the estonian aesthetic

ON THE ROAD between Sõmerpalu and Sangaste, I stopped my car and got out to take in the view. No matter how many times I travel this stretch of highway, the effect is the same, especially in spring. I love the grassy hills that roll like seas, the trim green forest line, the air that’s so fresh it hurts to breathe it, the farm buildings clumped together here and there, each one forming a perfect minimalist island. This is the Estonian aesthetic razed into the landscape: pure, sparse, spread out. It reminds me of that famous Arvo Pärt quote, “In art, everything is possible, but everything is not necessary.”

This point came up recently in conversation at a cafe with a newer arrived foreigner who wanted to know about the origins of the peculiar local names “Tiit” and “Priit.” “Tiit,” I told him, probably comes from the German name ‘Dietrich.’ Maybe one of the Order knights was named Dietrich, you know, in the 13th century? The Estonians probably called this knight ‘Tiidrik.’ Then they shortened that to ‘Tiit.’ It’s the same with Friedrich. Friedrich, Priidik, Priit. The Estonians are practical people. They only need one syllable.”

Practical yes, but that’s only part of it. Rather, Estonians value the beauty of efficiency. In trying to describe the national aesthetic to outsiders I have often relied on the metaphor of the Japanese zen rock garden, where rocks are carefully selected and arranged in order. It’s an assembly where every component serves a purpose, and any part that does not complement or support that specific purpose detracts from it. It idealizes restraint. Simplicity. Less is more. Everything is possible, but everything is not necessary. This is their philosophy. It governs all. It’s why people won’t return your letters if there was no overwhelming reason to. It’s why people won’t go to the same store twice in the same day if they can help it. It’s just too much. The ideal Estonian day would hum along with tones of minimalist perfection ringing out like one of Arvo Pärt’s compositions.

As clean and tidy as the Estonian countryside itself.

How strange then that this fondness for less is more hasn’t carried over into the commercial culture. For if the nature of the land and its people is one of restraint, of austerity, of less is more, the world of commerce has embraced the exact opposite. In the supermarkets of this country, more is simply more, and you must have more and more of it. Every holiday centers on total excess. Come Saint John’s Day, not only are the bonfire piles stacked high with wood, but the shopping carts are full of products and packaging.

Who knows how many plastic tubs full of fatty kebab meat, or how many cans of lukewarm amber beer, pass through the intestines of the Estonian nation on these feast days of gluttony. I imagine mountains of pork, lakes of alcohol, or swamps of greasy salads. When it’s all over, the cans and plastic containers and utensils are tossed away, removed to somewhere out of sight.

Yet just because it’s out of sight does not mean that it’s out of existence. It just goes somewhere else in Estonia. So that even if you stop on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere to marvel at the countryside, you may be rankled when an empty bag of potato chips happens to float by in the wind. Which is what happened on the road between Sõmerpalu and Sangaste.

I chased the bag down and picked it up, and put it in my car to throw out later. There was already a ton of trash in there anyway. An empty plastic bag of popcorn, a plastic container of nuts. There was even an empty bag of olives. Then I looked at the scenery of the Estonian countryside again, breathed in that wonderful air, so heavy on the lungs, and understood better why I enjoyed it all so much. The land was natural, ordered, and (mostly) spotless. It was uncluttered and ascetic. Everything that my life wasn’t.

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