BLOG Christopher Meredith

NWR Issue 98

Forests, Rocks, Lakes

Rock, Moss, Fern, image by the author

‘You don’t see them that often.’

We were driving south in a rare November day of crystal sunlight, on a wide road rolling through forest and lakes. We’d passed the warning triangle containing the silhouette of a running elk.

‘But you do see them.’ The studded tyres rumbled under us. The road was clear of snow. There was a little left dusting higher ground here and there. ‘Their legs are so long.’ He made a gesture over the steering wheel, rolling his forearm as if a wave were breaking into the car. ‘They trip on the car and come into the windscreen and then on top of you.’ He paused. ‘It’s quite dangerous.’

The only elk I’d seen was a stuffed one in the Museum of Central Finland. It was frozen forever in a balletic act of dying, struck down by a neolithic arrow. But you could see that having one land in your lap while driving would be tricky. Someone had told me that when walking in the forest you should sometimes clap your hands. Elks, especially females with calves, could be dangerous, and the clapping was enough to move them away. I had an un-Finn-like image of figures pacing straightbacked and graceful through the trees, heads erect, clapping complex flamenco rhythms to the wildlife.

‘People can get permission and they shoot them. They have a limited number they can shoot. The meat is very expensive.’

We stopped at the village of Korpilahti and had food. There was no elk on the menu in the Satama Kapteeni – the Harbour Captain – next to the moorings on Lake Päijänne. I had delicious chicken soup in which slices of peach floated. The place was pristine. Perhaps the unreal clarity of the light added to the feeling that Korpilahti, a village of a few hundred people, and especially the oddly quiet stretch round the moorings and jetties, had all just been laundered and pressed into perfect creases. The water of the lake glittered in tiny silver flashes among hard dark blues and blacks. We didn’t see any boats. Cruises were mainly for summer. In a couple of months the lot would be deeply frozen, enough to drive a car on it. For now there was this eerie perfection.

I knew that ‘lahti’ meant bay. My companion struggled to explain ‘korpi’. Something to do with the deep forest. Later, the dictionary told me both ‘woods’ and ‘wilderness’. The idea of ‘forest’ as true wilderness in temperate zones feels alien, perhaps phoney, in English, or Welsh for that matter. So it meant something like ‘Wildwood Bay’ – but that sounds twee somehow, a collective half-memory that’s reduced what almost all of northern Europe once was to a quaintness. The words drew out something about landscape. In Wales, largely, what ‘wild’ areas we have are surrounded by the tame. They’ve actually been tamed by this, long become parks, or reservations. But here, for a little while yet there’s a sense at least that real wilderness is still out there, where an elk can occasionally crunch through the glass into someone who’d just been reading a message – in English – about the level of the screen-wash from the onboard computer. Though it always seems a little further off than the place you’ve just reached.

This village itself didn’t seem that wild. It had wide well-made roads and two supermarkets, which is two more than any village this size in Wales would have. Maybe the summer tourists on the lake made the difference. In fact, I was told, places around here were shrinking, some of them dying. There were abandoned houses. A little further off. This didn’t mean the wilderness was growing but that cities elsewhere were.

A little later we went and stood on a newish cable-stayed bridge over Päijänne, spanning a narrowish neck in the long waterway. It was a piece of abstract sculpture in a strange landscape. The bright air was too icy to stand there long, but in this passage of the lake, lozenges of reed-fringed islands – each crowded with trees almost to the water’s edge – swam like clouds and above them, clouds were set like islands.

From there we went to see my companion’s summer home in an inlet on the western shore. Suddenly from a wide modern road we were on an unmade track through forest, passing a house here and there. The houses were all wooden. We passed a barn and a field, pleated with recent ploughing, fringed with forest. The peat soil was steely grey, almost the colour of the tidal mud at the mouth of the Usk, but polished slate-hard and smooth by the share and the cold. The track got smaller and we came to a small chalet among trees on a slope to the water’s edge. This turned out to be the sauna, wood-fired, with a makeshift wooden walkway where you could get into the lake. There was nothing like it, my companion said, to come out of the sauna, have a beer and sit and look on this. A track of intense white sunlight gleamed across the inlet through the dark trees. It was utterly peaceful.

A few tens of metres further up a steep unmade path was the summer house itself. It had no electricity or running water, nothing serious in the way of insulation. There was electricity nearby but they chose not to connect it. It was built of roughly squared timber notched and interlocking at the coins. You’ve seen the cowboy films. One gable had been bashed by a falling birch but it was over the verandah and didn’t let any weather in so hadn’t been fixed yet. It was furnished simply, with a beautiful old pull-out bed and a rocking chair. There was a brick chimneystack in the centre with a small fireplace open on two sides. There were Tilley lamps on the mantelpiece.

Here, owning a second home isn’t a political act as it is in Wales. The electric charge of anxiety and disapproval that comes with the Welsh words tŷ haf just isn’t there. It’s ordinary, a consequence simply of the culture and the fact that space and materials are plentiful. Several people have invited me back to Finland to stay at their places, and I’ve looked into their faces and known this wasn’t idle politeness; they meant it.

On the uphill side of the little house, the forest was piled. I’d seen when cycling, stopping to walk along forest tracks, that the floor is often strewn with rounded glacial boulders, some of them huge, most often shaggy with mosses which, when the grainy autumnal grey gives way to sun, light up in astonishing shafts of colour. In places the granite bedrock erupts through the forest floor.

On our way back up the unmade road, we stopped to call in on my friend’s mother-in-law. The wooden houses near the barn and farm buildings were permanent homes. These houses are often built up above ground-level, as this one was, on a concrete pad. I’d noticed older ones around the Kirjailijatalo were mounted on massive blocks of dressed, almost black granite.

The old lady’s home was immaculate, comfortable and warm, with a Tervetuloa (Welcome) sign next to the front door, and inside, the family photos and decor you’d expect from a lifetime spent almost anywhere in Europe. The livingroom was dominated by a large brick bread oven, still releasing warmth days after the last baking.

The old woman’s husband was out. They were in their eighties and he still drove.

As we drove back, my friend and I pondered the future of such places.


A couple of days later, I went to an art opening in the Galleria Becker, next door to the Kirjailijatalo.

The work was a series of constructions mainly made from the detritus of abandoned rural places. One was a spirit level that sprouted branches at one end and roots at the other. Another was a wooden agricultural shovel. When you looked closely you saw tiny roots bursting through the metal edge fixed onto the blade. The most striking was four wooden crutches arranged in a circle, their rubber-ferruled ends pointing outward vertically and horizontally. It reminded me immediately of a propeller. It seemed to me an ironic joining of notions of lameness and flight that set off a small explosion in my head.

It turned out that the title of this piece was ‘Under the North Star’. I still felt I’d been in the right territory with my first reaction. Under the North Star is the title of Väinö Linna’s trilogy, Täällä Pohjantähden alla, a seminal series of Finnish novels I’ve yet to get hold of and which several people had recommended to me, Vol 2, The Uprising & Vol 3, Reconciliation.

I told the artist, Pekka Suomäki, that I found this striking. He asked me if I didn’t think it was ‘too Finnish’.

I had to admit to myself that there was some stuff here I didn’t get. I thought of the warm weekends when roads fill with Finns driving long hours on wide roads to their summer houses, quiet, dream places, sometimes furnished simply with old sticks of furniture, and of the quietly emptying real homes. I thought of the word ‘nostalgia’, ugly and negative. Yet when you broke it down it came from two Greek words for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’. It seemed to me that there was little or nothing of nostalgia in the negative sense in these neglected sticks he’d nailed to the white walls.

I considered as we stood under his north star. ‘No,’ I said.

Christopher Meredith is the translator of the Welsh-language novel Melog (Mihangel Morgan). His own latest novel is The Book of Idiots, and his forthcoming poetry collection, Air Histories, will be published by Seren this spring. His poem from that collection, ‘Twobeat Deathsong’ will appear in NWR 99 (spring 2013, published on 1 March).

This piece was first published online at Wales Literature Exchange and is published with the kind permission of Wales Literature Exchange.


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