Fred Jüssi as a nature writer

Fred Jüssi first became known as a voice on the radio and a photographer, but over time has become a living classic of Estonian nature writing, one of the most important representatives of the nature writing genre in Estonia. In the film Olemise ilu, his musings provide good summaries of topics he has written about in his nature essays, such as the importance of residing in nature, the ability to value silence, and the observational skills needed to relate to both the surroundings and to oneself. By way of these topics, Jüssi has drawn attention to environmental change, as well as the transformation in human-nature relations, which has provided him great heartbreak. Fred Jüssi also undoubtedly has his favourite landscapes, for instance, he has written extensively about riverside forests and ponds, and also marshlands or islands. Important places in his stories include Kõrvemaa, Soomaa, and the island of Vilsandi.

Discussion on the basis of the film clip:

  1. Pay attention to how Jüssi describes nature. How would you describe his experience?
  2. What role do Jüssi's words play in the film? Would these words work even without the picture?

What is nature writing?

In the widest sense, nature writing is the mediation of nature, or one way of “translating” nature. In this sense, any written text that discusses nature may be viewed as nature writing.

But there is also a second, more narrow definition, which has been developed by the semiotician Kadri Tüür, who in analysing books and texts about Estonian nature found that they share some common lines. In the more narrow definition, nature writing comprises texts that depend on the authors’ personal experiences and valuations of nature, and which use literary techniques, but are also exact in the natural-scientific sense, and transmit real knowledge about the environment situated outside of the text. The objective of works of nature writing is to create interest in nature amongst readers, and in this way lead them into nature. 

Nature writing is not literature in the classic sense, but is a field existing on the boundary of informative literature (such as tourism books and other documents), scientific literature, and literature as such. When dealing with nature writing one is usually dealing with an essay-like text written in prose. 

Estonian nature writing and nature photography usually go hand in hand, with musings or thoughts presented alongside photographs. Fred Jüssi has also practiced this, with his most famous works such as Jäälõhkuja (“Ice Breaker”) or Rajamustrid (“Patterns of the Path”) being collections of both photographs as well as texts.

For examples of nature writing, let us look at two textual excerpts from Fred Jüssi:

“Not a single voice. No strokes of song […] And where have the butterflies of early spring gone, the golden brimstone butterfly and the small tortoiseshell butterfly with its energetic wings? Something is wrong. Or is this a bad dream? […] I snap a maple branch. At the point where it breaks, a glittering bead appears. […] No, this is not a dream; the flow of sap has begun. […] Evidently a cataclysm has occurred and by chance I happen to have made it to a small haven preserved in these forests. Or, despite every warning, has humankind once again succeeded in a new madness? Is this truly a voiceless spring? […] Suddenly a joyous chirping is heard. A squadron of tits has appeared on the edge of the forest. […] Oh no, it is not a catastrophe, just nature being misleading. It is the heart of winter, the time that the human consciousness usually associates with the toughest freezing and the coolest winds” (Jäälõhkuja 2007: 37-39).

“Silence has its own measure and it is different for everyone. Some cannot stand silence, while some need it more than others. But alternation is also needed. I cannot imagine silence lasting forever. It would, for instance, tire me out. We live in the mixed forest zone. I cannot imagine having to live without echoes in my ear. I have never heard the silence of the desert, but I know the silence of the open field, I have also worked with it. Finally it becomes unbearable, because with sounds also come echoes, and sounds have their own colours, and, for instance, the surroundings wherein sounds develop give them colour, and I consider these the sounds of nature. They are coloured by the humidity in the air, by the time of day. It is very interesting to hear them in some forest glade or next to a river. I have experienced this once in Kõrvemaa, on the Kakerdaja bog; I was out in the morning recording and that morning has always remained memorable on account of the colours of its sounds. It was so quiet that the sound of dogs barking in far-away villages where the people had not yet awoken reached the bog. Over the span of ten years there have been four or five of these types of mornings, but for some reason it was this occasion that I have especially remembered” (Mister Fred 2009: 247).

The characteristics of nature writing are especially noticeable in these excerpts of text:

  • The author’s own experience coincides with the expression of thoughts (the author and the I-character are the same, and much of the descriptions pertain to the author’s perceptions and sensations, for example, in the case of heard sounds). 
  • In transmitting the experience of nature or in describing nature, an artistic style is used, or literary techniques are used (such as comparisons or the use of figurative language; in the above excerpts the use of short sentences to emphasise a point is an example of this).
  •  The texts have a natural-scientific exactitude, and in addition to emotion they also provide information about the environment (for example, the use of correct nomenclature, such as “brimstone” or “tortoiseshell” butterflies).
  • The purpose of the texts is to awaken interest in or favour towards nature (for example, the description of an early-morning bog likely creates the desire to experience this for oneself on the part of the reader). 
  • The centrality of place. The texts always have a dose of knowledge of Estonia, and the authors feel the importance of designating the places they are writing about. The texts name places and oftentimes transmit information characteristic of the concrete regions they are describing (as in local stories, names, and so on; Jüssi names Kakerdaja bog, for instance). 

Of course, different authors write differently, and on account of this some texts may emphasise the characteristics of a place more than others. There are many natural-scientific authors who attempt to document the surroundings, while there are also authors who muse and mediate in more abstract or artistic ways.

Extra material
  1. Maris Sõrmuse’s lecture on the Novaator website.
  2. Kadri Tüür and Timo Maran’s overview article, or their radio lecture on the same topic
  3. Kaisa-Maria Ling, Kristel Algvere and Lona Päll’s discussion circle on nature and how to write about environmental problems on the IDA radio show RÕHK.
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