Estonian nature under a Roman sun - thus might be characterized these parts of Ontario, the Muskoka lakes and woods. Very superficially. To be more exact, the latitude is not exactly that of Rome, but Milan’s to be sure. And when looked at closely, there is almost nothing truly familiar in the nature around here. Everything is familiar, but at the same time also outright strange.
That I am very far away from home I realized the first morning in Toronto as I awoke at kind Käbi Lokk’s place. Birds were singing outside. Why they should be singing in August is a question in itself, but not so significant. More important, their song had me altogether confused. It sounded familiar enough, but I could not make out a thing. As if domestic birds had suddenly begun to speak a foreign language or as if the right birds had studied with the wrong singing teacher. They were singing somehow backwards. That was exactly the first word that came to mind. From this I gathered that I am indeed far from home. That I am in America.
These days, when an ocean-crossing voyage has become a matter of hours, no longer weeks, never mind months, it is as if that very distance is kept mum. As if it did not exist. But it does surely.
So it is with nature and the woods here. Really, at first glance: like the forest of Estonia and the bush of Estonia. Yes, like. But in reality not at all. All the trees are different, almost all the birds are different. The light and the climate – altogether different. My first experience of nature from Kotkajärve (Eagle Lake) the first early morning, when I went down by the lake before sunrise: the power of that sunrise. Strictly speaking – power. In Estonia, a northern land, even in summer the sun rises slowly and diplomatically, dawn lasts for several hours, mist hangs quietly over lakes, and disappears just as quietly. Here the sun came out from behind the woods as if it were tossed up. And the fog did a dance at the same time on the lake, as if someone were chasing after it with a club.
Already for these personal experiences it would have been worth coming here to distant Muskoka. But at least equally worthy, no, stronger still, was the human experience Metsaülikool (University in the Woods) afforded. It is one thing to have read and heard about all these things, another to experience it on site and with such intensity. There is even in the spiritual passion of Metsaülikool something of Ontario’s sunrises, hot summer and waterfall-like heavy downpours. All this was at once very Estonian and at the same time not hitherto experienced. I learned a lot. But that is after all why one comes to a university, however wild – to learn.
For the people from these parts the week of Metsaülikool no doubt recalls their childhood scout and guide camps, for me it recalled from my childhood the young friends of nature camps somewhere in the Estonian wild. On the one hand the simple camp life which, boldly and in spite of modern times, people have succeeded in preserving. On the other hand a great interest in learning. Though the students for the most part are no longer exactly school age.
The most beautiful personal memory, however, that will stay with me from Metsaülikool is those Estonian language and conversation group morning lessons, where together we translated my beloved Estonian poems, by Viivi Luik and Aleksander Suuman, into English. The goal of course was not the translations themselves, but delving deeply into the poem’s every word and thereby going beyond the words. Even for me, although I have long known the verses by heart, there opened up, thanks to my most keen course co-participants, quite a bit that was new. Besides that I got to know a thing or two about the Estonian and also English languages, the relationship between them and also that exciting variety of Estonian that has developed over the years here in North America. In it there is not only the singing sound of the good old pre-war Estonian language and home dialects, but also the new experience collected over the long stay abroad.
To conclude I would like, though, to make an appeal or rather to repeat over again an ever verdant appeal. Dear Estonians in America and elsewhere, write down your memoirs, your stories! No one else can do this for you. These authentic and plainly recorded materials are often much more exciting than many an artistically fabricated literary work. For the generations born here or resettled as children, the tie to the Estonian written language has at times weakened, but that should not be made an obstacle. Memoirs can just as well be written in English, their translation is already a smaller task. The main thing is, that what has been, be in writing. Of course, many have already written their memoirs. But that does not matter. Each person’s story is unique and the story as a whole of Estonians in America is something especially exciting.
So last of all I want to say thank you for the lovely opportunity not only to see this little corner of Canada and North America, but to see it also through the eyes of my fellow countrymen and women. How much more wonderful still that I can live now for a whole month on the shore of Orujärv (Valley Lake) and in this at once very homey and very exotic place, I can be, think and write. A writer’s only lucrative capital is experience: leaving here I will no doubt be far richer than I was coming here.
Translated by Alja Pirosok
DIGITAL Estonian Life No. 8 - February 26, 2021
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