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I’m back in the States now – Tuesday the 6th of June I arrived home from my months in Estonia, on the 10th I moved to a temporary place in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and started working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) on the 12th. And this last weekend I was in New York City for a concert.

The move back has been a little overwhelming to say the least. The most immediate things I notice: it gets dark so early (well…the sun was setting around 10:30PM in Tallinn, so around 8:30PM feels unimaginably strange), the cars are so much bigger, the roads are so much more crowded, there is so much English writing and talking everywhere, American Flags (and their poles) feel almost as numerous as trees, the spoons are smaller, vanilla extract exists in bulk quantities, and gas is so much cheaper.

But now that I’ve had a chance to actually catch my breath a little, it is the little stuff I’m beginning to miss:

Every Monday that I was in Estonia, I would bring cookies to share with my colleagues. I’ve yet to have the time to bake anything (but that will hopefully be resolved soon).

I miss the semi-serious conversations about gender in engineering (like during International Woman’s Day when I just happened to be the only woman in the lab), about equality, about politics, about just about everything.

I also miss just having many familiar faces in the lab and the senses of humor each of them brought.

But I don’t want to dwell on these things – rather, just be grateful that they happened. My time in Estonia was a number of firsts: my first apartment that was actually mine, my first real research work as a vocation, my first time living in a foreign country, my first time applying for a residency permit, my first time since being of driving age without dependence on my own car, my first independent train and bus trip, my first time working with underwater robots, my first travel-for-work trips, my first international collaborations…the list goes on. There were so many small, special things that I loved about living in Estonia, and living independently, that it would really be impossible to capture what it means to me.

I’ve definitely come home a changed person, and I’d like to think a better, more confident, person than when I left. I have high hopes that the next adventure will yield more firsts, more character growth, and more opportunity to build friendships with those around me. And also, hopefully, more cookies.

Field Trials

The last two weeks of my time in Estonia were a whirlwind of work.

My project, allowing the bio-inspired U-CAT to autonomously enter, explore, and exit an enclosed submerged space, was able to be fully tested at Rummu Quarry.

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The building we were exploring is the one that is fully submerged in the right foreground.

Rummu was the first place I visited outside of the lab, so there is something a little poetic about returning for my final field testing.

We’re still processing the results, but so far so good. I have such gratitude for the lab for spending those two weeks with me – either on the boat debugging, driving, or documenting, or in the water diving to support and observe the robot behavior.

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Go U-CAT, Go!

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Oh, hello there!

Once the results are in, I’ll let you know. For now…I’ll still be working on simulations, data processing, and getting everything wrapped up neatly state-side.

Among Nature

In a sort of “last hurrah” before the beginning of field trials for my work and my imminent departure, Christian and I took a trip to Lahemaa National Park, which is located along the Northern Shore a bit East of Tallinn. The park boasts a number of landscapes to explore including: bogs, coastal vistas, primeval forests, and huge glacial boulder debris fields. We were lucky enough to experience most of these through several hikes.

One of the most popular trials here is a short trials through the Viru Bog. Featuring boardwalk paths through the multi-faceted bog landscape which includes acidic reflecting pools, short brush, unique flora tundra, and old peat fields, the trial is simply a peaceful reflection of what “natural beauty” can mean outside of stereotypical (yet gorgeous) sunsets, mountain passes, or flowering valleys. The subtlety of the wonders in the bog make one mindful of their surroundings so as to not miss a particularly small carnivorous plant or blooming miniature bog birch.

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View from the observation tower along the trail.

Estonia is actually a leading peat exporter in the world. Awe your friends with that trivia fact!

The coastal paths around the peninsulas offered a different sort of reflection – that feeling of something both familiar yet distinctly refreshing anytime one is blown about by a sea breeze. Along the peninsula we chose to explore, seabirds make their nests and the grounds are an important area for several endangered/impacted species. Birds of all feathers could be heard throughout the walk – from the monotonous cuckoo bird (they really do sound like the clocks! or I guess the other way…), to nightingales, to blackbirds, to crows…It was nearly a cacophony.

Something to be wary of: ants. So. Many. Ants. We’re talking anthills the size of tree-stumps (ok, for better reference, as much as a meter in diameter and 0.25+ meters high) writhing with ants. Intrepid ants which can be found quite far from their home. And don’t mind crawling up shoes…or pants…or shirts. Ah.

Of course, we also took in a sunset at one of the peninsulas.

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No photo can really capture the true beauty of a sunset, but perhaps it can evoke one little bit of the moment. Also, for reference, this was about 10PM.

One of the last trials we visited was an “unmaintained” primeval spruce forest (at least 120-150 years old). Unlike forests which are roughly maintained, other than the boardwalk path plopped into the middle of it, the trees were left hanging over the paths, toppled, brush uncleared, decay left for all to see. The difference between this and a maintained, or even just young, forest is actually startling to behold. The diversity of the plant life seemed much higher, and the evidence of animals (wild boar, moose, lynx) much more clear.

The trip was a refreshing and relaxing weekend to catch up on some sanity before diving (ha! marine jokes) into a two week long testing period for my months long project before departure. It was a much needed moment, spent with a great travel partner. Many thanks to Christian, who was such a pleasant adventuring pal and excellent friend for all of the trips. There is nothing like sharing a breath of fresh air with good company.

The Prestons Take on Pärnu

In April I was lucky enough to be visited by my lovely parents who took a world-wind trip through Iceland, Tallinn, and Scotland. So cute!

Over the course of a few days we reveled in Tallinn (eating our way through some of my favorite places and a few new ones), then took a bus trip to the “summer capital” of Estonia – Pärnu.

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Thanks Sunshine Estates for the image!

The city is the fourth-largest in Estonia, with a staggering population just shy of 40,000 (to put that in perspective, the University of Maryland, College Park has a total enrollment nearly equivalent to this entire city).  Back in the time of the Hanseatic League (14th-17th century), the area now known as Pärnu was an important ice-free harbor to this general geographical area. During the World Wars, Pärnu was occupied like many a city in Estonia, but now is known for its restorative mud baths, beaches, and resorts.

We visited during the “off-season” – and it was pretty evident. Nearly with the city to ourselves as we strolled around, enjoyed the quaint “Old Town,” took a leisurely stroll through a wooded park, and explored the wide, sandy beach.

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Traveling in style. Taking buses or trains across the country is extremely easy and cost effective. The bus ride to Pärnu was about 2 hours.

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This is probably the peak crowd we saw that day.

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The beach. It is easy to image why this becomes the summer capital.

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The historic “Town Hall” building.

One of the things I most love about Estonia is the quirks one finds. They are sometimes small things – like an elephant slide at the beach…

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Wait a second…

…or perhaps some strange mural depicting a little local folklore or making a political statement (maybe both)…

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Seen on the side of an abandoned facility.

…or even just some art to “spice up” a leisurely walk in the park.

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Casual.

Given Estonia’s relative youth, the support for the arts in general is evident – and I would say that an art identity is definitely emergent in the avant-garde animation and interpretation of society, community, and nature. A few months ago I saw November, an Estonian film based on a story line in an Estonian novel based loosely upon Estonian folklore. The cinematography, story, presentation, and societal critiques evident in the film, and in much of the general art I’ve seen, distinctly reflects a culture that has come through some of the worst of times (occupation, corruption, indentured servitude, oppression) and is trying to run towards a brighter future. It’s worth taking a look.

The day in the city was relaxing, and I think that my parents had fun.

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Mom poking fun at my constant documentation of their Estonian experiences.

As with all of my visits, I had the opportunity to reflect on what makes Estonia, and in more of my experience Tallinn, so special to me. In many ways, it is indescribable, but in little moments I think I can capture the magic of the place: strolls through cobbled streets and old walls, overlooks of the Baltic Sea, the surprising diversity of nature and geology, the calm, the quirk, the clarity.

 

Easter in Saaremaa and Muhu

In mid-April I got off the mainland for a long weekend on the islands. Alas, it was less tropical than it sounds – but certainly just as fun!

Muhu and Saaremaa are located off the western shore of Estonia. Saaremaa is easily the “holiday” island of the country – it seems like every other person I met had a holiday or summer home there, or at least knew someone who did. A visit easily revealed why: the island has just enough space so that neighbors don’t crowd, enough coastline to go around, and a diversity of geology and ecology that captures the imagination. Muhu, a smaller island that is connected to Saaremaa features all of these attributes, but isn’t burdened by the same transient population.

To get to Muhu, a ferry is necessary. In my own memory, this is the first ferry I actually drove onto, rather than simply boarding as a walk-on passenger. The ferry ride is a mere hour – and then we were in business for the holiday.

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View from trusty ship Piret.

We stayed in Kuressaare, the largest (by population) town on the island, in the Southwest of Saaremaa. The weekend was then filled with hiking and exploring semi-abandoned forts, castles, churches, and cemeteries.

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Our valiant rental, on the strip of land between Muhu and Saaremaa.

Few images in Estonia may be more iconic than windmills on the islands. Used primarily as a means for grinding one of the four main grains grown in Estonia (rye, barley, oat, wheat), several types, including a “Dutch” windmill, were quite popular. In this type of windmill, only the top cap of the mill, on which the blades are fixed, rotates. In the other extremely popular type, the whole mill is situated on a foundation and the pivot point is located between the mill and the foundation (thus the whole mill actually turns into the wind).

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Windmills of Saaremaa – the third from the right is a Dutch mill.

Traveling around the island, you can spy abandoned mills among the trees or along the coasts or just casually in someone’s yard. Similarly, one can spy a number of relics from the days in which Saaremaa was the location of major conflicts – remnants of the World Wars still look fresh, and prior to our visit buried artillery had been excavated.

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Anti-tank line (the pyramids).

Prior to the World Wars, Saaremaa was the site of centuries of tense battle between the peoples of ancient Estonia, conquerors from Sweden, Germany, etc. The forts that dot the land pay tribute to this long history.

Due to the frequently changing “ownership” of the island, the culture of the place actually feels a bit different from the mainland. One big difference that is easily visible is the number of worship places. More than on the mainland, churches/places of worship became central places for community gathering, resource sharing, education – the list goes on. A surprising number of these churches today are still “active” in the sense that restoration is active, and community events are evidently still held on the grounds.

The nature on the islands really shines. I was surprised by the diversity – from dense forest, to open fields, to sandy beaches, to limestone cliffs…it was exciting hiking along the shorelines.

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Yes, that lighthouse is tilting and in the middle of the water. This sandy peninsula of Saaremaa is dynamically changing – a mere 40 years ago that lighthouse marked the very tip of this peninsula. The sand underneath of the lighthouse is shifting so much that the tilt of the structure changes on the order of hours – not days. The youth of the peninsula is evident in the sparse vegetation long the coast.

One extremely striking place is a meteorite field on the island. The field is “fresh” enough that the actual strike has been recorded in the lore of the place. The crater lake we visited was revered, and at one point, a huge wall was built around the site by the local peoples in order to protect the sanctity of the place. There is something special about the air of the place. What are we but some lucky mix of space dust after all?

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The weather played with us during the trip – from a day where it was nearly warm enough to not wear a jacket, to a day in which a blizzard caught us by surprise then melted into a perfect spring day, it was a fairly exciting time. The pictures below were taken on the same day.

In Kuressaare proper, there is of course a castle. Why wouldn’t there be? Prior to being made into a fortress, it served as a convent/abbey/place of worship. Its previous life is obvious looking at the structure of the building: the sharp corners of the building, and lack of peep-windows (for both watching and weaponry) give away the fact that defense was not really in the original plans. During fortress-era renovation, extensive work was done to create bastions around the property, effectively creating a moat (which felt very fairy-tale — no crocodiles or piranhas however).

On Easter proper we tried dying eggs the “traditional Estonian way” which involved using onion skin to dye an egg by attaching the skin (either with twine, rope, rubberbands, etc) then boiling the onion-egg package for about 10 minutes. The result brown, green, and red imprint on the egg leaves a rather unique marbled effect.

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Our egg dying attempts.

I was glad to get the change to get to the islands before the end of my visit, and I was super appreciative to go with a wonderful friend. Shout out to this guy for not getting *that* annoyed at my constant picture taking!

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Look at how amusing my clear inability at taking selfies must be!

Cleaning the Shore; Music in the Air

Over the course of the last months I’ve been diligently working to get my work completed enough for testing at the end of my stint with the Centre for Biorobotics. This has left only a touch of time between a flurry of visitors to continue on some of my more independent adventuring.

Two such small events were volunteering with my colleagues on a shoreline clean-up day, and going to a night of music as part of Tallinn Music Week.

How Can Humans Make Such a Mess…

As one can imagine, during the occupation of Estonia the shore was essentially “off-limits” to non-military personnel. In those years, a number of now derelict temporary buildings were erected, trash accumulated in lieu of more formal means of disposal, and more dangerous (read: shells, bombs, explosives, chemicals) were merely buried and forgotten. Now that water recreation, sport, and shore activities have started regaining popularity, it is essential that these spaces are cleaned from prior mistreatment – but also kept clean from litter that humans just can’t seem to help but leave behind.

We went to Suurupi Beach, which is along the Northwest coast of the country, to conduct our scouring of the lightly forested area and granite beaches. It’s pretty amazing how many bottles, shoes, cottage cheese containers (don’t ask us), and the like gather.

PSA folks: please clean-up after yourself after a nice day outside. I shouldn’t need to explain that plastic’s lifespan on a biodegradation timescale is astronomical, that animals end up mistaking plastic things for their food all the time, and that it’s simply gross to leave your waste around (when was the last time you enjoyed the sight of a garbage dump after all?).

We ended up filling a trailer with found waste (check it out on the lab’s facebook page) – most of it recyclable plastic, glass, and metal – and still left feeling that only a small impact had been made. These shore cleaning days are certainly necessary – but we shouldn’t need a special day of the week/month/year to take a little time to fix our collective mess. It was interesting to discuss these points with my colleagues as we cleaned, and then later walked along the shore at Suurupi.

…And Also Make Such Beauty?

On the polar opposite of adventures, I went out with a friend to a night in Telleskivi (you might remember this is where I went to see the orchestra play and was wowed by the street art/hipsterness of it) as part of the Tallinn Music Week Festival. We attended the “Viljandi Folk Festival” night, and enjoyed folk, indie, rock, contemporary, avant garde, and traditional music from a variety of Estonian, Polish, Russian, and Cape Verdean artists. You can check out the line-up here (and definitely take a listen!).

In what feels like an impossibly distant “past life” I enjoyed playing the piano with regularity – it seems like every time I go to a musical event now I pine for the keys…

I was floored by the variety – from single artists using loop pedals and digital effects to layer their sound into full choruses or orchestras, to straight-from-a-history-book group playing, to modern twists on classic national/ethnic tunes. Music interpretation and composition truly illustrates the complexity and vastness of human creativity. It really does feel unlimited.

 

It is difficult then to understand how humans can be capable of two such different actions: careless disregard for natural beauty, and careful interpretation of sound/narrative into beauty. Can these things be held in the same mind? How? What influences this discord, this dissonance? Can we ever know?

March: Month of Visiting!

In March I had two visits from two of my best friends: Chris and Bill. Bill had been here before (he came in November last year), but for Chris it was a whole new ballgame.

I feel super fortunate to have friends who have been able to visit me, or I’ve been able to visit them while abroad. And I have loved having visitors – for me, it is a chance to show people I care about a place I care about, and see both of them with fresh eyes.

Chris and I visited the Bastion Tunnels, The Seaplane Harbor, the KGB Museum, and the Tallinn TV Tower. Let alone walking around Kadriorg and various monuments in Pirita. All of which I HIGHLY recommend to any intrepid reader interested in visiting Tallinn.

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At the Seaplane Harbor.

Bill’s visit was overall pretty low-key, but we did manage to get out to Narva, which is on the Estonia-Russia border to the Northeast of Estonia.

Narva was, essentially, destroyed during the world wars and subsequent occupation. The current city of Narva, in pictures, looks nothing like the historic city of old – many of the streets were so wiped away that these were not even preserved. The feeling of the city is certainly different from that of Tallinn – the demographics are different (mostly Russian speaking for instance), the history is different, and the tension/relationship with Russia is much clearer.

There we visited what remains of the old castle/fortress of Narva, which is located across the river (which serves as the Estonia-Russia border) to Ivangorod’s (Russia’s) own fort. Talk about posturing!

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Bill helpfully pointing at where the Narva Castle/Fortress is.

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Estonia: left, Russia: right. The fortresses are indeed that close to one another. And we are indeed standing very close to Russia in this picture.

The promenade along the river in Narva has been heavily renovated to include swank restaurants, restored bastion walls, and art installations. A walkway of European Union membership is also features….directly facing Russia (remember, Estonia was Russia not so long ago…a pretty bold statement, don’t you think?).

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Estonia became a member of the EU in 2004. Across the river is Russia.

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Art along the river.

While much of Narva was relatively new construction, a few buildings managed to survive, including several churches.

With both Chris and Bill I got to visit some of my previous haunts (like the seaplane harbor, or the Olympic grounds in Pirita), and enjoy new experiences (Narva, KGB museum, the tunnels).

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Olympic grounds in Pirita. Visited with Bill.

Despite living here now for 8 months, it is so clear I’ve only scratched the surface of what the place can offer – and as I predicted in a blog post so very long ago, I found myself complacent to just consider this place “home” and stop actively being a “tourist”. I’m grateful to my guests for getting me out to experience even more before I make my way back home, and reminding me that there is something awe-some in the everyday.

Working Abroad of Living Abroad II

At the end of February (it’s May now, can you believe it?) I traveled for a short work trip to La Spezia, Italy.

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Thanks “World Easy Guides” for the handy reference!

About 1.5 years prior I had the opportunity to travel to Genoa, Italy (to the left in the image) for a conference with my lab group (Olin Intelligent Vehicles Laboratory) which, funnily enough, introduced me to the European Commission project which led me to my current work in Estonia. It’s a small world!

In La Spezia I merely worked on helping out with the software aspect of a demonstration of the work we had completed in Scotland oh so many moons ago. Given that we were working at a major NATO research facility, I’m afraid I have no pictures of the work. The city however…

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Like many Italian Mediterranean cities, buildings, ruins, and streets are perched upon a hill or cliff which gracefully meets the water below. La Spezia is no different.

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That parking though.

La Spezia is a major industrial port along this coast of Italy. Evidence of this was pretty clear along the majority of the port, however, a small fishing and leisure port was also evident and was located quite near the “Old Town” or historic district of the city.

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Something about these behemoths looks a little dystopian…

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A bridge to nowhere in the leisure port.

Despite being there for work, it was a relief to again feel a little warmth and sunshine.

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Winter Break: Exploring Southern Estonia

I’ve been incredibly busy since I last wrote; this is just a brief recount of a February adventure (can you believe it is already April? Crazy).

Since arriving to Estonia I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to Scotland, France, Amsterdam, and briefly home. But I had only just barely explored outside of Tallinn – venturing only as far as Rummu Quarry and the Keila River. For a weekend in February, after surviving some of the shortest nights of the year (only ~5 hours of overcast light per day), I went out with a colleague/friend from the lab to the southeast portion of the country to get a little fresh air.

Kose, Võru, and Military Outposts

Our central destination was a small town called Kose (Co-seh), population 549. Here, a handful of homes, concrete apartment blocks, and farms could be found. The nearby town of Võru (Vuh-roo), population 12,000+, was and is an important military outpost (Taara Army Base for the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion). I could thus only presume that most people living in the towns here are in some way affiliated with the military (whether through supplying, being related to a service personnel, being a service personnel, etc).

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It is very southern Estonia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Here in Kose was the first time I had seen active duty military personnel in Estonia, military vehicles, and evidence of training bases that weren’t some ruins of a “by-gone” era (remember, Estonia only gained independence within the last 25 years, and the land was significantly impacted during the World Wars, so “by-gone” itself is still quite recent).

Beyond the military compound itself, Southern Estonia I would have characterized at this time of year as extremely rural and wild. Large stands of forests (both untouched and economic) could be found nearly everywhere we went, with farmsteads on the land between. There was also non-trivial snow coverage at the time of our trip (perhaps 3-5 inches), which only enhanced the feeling of idyllic solitude.

Navigating Estonian Roadways

We found that navigating in Estonia is fairly simple – especially outside of the cities. There are plenty of road markers and signs which list the major towns that are upcoming and the routes; and frankly there just aren’t that many roads to begin with, all told. We found most roads were in fairly good condition given the weather (frequent snowing, bitter cold) with an occasional “adventure” road of gravel to enjoy. In Estonia it is required that snow tires (studded tires) be used in the winter – our rental was not exempt from this requirement and I feel that it likely came in handy.

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A sample of the road conditions.

Nature Tourists

In Southern Estonia we simply enjoyed the environment. We went to Karula RP (national park) and enjoyed a hike through several different forest types (economic, bog, high bog, natural) in the snow. It was the second time in my life that I experienced true, natural quiet (the first being in Iceland). There is nothing quite like the silence of a forest covered in snow. The forests here were also something special – in places there was a monoculture of plants – these were the economic forests with evidence of the tidy rows, access roads, and careful maintenance. Other forests were cultivated in a different way. Trees with interesting carvings (see picture) could be seen everywhere. It took as some time to figure out what it could have been for; a helpful informational sign (this was a study trail) informed us these were functional carvings for sap collection from the trees but peoples who lived in the forests long ago. In other parts of the forest, remains from hidden shelters used by the Estonian resistance movement during the latest bout of occupations in the late 1900s could be seen.

Other than formal trails, we stopped at several simple wonders like a frozen lake, an observation tower, a playground (because real adults also can enjoy swing sets), and a crater field (Ilumetsa).

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Frozen lake, frozen forest.

 

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Frozen Victoria. Photo courtesy of Christian.

The hallmark crater here, fondly “Hell’s Grave,” is 80 meters in diameter. The area around the craters here is full of quirky sculpture of devils, trolls, and woodland creatures.

 

Pit Stop

On our way home, we took a short jaunt to Lahemaa National Park in northern Estonia, and also visited a waterfall between the park and Tallinn. The trip was a much needed reprieve from lab work and the city. It’s important to get out and about – even in the winter!

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2.5

It should go without saying, but to be clear: none of the views expressed in this blog represent the view of anyone I’m affiliated with – those funding me through the Fulbright program, those I work with, etc. These are all my own thoughts. And my thoughts recently have been filled with a lot of politics.

Let me be open in saying that I’m a pretty liberal person. Maybe talking about the environment incessantly and low-key talking about progressive lifestyles gave that away already. I’m watching things in the States unfold from afar, so it has been difficult to distinguish reality from sensationalism. But here is what I know and think, after a little bit of research (representative sources linked, I wouldn’t let you down):

People Are Being and will Continue to be Victimized

First: women. This isn’t actually all that new. In fact, if you’ve been paying attention to the news since you were old enough to read, you would know that violence against women is a thing. Minority, low-income, and young women are disproportionately victimized in particular. This is worldwide, mind you. But focusing for a moment on the United States and certain potential political actions, you can perhaps see my distress.

Let’s start with the potential cut of the Office of Violence Against Women. This group provides grants to organizations – like police districts – to perform training to aid women who are victims of violence. Pair this with the cuts to Civil Rights, Community Policing, and other federal agencies, and you’re looking at a pretty clear message that protecting the most victimized peoples in America (of which women make up a number) is really not on the agenda.

Then, you look at the response to the Women’s March on Washington – “they should have voted.” Yikes. Just real quick: dude is literally sitting in the Oval Office still being worried about the popular vote – not in the way we are, you know, with the rumors of hacking and jazz, but in the way that he’s sad he didn’t win it…pretty freaky.

Digressing – I shouldn’t forget to talk about the ongoing hate-fest against Planned Parenthood, and in particular pro-choice folks. Listen, I really wish abortions didn’t have to be a thing. I really don’t. But let’s all agree that the viral photo of only men in the room of the signing of an executive order that deals with lady parts is a little weird, right?

Women aren’t the only ones to worry about here. LGBTQIA+ communities are also being called out. Our new VP has been a pretty vocal heteronormative policymaker. While the verdict is still out on whether or not he actually supports conversion therapy (that’s when people’s demons are zapped out of them, because that makes sense) it is beyond clear that he’s no advocate for the rights of humans who happen to choose a bedmate that he himself would not have selected. To be fair, most of those bedmates probably don’t want Pence either…

Then there are minorities in the US – long persecuted and subject to institutionalized bigotry. And immigrants, legal or illegal it doesn’t matter. Then there are the poor. The working middle class….I could keep going to name almost every group. When one group suffers, we all suffer. That much is known. When so many are about to continue to be victimized, or about to be re-victimized by certain policy repeal (like the Affordable Care Act), there is a problem.

I’ve seen a non-trivial number of responses to the Women’s March from women stating that they’ve never felt “othered” as a woman, and that since we [women] have it better here in the US versus other countries, we should be thankful rather than active. First, I’m thrilled to hear that they’ve never felt othered as a woman – and I wish I could share that sentiment. And I’m sure all the strong ladies who put the policies in place with that goal in mind would also be thrilled – we really are in a pretty good place. But just because we’re in a good place, or at least a better place to some of our international sisters, doesn’t mean we can’t demand greater things. It probably means that we should demand greater things not only for ourselves, but for our sisters.

Thankful shouldn’t mean complacent.

Intellectuals Will Not be Silenced Peacefully

Speaking of which, the fact that Twitter has become a place for intellectual protest really reminds me that it’s the year 2017: a myriad of wonderful technologies at our fingertips, same draconian fear of knowledge.

The federal hiring freeze, while troublesome to us outsiders, is not unprecedented. This federal hiring freeze, coupled with gag orders on federal agencies, particularly the EPA…now that’s getting a little suspicious. Couple that with the timing of the go-ahead on the midwest pipelines that people are literally laying down their lives to prevent, and you might be seeing a pattern here. Then you’ve got the sensationalized removal of “climate change” from the White House pages, the sensationalized EPA claim that they were ordered to take down “climate change” pages,  and the not so sensational but pretty terrifying possibility that all published works may need political review and I’m fairly comfortable in saying that there is a problem.

Science is not political. Or it is really not supposed to be. It is meant to be “the truth.” Apolitical. Just a statement of “the facts” – whether or not they’re good news or bad news or fulfilling some sort of agenda. When science and scientists come under fire for literally doing their jobs, you’re looking a the stuff we see super villains do in movies in which they trick the general populace into loving them through misinformation while the world burns.

And the world is burning. Climate change is real. Ocean acidification is real. And we are legitimately in trouble. These aren’t “alternative facts” – there are the “fact facts.”

So when I read about how policies like the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S., are “burdensome” and need to be removed, I get a little worried.  Because those policies, in a way, are meant to be a bit burdensome – to inspire us to innovate so we can both be better in business and better in health/environment. So that we have to THINK about our capitalistic intentions before acting on them. (sidenote here, in the America First plan, we want to get rid of the Waters of the US rule…ironic). So that when we grow our businesses, we can continue growing the beauty of our nation. If for some reason keeping our water and air clean is keeping America from “being great again,” then I’m not really sure what “great” means.

On a more personal note, I’m pretty terrified about where I’m going to end up in all of this. The whole reason I’m in this field, you know, other than because I think the ocean is amazing, is because I want to get the truth out to people in order to influence policies which will help to protect our planet. That is apparently a pretty radical thing to do. And I’m down for the fight, but there shouldn’t need to be one in the first place.

Foreign Relations Are Going to be Strained

I mean, with a slogan like “America First” it probably doesn’t give other countries the warm-fuzzies.

Well, there is the wall. That he still wants Mexico to pay for. I’m pretty sure that Trump missed the part where Tom Sawyer got the other kids to paint the fence was because he was clever and made it fun, not because he demanded it. Not saying that Trump should have tricked Mexico into paying for it, but you know, at least attempted tact. Or, perhaps cracked down on corruption at the border. Or, you know, actually thought about investing in Mexico so that people are less likely to leave in the first place…

Then there is the ban on refugees and peoples of certain descent from entering the country. Look…we’re all terrified of being terrorized. That’s the point of terrorism (logical). Refugees are not thinking about committing acts of terror – they’re thinking about escaping it. We should be honored that they think that America is safe enough, caring enough, and strong enough to be a place free of terror. And we should not make the same mistakes of the past (remember Anne Frank and her family, as just one story of the many people turned away during the crimes of that time).

Then there is Russia, the cold reception of the NATO alliance, and the ever unclear relationship between these powerful leaders. Now living in Estonia, I can assure you people are worried. Tallinn is not eager to be the next Crimea. And I’m not super excited to potentially be here when it happens.

Then, there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership backout. I’m going to be honest when I say I don’t know a whole lot about economics, and whether this is good or bad. But the countries involve in the agreement are no doubt a bit upset. And China is no doubt a bit excited. And there is also little doubt that global economics impact…well…everyone…by its very nature, so certainly there are some ramifications that we’ll feel.

Being Angry and Active is Exhausting

If the Women’s March is any indication, and the soon-coming Scientist March, and the small demonstrations throughout the nation and globally – then there are some angry people out there. But unlike the armchair activism of the past, these angry people are willing to be physically present in their activism.

This is exciting. And I hope the momentum continues, because the health of our democracy has literally been downgraded to “flawed” and the only thing I can seen improving it is an active constituency that gets stuff done politically.

But it will be exhausting. And complacency is so easy. Just look at the struggle of the Black Rights Matter movement to gain momentum and support from privileged groups. Privilege allows someone to brush off the indignities of others in favor of keeping themselves comfortable. We can’t allow ourselves to be comfortable anymore. We should have never allowed it in the first place.

As activists continue to flood the streets, and phones, and media, we do need to consider a lot: inclusivity, intersectionalism, and sensitivity to the other side. We need bipartisan movements, because then we win. We have to be willing to compromise. We have to be willing to be wrong. We have to listen – and not just listen to respond, but listen to understand.

2.5

The infamous apocalypse clock was moved forward to 2.5 minutes until midnight (being the fabled moment of humanity’s downfall). Today. Only 1953 has seen a “time” closer to “the end.”

One could take this as a sign that times are literally at the precipice of something catastrophic, or one of humanities greatest “come together” moments in modern history.

I’m a big fan of those completely campy action flicks in which everyone puts aside their differences in order to defeat evil alien invaders and world peace is known. I’m not asking for that here. But, I am hoping that the side on which every member of humanity is treated with the dignity of being human, is on the winning front.

A few months ago I had the honor of speaking on behalf of my graduating class at Olin. Among my cheeky references to events in Ferguson, the transgender bathroom debates, and *gasp* climate change, I said then to the class of graduating engineers:

Among so many other things, Olin has taught us the importance of collaboration. And we, together, will be agents of change. The support we have for one another doesn’t end when we walk across this stage, and we will build our network even broader in pursuit of our passions and values. We will use our rebellious nature to remold “the man” – not just stand against it.

At this critical moment – this time in which we will be handed diplomas and drive off to whatever we have planned next – let’s celebrate our achievement and give thanks for the privilege of going to this school, at this time, with these people.

Tomorrow, let’s get back to work.

I stood by those words then, as I stand by them now. My place is in the rebellion – I hope you’ll join me. I could use your help.