the natural landscape
You may or may not know that I’m a bit obsessed with nature. As a child I preferred flower crowns to tiaras and loved to dig and explore out in the yard and the treeline that bordered our house. At school I was even teased and called a hippie because of the way I tied my hair back and my love of tie-dye and playing outside.
This post is long and a bit scattered and a very long time coming. I started writing some months ago about a picnic I took with some friends to Nuuksio, and it turned out that I have a lot of thoughts that are related (and somewhat related) to the natural world.
Recently I wrote about feeling addicted to music, and I’m starting to think that traveling alone is another kind of high. It’s scary the first few times you do it, and then it’s a kind of thrill to scope out the place when you get there, to make spontaneous decisions and know you have only yourself to depend on.
Of course, half the fun is meeting people too. It’s probably just statistics but it seems easier to meet a variety of people when you yourself are out of your origin. And I think it forces you to be in a more open mindset anyway. It’s the funniest thing, that the world can seem so big but when you actually go out into it you find that it’s impossible to go anywhere without bumping into someone you have connections with. Sometimes I’m that obnoxious traveler who likes to talk to people on planes and in bus stations, because I find I usually have something interesting in common with people.
I’ve been lucky to experience a small variety of countries and cultures so far, and I try very hard not to romanticise or exoticise them. I feel that that’s what imperialists have done historically, and I don’t think it benefits anyone–it only serves to alienate us from one another, to widen the distance between the Us and the Other.
That being said, I also think it’s important to respect and value cultural differences, and it becomes a very fine line to walk. I try to just be as open-minded as I can, accepting the things that are slightly different than what I know, and asking questions about things I don’t understand, without making a huge deal out of it (well, trying not to make a huge deal. I went nuts when I found out about the Finnish dish rack!).
That’s another reason I like to share American things that Europeans might not have experienced before: s’mores, for example, are the American summer classic, and Finns are fascinated by our preference for toasting marshmallows. Pumpkin pie, traditional shortcake (the biscuit, not the yellow cake), peach cobbler: mostly food things, I guess, but I like to share them because they bring us together. They break down the ingrained patriotic ideology that American stuff is the vanilla version of everything, the basic, the boring, the ideal, the normal. We’re just another culture, and we have our own obscure treats and traditions, stories, sayings, and weirdnesses. We are just as Other.
And Other to Other, I like to learn things. One of my passions is nature, hiking, camping, canoeing, biking, anything that gets me out in the wild. I have a perpetual fantasy of getting lost in the wilderness and having to survive on my knowledge of the outdoors, so I’m always primed for learning about interesting and useful plants.
Finland happens to have a lot of them. When I arrived last summer, I could already recognize the roses (ruusu) from which you can make rosehip (ruusumarja, “rose berry”) tea, strawberries (mansikka), and birch trees (koivu). From the birches are cut the flexible leafy switches called vihta or vasta that are used to improve the circulation and skin in sauna, and it’s even possible to eat the pithy layer between the soft bark and hard wood of the birch trees.
Later, I learned about the sammal that coats the forest floor in a soft iridescent green, and the jäkäla growing on the rocks that provides food for reindeer. In the fall I learned to recognize puolukka plants with their dark glossy green leaves poking through the underbrush of dried-up mustikka bushes (often called bilberries in the U.S., where they grow in the northeast) and in the markets I learned mustaherukka and punaherukka . At the Christmas market I bought a jar of lakkahillo, hoping it was, as I thought, cloudberry jam. It was also important to learn kielo, the national flower of Finland.
I was lucky to have a couple of very good guides on my last trips to Nuuksio and learned that the fluffy prehistoric-looking plants like soft pine sprigs sticking up from the forest floor, blurring out everything in the area with their fuzziness, are called korte. The island Pihlajasaari is called that because of the rowan trees called pihlaja that grow all over it, and the big ferns that start out with furled fronds in the spring and grow to the height of a man’s waist in the summer are called saniainen.
Up on the rocky hills there were little scrub plants among large pine trees, both living and dead, the dead ones whitewashed by the sun and standing in contrast to the living evergreens. There are fewer blueberries up there but the rocky crevices were bursting with tiny pink flowers on kanerva , from which I am told you can brew a tea that will make you sleepy.
Between the scrubby pines there rose fragrant stands of kataja , the berries very small but tasting properly spicy like gin if you chew them. The area at the top of the rocky hills reminded me a lot of Stone Mountain, Georgia–the same kinds of scrubby plants and shrubs, evergreens, moss and lichen.
In the spring I had learned pajunkissa , when they were all around the markets as long branches of fluffy yellow catkins, decorated with brightly colored feathers and sometimes tiny wooden eggs for Easter. Now the catkins are dried white and wispy for the summer.
We also saw some early mushrooms growing around the rocks and in some of the forested areas. I learned that the kinds with the grey gills on the bottoms are tricky: some are poisonous and some are delicious; but there is another kind with sort of tightly pressed thin fibres instead of gills, and these are tatti, which are safe to eat and have varying degrees of tastiness. With a knowledgeable guide we found a decent-looking one and cautiously nibbled it, and it wasn’t bad, much like the big white capped mushrooms you would buy at the store. But it’s the chanterelles the Finns are most enamored with, and while they won’t be out en masse until the autumn, we managed to spot some little freckled baby chanterelles just starting to grow.
In lower meadowy areas there were bright purple flowers that I was told were called hirvenkello but I think were harakankello on loose stems instead of in clumps, and the big spears of pink and purple lupin that are an invasive species here and that cover the grassy areas by the highways. Small yellow snapdragons (keltakannusruoho ), as always, mixed in with the grasses and wildflowers. It’s easy to spot the nokkonen , which makes a nice tea or even soup, and it’s good for urinary and blood issues.
In the low forested areas with damp, dark soil and the ferns, we noticed little sprinklings of shamrocks, the edible ketunleipä or fancifully named “fox bread.” They tasted surprisingly sour, like citrus, and I thought they would be good in a foraged salad with nasturtium and dandelion greens. In the U.S., the North American variety is called wood sorrel, and grows as a weed all over yards in the Midwest, often confused for clover. Like their European counterparts, they’re edible.
As I stopped to take the photo, a young girl and her mother were walking down the trail and the girl’s attention was caught by trying to see what I was photographing. The mother gave a little exclamation when she saw the ketunleipä and began telling the girl about it excitedly. It made me smile.
I’ll miss the tyrni season this year unfortunately, as it’s not till late fall, but I bought a jar of preserves from an old woman at the market who told me emphatically “this is medicine!” and indeed, sea buckthorn has been implicated as treatment for just about everything from gout to skin rashes to anaemia and boosting the immune system, and as an anti-aging element both internally and topically.
I like to understand the science behind natural remedies, and I think in this day and age many people are too hasty to jump to labeling old traditional remedies as hocus pocus, or just plain bogus. But there are a lot of reasons those remedies survived. Sometimes they seemed to work, whether by placebo effect or because some maladies just go away on their own, but sometimes they actually did work, and we just didn’t figure out why until later. I swear by white willow bark oil (Salix alba) for skin blemishes, and that’s because it contains natural salicylic acid (birch oil works for the same reasons), natural astringent which you might recognise as the main ingredient in topical acne medications. It can be taken internally as a pain reliever, because it’s also the main ingredient in aspirin.
Ginger fresh and steeped in water to make tea is good for nausea, as is mint, and fennel and cumin seed among other spices traditionally used in Indian and Asian cooking are good for the digestion. Turmeric applied topically is also good for the skin, as is aloe goop straight from the plant and witch hazel–another astringent. Clove is a natural topical anaesthetic, honey is antibacterial, cinnamon brings down inflammation, cranberry is good for the urinary tract, and of course the list of exotic “superfoods” is miles long.
Many of these are well-known and considered fads or old wives’ tales, and of course no single plant or spice is a magical cure-all, but there is science and chemistry and traditional knowledge behind old remedies. I don’t think they should be ignored. Especially in a contemporary society where I know a vast number of Americans lead incredibly unhealthy lives and would sooner beg synthetic medications from their doctors than read a nutrition book and eat a piece of fruit every once in a while. It’s harsh, but it’s the truth. Malnutrition should not be a first world problem if it’s due to sheer laziness and ignorance. Maybe that’s the way the modern world is, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why it’s so refreshing to me to be in Finland seeing young, metropolitan professionals who have listened and still kept the knowledge about how to live with the natural world.
I see this knowledge as a practical thing. Not everyone is going to get stuck out in the forest and be forced to survive by foraging. In fact, the vast majority of people won’t. To me, knowledge about nature, respect for nature, and active engagement with nature–it’s so admirable. Here, everyone has a summer cabin, or goes to the park or the forest, they pick berries and mushrooms and apples, they engage. And they put an emphasis on health, both physical and mental, in a way that is connected with the natural world, whether it’s yoga in the park, sauna on Saturday, or the entire month of July at the family mökki swimming, fishing, grilling, foraging, and being together with people and appreciating the natural resources around them. And it’s not something idiosyncratic that I’ve picked up on and decided to keep obsessing about; it’s just part of life.
It’s practical because it’s about holding on to knowledge of the past and preparing for the future. Maybe I’m going to sound like a treehugger here, but I’m okay with that. Nature can’t be ignored as if it were something humans have long since conquered. It can’t be left to stagnate, and it can’t be seen as inconsequential. We’ve tried that in the past with industry and with technology, but we always depend on natural resources.
I truly believe that the way forward for humanity is to get back in touch with nature, to develop groundbreaking new technologies that, instead of ignoring nature or forcing it to be something it’s not, embrace it and work with it.
For a long time I was confused as to whether I am a creature of habit or one of change. I like stability and consistency and routine, and then after a while I’ll get bored and change things up. But I think it’s retaining the feeling of control over my situation that allows me to feel safe enough to make those changes–to be spontaneous, to travel, to experience new things. It’s when the root of my situation is shaken up that I start feeling unstable, anxious and unhealthy.
So while I’m here in the U.S., one of the things I decided to focus on was to appreciate things for what they are, trying not to judge, trying not to rank them according to whatever preference I have in my head. This includes my environment, but also myself and my activities; I’m determined not to put undue blame on myself for having to change the plan yet again, or for taking a bit of a break–working less than I would have if I were in Helsinki. Things are moving ahead (albeit slowly), and I’m staying positive–that’s the important part.
Over the past few years I’ve realized that it’s really pointless to be able to brag about spending more time at work than someone else, or that you’re busier than someone else. I thought that I should be stressed out all the time, and that would mean I was successful. I thought I should have an apartment that looked a certain way and should be in a certain kind of relationship and should have my professional life all figured out. In the words of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, “why are we ‘should-ing‘ all over ourselves?”
So I’m also taking some time for myself, because sometimes in order to retain sanity and a positive outlook, I have to step back and appreciate the little things. My mom decided to do a massive garden overhaul this spring and summer, so I came back to beautifully arranged flower beds and lush groupings of vegetable plants: several varieties of tomatoes and peppers, beans, squashes, cucumbers, and berries. We did a fall planting of cabbages: broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and radicchio, plus more beans, lettuces, radishes, and peas, and of course there’s the ever-present herb garden. So I’ve been cooking a lot, and out in the garden a lot, because during those times, life seems very simple and uncomplicated.
One of my favorite ways to de-stress is to get in touch with my inner child and do some arts-and-crafts. I’ve always been a bit of a dabbler in the arts, and I say that to distinguish myself from the real artists. I’m curious but also impatient, so my projects usually involve more than their fair share of elbow grease and luck, and as such, aren’t exactly what I would call masterpieces. But as an old band director used to tell us, it’s about the journey, not the destination. My projects are more about the process than the product, so they serve their purpose. They allow me to concentrate on something outside myself, something constructive that no one is going to judge me on, something that no one but myself even needs to see.
I’ve always been a little fascinated with nature, too, so I guess that explains my attraction to the outdoors as a source and inspiration for art. As a child I used to make hollyhock dolls, crowns and bracelets from braided willow branches, little bows and arrows from twigs, paintbrushes and little bug-sized dollhouses and sailboats that I would float down the creek after it rained.
Of course, to any onlooker this all means I was that child with the leaves in my hair and the twigs and pebbles in my pocket, leaving dry bundles of plants everywhere. But I was in my own fantasy world where the animals could talk and lived in magical little villages under our feet that we could see if we only took the time to notice.
Maybe it’s childish, but connecting art to nature gives me a moment back in that world, and doing something with my hands is incredibly therapeutic. I had saved a handful of pokeweed berries from my grandmother’s garden, having noticed that they stained my hands. I bought some virgin wool yarn and over a few days, muddled the berries in boiling water and let a hank of the wool steep. When I took it out, the berry skins were empty and white, the combination of water and acidic mordant (for animal fibres; for plant fibres, use an alkaline mordant) having leached the color right out of them. After a quick rinse in cold water, I had a stunning fuchsia yarn. I decided to knit some colorblocked mittens as a good project for the winter, and dyed another hank a soft, sunny yellow with spent marigold blossoms. I found the source of walnuts the squirrels had been hiding in the yard and dyed another hank of yarn a dusty brown. I’m practising my stitches now and planning to start the mittens soon.
Maybe it’s silly, and I know I have the personality to start projects and only finish them much later, if at all. But I like having a variety of silly little projects around, if ever I need to take a meditative moment. It’s the same reason I like cooking, and music, for that matter. Whatever else is happening in life, it’s reassuring to know that I can take simple things and combine them in creative ways. That I can do something constructive with my hands. I’ll never be an Iron Chef or a professional musician, photographer, or an artisan. My creations are imperfect and my knowledge is flawed. But there is character in the imperfections, and I think there is something important in the learning process. Sometimes it’s important just to try, to experiment. To create something, whatever it may be. It’s important to have a thought and to do something about it. This creativity is what makes us human, what helps us relate to each other, what allows us to find the beauty in the little things.