My first summer in Latvia, I went to the Tornakalns Allotment Cooperative to see about getting a plot. I’d been enticed to do so while taking a short cut along the railway tracks from my small wooden house towards the railway bridge and town centre. From the embankment, you could look out over the huge expanse of kitchen gardens that seemed to stretch all the way to the incongruous modernism of the Riga radio tower.
Sheds and greenhouses of an incredible variety of shapes peered up from a tangle of fruit trees, budding bushes and regimented lines of runner beans and dill. Some were little more than cupboards, others were miniaturised dachas. Ingenious assemblages of poles and plastic bags formed hothouses inside which the distict red blur of tomatoes throbbed in the late summer heat.
But more intense even than the sight of this cubist pastoral was the smell, a heady scent of apples laced with blackcurrant stems and strawberry leaves.
A few days later I knocked at the little hut by the gate where an old man sat on slumbrous sentry duty. He agreed to show me around, clearly interested in who this strange sounding stranger was and what I could possibly want.
I mentioned apples and a sketchy plan to make my own cider. He treated the idea of cider with a shrug but was enthusiastic about apples, showing me a couple of overgrown plots probably 25 metres square which had some beautiful old apple trees in them and some fairly sound-looking storage sheds that might house a few jars of fermenting juice.
The old man regaled me with details of the various different breeds of apples and their properties, pulled some plastic bags from his pocket and eagerly started stuffing them full of the plump fruit that seemed so full of life as to be almost to be rolling around the ground. Then he handed the bags to me.
As we walked through the labyrinth of gardens, we sometimes crossed plank bridges over tiny tributaries of the Marupite that were channeled through the gardens to provide irrigation. Occasionally a dog tethered beside his perspiring, spade-plunging master would bark as we passed or a couple of plump, rosy-skinned babushkas dressed in nothing but underwear and headscarves and brandishing shears would rise from the ground and mop their brows.
“There are lots of free plots,” the old man told me back at the gate. “But you know they are going to bulldoze this place in two years to build new offices for the city council? It’s only the old people who bother to come any more. Why put all the work in when you know it will all be destroyed? So there’s no shortage of plots to choose from if you want one.”
I never pursued my cider dream. Other things took up my time, but I regretted that I couldn’t slink away to my own little patch of earth, jug some juice and wait for nature to do the rest while I fiddled around trying to grow the blackberries that seem mysteriously absent from Latvia – probably because Latvians are too keen to get their gardens in order.
But still I could walk along the railway tracks and breathe in that beautiful aroma on the way to work and back. In the mornings it had the crispness of eau de vie, in the evenings the full-bodied mellowness of calvados…
Today I went back to the Tornakalns Allotment Cooperative, or rather what was left of it. The fences around the perimeter are missing or trampled, the little streams have been destroyed by the weight of trucks and tractors. Their water oozes everywhere turning the paths to quagmires and gathering in stagnant pools where gates and fencposts have been rudely extracted.
The door of every single shed is ajar, hanging limply from a single hinge, or missing altogether. The former contents; buckets, bottles, seed packets, rough furniture; are strewn across what remains of the flower beds and vegetable patches.
It is an eerie place. Few people can be seen. At intervals a feral-looking man scurries from one shed to another with an old pram. What he is looking for inside inside is hard to determine but he makes a scratching sound inside like a rat behind dustbins while he is inside. Probably he is collecting metal fence spikes. At junctions between the former paths they can be seen strewn into rough piles along with barrels, wire and other assorted scrap metal.
He is not the only one recycling the remains of the allotments. A couple of old people trudge sadly around their former plots with trowels and plastic bags, looking for fruit bushes worth transplanting and shaking their heads as they shake the mud from the roots.
In one corner two men with a flatbed truck peer from plot to plot seeing what they can salvage. They start dismantling a greenhouse frame even though all its glass is shattered.
It seems quiet at first, then you become aware of a range of unnatural sounds. Trains grind past to one side, hammer blows resound from the construction of the national library a kilometre away. Occasionally there is a high-pitched whistle from the playing fields on the far side of the train tracks. As you walk, your feet gurgle in the mud or jangle the stray wires that try to trip you like petrified guitar strings.
At the doorway of one shed I meet an old woman called Nina. “What do you want?” she asks as she sees me looking at her. She tries to sound angry but she is afraid. In don’t blame her – this most natural of places now seems entirely alien and threatening, as if some outrage has been committed against the natural order.
When I tell her I am a journalist and am interested in what has happend here, she walks forward and starts talking, as if she is relieved to have someone to speak to.
“There was supposed to be a line!” she says. “This new university they are building – there is supposed to be a line down there (she gestures towards the far end of the allotments) where the building will take place. On this side of the line they said we could grow our gardens for two more years, but look at it! It’s ruined. Completely destroyed…”
The destruction has been performed not by construction crews for the university/council offices which may or may not get built but by a ragbag assortment of tramps, thieves, drug addicts and scrap dealers. As soon as the designated date passed they descended on the allotments, harrowing the land and everything on it with an efficiency that would almost be admirable if it wasn’t so brutal.
Nina becomes tearful as we talk. The allotments have been here 47 years she says, though she has only had her own plot for 16 years. At its peak 560 gardeners would tend to the bushes and hoe the soil and everyone knew everyone else.
Imanta does not live locally but in Imanta, a suburb of Soviet-era tower blocks a twenty minute bus ride away.
“This was my escape. This was my hobby and my larder. I grew the most wonderful gherkins and cucumbers here. Look at this apple tree – it would have so many apples you would not believe it – delicious and really good keepers, too!
“My heart hurts when I see this. I don’t know what will happen next year. I come here to feed my cats. There are three of them but one is missing. It has had kittens and now I can’t find it. But I still come here to feed it. I think it will turn up.”
Sure enough as Nina walks towards the railway line from her ravaged plot, a couple of white cats follow her. She stops at the edge of the allotment and wipes the mud from her red boots before struggling up the embankment and away towards the bus stop.
Tacked to the door of her shed is a small note written in an unsteady but elegant hand.
“Please leave this plot alone as I am still working on it.”