#Resident’s Notes 3 – Maria Esko

2023-05-12

On the closing day of Druskininkai Poetic Fall 2019, an odd bunch of Baltic literary activists found themselves in a drowsy conference room, trying to come up with a great idea. Even though it was way too early for epiphanies, we did. We decided to publish a literary review in English that would introduce Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian contemporary literature to each other and to the outside world. It was one of those almost-too-obvious flashes of genius that make you think – has this really never been done before?

Well, if somebody had indeed tried to pull it off before, they were really good at keeping it from Google. The meeting ended with enough ideas for at least 10 editions and enough money for exactly 1, so we got to work. We spent many, many more hours in other conference rooms in other cities, sharing a very vivid feeling of what “Baltic” represents to our group, yet struggling to turn that feeling into a catchy title for the review. We did end up with a nice list of baltically nuts titles, like The Baltic Mushroom and, our favorite, Helmet of Satana. Then, the question of amber emerged. One of us stumbled upon an article from 2012 titled The Land of Amber is Short on Amber: https://www.15min.lt/en/article/economy/the-land-of-amber-is-short-on-amber-527-213025#_

While most of the things we, the Balts, have in common are arguable, there is no arguing with the fact that all the larger cities of the three countries have a multitude of boutiques promising Baltic Amber in bold letters. Alright, we all know full well that the Baltic Sea is not limited to our three states, but we also know that one of the few keywords our countries are associated with is indeed “amber”. So we felt like it might be time to let the world know that we actually have No More Amber. We took a vote, and it was decided.

From all the feedback we got after publishing the magazine, it’s safe to conclude that the title is freaking great. However, it can also tweak quite a bit of misunderstanding. On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked what our problem with amber is, and why we want to cancel it. These unexpected confrontations have been as thrilling as they are puzzling, and they’ve made me curious about what amber means to us as individuals and Balts. Personally, I’ve probably never perceived succinite as a part of my (Baltic) identity. To me, it’s something that’s never really been ours, like a really nice little party bonus for our past colonizers, another gift of nature that can be pumped out of its source to make money and/or pretty things. Having had the unique chance of spending two whole months on the Curonian Spit, arguably the last stronghold of amber in the Baltic states, I thought about that magnificent oddity every single day. Here are three of my notes on the matter:

 

I

Juodkrantė

While lurking around Google Maps for places to see on the Curonian Spit, I noticed a curious place called Amber Bay. In my head, these words generated a colorful image: a formidable wall of amber stands along a massive and super instagrammable bay, myriads of amber fridge magnets, keychains, bracelets, pens, broaches, figurines – amber everything you can think of, and more. Plus large laminated (if not lightboxed) dashboards explaining the glorious history of the landmark in at least six languages. When I got to Amber Bay, I was really confused to see a perfectly random looking half-open pond with a tiny, shaggy wooden pier and a couple of tired fishing boats resting nearby. If there hadn’t been a sign clearly stating that I was in the right place, I would never have taken a second look at it. Nothing else indicated that there used to be a famous German-sounding company that excavated 70 tons of amber per year.

When quick googling led me to the Juodkrantė treasure, I was simply baffled. A 434-piece collection of man-made figurines from 5000 years ago. I mean, the fact that Baltic amber itself is 40 MILLION years old gives me fever, but so does reading about these little tokens of our ancestors’ artistry… All these pendants, figurines of men, animals, and obviously phallic figures, because nothing says ’I am a prehistoric finding’ better than a 3D dick pic. I found it hilarious that when the first ancient figurines turned up, they were simply given to visitors as funny gifts, and puzzling that the last known pieces of the amber are kept in Germany while the Palanga Amber Museum is exhibiting replicas.

 

II

Palanga

The next obvious step was to go to Palanga, where I had the privilege of a private museum tour. I told the charming guide about our magazine; she nodded politely and started taking me through the fascinating exhibition. She walked me through the natural history of Baltic amber, precious findings, ancient and modern jewelry, and she explained all the clever uses people have found for it, from water enhancer to knife heads to body scrub. She told me about how back in the old kingdom days, locals were punished with death if they happened to get caught with over two pounds of amber in their pockets because all amber belonged to the king, and one mustn’t steal from the king!

After I mentioned the article about our coast running out of amber and how, 11 years ago, most of the world’s amber came from Kaliningrad, she kindly reminded me to look up the history of Kaliningrad. The colonial disco around amber, plus the overwhelming evidence that humans have known and deeply appreciated the many virtues of amber way before knowing its history, suddenly gave me a lot to think about. Seeing that, the guide gave me a clever smile and said “So maybe we do need amber after all.”

No objections.

 

III

At the beach, after the storm

My first days in Nida were mostly occupied with being amazed by the lagoon. There are not THAT many factors affecting its appearance, and yet it’s totally new every day, every single time I look at it. So it took me some time to even think of checking out the beach. Eventually, I tried to share my free time more or less equally between the two shores because they gave me a peculiar feeling of balance, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

One day, on another slow walk along the beach, my eyes were locked on the little stones and pebbles washed up after the storm. I could study stones all day long and never get bored of all their layers. My house would probably be a museum of stones if I didn’t feel like I was taking something away from the stones by taking them away from the beach. So sometimes I just pick up the weirdest ones, carry them around for a while, and then leave them for the next pebble-nerd. That’s exactly what I was doing when I noticed a very clear piece of amber glimmering in the sand. It was my first, so I was madly excited. I slipped it in my pocket and kept walking. After just a few steps, I found another one, which seemed strange. But they kept catching my eye, and I kept picking them up. Another one, then another. It wasn’t my first walk by that beach, and my brain was on no-more-amber-mode, so it was all very odd. I kept walking and picking and pondering until I realized that I’m wildly hungry and way past where I wanted to be. I gouged all of my findings out of my pockets and took a second look before saying goodbye.

I recognized the first gem I found because it was completely different from the others, which looked more like pale yellowy-orange pebbles and made me crave jelly beans for some reason. I decided to keep a couple of souvenirs this time.

 

*The “Artist Residencies” project is funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

 

Rezidento penktadienis: kūrybai įkvepianti Nidos aura

Rezidento penktadienis: kūrybai įkvepianti Nidos aura

Lapkričio 11 d. Neringa šventė savo gimtadienį ir kvietė įveikti „Kuršių nerijos pašto stočių maršrutą“. Tarptautiniame vertėjų ir rašytojų centre įsikūrė atvirlaiškių kūrimo dirbtuvės, kurių metu edukatorė Valdemara Butkevičienė kvietė dalyvius nupiešti Nidos aurą....

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