This audacious escape occurred in the month of May and the patrol boats that guarded the coastline made the young men’s daring dash northwest across the Baltic Sea to Scandinavia very risky. Hundreds of submerged mines and choppy seas increased the likelihood of their flight ending in disaster …. only one fatal turn of events and I would not be here writing this story today.
Forty-six years later I was to set foot for the first time in my life on Hiiumaa. Overrun by the Red Army in 1945, those inhabitants not deported to Siberian labor camps remained behind to settle into a state of slow-wave sleep. Their farm animals and tools were confiscated, private ownership was proclaimed illegal and all of the beaches became out of bounds for fishing without official approval in writing. They simply chilled out for fifty years like 20th century Sleeping Beauties waiting to be released from a coma.
The Iron Curtain of the USSR blocked any attempts for escape. Watch towers resting on spindly stilts populated the entire Estonian coastline, supposedly to stop capitalists from invading their soviet utopia. These structures housed armed guards trained to shoot freedom seeking “comrades” intent on taking flight from the stifling stagnation that settled over the once democratic and industrious nation.
On my ferry ride from village of Rohuküla on the mainland that October of 1990, my eyes strained to scan the horizon for any traces of dad’s island that might suddenly appear.As I neared the end of my one hour and forty minute ferry ride, I spied a distant, grey-green brush stroke of coastline confirming Hiiumaa’s existence for me. The right side of my brain concurred with the logical left side to agree that this fairytale place did indeed exist.
As we approached the wooden dock in Heltermaa, I noticed only one colorless cottage off to the right perched close to a rocky beach. A handful of drably-dressed people stood waiting at the waterfront bundled up in a style of clothing unfamiliar to me. The late afternoon cloud cover only served to reflect the total lack of visual cheeriness in this world I was about to enter.
This visit symbolized an important benchmark for me. In spite of the ominous soviet backdrop, I harbored the idealistic notion that my arrival would herald an important reclamation of status, at least at some spiritual level. I saw myself as an ambassador for my father on a predetermined quest to set things right.
The taciturn Russian border guards who checked my special issue “island-visiting visa” triggered a tug of caution in me. My inner guidance system warned me to assume an expressionless face while taking bold peeks under the invisible veil that covered this isolated soviet outpost.
I would explore an island that many a past visitor had found to be a convenient resting place. Vikings heading east to trade in Constantinople left behind traces of their presence on these western most islands of Estonia. I was to learn what these subtle legacies were and marvel at their sustainable message over the centuries. For now though, my first impressions of this fairy story world I’d harbored in my imagination for so many years were disappointing. The soviet veneer was not
I had a strong urge to leap back in time and retrace the steps to freedom that had been realized over half a century ago by my teenage father and his friends. I wanted to see where he stepped off the island for the last time and where he’d lived. I wanted to smell and touch the soil that my ancestors had tilled to feed their families and countrymen.
I often wondered if there exists some mystical, dormant memory in our cells that vibrates a “déjà vu” within us. My logical mind rationalized that these were simply rekindled recollections from childhood stories I’d listened to about escape and intrigue associated with Estonia. The Latvian poet Ziedonis has expressed it this way:
“Who else could say it this way, if not a human being who has inherited in his genes special hearing? An ear for trees inherited from countless fathers.”
This ancient island was created over 455 million years’ ago by extra terrestrial forces. Over the steady course of time, the cluster of atolls produced by an exploding meteor rose slowly up from the Baltic Sea revealing first, Kõpu peninsula in the west, and later as the island continued to ascend, a flat swan-like outline caught in the act of gracefully landing on the water’s surface. Indeed, the island folk have attached a romantic spin as to how Hiiumaa, one of the oldest islands on the planet, came into existence.
Estonians are part of the Finno-Ugric tribe. The languages that this tribe speaks are not Indo-European such as German or French. They have funny sounding names such as Erzya, Udmurt and Moksha. A better known language in this group is Finnish, similar to Estonian. Amazingly, the Finno-Ugric people have been in Europe for at least ten millennia. They share a similar way of thinking called boreal thinking where they don’t consider nature as an object but more like a partner for coping with life. These cultures are non-aggressive always choosing to find a way to get along with the neighbors and often migrating to other areas to save their identity.
Estonian mythology pre-dates Christian times so that bits and pieces of stories from many sources such as historical chronicles, ecclesiastical registers and travelers’ tales have grown over the centuries. A movement to systematically record Estonian folklore started in the 19th century and is still ongoing.
When people appeared they made sure to anchor their bird-island from the center to avoid the risk of their “bird” from taking sudden flight. The people who came to live on this island were called “hiidlased”. The word “hii” is associated with the word “hiis” which means “sacredness in natural places.”
Historians say that this word came about in the late 19th century when Estonians awoke to a national romanticism and growing desire for freedom from 750 years of serfdom under the Baltic German land barons. Officially a part of tsarist Russia, the tsar allowed the German elite to own land and build their mini empires in Estonia and Latvia. Their origins are traced back to the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries. Prior occupations by the Swedes and Danes contributed to layers of identity piled upon the spirituality of the Estonian and Latvian.
They were groves of trees, forest clearings, meadows, springs, fields and hills. They were and still are considered zones of peace that provide contact with the supernatural. This is where people worshiped, celebrated, received healing, gave offerings and held council. They are the unassuming, moss covered, primordial remains of forests that became sanctuaries of spirituality. The vibrations that were emitted by these sacred spaces healed the sick, gave counsel to those seeking answers and comforted those in need.
The principle of non-violence to people, animals and plants is vital in the sacred grove. No twig should be moved. No disturbance should be made. One visits the sacred grove in a state of cleanliness and sobriety.
I’d never heard of these places before and wondered how a patch of ancient, half fallen, stooped trees could have any spiritual power. They are not the tall and incredibly imposing California redwood trees. Nor do they grow on the slopes of magnificent mountain ranges such as the great-girthed Douglas fir in the North American Rockies.
The sacred oak and linden trees have been described by the respected chronicler Balthasar Russow in 1578. Born in Tallinn, then called Reval, in 1536 he wrote about the decline of the Livonian Order originally created by the Teutonic Knights to help the Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The Teutonic Knights hired mercenaries all over Europe to supplement their feudal taxes and establish a powerful naval presence in the Baltic Sea.
Under the watchful eye of the Soviet border guards, I admired Ranna Ella as she held her near naked beauty in check. The seated statue was originally named Tuules, meaning In the Wind, but the locals preferred Ella of the Beach. She’s a statue perched on a rock at the little port reminding us that we should enjoy the wind, the sea, the sun and the hospitality of the islanders.
As I explored the coastal areas during my 15 year stay in Estonia, I became fascinated by the generous sprinkling of large erratic boulders carried by the glaciers that had descended from the north during the last Ice Age. These rocks don’t originate from the place where they are found. They tell us stories about what the earth looked like far back in time by their composition, their derivation and their creation. They are a link to the past and predate most of the species on the planet today.
When you look at them, they appear out of place as if someone dropped them down from the sky. There is a sensation that they are not here to stay but one day will roll away in pursuit of another resting place. It’s no wonder that prehistoric people felt a supernatural presence exuded by this geologic phenomenon.
Underneath lies the limestone bedrock covered with a thin layer of soil. These are not the fertile Russian steppes where the dark hummus is so rich in nutrients a dropped potato will quickly take root and grow with no need to be buried.
Across the country road from my grandfather’s farmland in the northwest quadrant of the island sits Reigi parish church. Originally built around 1627 by Baron O. R. L. von Ungern-Sternberg for his son who had committed suicide, the word reigi means “smoke” or “fire” in Swedish. The son, deep in debt, sought a quick end to his misery and is buried in the church graveyard. Churches were typically built on sacred sites so it seems this is the sacred place the baron had chosen to lay to rest his wayward son.
The son was a chip off the old block since the baron himself was well known for luring trading vessels aground by a misplaced light that the crew thought would guide them safely through the treacherous, rocky coastline. Instead, the wily overlord pillaged the wrecked ships for his own financial gain. He was eventually condemned to spend the rest of his days imprisoned in Siberia leaving the next generation of Ungern-Sternbergs to their own devices.
The graveyard at Reigi is surrounded by vintage lilac trees that are interspersed amongst the silver birch and linden trees. Iron crosses mark the graves of the previous owners of the island. These fragrant walls of purple and green partition the graveyard adjacent to the church into intimate gathering spaces. Benches are conveniently positioned near the graves allowing relatives, friends and visitors to sit awhile and connect with the vibrations pulsating around them.
In 1990, rarely did you hear cars and never any airplanes or jets overhead. The odd military truck would ramble by a few times daily but for the most part, the silence was punctuated by the sounds of nature that funneled into your ear canal playing lightly upon the eardrum.
Diagonally across the street and behind a wood 700 meters in from the road was my grandfather’s farm. The original farmhouse built by him had been torn down since it was unoccupied and the wood was needed elsewhere. The nearby cooperative farm now owned the property since the nationalization of private property in 1940 prohibited private ownership.
Combines more suitable for the deep soil of the Russian steppes were used to plow the thin dirt of Hiiumaa bringing to the surface chunks of limestone that the kindlier horse drawn plow never could or needed to reach.
The soviet system had broken down cultural traditions that had professed pride in hard work. No longer were the land and living things nurtured. Once ownership of land went to the state a detachment between people and nature had developed so that even tractor drivers would burn and dynamite great oak trees if they got in the way. The landscape had changed and with it the islanders sense of personal identity.
The way the people perceived their environment defined the importance of what they experienced. For centuries the sacred places had been protected by the religious traditions of the country folk where nature had been allowed to evolve uninterrupted. This natural wealth provided a source of balance and inner power.
The sacred groves are Estonia’s national shrines. The country has about 2300 registered natural sacred groves. This heavily forested island continues to provide safety for the endangered European mink as well as for the wild boar and fox.
In the 1990s a renewed longing for the authenticity of the ancient values and practices emerged so that today Estonians are reclaiming the identity that was denied to them.
Farmers can again take midday naps under the soft rustle of the linden tree leaves in the summertime. They catch the aroma of honey pouring down from the leaves. In the distance, the silver birch is singing its language of songs as it bends to every movement of the wind. The noble, the sublime and the honorable can be seen once again providing a sense of place. The island is firmly anchored to the national identity of the hiidlased. The invading overlords did not succeed in entirely obliterating the natural sanctuaries. The spirit of resistance and self-worth won out.