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Long before I lived in Paris and Amsterdam, and before my current home in the Grīziņkalns neighborhood in Riga, I used to live near Dzegužkalns park in Pārdaugava (literally “over Daugava”), on the left bank of the River Daugava. It is a historically residential neighborhood, with well preserved or restored wooden houses from the 19th century, as well as large areas of Soviet-era concrete-paneled housing. I lived in neither of those architectures, but in a three-floor brick building in a shared apartment with friends. I remember that time as one long weekend wrapped in cigarette smoke, the smell of beer and cheap wine, the chatter of guests as the evenings warmed up, and soirées that often ended with wild dancing in the kitchen. I discovered much later that I was only a two-minute walk from the park. As far as my memory goes, I never went further than the local shop across the street, and the name “Dzegužkalns” sounded much the same as any other suburban place—it didn’t mean anything to me then.

Yet its name is quite particular. Dzegužkalns translates as “cuckoo mountain.” The “Cuckoos” was most likely a name of a historic farmers’ house that was located nearby, and it lent the hill an inevitable sonic association. The landscaping of the park was started in 1893 by Georg Kuphaldt, a German-born gardener who was Riga’s main landscape architect of the time. He firmly believed that greenery was not a luxury, but a necessity for the well-being of people, just as much as light and air. He also did not want to segregate the rich and poor of the city, believing that parks should also be set up in working-class areas.

With this green manifesto of progressive thinking from the past in mind, I meet the artist Linda Boļšakova at Dzegužkalns. Just over a year ago I encountered Linda’s augmented reality work Semina futuri: placeholder for future coexistence here as part of the 2020 Sculpture Quadrennial Riga. We revisit the location where the physical part of the work—a sculpture of a golden seed—was placed in lush grass and the hybrid moving-and-growing plant-being of the AR part grows up vividly in my mind’s eye once more. I have been following Linda’s work closely for the last couple of years since I saw off spring, her solo exhibition at Alma Gallery. She lay motionless for hours on the mealy black soil that filled the gallery, waiting for flowers to sprout. I anticipate our day will be full of close encounters with plants, soils, and water, and that makes me really happy.

We hop on our bikes and ride to our next stop, an area where sea buckthorn grows in the Ķīpsala neighborhood. While forest foraging, especially autumn mushroom picking, is a common thing in Latvia, and something many of us share memories of from our childhoods, urban foraging is much less widespread. Linda is an expert, having learnt from her own fieldwork, as well as through meeting biologists and other foragers. The sea buckthorn here has changed recently, Linda says. Some shrubs have been cut back as perhaps one of the many development plans for the area has been activated.

We leave our bikes and crawl carefully through the thicket of bushes and trees to find ourselves on the stony bank of the Zunda canal. For more than a hundred years the area around the canal has been an industrial zone, and many of the factories have faced closure in the last decades, leaving polluted groundwater and soil. Just next to the canal is the so-called “Fukushima,” a noncommercial space for DIY activities that operates a sauna, a library, a camping site, an artist residency, as well as grassroots bioremediation activities. Linda is a friend of the community running the site but today we don’t see anyone there. In fact, the area seems to be temporarily closed. Peeking over the fence we see rows of potted plants, off-grid devices with various functions, and makeshift housing.

Linda tells me that a couple of summers ago the community organized an urban foraging tour to find wild-growing apples, plums, sea buckthorn, strawberries, raspberries, and more. Talking of apples and berries is making us hungry and we cross the river to have lunch on the terrace of the vegan café Terapija.

Next we visit another creative commune, one that Linda used to be a part of, in a neighborhood not far from the Central Station, Lastādija. It’s an urban rejuvenation project that was initiated by Free Riga, an organization that finds temporary use for the many abandoned buildings in the Latvian capital. By bringing together building owners with the municipality and different types of residents, artists, and small business owners, they think together about sustainable development and how to invest in community building. It’s an idle sunny afternoon and we examine the soon-to-be harvested pumpkins and zucchini which grow in neat wooden boxes in the yard.

On boarding our train to Salaspils we are reminded of the pandemic for the first time in the day. We have spent the whole time outside until now, and now we need to put on our masks. Arriving at the National Botanic Garden for the first time is a surprise to me—with its massive transparent architecture of greenhouses and curated gardens—but feels like home to Linda. She has been coming here regularly for years and has collaborated closely with the scientist Dace Kļaviņa, who works with endangered species. Dace shows us the whole propagation process, from seed to plant, and we see multiple species growing inside test tubes. It’s important to keep the process sterile, otherwise mold would destroy the frail plant sprouts. We mostly talk about Pinguicula alpina, or alpine butterwort, since it is part of Linda’s research on environmental histories in Latvia. It also poignantly symbolizes the extractive nature of the economic policies of the former Soviet Union. Pinguicula alpina became extinct in Latvia in 1965, when the Pļaviņas Hydroelectric Power Station was built on the River Daugava, flooding lime-rich springs and the breathtakingly beautiful Staburags cliff. According to local legend, the cliff was a mourning girl that had turned into rock. Needless to say, many people still mourn the destruction of the gorge without knowing of the further loss of the only Latvian habitat of Pinguicula alpina. Yet the story of Staburags continues to be channeled, not only through the shoots in the test tubes, but through a rock sample of the cliff installed in the gardens, which we admire as we have a cup of tea.

We planned to make a last stop at the Genetic Resource Centre, the institution responsible for coordinating Latvia’s gene bank of everything from crops and fruit species, to animals and fish. But time has passed quicker than we realized, and we have to rush to take the train back to Riga. It’s ok, Linda says, we actually could not have seen very much of the seed bank in any case, as everything is contained and concealed. Despite the environmental narratives and histories of place that we have witnessed today, how are they really visible? How often do we really see them in our daily lives?

Seeing our immediate surroundings from an environmental perspective—our streets, and their intersecting infrastructures, as well as the history of their making—is an important precursor to shifting our thinking about the future. And then, the untended slope of Dzegužkalns where plants and insects interact without hindrance, the soon-to-be developed sea buckthorn grove, the Botanical Gardens’ endangered species unit, the seed bank, or the communes of Lastādija and Fukushima, each exercising slow processes of collective decision making and living, can all be seen as a reservoir for that future, as utopian or contested it may sometimes seem.

— Inga Lāce

DZEGUŽKALNS Dzegužkalns is a park located on a natural dune and is the highest naturally formed spot in Riga. It has a stage and manicured lawns, however, one side of the mound is not tended to, allowing all sorts of plants to grow there. This field is home to many plants, animals, insects, and fungi. French botanist and gardener Gilles Clément calls these kinds of places the “third landscape.” In comparison to the territories controlled and exploited by humans, the third landscape forms a privileged area of receptivity to biological diversity. From this point of view, this slope can be considered a valuable genetic reservoir, a living space of the future.

Another reservoir for the future, storing cultural heritage, was recently built near the Dzegužkalns park. The Museum Storage Facility stores objects from the Latvian National History Museum, the Latvian National Museum of Art, the Museum of Literature and Music, and the Museum of Cinema—together it is the largest collection of Latvian material culture.

ĶĪPSALA: SEA BUCKTHORN & THE “FUKUSHIMA” SAUNA Next we will head to another wild city location. Sea buckthorn grows in the Ķīpsala neighborhood and the many abandoned gardens of the surrounding neighborhoods make it a beautiful site for urban foraging. It is a lush area in all seasons, but it is especially abundant in the autumn. Sea buckthorn is a shrub whose berries are great for boosting immunity and cleansing radioactivity from the body. Next to the sea buckthorn site in Ķīpsala is a small, post-apocalyptic, wood-fired sauna which has a ceramic insulator (like those used on electricity poles) amongst the hot stones. It is close to an industrial part of the Zunda canal and one can take a swim after a sauna session.

LUNCH AT TERAPIJA This is one of my favorite vegan cafés in the city. Their menu is always mindful of the seasons, and their cake selection is exquisite.

LASTĀDIJA: FREE RIGA Free Riga is a house guardian project that, since 2014, has been taking over and revitalizing abandoned houses and their surrounding areas. T17 in the Lastādija neighborhood was one of the first Free Riga projects and it includes four buildings with artists’ workshops, activist-group offices, living spaces, and a free shop. In between the houses is a garden, a fireplace, a stage, and a pizza oven. It also regularly hosts various events.

SALASPILS: NATIONAL BOTANIC GARDEN Salaspils is 20 minutes by train from Riga, and is home to the National Botanic Garden of Latvia. Here we will meet with the leading scientist Dace Kļaviņa, whose work in the recent years has focused on rare and endangered species. Dace will show us the laboratory where plants are grown in-vitro, including the alpine butterwort (Pinguicula alpina). This little carnivorous plant was once found in one location in Latvia in Staburags. Pinguicula alpina lived in Latvia from the last ice age (14,000–12,000 years ago) until 1965 when the cliff was flooded to build a hydroelectric power plant. Now it is extinct in Latvia and grows only in this laboratory environment from seeds gathered in Estonia. The National Botanic Garden holds one of the richest living plant collections in Europe.

TEA BREAK IN THE BOTANICAL GARDEN We will drink tea next to a rock sample from the Staburags cliffs, the biotope where Pinguicula alpina used to live.

GENETIC RESOURCE CENTRE Exiting the botanical garden from the Rīgas iela gate, we will turn right to walk past the Latvian State Forest Research Institute “Silava” where the national seed bank of Latvia, its central plant database, and genetic analysis laboratory is located. The gene bank holds information about plants of native Latvian origin, including the wild relatives of crop species. Part of the seed bank collection is also stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on a remote island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.