I’ve written many articles about Latvia but this one perhaps gives the best over-view of the country. Published in different forms in Outdoor Photography and BBC Wildlife Magazine. © Niall Benvie 2003.
The old ties to Scotland are straining like the baler twine holding up a crofter’s gate. In the last few years I’ve been enchanted by the Polish forests, bewitched by the Norwegian mountains and enthralled by the Latvian bogs and meadows. In terms of nature unmediated by man, all Scotland seems to offer me now is a coastline worried ragged by the Atlantic. Yet I am native here, have grown up knowing that wildness thrives in the cracks of our cultured landscape, that contentment must come from the appreciation of fragments and remnants. Now though, the sense of belonging to this place, where every so often the light shames me for having forsaken it for so long, is weakening with every iron hard winter morning or soporific summer afternoon spent in the Baltic. The sudden clamour of spring and certain arrival of autumn are so much more fitting than the reluctant surrender of winter to spring, the ambiguity of summer and the protracted decay back into winter I experience in Scotland.
I try not to let the roots grow too deeply. Home is a domestic as well as a spiritual concern. But there are places I have visited in Latvia and Estonia – wooded meadows and still birch forests – that stir something in the deep memory, something just out of reach. It’s as if I’ve been waiting my whole life to see them. Photography in these places becomes an extension of feeling.
A relationship with the nature of these countries is indivisible from that with its culture. In trying to understand why I feel so at home there, I’ve realised that there simply isn’t the degree of polarisation between these two spheres as there is in long-industrialised Britain. The countryside is seen as the natural venue for leisure time as well as a provider of good food at little or no cost. It is treated, perhaps unconsciously, as a contributor to the wealth of the nation, without the need for it to be packaged and turned into just another consumable commodity. Of course, it also provides the greatest part of Latvia’s foreign trade revenue comes from; about 45 percen of the country is wooded and forestry is an important employer.
Cultural roots are woven deeply: many people have surnames that are the names of plants or animals; the oak and lime are revered as symbols of national identity; almost everyone goes to rest in a forest grave yard. While Christmas is celebrated, it is a low-key affair compared to Jani – the Midsummer Festival (on 24th June), preceded on the 23rd by Ligo – Herbs Day. These are events with pagan roots, enjoyed by the whole population, reflecting the sincerity of the Latvians’ enjoyment of the natural world. Strangers and friends mix at these parties and for a taste of cultural life, this is the time to visit. Beware though of the expression “It’s raining like it does at Jani” (like it’s raining cats and dogs) – although the summer weather is generally lovely, more often than not it’s wet at the Midsummer Festival.
Sometimes though there are bewildering contradictions. I was photographing a field of cornflowers and other “weeds of cultivation” near the Russian border a couple of years ago when an old lady came along and asked what I was doing. “If you want to photograph flowers, then come to my garden!” she offered.
Contempt of the familiar is not unique to Latvia, of course. Perhaps I am guilty of it in respect to my feelings about the Scottish cultural landscape. But how much easier it is for foreigners to highlight the distinctiveness of the familiar than it is for native naturalists. And the Latvians really have a biota to feel proud of. Many species which in Britain have marginal, expensively maintained populations – corncrake, ladies slipper, marsh harrier, sand lizard and red-backed shrike, for example – are well represented. Latvia has core populations of lesser spotted eagle, white backed woodpecker and a vital one of black storks. And that’s not to mention its vast, intact peat bogs; Teici, for example, at 19337 ha, is one of the largest remaining in Europe.
As I’ve grown more uncomfortable with simple feel-good photography (that is, when it is presented without a context) I’ve also learned that foreign interest matters to conservationists in lesser-known countries. In respect of Latvia and Estonia there should be great concern about the threat to traditional rural life if accession to the EU (which is still subject to domestic referenda) brings with it the discredited Common Agricultural Policy. But there should be hope for alleviating rural poverty in the Baltic if an enlightened policy is introduced which recognises the scope for meeting demand while maintaining biodiversity. For reasons more of economy than principle, there is limited use of inorganic pesticides and fertilisers which means good water quality and vigourous populations of insects, amphibians and all the life that relies on them. Indeed, the density of amphibians is such that in winter, they exceed fish as the main prey item for Latvian otters. On the downside, when you get an infestation of Colorado beetles on your potato plot, you get out and pick them off by hand. The majority of farmers are small scale and lack the capital to compete with industrial farmers of western Europe, let alone conform to EU health, welfare and safety requirements. In the absence of a policy which recognises the unique contribution the farmers of the Baltic States could make to the EU and the creation of distribution structures to facilitate that, the prospect is for a take over by western farming companies or else the further abandonment of land. Both are impoverishing in their different ways.
Working with local biologists, foresters and farmers, it is possible for foreign photographers to get under the skin of a country and to work with them to highlight their concerns to an international audience. In unfamiliar places the photographer’s role can evolve from entertainer to advocate.
Had Latvia the game of east Africa or the mountains of the Switzerland, it would surely have surrendered itself to tourism. But beyond Riga, it has largely been spared; there are few self-conscious representations of itself to satisfy tourists. Its charm is subtle, cannot easily be packaged nor yet photographed. The visitor from the UK can enjoy a sense of abundance and diversity rarely matched at home in a landscape where natural and culture loosely interweave. The freedoms to roam might be familiar to the increasing numbers of visiting Scandinavians but are liberating for Britons.
During the Soviet times, which ended in 1991, the Baltic States were seen as a vital buffer against the west. Many parts, such as the Slitere Nature Reserve in northern Kurzeme, were off-limits even to local people and dense forests and bogs were viewed as vital impediments to invading forces. Because so many Latvians had relatives in the west who had fled immediately after the Second World War, the numbness of authoritarianism was experienced more acutely here than in most other satellite states. It seems ironic that I should now find my own sort of asylum in these same forests and bogs.
At least 6 months before you go: consider having the vaccination against tick-borne encephalitis. Many ticks are carriers of this serious condition and Lymes disease and are the only dangerous animals you are likely to encounter.
Getting there. No visa is required. British Airways operates flights to Riga out of Heathrow on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday each week. If you wish to visit Estonia as well, cheap fares from Riga are available from Baltic Air. www.britishairways.com
Car hire from Budget, Hertz and Avis is available at the airport, although much cheaper deals can be struck out of Riga. Beware of the poor state of many roads and hire an appropriate vehicle. Observe speed limits carefully and if stopped, be prepared to pay the, by UK standards, modest fine directly to the traffic policeman.
Currency: It is not possible to buy Lats in the UK, but cash machines accepting credit cards are to be found even in quite small towns in the provinces.
Where to stay: Practical information on accommodation is to be found at www.latviatourism.lv
Janis and Anna Macani, Idena, Nagli Pagasts, Rezeknes District, LV – 4631
Useful websites: The Latvian Institute sites provides information about all aspects of the country, including its natural history: www.latinst.lv
The best site for birders is www.putni.lv
Kemeri National Park: www.kemeri.vdc.lv
NGO’s: WWF (Latvia): www.wwf.lv
Latvian Fund for Nature: www.daba.lu.lv
Latvian Ornithological Society: http://home.parks.lv/putni
Books: there is very little in English available but the Bradt Travel Guide: Latvia is a good introduction
There are currently no companies in the UK offering wildlife holidays in Latvia.
Sites not to miss:
Kurzeme province: Slitere National Park – beaches, migratory birds, pine forests; Kamparkalns – rolling country with lots of beavers; Lake Engures – water birds; Lake Pape – koniki wild horses; Zemgale province: Kemeri National Park- everything from black storks and white backed woodpeckers to lampreys and wolves; Vidzeme province: road from Berzkrogs to Madona – flower meadows and old rural architecture; Gauja National Park – number one place for autumn colours, with sandstone cliffs; River Salaca – outstanding flood plain meadows and sandstone cliffs; Latgale province: Lake Lubans and Idena – water bird and reedbeds; road between Aglona and Livani – sylvan idyll; Teici Nature Reserve – lowland raised bog of gigantic proportions
Must eat: Karbonade; wild boar; pirags; quail’s eggs (farmed); Laima chocolate. Must drink: Birch sap; mushroom tea; kvass; Rigas melnais balzams, Aldaris Zelta Gold beer.