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Life in the big smoke

Finnish forests and London forests

I grew up in a small town in Finland, there was a woodland a couple of blocks from my house. Forests surround the city on all sides, except for in the west, where the land meets the Gulf of Bothnia.

When I was little my family spent a couple of weeks at the summer house in June and July. This is nothing special in Finland where most people have a summer house or a summer cottage . It’s a big country with not that many people, there is a lot of space and 75 percent of the land is covered in forest.

The woods around the summer house were great for playing in. My brother, my cousin and I used to go on make believe adventures, finding trails among the blueberry bushes and the moss, scrambling up big granite boulders and finding the courage to jump down again.

We trekked through what to us seemed like jungles of reeds and fire weed to find new ways to the road on the far side of the forest. We walked around the old swamp that had been filled in with ballast from the ships that once docked in town. According to my grandmother the soil had come all the way from Africa.

In the old swamp we found and collected rocks that were red and brown and sometimes inky blue, some had been hollowed out by foreign waves revealing a milky colour underneath a darker surface, some had holes in them, some were smooth and polished. My grandmother called them moonstones. There are still several of them sitting in a bowl on the veranda at the summer house.

When my grandad was still alive he made my brother a bows from the juniper bushes and arrows out of sticks. In the autumns when the forests turned soggy and soft my granny took us mushroom hunting in the forests.

She taught us to look out for grönkremlor and smörsoppar, the yellow-orange mushroom which according to her had to be fried in lots of butter. Often the mushrooms were slug eaten and hosting at least a couple of worms. The worm infested parts were cut away and returned to the forest. Sometimes my grandmother sliced a sliver of a gilled mushroom with a brick red hat. She tasted it, making sure it was a tegelkremla and not the one that would burn your tongue.

It’s more than fifteen years since I went out into a forest to forage for mushrooms, but I can still recall the smell of wet soil. I didn’t realise how precious and special this was until I moved away. I miss the forests now and I seek them out whenever I can and wherever I can found them.

I feel very lucky to have landed in a place in London surrounded by two forests – Oxleas Wood and Bostall wood. Some parts are over 8000 years old, there are oaks, hornbeams and hazel. The forests are split by the A2 and other roads. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but to me it seems like the constant hum of traffic is dampened by all that green.

When I walk to the forest it feels like the crinkles in my soul have been smoothed out. I promise myself I should go more often, but the first time I made it there this year was a few weeks ago.

There are several bits I still want to explore, but Gerry and I have already established “our” regular forest walk up to Bostall Wood. Apparently (according to the internet) the word bostall means “a secure place” in Old English. It couldn’t be more fitting.

 

Welcome to the inner workings of my mind

So. I spent yesterday in Brighton interviewing people at the Momentum festival for a reportage. The conversations must have settled at an odd angle in my mind because last night I had a very vivid dream about people protesting against brexit through the medium of French cheese.

There were all of these installations of brie and blue cheese (I can’t even think of the name of a French one at the moment). Some were molded into the shape of the British flag, others had been turned into tabloids with angry headlines. I can’t remember what I made of it all in the dream, but I woke up with the the installations quite clear in my mind, accompanied by the smell of cheese.

The most infuriating thing is that I can’t even blame the weirdness on having had cheese before bed. There you go. An insight into the strange inner workings of my mind.

Now, here’s a tune to cleanse your mental palate.

*Hurricane by MS MR. (Welcome to the inner workings of my mind/So dark and foul I can’t disguise/Can’t disguise)

Some thoughts for the equinox

At the end of our holiday in Finland earlier this year we spent a couple of days in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. We hiked through forests and spent several kilometers staring at the narrows paths between the bilberry bushes and the moss, trying not to stumble over any of the red pine roots criss-crossing the ground. We climbed up watch towers and looked out over a never ending forest. The air was so clean it felt thick and satisfying, like a fine meal for the lungs.

The days were cloud-covered and sometimes it rained. The temperature hovered around ten degrees centigrade. We stopped by a cold and windy lake on one of our hikes and watched three otters playing in the grey waves, slinky shadows underneath the water. Every now and then a head popped up, watching us watching them.

For a bit more than a week after we came back to London I dreamed of these forests. When I woke up in the morning the only thing on my mind were the trees. Every year I feel more and more homesick when I come back to London. It’s as if I miss the land itself, the forests and the air and the water. And I kept dreaming about trees.

lapland forest

Little by little the memory fades and I sink back into the reality here in London. We have a house to renovate and decorate and there is a lot of other work to do. We’re in the process of emptying two rooms upstairs and have set up camp in the living room downstairs for the first time since we moved in. These last few weeks are the first we’ve been able to use the fire place we installed at the beginning of the year. We found some boxes of old wood at the studio and have been keeping the fire going most nights. That reminds me of home. Even though this is a tame fire, in a perfect and sealed modern stove, a different beast to the smoky, fierce flames in the open fire place at the summer house.

Yesterday we had a fire. Yesterday was the equinox and the days will grow shorter now. That made me think of this Sami story I read while we were in Lapland. It’s about a pagan woman, Mariska, and the priest who tries to convert her. I found the story on this blog.

The priest says, “My poor child, you are now the only pagan left in this region”. Mariska agrees and turns around and sends a kiss to the Sun. She answers, “When you are old like me, you will like the warm Gods”. The priest continues: “But what happens, when the Sun disappears in the winter, behind the clouds?” “One of Beaivvás´ sons sits upon my wood oven. I give him firewood to eat.”, replies Mariska.
“I thought that wood is also one of your Gods. I have seen how respectfully you treat the bark and use it in your handcrafts. How can you put your God in the fire?”, asks the priest. “Only a God is worthy to be food for another God”, answered Mariska, and then she explained that she prefers a God that can be cut down, like a tree, instead of a God she cannot see nor touch.

So this winter I will keep feeding the fire, thinking of home.

Books I’m half-way through at the moment

I always have several books on the go at once. I blame this on the fact that I tend to get very excited about new things, so the books I order off Amazon always outpace the amount I read. Hello piles of dusty books in the living room. This issue also applies to writing projects. I’m sure no other writers recognise themselves. Finishing things is easy, right?

Here are some books I’m reading at the moment. Some have sat next to the bed for several months. I am planning on finishing them one day.

The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump, by Sandra Hempel

The newest addition to the pile. Research for a project I’ve been working on for a while. It’s about cholera, more interesting than it might sound.

The Enlightenment Trap: Obsession, Madness and Death on Diamond Mountain, by Scott Carney

SO INTERESTING. It’s about a buddhist cult and the death of a man called Ian Thorson. He died of dehydration after spending months in an isolated cave with his wife and guru Christie McNally.

The book explores how Buddhism has been adopted by the West and its impact on the minds of people who’ve grown up in instant-gratification Western societies. I’ve read about the Diamond Mountain tragedy before and the tale ticks all the right boxes for me, religion, cults, the odd motivations behind acts of self harm, psychology, death and so on.

Edit (26.9): I’m now nearing the last quarter of the book. I wrote the above having read the first few pages and a very exciting blurb. And I’m left slightly disappointed, but perhaps my expectations were a bit too high. The description of the book made me think the story would have been interspersed with interviews, research and descriptions of what happens in the mind of people who go on long silent meditation retreats. I was expecting more psychology. Instead the book (so far) has been a bit of a true crime read with some paragraphs about Buddhism. It’s a bit of a let down. These people make bad decisions and then things spiral out of control. It’s depressing. So I’m giving the book a rest.

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

I’ve been reading this cheerful little book before going to bed. It’s written by a Canadian academic and looks how societies break down. Homer-Dixon is fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and looks at the different stressors (climate change, terrorism, financial crises) that might make our societies collapse. The books was published in 2006 and so far a lot of the potential problems he’s identified seem worryingly familiar.

Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13000 years, by Jared Diamond

I bought this book because an Amazon review said it had changed the reviewer’s worldview. It’s written by biophysicist, ecologist and anthropologist Jared Diamond and offers a multidisciplinary investigation of how human societies were formed and why some societies became more advanced than others.

It’s a fascinating take on the complete randomness of life and our current system of organising ourselves, our beliefs and our power structures. The book makes it seem blindingly obvious that chance, rather than some grand plan, lies behind the way we’ve chosen to live on this planet. It’s very interesting, but also seriously dense with a tiny font, which is why I’ve been plowing through it slowly for almost six months now.

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I know the list isn’t exactly jam-packed with what you might call feel-good reads. But these topics have in one way or another been on my mind for a while now, they pop up on a regular basis in the work I do and I feel the need to dig deeper. Considering I spent my teens wearing black and reading about serial killers it’s probably something of an improvement.

Afternoon at Oxford Circus

Hurry up Regent Street. No need to linger, the city doesn’t want you stop or to dawdle. Keep moving, keep looking at the crowd. Girls in face veils, bags swinging off each arm. Besneakered couples wearing backpacks. They walk slowly, looking up, looking down, looking the wrong way as they cross the road. Well dressed women in tight dresses, in high heels. People carrying coffee, people carrying dogs. Buses and cars and black taxis, exhaust fumes so thick they make your nostrils black.

I’m early, so I walk through gaping glass doors. Rows and rows of colourful dresses and shirts and blazers. I don’t know what to do with it all. The shop assistants smile a lipsticked smile.

Another shop. Red and black and blue jackets, quilted fabrics, sown on badges of flowers, embroidery. The same feel of the fabric. The same factories churning out neatly displayed truck loads.

Shop after shop after shop. An avenue of them full of carefully displayed mountains of products. New for each season. Belted jackets, leather shoes, flower crowns, sneakers and new phones. Where do they all end up?

I brush my hand along the fabrics. They’re not looking for a home, they just want to be seen. To be worn once. Then what?

Blinking signs and mannequins in yoga poses. Masses flowing in and out of the temple, staring open-mouthed at high resolution screens and iMacs. Shopping bags lining arms like bangles. What is it all for?