Latvia: A Fleeting Glimpse of a Baltic Parkland pt.1

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Our ship, the Nautica, chugged out of the port of Helsinki and into the turbulent Baltic Sea bound for Latvia. I was looking forward to seeing Latvia in person. I did one of my cruise ship lectures on Latvia and wanted to see it up close. But, alas. 

The night was anything but tranquil. I was glad I was in bed and didn’t have to face the squalls and torrential rains. Our smaller than usual cruise ship had many amenities to offer, but riding rough seas was not one of them. Although certainly bearable, I felt the boat pitch and roll more than my stomach wanted. I woke up to see a gray and threatening sky with winds blowing sideways. I suspected that we would not be able to dock in Latvia for our day’s excursions, and the ship’s intercom soon announced that very fact. I was disappointed.

At least, I was able to unpack my suitcase that had been lost for five days in the mysterious innerworkings of KLM airlines. As the concierge promised, the suitcases arrived safely in Helsinki and had been efficiently transported to our ship and then whisked to our room. My travel companion, Susan, and I were thrilled. At least, I had a waterproof spring jacket to wear about the ship, if I decided to bravely venture onto the deck and into the squall.  

So, my blog today will not be about my delight at setting foot in the charming city of Riga, the capital. I will not be able to describe my wonder at seeing the UNESCO preserved Old Town, and its treasures from the past. Instead, I will write a blog based on my research of the country that I used for my cruise ship lecture. Not quite as personal as I had hoped, but I don’t want to skip over such a fascinating country.

Riga Cathedral, Old Town, Latvia

Latvia is an enticing mix of old and new. From its well-educated workforce to the treasures of Old Town Riga, Latvia blends its fascinating past with an optimistic future.

The tiny country bordering the Gulf of Riga is a tapestry of sea, lakes and woods, and this inviting country is best described as a vast parkland with one center—its cosmopolitan capital, Rīga. Western Latvia is rich in virgin forests and gently undulating landscapes that become wilder further east.

Wind-swept northern coast of Latvia

Most of the country is composed of fertile lowland plains and moderate hills. In a typical Latvian landscape, a mosaic of vast forests alternates with fields, farmsteads, and pastures. Arable land is spotted with birch groves and wooded clusters, which afford a habitat for plants and animals. Latvia has hundreds of kms of undeveloped seashore—lined by pine forests, dunes, and continuous white sand beaches. 

Latvia has the 5th highest proportion of land covered by forests in the EU, just after Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Slovenia. Forests account for an astonishing 56% of the total land area.

The Environmental Performance Index is a method for evaluating and ranking a state’s environmental performance. The 2016 index ranked Latvia 22nd, Lithuania 23rd, and Estonia 8th, based on the environmental performance of the country’s policies. Finland ranked number 1, Iceland 2, Sweden 3, and Denmark 4. My country, the U.S., ranked 26. A little side note here, sadly the most war ravaged and dangerous countries, such as Somalia, Mali, Haiti, Lesotho, and Afghanistan were at the bottom of the index in 2014. 

Approximately 30,000 species of flora and fauna have been registered in Latvia. Common species of wildlife include deer, wild boar, moose, lynx, bear, fox, beaver and wolves. The white wagtail is the national bird of Latvia. 8

The Soviet Union began their occupation of Latvia in 1940 during World War II, wrestling it from the Germans. In the post-war period, Latvian farmers were forced to follow farming methods of the Soviet Union and collectivize their farms. Small, family farms were wiped out. With the dismantling of the collective farms after the collapse of Soviet rule in 1991, the area devoted to farming decreased dramatically–now farms are predominantly small.

But agriculture is still important to the national economy and includes 29% of the total land area.  Approximately 200 small farms are engaged in what they label “ecologically pure farming,” what we say in the U.S. as organic agriculture, which means using no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. 

Stay tuned for part 2 of Latvia on Friday, February 12.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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