part 2

Heading into the last week of my second residency at Mustarinda, I have been thinking about the people and interactions from over the last two months. It has been a bit of a whirlwind to say the least. In this rural part of Finland time seems to be fluid, it is both short and long. Yesterday sometimes feels like a week ago, while other times I can’t believe another week has passed so quickly. 

Although I had a few specific activities planned, most of my research or time has been spent doing things on a whim. It is not uncommon to get a call in the morning, or maybe someone arrives at the house, and instead of spending the day in the studio I ended up spending the day outside or dropping stuff off somewhere or helping move something or going fishing. In these spontaneous adventures I found the most rewarding experiences, meeting locals and seeing parts of the landscape I hadn’t and wouldn’t of seen or met. However little the original task was, these interactions built relationships of various sorts over the 3 months I have spent at Mustarinda this year. After receiving a loaf of rye bread from a neighbours mother-in-law I had never met, I found out that through these various interactions, I had become know as the “boy from Mustarinda”. This awareness of the people in the area by each member of the community (both new and old) is something unique to these country towns, lacking somewhat from my home town in Perth. 

A few times I got bogged or the electric car “Elcat” conked out on the road between destinations, and one of these locals came to help me out (twice!). People are nice here. Even though people have busy lives on the farm or around town, there is less urgency than in the cities. Connection to other human beings is important. The Finn’s are not the most talkative bunch, but people seem to be there for you when it counts. Less filler conversation, more direct and sometimes blunt answers. This was evident in the small group of people that gathered each Tuesday and Wednesday evening at the local school workshop to make “Tommi” knives, a traditional design from Hyrynsalmi dating back some 150 years. Under local blacksmith Mauri Heikkinen, and the help of several others in the class, I have made two knives. Was a bit of a challenge at times with Mauri not speaking a word of english and many of the older men in the group not speaking any either. There was lots of fragmented translating between blacksmiths, but all were inviting and helpful. What I did realise is that everyone, with their varying degrees of experience, has their own opinion on how a knife should be made. 

In the house I have slowed down, allowed more time to think, read and daydream a bit. There has been a theme to this time though, the activities centred around local hobbies, jobs or common tasks and the thinking geared more towards the history of and current relationship that people have with the land they live on, farm on and take from. In some ways attempting to unpack the complex and sometimes exploitative relationship between humans and natural resources, modern technology and traditional connections, isolated communities and urban hubs. Not so much a critique of the relationship people have with nature in this area, but trying to understand or comprehend these trends on a global scale. For a community of people that appear to be more/literally involved in they ways they physically take from nature either through hunting, foraging, or chopping down trees for firewood, there seems to be a profound sense of respect and responsibility for, and knowledge of their surrounding environment and the other creatures that inhabit it. There is much that can be learnt from the current way of life of people who choose to live in this part of the world.

Tagging along to several hunts with locals from the Hyrynslami area, has been more life research than art research, although it has been influencing my thoughts and work heavily. Having gradually moved away from eating meat over the last 5 years, these intimate experiences observing animals from their life, death and preparation for food has been confronting. Questioning the ethics and environmental impact of meat consumption I felt it was really important to force myself to confront this issue head on. To prepare the body, feel its skin, take out its organs. It is so easy to passively buy and eat prepackaged meat, there is a disconnection between our consumption and its origins and impact, something that echoes through all aspects of consumer life today. I guess I was contemplating the mindset that if someone is unable to take the life of an animal, to be confronted with that reality, then what right do they have to eat it?

Seeing a 300kg elk or a small hare lying dead in the forest, and then performing or assisting the skinning, gutting and dissecting was intense. It was emotionally moving and is taking a long time to process. But from that intimate interaction grew a new admiration for these animals. Having watched birds over the spring, I was always seeing the wild animals at a distance. It should always be this way, but having this opportunity, feeling their warmth was something else. For some in this area of Finland there is an admiration for these incredible, majestic animals, and for others there is not. For some this activity isn't a time for reflection, existential pondering. Besides meals made from these animals that I have prepared or assisted personally, I haven’t consumed meat. This experience has concreted the position for me that it is unnecessary. I do not intend to eat meat in the future. This isn't a criticism of these local hunting groups, I respect their active participation in their consumption. For most of the Finns I met hunting was not glorified, but appeared to be a responsibility. The shooter and fellow hunters didn't shy away from dealing with the consequences of their actions, and after inspecting the animal it was time to get to work spending up to several hours preparing a single animal. 

If we all were personally active in our consumption, the world might be a different place. This isn't specific to just meat or hunting, but to forestry, mining, food production, and many other aspects of contemporary life. We’ve become so efficient and detached from what is involved in taking or making the things we use in daily life, that it is hardly ever consciously connected anymore. If one had to personally chop down a tree, disrupt an ecosystem, take it from a forest, prepare it and make a bedside table, one would be less likely to replace it every 2 years. If you had to kill, gut and chop up an animal to have a burger, be confronted with that reality, I imagine many wouldn’t do it. Our value systems and connection is arguably way out of whack. This isn't a new revelation, yet still many parts of society continue along this contradictory and unsustainable pathway. 

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The Mustarinda I returned to at the start of September was very different to the one I left. The landscape anew with different colours and a different feel. Snow didn't cover the forest floor, the Birch trees had leafs (all shades of yellow through orange). I spent the first week or so picking up where I left off, getting in contact with the various locals I had met in May and starting a few of the projects I had planned:

  • Caught up with Markku and joined him on several hunting trips. Lots of walking through the forest alongside his trusted hound Hermes. Lucky there are berries and mushrooms to pick during the quite patches. 
  • Spent some time with Liisa (local farmer) learning how to forage for food in the forest, finding many berries and mushrooms. Some fishing as well!
  • Started making a traditional Tommi Knife (local design) with Hyrynsalmi blacksmith Mauri at a group workshop put on by Hyrynsalmi Municipality at the school. This has been attended by various people from the community, of various ages and experience. 
  • In the process of learning more about the forest and its place society/spirituality in the recent and distant history of this area.
  • Learning how to make fire with rocks and local plants, and how to make char cloth.  
  • Visited recently opened National Park north of Mustarinda, as well as spending some time circumnavigating the Paljakka Nature Reserve nearby. 
  • Compiling footage and playing with video and audio in my practice for the first time. Also making a photo series focusing on the various skills/relationships I have learnt while in this part of Finland. 

This month (October) I will be continuing this research: hopefully meeting up with local hunters for the elk season; finish making my knife; learn about a few more mushrooms; return to the Nature Reserve; and checking out the Environmental Specimen Bank. 

part 1

Mustarinda is former primary school about 25km west of Hyrynsalmi, a small town in the Kainuu region of central Finland. The main building is surrounded by a 300 year old forrest which backs onto a large Nature Reserve. Paljakka Nature Reserve has a 2m wide border, a cleared area around the perimeter where the outer trees painted with a grey ring around the trunk. This marks an exclusion zone, the ‘Strict Nature Reserve’, where people are not allowed to enter. Something that really stands out when walking through the nearby forrest is how silent it is, probably something to do with the excessive amounts of settled snow absorbing most of the sound. Contrasted with an area of bush or rainforest in Australia where there is almost always a cricket chirping, the wind blowing, an aeroplane flying overhead or some sort of background noise. When I arrived, the forrest in this area was almost completely void of all sound.

Approaching this first residency I wanted to focus on the links or differences between an urban interpretation of nature or the natural landscape through leisure activities as adventure/fantasy and the reality of living in such a remote area. This is framed by recent research, and obsession, with prepping; a subculture of mostly urban people who are emotionally and financially invested in societies collapse as a result of natural or manmade disaster. One aspect of this online community is an obsession with gear or equipment, military grade materials and the potential of these tools when used in a fight or flight, apocalyptic, us vs the world, doomsday scenario. Although some acquire the skills to use this equipment, they are generally not used in everyday use. Stashed in a Bug-Out-Bag, ready for a quick escape to a discreet location before chaos breaks out in densely populated areas. 

In the towns and villages surrounding Mustarinda, some of these tools and skills are part of everyday life. Reaching -20 oC in winter, for some residents selectively clearing trees for firewood is essential with wood fired heating still being used in many houses. Although there is access to food in supermarkets at nearby towns, hunting is a common activity where a rifle with a scope is seen as a tool and the meat is evenly distributed between the group of hunters and wider community. Special locations or techniques for picking mushrooms, herbs or berries in the summer is something that is passed on to the next generation, many people storing huge amounts for use during the winter. 

That being said this remote area, like most around the world, has been affected by globalisation and the modernisation of the workforce, communication, transport and tools. The Kainuu region has a population about 80,000 people (less than 4 people per square kilometre) and an unemployment rate or 16-17%, with a large ageing population with younger residents moving to bigger towns and cities. Driving around the region, Markuu (a member of Mustarinda who has been doing some renovations of the nearby barn) points out many beautiful but vacant houses. He also mentioned recent real estate sales, with some houses and properties selling for 10,000-25,000 Euro. 

Over the last 3 weeks, my main field research has been to meet some of the residents who are continuing more traditional activities specific to the area and learn some practical skills while I’m at it. So far I have met: a hunter and his two daughters (also keen hunters) who are part of a local group of 20-30 people from the area that will be searching for Elk and deer later this year; a garden/wildlife consultant who has a wide knowledge of herbs, mushrooms and berries in the area; an all-roundhandyman and hare hunter, with an amazing cv of previous jobs including chimney cleaner, berry wine connoisseur and restaurant owner, electrician, contractor at a nuclear power plant, and beekeeper to name a few; an award winning blacksmith who makes Tommi-puukko (Tommi-knives), a famous short blade design that originates from Hyrynsalmi some 150 years ago; and a local tanner, taxidermist and beaver hunter who spends the dark winters bringing the various game back to life.

With the excess snow hanging around from winter, I have also: made a emergency snow shelter that can sleep 2 adults; tried cross-country skiing and used snow shoes; identified several tracks in the snow (with some help from local hunters); felled 40-50 birch and pine trees, and then transported them across a paddock with a snowmobile and trailer; found a freshwater spring; learnt to drain sap from birch trees before they start growing leafs; and had multiple sauna sessions. There has also been time read a couple of novels as well as reflect on these experiences and how they differ to life in a city. Bird watching has been a good pastime with many different species making their way through the area as they migrate to their summer residency. 

When I return in September for the second residency of my project, summer will be heading towards fall. From what I have heard this is the time of year when many locals spend time foraging, hunting, and hiking outdoors, and I plan to join them. The breath of my research thus far has been intentionally wide but focused towards the different ways people relate to their surrounding environment. When I return to Mustarinda in September I want to continue unpacking the complex and sometimes exploitative relationship between humans and natural resources, modern technology and traditional connections, isolated communities and urban hubs. For a community of people that appear to be more/literally involved in they ways they physically take from nature either through hunting, foraging, or chopping down trees for firewood, there seems to be a profound sense of respect and responsibility for, and knowledge of their surrounding environment and the other creatures that inhabit it. 

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