by E.A. Johnson, TALLINN

Baltic Bonfires

Good Flame, spread the word

from shore to shore, beach to beach:

We must save our sea.

The fires honoring Ancient Bonfire Night burn along the shores of the Baltic Sea once a year. Despite the promise of its name, this night of flames is a new tradition which began in the Finnish coastal town of Turku in 1992. Celebrated on the last Saturday evening in August, these first Finnish bonfires have since spread west to Sweden, as well as south to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – exactly in the same way that ancient bonfires once carried their messages of warning. These original Baltic signal fires alerted coastal populations of the very immediate threat posed by approaching invaders or marauders. Today, Ancient Bonfire Night is meant to warn us that the entire Baltic Sea ecosystem is in danger and under attack. And this time around, we are the very people threatening our sea. We are the 15 million who live along the Baltic’s shore in eight European Union member states as well as in neighboring Russia. And we are the 85 plus million people who live within the Baltic Sea’s drainage basin. The bonfires burn once a year to remind us that we are the problem – and that we may hold possible solutions.

Another sample page
A sample page from Poetics of Endangered Species; Estonia

About a dozen years ago, a Ukrainian-Estonian Cistercian Friar named Anatoli Ljutjuk answered the call of the bonfire. As the founder and builder of Tallinn’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and its congregation, Anatoli’s first thought was to pray for all of God’s creatures that he found within his church’s beautiful courtyard and whose fragile Baltic ecosystem was under threat. From Anatoli’s first prayers, came his first icons. He prepared his boards and painted them in such a way that these icons would help him focus and amplify his prayers. And each time he came across a new endangered species, he would add them to his icons. His multi-part icons then grew and grew to the point where they resembled the spread-out pages of a huge medieval book.
While deeply religious, Anatoli is a man of many different talents and ideas. For example, he also founded Tallinn’s Ukrainian Cultural Center. And this Center, it just so happens, is home to a calligraphy school and print shop as well as the first new handmade papermill to appear in the Baltics in over a century. As these icons of Estonia’s threatened species already looked like a giant book, Anatoli thought: why don’t we turn them into a real book to reach even more people? All Anatoli needed to create the perfect blend of poetry and art were the right texts to accompany his illustrations. For a while, Anatoli’s idea for this book devoted to Estonia’s endangered species remained only that – an idea.
Everything changed in the spring of 2006 when a young Estonian poet named Timo Maran happened to visit the Ukrainian Cultural Center at the suggestion of a friend of friend. By that time, Timo’s first collection of poems had already been published and he was writing regularly about nature as a lecturer in semiotics at Tartu University. Upon seeing Anatoli’s icons and hearing him speak about his idea for a book, Timo was inspired to write a series of short poems – almost haiku-like in their simplicity – dedicated to each one of these vanishing Estonian plants and animals. While joining his twin fascinations with poetry and nature was an easy step, Timo’s poetic masterstroke came when he discovered the perfect way to give voice to these otherwise voiceless creatures by using projection. And so, each one of Timo’s poems is told from the point-of-view of each endangered flower or fish or bird or frog or mammal. In other words, these poems are not about Estonia’s flora or fauna but are from them instead. Each poem is addressed to us. And it is up to us whether we chose to heed them or not. We might really want to listen as each one of these poems is a small bonfire warning us of another species’ impending extinction.

Sample sheet from Poetics (image and poem do not match because of the way the book will be assembled)
A sample page from Poetics (the image and poem do not match because of the way the book will be assembled)

All these many bonfires – built either from wood or from words – are needed because our entire Baltic Sea ecosystem is facing several major threats at once. Over the course of the 20th Century, the Baltic Sea took a severe beating. First, there was over-fishing – which, to a certain degree, continues even today. Just visit any fish market along the Baltic shores and you’ll find that most of the fish comes from lakes, rivers, and estuaries – or other, far-off seas – and not from the Baltic.
Then came the pollution – the seemingly endless raw sewage, industrial waste, and agricultural run-off dumped into the sea by the Soviet Union and other countries. Two World Wars – in which the northern Baltic became one of the world’s most heavily mined bodies of water – meant that dangerous chemicals also ended up in the sea along with all the detritus from hundreds of sunken ships, submarines, and exploded mines. Even though as many as 2,000 ships are on the Baltic Sea on any given day – each wreaking their own miniature havoc as they sail – unexploded mines are still fished out of Baltic waters from time to time.
And thus comes the threat of shipping accidents – including major oil spills – which remain a constant threat in what is one of the world’s busiest shipping zones. Some larger ocean-going vessels already bring along their own small accidents that are just waiting to happen – a regular influx of invasive species from other bodies of water, threatening the already delicate balance in the Baltic. And then there are the cruise ships. Every summer, local coastal tourism also continues to add its own version of stress on the ecosystem. Once a dumping ground, the Baltic Sea still serves as a playground for those living along its shores. But the most dangerous threats of all may only now be starting to grow.
Despite various EU regulations, fertilizers used on farms all across the Baltic drainage basin continue to end up in the sea. This agricultural run-off has helped produce the world’s largest human-generated dead zone. To explain it in another way, we’ve managed to turn as much as a quarter of the Baltic Sea floor into the equivalent of a desert where no life can live. The scientific name for this process is eutrophication. It happens whenever algae blooms out of control, feeding on phosphates and nitrates from agricultural fertilizers as well as from sewage. And it happens whenever there is nothing in the ecosystem that can consume this algae or otherwise keep in under control. In the end, this complex chain reaction of organic events creates so much algae that it sucks all the oxygen out of the water to the point where no other forms of life can survive.
And if killer algae were not enough to worry about, then there is the threat of climate change looming over the horizon – an unpredictable wildcard which could generate even larger and more unexpected changes within the Baltic Sea. Everyone should be worried as whatever happens in the waters of the Baltic Sea will eventually generate a ripple effect that will reach us even on the driest land – especially as many of us live in countries without mountains or even hills. Just one look at the near-catastrophic effect that we’ve had on the Baltic Sea over the last 100 years should provide a clear answer to the question: Do we humans really have an impact on the world around us?

As a way to signal the alarm – or to ring the proverbial church bells in warning, Anatoli and his team began work on the original handmade copy of the Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia, inspired by the illuminated manuscripts once made in the medieval monasteries along the Baltic shore before the arrival of the Reformation. In addition to Timo the Poet, the other key members of Anatoli’s creative team included his son Nestor, the new illustrator (his style was considered more appropriate for the proposed book) along with Estonia’s top calligrapher, Heino Kivihall, who added handwritten texts.

Nestor Ljutjuk working on Poetics Illustration
Nestor Ljutjuk working on the illustrations for Poetics

While the actual Estonian title of the book became the Poeetiline Punane Raamat (The Poetic Red Book), this translator took some poetic license – while adding a nod to Aristotle’s original Poetics – for fear that the phrase “Red Book sounded much too Maoist. And the more UK-friendly “Red List” – the standard technical term of art used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – was not really suited to describing a work of art made on handmade paper and then illuminated by hand.
With funding support provided by both Eesti Kultuurikapital (Estonia Cultural Capital) and Estonia’s Integration Foundation under the coordination of Marge Laast, Anatoli and his friends at the Ukrainian Cultural Center went on to produce a facsimile edition of the original Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia in 2007. When its print run of 500 copies sold out, this illustrated collection of poetry became the Estonian equivalent of a bestseller in its class. These days, it is almost impossible to find even used copies of the book for sale. The Poetics has effectively vanished.
Poetics bound in wood boards
The Poetics bound in wooden boards

Everyone should be worried that the Baltic Sea – the world’s youngest sea, which finally emerged from the last Ice Age about 10 to 15,000 years ago – may be the next sea that we degrade to such a point that we end up killing it dead. The Baltic Sea’s unique eco-system is especially fragile for a number of different reasons, starting with its brackish water – a mixture of salt and fresh water. Measuring 377,000 square kilometers, the Baltic may be the planet’s largest inland brackish sea. However, when you compare it to almost any other ocean or sea, the Baltic is neither deep nor large, but is instead rather shallow and small. And then, most importantly of all, the narrow Danish Straits known as the Kattegat serve as a bottleneck which prevents the Baltic Sea from flushing out all of its pollutants and other threats into the much vaster North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Without regular influxes of healing salt water, the Baltic Sea becomes even more vulnerable. To complicate matters even further, the salinity levels in the Baltic Sea vary along a gradient, which bring it ever closer to freshwater as you head into the Gulf of Bothnia, due to the increased inflow from river water up north.
The result of these variations in salinity is that the Baltic Sea has never been a single or uniform ecosystem but is instead an interconnected series of overlapping ecosystems. In some places, the water is too salty for freshwater species to survive, while in others, it is not salty enough for saltwater species to thrive. This makes the Baltic Sea incredibly fragile. Even a small change to this delicate balance can pose an immediate and cascading threat.

Pulling Sheets of Handmade Paper
Pulling sheets of handmade paper

While the original Poetics of Endangered Species focuses on Estonian flora and fauna in danger of disappearing, Estonia’s ecosystem is obviously only one of the many interlocking ones located along the shores of the Baltic Sea. From the moment Anatoli first conceived of the Poetics project, he always envisioned that other countries along the Baltic shores would want to join him and thereby light their own poetic bonfires to signal the danger facing all the plants and animals along our coast. While a Poetics of Endangered Species: Ukraine appeared thanks to the generosity of a Ukrainian foundation, Anatoli’s hope has always been that the Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia would be followed by similar volumes for Latvia and for Lithuania, focused on their threatened fauna and flora. From these first three Baltic steps, the next goal is to create a Poetics of Endangered Species for other countries along the Baltic shore, as well as one for the entire Baltic Sea.
To honor Estonia’s 100th anniversary this year, Anatoli and his friends decided that the time was right to produce a new and improved version of the Poetics of Endangered Species. But instead of looking to Estonian foundations for support this time, the creative team decided to try crowd funding their new book using Estonia’s Hooandja platform. The project (you can see both the video and its accompanying text here) was a success – attracting 275 supporters and raising almost 9,500 euros, breaking its 8,000 euro target. Perhaps Latvia or Lithuania – with their larger populations – might be able to follow a similar model and join in Anatoli’s Poetics project.
With the new Estonian Poetics successfully funded, Anatoli’s creative team went to work. Timo and Nestor were joined by a new calligrapher named Tatiana Iakovleva. This core team worked together with paper markers, printers, translators, editors, and project managers to create seven illuminated manuscripts as well as 500 facsimile copies of the original. Everything came together on September 15th, 2018, when the Ukrainian Cultural Center hosted a formal book presentation where Hooandja supporters picked up their special facsimile editions while the National Library of Estonia and the Tartu University Library each received an illuminated manuscript to add to their rare book collections. And so, the bonfire that is the Poetics burns on.

Tatiana Iakovleva working on her calligraphy
Tatiana Iakovleva working on her calligraphy

While the Poetics is one way to respond to the Baltic bonfires, there are dozens of other projects out there designed to raise awareness and tackle environmental problems that are searching for our support. Yes, the government of each country along the Baltic shores – as well as the EU itself – is taking steps to minimize our collective impact on our sea. But without a groundswell of grassroots support, these official actions may end up being too little, too late. So beyond making all of those necessary life-style choices designed to minimize our impact on the Baltic Sea, we should also join forces with every existing environmental NGO that we like – to include Let’s Do It, launched in Estonia in 2008. But whatever we do, we all need to find a way to answer the call of the bonfire before it is too late for the Baltic Sea – and for all of us.
Heavenly Bonfire!
Light up these dark Baltic shores!
Burn, Sun, for your Sea! 
Poetics Handmade Edition GIF

E.A. Johnson works as a volunteer at Tallinn’s Ukrainian Cultural Center. You can follow his other writing projects at – new subscribers are always welcome. And if you are interested, you can find facsimile copies of the new Poetics at the Labora Shop online or in Tallinn at Vene 18.
All images credit: Labora (
© Deep Baltic 2018. All rights reserved.
Like what Deep Baltic does? Please consider making a monthly donation – help support our writers and in-depth coverage of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Find out more at our Patreon page.