The Word Forest in Estonia: Why it Matters

Word Forest Estonia Independence Project with Name Labels on Pine Trees in Lahemaa National Park

Nearly half of Estonia is covered in forests (49%, to be precise), so it’s hardly surprising one of the big celebrations of Estonia’s centenary involves a newly created Word Forest (Sõn Mets) in Oandu, part of Lahemaa National Park. This project sees individually labelled trees dedicated to journalists who have written about Estonia and its legacy, spreading support around the world.

In fact, when Estonian independence was regained in 1991, the country saw international journalism as a key factor in securing its new-found freedom and keeping its name in the media. The first named trees acknowledge those early visitors to newly independent Estonia, then the names mark key journalists who have visited between 1991 and 2017.

Despite being only two years old when independence was won, I am lucky enough to have a pine tree named after me in the Word Forest, as I’ve written quite a lot (and gabbled on in person) about Estonia since my visit there in 2016.  New names will be added to the Word Forest four times a year.

Essentially, forests are interlinked with Estonian lifestyle and culture, from sports to poetry and art; Estonians even bury loved ones in these surroundings. 30% of Estonia’s forests are protected, so future generations can enjoy them.

Forest Brothers freedom fighters in woodland, Estonia, Baltics
The Forest Brothers, fighting the Soviets from the forests of Estonia. Credit: Estonica.org.

Why a Word Forest? Because Forests Mean Everything Here

Foraging is popular, with berries, sorrel and mushrooms high up on the list; the woods and forests of Estonia are more of a food source than in the UK, where you might see the odd mushroom hunter or blackberry picker if you’re lucky, and a few Londonite hipsters will claim to be foragers, but they actually mean they can navigate Wholefoods like a pro. Estonia is firmly eco-friendly: even children know how to forage and why it’s important to look after the environment. The Let’s Do It clean-up movement, now a global initiative, was born here in 2008.

Forest bathing, fast becoming a global wellness trend, is something the Estonians do well. They see the forests as relaxing spaces and safe havens. In fact, forest bathing and nature as relaxation are huge talking points for Visit Estonia, the national tourist board. There’s currently a lot of travel industry focus on Japan as the ultimate forest bathing destination, but I firmly recommend you try Estonia. You might even spot some wildlife, like a bear, a moose or a flying squirrel.

On a more sombre note, the forests across the Baltic became a refuge for Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians rallying against occupying forces during and after WWII. These freedom fighters became known as the Forest Brothers, or metsavennad (though women also joined). Their harrowing stories are a reminder of the risks they took to try and liberate the country.

In an effort to get locals to betray the Forest Brothers, the KGB used typically barbaric torture methods: electric currents applied to teeth and feet, beatings, and so on. They also deported kulaks (peasants) to Siberia. You can learn more about the KGB’s tactics at the KGB Cells Museum in Tartu, for just a few Euros – it’s not an easy visit, but a poignant one.

Bog walking in Estonian forests with trees, plants, moss, etc.
The ‘swamp forest’ landscape, seen during my bog walking trip to Lahemaa National Park.

Finding Forests Nearby

Even in Tallinn, you’ll find pockets of woodland to escape to. Try Kadriorg Park, where the KUMU Art Museum and the Presidential Palace are both tucked away in the trees. In the south-west corner of the city, the Harku Forest Trail begins on Tähetorni street.

At the Pähni Nature Centre, in southern Estonia, you shouldn’t miss the giant megaphones installed to amplify the sound of the forest. The wooden megaphones are an art project, but you can sit on them or play music in them if you like. They are a non-intrusive and very fitting addition to the landscape.

Meanwhile, bogs (also referred to as ‘swamp forests’) make up 20% of Estonia. Bog walking in Lahemaa National Park was an unexpected highlight of my trip to Estonia last year. Aside from the occupational hazard of mosquito dodging, I found it so calming to walk across the bog in the early morning light. As you use a wooden walkway, you don’t need special shoes to do this – trainers or walking boots are fine.

The bog landscape is full of colour: reddish aquatic plants, like villi, waving in the water; slate grey water against bottle green trees and sage green lichen. Clumps of moss and layers of fallen pine needles lie underfoot. It’s a tactile environment. Read more about my bog walking experience here.

People in forest behind letters spelling out name of Estonian project to celebrate words and independence.
Visitors to the new Word Forest in Lahemaa National Park. Credit: Ettevõtluse Arendamise Sihtasutus.

Words are Precious in Estonia

Words feel precious in Estonia because Estonians simply aren’t very talkative. Without verbal diarrhoea or constant small talk, every word carries extra significance. It’s a bit like the cool person in school, who said very little but made a lot of sense when they felt like speaking. Instead of talking for the sake of it, Estonians are enthusiastic folk singers, crafters, designers and artists.

They’re also huge book lovers, devouring the written word. Tartu, one of the main cities, is a designated UNESCO City of Literature, with a prestigious university. Estonians feel affinity with outsider writers like Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe, so they have a statue of the pair meeting on a park bench.

During the Nazi and Soviet invasions, not to mention previous occupations in the last few centuries, Estonians saw their own language and culture diminished. Certain texts and authors were banned. The invaders’ languages were encouraged and, in the case of pre-20th century occupations, some people changed their names to sound more German or Russian.

More recently, during their time under the Iron Curtain, Estonians were starved of propaganda-free culture, but some in the North found they could tune into Finnish television as they lived relatively close to Finland. With Finnish bearing a strong resemblance to Estonian, they could understand and enjoy Westernised shows in secret.

With national identity so closely tied to both forests and the often-suppressed Estonian language, it’s fantastic to see these two elements combined in an attraction that both tourists and locals can explore. And, of course, I can’t wait to track down my tree.

Photo credits for the Word Forest: Ettevõtluse Arendamise Sihtasutus (Enterprise Estonia).

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