The discussion around cultural heritage and memory organisations is currently strongly linked to intangible and living heritage. As a part of this trend the human–nature relationship and natural heritage are regarded as part of national and global pool of intangible tradition, which should be acknowledged, preserved, transmitted and kept alive. In Finland the focus of living heritage and nature has been in forests. This can be seen in both the wiki-inventory of intangible heritage and the official living heritage list, where forests and activities linked to forestland constitute a major part of the suggestions under the category “nature and universe”. The Finnish National Board of Antiquities has accepted in the official National Inventory of Living Heritage for example the Finnish Forest Relationship, collecting wild herbs, mushroom picking and freedom to roam freely in nature (jokamiehenoikeudet, right to access public or privately-owned land).
In a Baltic sea nation, “the Land of a thousand Lakes” with over 300 000 kilometres of coastline, elements linked to water and human–water relationship are however conspicuously absent in both the above-mentioned lists and in the nature-talk in general. In the National Inventory of Living Heritage there are some specific local traditions connected to water, such as fishing in the rapids of Torne river, winter seine fishing in lake Puruvesi or sailing with traditional lapstrake boats in the coastline of the Baltic sea. Also sauna, the hard core of Finnish national saga and a tradition that is very much alive, is for its part linked to the Finnish water relationship.
It is said that “every Finn has a Forest Relationship”, a connection with and to the forest. In a country where forest covers most of the surface area this is a natural train of thought – although it is in many ways artificial to define a certain kind of relationship with nature as a feature of a specific geographical or ethnical unit; it could be considered that people living in a similar climate zone have experienced the forest and nature in a similar way regardless of their national identity. Of course it can be stated, that in Finland – as well as in Norway and Sweden – the freedom to access also privately-owned land enables people to enjoy forests more equally.
One feature belonging to the chaotic and even apocalyptic world of 2010s is the stressing the importance of nature-human relationship and the healing powers of nature. Many books have been written about the importance of restoring the lost connection with nature. In this genre as well, the forest environment is dominant: forest showers, forest submersion, forest yoga, forest recipes and talk about the therapy forest and the health forest (terveysmetsä) are all manifestations of the – often urban – nature talk.
At the individual level the almost mythologised Finnish forest relationship with its healing powers is not however unambiguous. At least for yours truly finding a personal forest relationship has been challenging. I have tried going to the forest to find its healing powers – almost every time failing miserably. In the Finnish culture and folklore the forest is connected with many oppressive features, and it has often been seen as a scary place, which can swallow you completely, the home of spirits and gnomes, and a manifestation of secret desires and the hostile dreamworld. At least it is the home of unpleasant insects, scratching branches and feelings of getting lost. Even though the positive physiological effects of the forest or a green space in general to blood pressure and cortisol levels is undoubtedly genuine, the idea of a national forest relationship is culturally complex, and the fear of the forest is also written in our genes.
Compared to forest relationship I can easier locate my relationship with the sea and other water systems. Born and raised on the Finnish Southern Coast the sea is the most central element in the unity a regard as “nature”. I also share the memoryscape known to almost every Finn about the lake or riverside cottage and the purifying, healing and almost spiritual unity of water and sauna. After the more or less unlucky attempts to connect with the forest I found the healing power of nature quite suddenly in my own hometown, in a brisk wind by the Gulf of Finland. The wind blew away my anxiety and stress, the long-distance view to the sea took care of the rest. Even better this healing power can be sensed on the water, when the rocking of the waves nurtures the brain, swinging you like you were a child – or an adult trying to calm yourself down. Also, the sounds of water: waves coming in and out of the shore, babbling streams, rippling of the water against the boat, even murmuring waterfalls, are proven to be calming and relaxing. Of course, the wide waters are also associated with fears and danger – the preferences we have are linked to our growing-environment, the positive and negative experienced in nature we have had as a child and potentially even our genes.
It is easier to have a personal relationship with a water system than a forest, because a sea, lake or river always has a name: Baltic Sea, Lakes Saimaa, Pielinen, Päijänne, Inari, rivers Aurajoki, Kemijoki … – not to mention the hundreds of ”islandlakes” (saarijärvi) ”blackponds” (mustalampi) and “holylakes” (pyhäjärvi) or for example water systems named after different fish. There are tens of thousands of personalised waters in Finland, with whom the individuals have tight, lifelong relationships. If the physical connection to ones “own” body of water is cut, it is remembered and missed; people describe the union of water and sky, the pearl necklace of the islands, the lingering gaze to the distance, the simultaneous feeling of danger and affection. From the pier one goes down to the shining water or jumps to a boat, which with the help of the wind and waves takes you to the open sea, nearby island or trading post. Boating, fishing, laundry, swimming, trade, sailing, birds and plants, the ice roads and ice holes – we have countless connections with our water systems, which can be traced back hundreds and thousands of years. It is remarkable, that not even the quite widespread Finnish winter ice swimming has not found its way to the intangible heritage suggestions. The meaning of water systems as a “road network” and the basis of our settlement history has been partly forgotten in the era of airway, railroad and motorised road transportation. When we talk about the sea, lakes and rivers, we most likely address the subjects of pollution and decline of their fauna and flora. The positive effect of the water connection is more rarely outspoken.
If and when we want to split our nature-relationship into smaller categories, we should also take into consideration water: sea bays, open seas, small and big inland lakes, ponds, rivers and brooks. The lakes are a central image, when Finland is sold to foreigners. In the national vocabulary the coastline of the Gulf of Finland is been underestimated – most likely because of the Swedish-speaking dominance in the area, which has not fitted into the nationalistic agenda. The marine way of life in the coastline is regarded as a unique minority culture, not part of Finnishness as such. The core of the Finnish national nature talk are the deep green Karelian forests, where one can be hidden and left in peace. The water connects, the forest separates. The Baltic Sea has been an important route of trade and culture, and the influences brought by waterways have bit by bit spread to the rest of the country, and the ships smelling of tar have been a familiar sight also on inland lakes.
Of the elements of nature and in our environment in general water is the most crucial. We – and the world we experience – would not exist without water. Every single one of us has also a cultural water relationship, often through a specific water system. And the water relationship, if any, is an essential part of our nature-relationship and our connection with the universe and our culture.
For more information about the work on Finnish Living Heritage see for example http://www.aineetonkulttuuriperinto.fi/en/index
People going for a swim in the Helsinki archipelago – which has been said to be the countryside for the people of Helsinki – in 1950. The Finnish habit of swimming in natural waters all year round can be regarded as living cultural heritage. It also fits todays discourse on nature’s importance for both mental and physical health. Picture: Helsinki City Museum Picture Archives.