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.