One of the things that shocked me about Finland when I found out about it is the Every Man’s Right. I was told by some Finns that it basically means that anyone can go out to the forest and hike, camp, ski, swim, boat, fish (with a rod and line), and gather berries, mushrooms, etc., no matter who technically owns the forest property–and this applies to privately owned forest acreage as well as government owned areas. To an American, born and raised in the land of obsessive capitalism, at first this idea seemed tantamount to government-sanctioned trespassing! You can hardly harvest edibles from your own garden in the States without somebody breathing down your neck about how tall your trees are and how close they are to power lines, and don’t get me started on the FDA and department of agriculture basically exterminating heirloom crops because the large agricultural companies have the government in their back pockets. Not to mention, I can only think of a short list of edibles that grow in the wild these days, although I think in some areas of the Northwest, foraging is becoming more popular. We do have some mushrooms, wild tuber plants, and greens. In the Southwest, I have been known to “forage” (read: snatch off the side of the hiking trail and carefully devour while watching over my shoulder for park rangers) for prickly pear fruit. If you’ve never had it, you are truly missing out. But that kind of illustrates my point, doesn’t it? There are acres and acres of rich and fertile land in the States, but it’s all owned by someone and heaven help you if you so much as leave a footprint behind. That’s what they tell hikers: take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.
While I agree with that on the level of people who might break off pieces of national monuments or leave man-made litter around, I also think it’s a weird way to interact with nature. After all, humans are from nature and of nature–we are built of the same basic materials as the rest of the natural world. I had a taste of a different sort of interacting with nature at the summer cabin. Yes, we had a very nice little cabin with all the modern conveniences (outhouse, well for fresh water, a giant metal barrel to heat up lake water to wash with after sauna), but we could also take a canoe out on the lake and explore the little islands. We could walk through the forest and forage for berries.
I’m interested in this idea of Every Man’s Right, so I did a little research. I found a handy little brochure that explains it in easy-to-understand terms, no legalese. And it is really easy to understand. People should be free to enjoy the natural world and appreciate their land, because the land should belong to the people. It doesn’t make sense to have one person or the government hogging a bunch of land and putting up “Do Not Enter” signs, especially when that land is lush and beautiful. Just don’t trash the place, and stay out of other people’s way.
This got me thinking: would something like this work in the States? We do have national parks that are supposedly for the people. But at least in my experience, the people’s permitted interaction with them is very limited. I was lucky as a teenager to be able to go backpacking deep into the Chihuahuan Desert of southwest Texas, but I remember that you have to have a special permit, and they are very strict about what you can bring into and out of the park. You’re not free to really touch anything (my illicit prickly pear foraging notwithstanding) or pick anything, or go off trail, or camp in certain areas. Most national parks in the U.S. are like really remote tourist traps with pretty views. I think there’s a reason for all that regulation though–it’s because the government wants to protect the natural resources. But is it working? I’m not convinced. But I’m also not convinced that instituting an Every Man’s Right to U.S. land would be a very good idea either. It would never get passed, first of all. People are too territorial of their property. And even if it did, there is something about the capitalistic mindset that would make people go crazy trying to take advantage of the land. I’m sure someone would find a legal loophole that would allow them to pave Yellowstone and put up a parking lot, as it were.
I don’t know what it is that makes it work in Finland. Is it really a difference in mindset? Is it a cultural history? An economic history? Is it that Finland mostly has a lot of berries and trees and plenty to go around, whereas the States has nearly every terrestrial biome and therefore a lot of different stuff that a lot of different people would want? Is it that there are way more people in the States (about 58 times more–the entire population of Finland could fit into two Chicagos) and therefore way more opportunities for terrible people to do terrible things? I’m not sure, but I am enjoying a healthier attitude to interacting with the environment. It’s a sort of symbiosis, I think. And when you give to nature, you get back exponentially.
This summer I have been repeatedly stunned by what a lush, beautiful place Finland is. I think most Americans think of Finland and immediately have a picture of snow, reindeer, and people dressed in furs. I think the summer must be their best kept secret. And even in the heart of a major world city, its inhabitants prove their love for nature. Tucked away in little corners of the city are residential areas–some are tiny, tiny summer cabins hidden in squares of overwhelming gardens within a larger fenced-in area. This is a gardening community, or a community garden, depending on how you translate it. It was like stepping into a secret enchanted world, or one of those panoramic photos where there is so much going on you have to rub your eyes and step back to see it clearly.
This morning I took a walk to a little neighborhood slightly north of my flat, and was shocked to find that tucked behind the old factory buildings and the highway was a verdant paradise. Far from the perfectly groomed lawns and unnaturally square, ugly shrubs that frame most American suburbs, this was a wild, fragrant, powerful expression of what can happen when you trust nature to do its thing. Because I work with wonderful people, I was here on a mission. A colleague from the university had emailed out an offer of free apples and plums to anyone who would come by with some bags to collect them. Her trees were heavy and sticky with what seemed like zillions of apples of different varieties and tiny, succulent wine-colored plums. I chose an apple tree that she told me was native to Finland, called valkea kuulas, white transparent, and picked what plums I could reach, my shoes slipping on the fallen plums already fermenting sweetly on the ground.
I thanked her profusely and left, my bag heavy and my spirit light. I thought, that’s what I would love to have someday–an eccentric little house with a yard full of nature.