I’ve written before of the pleasure to be had meeting Latvia’s ‘dižkoki’ or notable trees. But of all of the ones I have encountered so far, by far the most peculiar is the Ebelmuiza Oak (Ēbeļmuižas ozols) in Riga’s anonymous Ziepniekkalns district.
Standing in a fragment of what was once baronial parkland, the 300-year-old tree is a grizzled giant; looking deformed and demented but somehow clinging tenaciously to life. The location is truly surreal with late-period Soviet housing schemes serving as a geometric backcloth to what was once a bucolic feudal idyll, as if two different dimensions of space and time accidentally overlapped here.
Propped up on two pairs of giant wooden staves, the Ebelmuiza oak looks as if it is leaning on crutches. The impression of invalidity is reinforced by a rough patchwork of wooden boards and metal plates that cover deep scars in its trunk, while the upper branches have suffered stumpy amputation as a result of some clumsy surgery that may have saved the patient but ruined his looks.
Inside the hollows of the trunk, dozens of empty glass bottles shine from the shadows, giving the impression that the tree itself has emptied them over the years. Perhaps that is the secret of its longevity – it has soused itself with cheap vodka.
In truth two other oaks standing forty metres to the west are handsomer, stronger and taller but for all their sturdiness they lack the wracked character of the Ebelmuiza Oak. It is like those other beings one sometimes comes across in parks and beside disintegrating concrete apartment blocks: the burned-out wrecks of men who rail against the world and its innumerable indignities. Knocked around, bruised and semi-coherent, they have the same philosophy as the Ebelmuiza Oak: to survive until the next day. It is a task at which they often excel despite the appearance of perpetual and imminent destruction.
The Ebelmuiza Oak looks like it could die at any moment. It has probably looked like that for longer than most men’s lives.
(If you are interested in meeting some dižkoki yourself, I strongly recommend the book ‘100 Dizakie un Svetakie’ by Guntis Enins. It’s available from most bookshops in Latvia and even if you don’t read Latvian the maps and photographs provide plenty of information. Enins is also an MP for the Greens And Farmers’ Union, but don’t hold that against him.)