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Pteris Cedri The Baltic Twilight

Midsummer is magical. The short nights and drawn-out twilights of the brief Baltic summer are the spectacular antithesis of winters pitch black spell. Alvis Hermanis, a wizard of the Latvian theatre and an avid student of that elusive thing called a national character, spoke of poetry being the primary art here, deeply ingrained, our prehistoric ancestors brooding red-eyed in their smoky wooden hovels until they refined an introspective sensitivity. High summer, however, is a time when the soul can wander bodily and commune with nature. There is no high drama; the quaint town of Kuldga may boast Europes widest waterfall, but its height is distinctly underwhelming. The word for hill and mountain is the same in Latvian kalns but no one would ever mistake even the highest hills here for mountains. Whats special about nature in Latvia is how people interact with it. In the November 1990 National Geographic cover story about the Baltic nations, Priit Vesilind observed that it is not wilderness that is sacred here but nature tended by the hand of man. Woodlands cover about half of the country. There are wild places wild horses, even but the unique beauty of the countryside is in its culture, whether in seeing more horse-drawn carts than cars on some of the roads in Selonia or in the singing of ancient songs on Latvias most significant holiday, Ji, after the summer solstice. Most urban Latvians have never lost their rural roots and even cosmopolitan Riga has its wild side; unwilling to evict a colony of beavers, the city fathers are now concerned about a hundred of the creatures wreaking havoc along the banks of the canal that separates the medieval Old Town from the elegant central district. Veselind made his remark in the context of a talk with Imants Ziedonis, one of Latvias greatest living poets and a prominent environmentalist. Let us not speak of stones. Stone is sacred. Between the wars, Latvians began to catalogue great trees and great stones. Not only size but also folklore can qualify a stone stones with names that reflect their cult status (dragon, sorcerer, werewolf) are automatically great. In the pale light that creeps back already in the wee hours, in the silence of the woods, a traveler even today can invoke the pagan wilds of Europe, its borderlands steeped in fairy tales. The Celtic Twilight is well-known the Baltic twilight less so. Throngs of tourists are drawn to Transylvania by Dracula but the land that sings, as Latvia has branded itself, keeps its legendary creatures of the night under wraps. Near our dacha there is a rickety bridge across a gully where the Devil is reputed to linger,

dressed as a dapper Baltic German baron of yore. The lake below has a mysterious island with the remains of a sacrificial altar. Out there, weve no electricity and fetch our water from a spring. Reading the records of the 17th-century trials of suspected werewolves by candlelight, an owl hooting in the towering trees, the mythological becomes palpable. A word of warning to those tempted to try shapeshifting watch where you put your clothes when you get naked. If anyone touches them, youll have to stay a werewolf.

2012 Pteris Cedri. The text first appeared as a column in Baltic Outlook, July 2010.