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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.

 

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.

Some winter kindness

This is the time of the year when life speeds up. There are markets to do and mail-outs to send out, articles to write, t-shirts to fold and Christmas presents to buy. Sometimes just staying warm seems like enough of a challenge. When it rains it’s worse. The damp here is the real problem in the winter. It’s not like home where, in my mind, it’s dry cold, the sort of cold that makes your nostrils stick together, where the snow itself is cold, hard and sticky. Home where it’s dark at three in the afternoon and there are mountains of snow piled up on pavements, in gardens and alongside the houses. But this all in my mind. It’s not like that anymore, the winters are warmer.

Here in London it’s grey, sometimes sunny, but mostly grey. I’m spending some of my time helping Gerry with the pre-Christmas rush. I’m writing long lists and rushing around, but I should remember this is the time of the year when you need to slow down. It’s the time of the year for blankets, books and hot tea.

I’m trying to read, but the books I choose are exciting and speedy as well. I finished Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter yesterday. It’s a book written in English by a Swedish author about Lapland in the 1700s. It’s a murder mystery, there is magic and snow. I liked it, but the more I write the more distant I feel from the novels I read. It’s a good book though, seek it out if it sounds like your cup of tea.

Today I might to do some more writing of my own. I’ve set myself a target of 500 words per day. Just 500 slow words. In this busy period I’ve not been writing every day, but that’s OK too. I figure during this cold time of the year when the news reports are full of fearful things kindness needs to come first. So I’m going easy on myself. I hope you are too.

Image by Sirma Krusteva.