We just returned from touring four great cities of northern Europe and, as always when I travel abroad, I am left enchanted, energized — and humbled.

We visited Stockholm, Tallinn (Estonia), Riga (Latvia) and Copenhagen, all with histories dating back to the 1200s and earlier. We walked for hours through old cities on cobblestone streets built 700 years ago, sang in cathedrals dating from the 13th century (with the NAU Shrine of the Ages Choir and the Master Chorale of Flagstaff) and listened to stories about centuries-long struggles for freedom. The sweep of human history catches you up, and the glorious art and architecture of the past makes you believe again in the greatness of the human spirit.

I love cities — they are home to our artists and writers, philosophers and composers. They are testimony to what humans can achieve, and to the intellectual and artistic greatness of which we are capable. But they are, alas, not home to wildlife.

My naturalist's soul began to take note of pigeons and to enjoy observing them. (I don’t even like pigeons, particularly when they decide to take up residence in my barn.) The gulls became a daily delight in the coastal cities we visited, as did any dog or cat on the street. You know you are ready to come back to the rural life when you stop and greet every animal you see.

But while I missed seeing critters, I also learned about the commitment that each of these northern cities has to being green. In Copenhagen (population over two million), the main form of transportation is by bicycle — and there are two bicycles per capita. Stockholm is committed to a land-use formula of one-third parks and gardens, one-third residential and one-third business. Industry is outside the city. Waste is cleanly burned for energy, and roof-top solar is popular — this in cities that average far less sunlight than Arizona. Riga and Tallinn are the same, with a governmental commitment to parks and green space, energy efficient buildings and recycling.

People love their trees and flowers, as they do elsewhere in Europe. Early spring was blooming where we traveled: azaleas and rhododendrons of all colors, and huge lilac bushes. Of course, window boxes were filled with red geraniums, and every corner had a flower shop.

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Most intriguing was hearing from our guides about people's connections to the "old ways." Three of the four countries we visited — Sweden, Estonia and Latvia — were among the last areas in Europe conquered by Livonian (German) crusaders in the 1200s. Holding onto their old religion and traditions was (and is) a way of preserving their ethnicity. Several national holidays and celebrations in these countries still reflect pre-Christian traditions.

In Estonia, some have returned to the ancient practice of Taarausk (literally Taara Faith), a monotheistic religion that worships Taara, the spirit present in all beings. The oak tree is sacred to Taarausk, as it was to many pre-Christian religions. Estonians still revere the oak tree, and care for it. Today, 50 percent of Estonia’s landscape is forested, up from 30 percent 100 years ago. And the oldest sacred grove is more than 2,000 years old. Imagine.

Lynne Nemeth, executive director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff, is the editor of Gardening Etcetera. To reach her with articles or ideas, please email Lynne.Nemeth@thearb.org.

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