Latvians and the Forest

What do people seek and find in the country’s forests?
trail snakes through the green latvian forest in summer

On several occasions recently I’ve felt a particularly strong sense of gratitude towards the forests of Latvia. Just last weekend, I believe the two hours I spent wandering through the thickets – lost at one point – rewarded me with the best night’s sleep I’d had in months. Earlier in the autumn, a similar walk brought me nourishment in the form of wild mushrooms and berries. Every time, I’m more and more appreciative of living in a place with easy access to the green wilderness.

That Latvians feel a strong connection to the forest is perhaps “nothing new” – our forested landscapes are even an element of the national cultural canon, and Latvian mythology and folk songs speak of Meža māte (Mother Forest) in an indication of the meaning our ancestors bestowed on the woods and the value they drew from them. 

But I caught myself wondering what the forest means to Latvians today and whether we share a similar sentiment. To find out, I asked around – what does the forest mean to you? What do you seek there and what do you find? Here’s what came up. 

Linda Priedniece, book seller, critic and photographer based in Madona  

The forest is firstly memories from my childhood, when I’d spend the holidays at my grandmother’s house in the middle of the woods, which I was strictly forbidden to venture to alone. 

There was a hazel next to the house, and I was so surprised that you could get nuts from a tree. That’s where I got a sense for the diversity and mightiness of nature and learnt to feel reverence towards it. Of course, at that point I wasn’t aware of the privilege that is growing up in an environment like that. 

My later memories are of trekking through huge heaps of snow to fetch a Christmas tree. If I close my eyes, I hear laughter, see snowball fights and dazzling whiteness all around. Everything seemed massive, the treetops unreachable and the air strangely refreshing. The forest has gifted me my fondest memories. 

Later in life, walking in the woods has saved me from depression. The fresh air and presence of trees have soothed my anxiety, helped me return to my body and replenish my spirit. Through photographing these walks, the forest has brought me priceless meetings and friendships, which have fulfilled my life and even changed its course.

Now, I feel that my relationship with the forest is changing. It’s closer to me than ever, and I’m suddenly aware of my scarce knowledge of sustainability. I see how often human interests conflict with the rules of nature. For millions of people around the world, the forest is a significant source of food and income, but even so we often lack awareness of how we waste these resources and how life without them would be unimaginable. 

Krišjānis Rozītis, forester based in Madona 

To me, the forest means freedom. In the practical sense, it gives me the opportunity to earn a living through the resources it provides by investing little human labour in return. It enables me to spend time in a biodiverse and clean environment, transforming this environment to my best ability to make it visually and practically more appealing and valuable for future generations, birds and animals. 

I largely seek a connection to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which is rarely practised in the western world these days and involves foraging, hunting and fishing for food. The lifestyle and spending so much time in the woods inevitably lead to witnessing unique natural processes and phenomena, which most people never experience in their lifetimes. 

Agita Birziete, tourism marketing specialist based in Jelgava

I remember going to the woods as a child, having to make a whole pilgrimage across the meadow or mud-bath of a freshly ploughed field in autumn to get to our little forest, which was paradise for our group of friends. We’d built a hidden fort between the mossy rocks. The woods were our special place where no one else was allowed. Already then, I was definitely aware of the mightiness of nature. 

With time, the forest overgrew, our fort fell apart and I started to spend most of my time in the city. 

Still now, to me the forest means home. I’ve only really begun to understand that now in my thirties. I used to be afraid to be alone in the woods. Now, I realise that the forest signifies the return to or finding of oneself. In the forest, you inevitably connect with yourself. 

Just as it can be scary to be alone in the woods, it can be scary to be alone with yourself if you haven’t visited your inner self in a long time. Also, the forest too seems more threatening if you haven’t been there for some time. But, if you’ve made peace with the forest, it’s the best possible home. And then the magic happens – it just keeps on giving. 

The best therapy, the best conversation is the one you can have with yourself in the forest – no words, just feelings, giving and receiving, opening up and appreciating. 

The phytoncides flood your lungs, your nose picks up on the special scent cocktail unique to each place – the bitterness of rotting leaves mingling with the light freshness of buds and sun-smoked pine needles. It all flows into your body and, just like that, you’re reborn. A joyful acceptance of the simplicity of being wakes inside you just like when you were a child. 

Madara and Māris Laizāns, lovingly restoring a farmhouse near Kuldīga

The forest brings up associations with peace, freedom and fresh air. It’s a place to renew your energy and is good for both mind and belly. 

We venture to the woods to pick mushrooms in season and make chanterelle sauce for potatoes, which we never otherwise eat! We’re not berry pickers. Occasionally, we eat game meat hunted by our relatives. 

Every once in a while, we’ll take a walk in the coastal forests when we need to have a tougher conversation or simply clear our heads. 

Renārs Purmalis, chef and author of the cookbook Gatavo dabā (Cook in nature)

The forest is where I go to work and rest. Somewhere I feel good on weekdays as well as weekends. A place for energy exchange where you can both give and receive.

I look for peace and the symphony of the woods – birds, the wind, rivers, animals… It’s particularly interesting when the evenings are completely shrouded in silence and the mornings so full of life. 

To sleep in the wild in winter is a special experience when the snow muffles any sounds, you light a fire and hear the wood crackle. 

Along with peace, I also seek adventure in the woods – new trails, exciting places, caves and the best spots for mushrooming. 

Māra Sleja, TV host and model based in Riga

The forest is a place I go for physical and, mostly, mental respite. The smells, colours and the walking itself are great for relaxing. I particularly enjoy coastal forests, and coniferous forests are a dream.

I don’t really seek anything or go with a clear intention – I just go, enjoy and find things. Foraging is also wonderful. 

As long as there’s peace and quiet, and if I get to see a woodpecker – one of the birds I recognise, because I’m not really that knowledgeable about birds and trees. Also, seeing how bogs become forests and forests merge with bogs. Noticing those shifts, especially in forests you frequent. Because, even if it feels somewhat the same, it changes all the time. 

Of course, things are different in the dark. Then, I prefer having someone next to me. 

I really feel at home in the forest. You can always find something interesting there – like anthills. Going there with the kids is the best adventure because they see things differently, and so I develop a different perspective too. 

Jānis Lungevičs, scientist based in Riga 

The forest is an oxygen-generating, eye-pleasing organism. 

I mostly find myself there for a very practical reason – to find fallen trees to fuel the fire at my parents’ home to keep it warm in winter. It’s kind of funny but, apart from that, I don’t really have many reasons for heading to the woods. Every once in a while, I do just go to check on the state of it and try to spot some animals though. 

What does the forest mean to you?

Can you identify with the spiritual and practical layers that came up?

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