Feature: Resilience, connection with nature will see Saaremaa rebirth ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Deserted streets in Saaremaa's capital,  Kuressaare, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Deserted streets in Saaremaa's capital, Kuressaare, during the coronavirus pandemic. Source: Ben Jones

Such a precarious global event can have many people questioning if there is anywhere on earth yet to be significantly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, writes Australian journalist Ben Jones, who lives on Saaremaa, the worst affected region of Estonia in the coronavirus pandemic so far.

Instinct suggests the most isolated corners of the globe yet to feel the full brunt of the pandemic may be the best examples of societies still functioning relatively normally.

Saaremaa may be one of the few places globally bucking this trend, despite the relative seriousness of the island's situation compared with the rest of Estonia, and the world.

On the surface, Saaremaa faces significant changes and challenges being at the epicentre of the outbreak in Estonia, sitting isolated in quarantine from the mainland for almost a month.

The streets and shopping centres of the island's capital, Kuressaare, are all but deserted, at a time when the town would normally be waking from hibernation with the advent of spring.

Deserted streets in Saaremaa's capital, Kuressaare, during the coronavirus pandemic. Source: Ben Jones

Kuressaare is currently much like its regular winter self - dormant and waiting for its population to swell with the arrival of the seasonal warmth and with it hordes of international and domestic visitors.

But while the tourist influx has failed to follow the spring sunshine, and doubt surrounds what remains of the island's tourist season, Saaremaa locals still seem determined to maintain some sort of normality.

Connection with nature runs deep

I find myself on this beautiful island in the Baltic Sea excited about a new way of life, having relocated here from my home in Australia at the beginning of 2020.

My initial assumptions of the Saaremaa lifestyle before arriving were based on an almost mythical abstract of traditional island life and its people's long-time magnetic connection with nature.

Springtime skyline in Saaremaa's capital, Kuressaare. Source: Ben Jones

These ideas were formed based on the discussions and stories told by my partner, a local from Orissaare.

I've never met anyone with such a deep fascination for flora and fauna, sunsets and anything natural and beautiful.

Her connection with nature comes from her Saaremaa roots, growing up on a farm, or a "block" as we in Australia would call it, large enough to produce enough food to sustain a family, and domestic use.

Weekends are for fishing, working in the garden, exploring the forests and spending time with the family, seemingly detached and self-sufficient, away from a busy world on the mainland and beyond.

Island comes to life in spring

While the winters are tough, spring is when the land and the people come alive and rejuvenate their connection with nature.

Islanders experience this important symbolic rebirth and emergence from the darkness once-a-year, and it forms the cornerstone of who Saaremaa people are and how they approach life during good times and bad.

Even in isolation and under the blanket of a global pandemic, this way of life is evident now, as islanders reconnect with nature with the arrival of spring, maintaining their long-time affiliation with the land.

The surrounding forests are blooming and attracting flower pickers and walkers eager to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the new season.

Spring flowers bloom in Saaremaa's forests. Source: Ben Jones

Streams and riverbanks are increasingly dotted with eager fishing enthusiasts dropping in a line and making the most of the changing weather conditions.

Kuressaare's beautiful centrepiece castle is a beacon for walking, running, rollerblading and cycling locals venturing out to enjoy the sun as it more regularly rears its head through the clouds.

All while responsibly keeping in mind social distancing, of course.

This strong connection with nature is a Saaremaa brand of resilience helping its people maintain a sense of normality and calm during adversity.

And it offers an example of how behaviour driven by preserving traditions can have a strong influence on how a collective should handle tough times.

Australia handling coronavirus very differently

Saaremaa is a stark contrast to what I see in my home country.

There are many examples there of people handling isolation with panic, inadvertently fuelling hysteria by venting their greatest fears and frustrations on social media, and (still) hoarding toilet paper.

Compared with Saaremaa locals, much of Australia's population is urbanised and materialistic, and arguably, many seem to be suffering from a lack of resilience and direction, without an outlet or escape from the constant barrage of negativity, doom and gloom.

My friends, family and the general wider population in Australia are suffering under the cloud of a new and foreign type of fear, potentially exacerbated by the wider population's comparatively sheltered status and seclusion from wider global disasters over recent history.

Tough survival instinct on Saaremaa

I can obviously relate, as a healthy Australian who's experienced little adversity, especially compared with many of the people I now find myself living alongside.

Saaremaa's island-wide quarantine was enough to instil a new type of fear into me, and like many others, my stress is bred by uncertainty and the prospect of change.

But I feel more secure seeing how Saaremaa people have developed a tough hide to combat this type of fear.

It's thanks to the benefit of experiencing and surviving change, and a determination to maintain what's important - its longstanding connection with nature.

There's no sugar-coating the situation though – Saaremaa will continue to face significant challenges going forward, having already suffered difficult circumstances over recent weeks.

But it is in some way a relief being based here in Saaremaa during these tough times, alongside people believing despite the issues they face, the world will continue to turn, and spring will inevitably arrive once again.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: