media has variously dubbed “the forest dispute”, “forest polemics” and even “the forest war”. To put it simply: on one side in this conflict are those who think that too much forest is being harvested, while on the other side are those who are in favour of the current situation. The former includes conservationists and others who feel that the forest represents more than just timber. Their opponents are foresters and the government – in short, people who believe in economic growth. There have been several more wars in recent history that have been fought in public over the Estonian natural environment. In the 1970s, a so-called Bog War was fought, where local conservationists opposed the massive drainage plans of the Soviet central government.2Soodesõda ei lõpe kunagi. Intervjuu botaanik Ann Marvetiga. Eesti Loodus 2010/19. The Bog War ended in 1981 with the creation of 30 bog protection areas. By that time, of course, much of the irreversible damage had already been done. Instead of an uninterrupted bog archipelago that once spread across Estonia, bogs with a functioning water regime cover only 6% of Estonia’s territory today.3Kristjan Piirimäe has written about the ancient bog archipelago. See, for instance: Kristjan Piirimäe. Estonian Nature. Eesti Instituut 2018.

The next major conflict erupted in early 1987, when plans to build several new phosphorite mines near Rakvere became public. Extensive demonstrations followed throughout Estonia, and barely half a year later the plans to build mines were put on hold. In the Phosphorite War, environmentally-friendly ideals came together with national aspirations, and this conflict is often regarded as being the beginning of the chain of events that led to the restoration of Estonia’s independence. So how can it be that the forest war wages on and on, with no end in sight? Aren’t Estonians supposed to be forest people?

Although the idea of Estonians being a people of nature has a long history in Estonian culture, the now widespread motif of a forest nation has only emerged in the last couple of decades.4Tõnno Jonuks, Atko Remmel. Metsarahva kujunemine. Retrospektiivne vaade müüdiloomele. Keel ja Kirjandus 6/2020. In Estonian folklore, if the forest is mentioned at all,5Ööülikool. Leelo Tungal and Maarja Kangro. Metsast. Estonian Public Broadcasting 2008. it has a rather neutral or even negative connotation. You can get lost there; it is an unknown terrain full of animals and evil spirits.6Jonuks, Remmel 2020. Throughout history, it is mainly the cultivated landscape that Estonians have considered beautiful. Think of our cultivated farmlands and the diverse wooded and coastal meadows used as pastures! Even the giant hero Kalevipoeg in our national epic poem was a ploughman, not a forest spirit. The motif of Estonias as forest people dates back to the 1970s, when Lennart Meri, Veljo Tormis and Kaljo Põllu, among others, emphasised the Finno-Ugric origins of Estonians in their work. At the same time, the first national parks were established, and hiking trails and camping sites were created in suburban forests, which gave impetus to the development of modern nature tourism.7Ibid. The term “forest people” truly became widespread during the Singing Revolution and has now firmly established itself in the Estonians’ consciousness. This idea, which may seem a staple to our nation, has actually taken shape within a rather short period of time.8Ibid.

The relatively short age of the concept of a forest people should not in itself undermine its value. A national identity that values nature, combined with environmentally-friendly customs, could be one of the antidotes to an increasingly urgent ecological crisis. Unfortunately, however, the opposite is true. The unwavering faith of Estonians in their own closeness to nature does not allow us to notice the real environmental problems around us.9Linda Kaljundi. Ökovisioonid: Eestlus – loodusrahvamüüt keskkonnakriisi ajastul. Vikerkaar 9/2019. We do not even consider the issues of nature conservation important when voting,10Asko Lõhmus. Metsapoleemika kolmandal aastal ronisid kollid kapist välja. Sirp 30.8.2019. which results in the continuation of environmentally harmful management from one government to the next. Asko Lõhmus has reflected on this: “Perhaps we can even explain the popularity of Valdur Mikita’s books with our wishful thinking that picking mushrooms could redeem the damage we do as a nation?”11Ibid.

This exhibition, with its Estonian title also borrowed from Mikita, started to take shape in a felled milk cap forest near Risti. For a long time, it seemed that this was also the exhibition’s only specific connection with the forest. In fact, the forest here is a figure, an archetype of nature. Pine-fulness is a collective sketch of the Estonian identity, landscape, shallow soulfulness and national greenwashing, which began as a cunning comedy and has become a desperate tragedy over time. Everyone knows that in order to see the forest behind the trees, one only has to enter it. It is much the same with art, which can be a kind of impartial mediator in dealing with complex and controversial topics. Provided, of course, that we look beneath the surface and see, for example, the landscape around a jogger, the year number in the corner of a cartoon or the banknotes in the sails of Kalevipoeg’s ship, Lennuk. What do these images say about the historical connection between Estonians and the landscape?