A Paradise Reclaimed From the Desert

By Awake! writer in Lithuania

IN THE latter part of the 18th century, the residents of a small fishing village sensed that their home was doomed. For years a giant sand dune had been creeping toward their village. In vain they tried to divert the dune by building a triangular wooden barrier. By 1797, however, the dune had completely buried their village.

That was but one episode in an 80-year drama, during which dunes swallowed over a dozen villages and made a desert out of the Curonian Spit, a 60-mile [100 km] strip  of land off the Baltic Coast of what is now Russia and Lithuania. The causes of that devastation and the restoration of the region​—now a major tourist attraction—​make for a fascinating story.

A Victim of Mismanagement and Conquest

The sands of the Curonian Spit were covered with lush vegetation for many centuries. The forest provided the local people with plenty of game for hunting. By the early 18th century, the area had gained importance as part of the postal route between Western Europe and the Russian Empire. When the population increased during a period of peace, herds of livestock overgrazed the delicate green cover, and people overharvested timber from the forests. Little did the local residents realize how fragile the cover of vegetation was on which they depended.

The forest received its death stroke when a Russian army invaded in 1757 and chopped down its trees to build hundreds of shallow-draft boats for the siege of Königsberg (Kaliningrad), an important city in Prussia. During succeeding decades winds whipped up sand dunes and caused the disaster mentioned earlier.

Could such a devastated landscape be restored? Georg David Kuwert, a determined postal employee, and his father, Gottlieb, were among those who believed so. In 1825 they set out to reforest the spit. It was a long, exhausting struggle. For more than a century, hundreds of people labored on the project. First they had to stabilize the ground with a special variety of sand-loving, deep-rooted grass. Then they planted thousands of acres with different varieties of hardy pines and birch. Finally the battle was won. Some 70 percent of the  dry land is now reforested. What is it like to visit the spit now?

Paradise for Tourists

Today the Curonian Spit hosts as many as 8,000 tourists a day, and that is hardly surprising, since the spit’s attractions are so varied. Whether you are hiking, cycling, or touring by car, the scenery changes rapidly. The forests are home to moose, roe deer, foxes, and wild boars. Some one hundred varieties of birds nest here, and up to a million birds migrate through the spit each year. There are 900 varieties of plants, and there are still many dunes, although they now occupy only 12 percent of the land.

Some of the sand dunes rise to 150 feet [50 m] in height. Seeing nothing but sand and sky all around you is an unforgettable experience. As you climb, you see that some dunes have the classic parabolic form, sculptured by the wind. When you arrive at the knife-edged crest, where the windblown sand slides down the face to take the dune a step farther on its journey, you are presented with a breathtaking view. You see the narrow strip of land you are standing on stretching far into the distance, decorated by villages, forests, glades, and lighthouses. On one side are waves rolling in from the Baltic Sea; on the other, the calmer waters of the Curonian Lagoon.

Visitors find the crisp sea air invigorating. Many enjoy windsurfing and yachting; others take a quiet stroll through one of the old-style villages. The brightly painted houses with thatched or tiled roofs preserve the atmosphere of quieter times long past. The pungent smell of fish curing and the sight of nets set out to dry remind vacationers that fishing was always the main occupation on the spit. Weather vanes are common, as fishermen are very interested in wind direction. The vanes became quite an art form here, and they make an interesting study. Adorning the mast of each sailing vessel, they served to identify its village of origin. Fascinating, too, are the pieces of amber that can sometimes be found washed up on the beach. Especially on cloudy days, tourists visit museums that display amber jewelry. Some pieces have fossilized plants and insects visible inside.

Little wonder, then, that Lithuania’s representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization described the Curonian Spit as a paradise. It is a paradise reclaimed from land that had been ruined by mismanagement and war. Of course, earth wide there are many places that continue to be ruined. But the Bible assures us that under God’s Kingdom our entire planet will soon be turned into a beautiful paradise for upright people to inhabit forever.​—Isaiah 65:17, 21-25; 2 Peter 3:13, 14.

[Maps on page 16]

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BALTIC SEA

LITHUANIA

CURONIAN SPIT

Curonian Lagoon

RUSSIA

Kaliningrad

[Pictures on page 16, 17]

The Curonian Spit is home to many birds, plants, and dunes

[Credit Lines]

Bottom three inset photos: Gedimino Graz̆ulevic̆iaus nuotrauka

Bird and grass: Gedimino Graz̆ulevic̆iaus nuotrauka; background: UAB „Laiko spalvos“

FOTO: A. VARANKA

[Pictures on page 18]

Wild boars

Mute swans

Amber

[Credit Line]

Top three photos: Gedimino Graz̆ulevic̆iaus nuotrauka

[Picture on page 18]

The Curonian Spit attracts thousands of tourists daily