1: Celebrating Finland 100
During The Long Spring journeys I encountered many artists, past and present, with close associations with the places I visited. For some, such as Maria Àngels Anglada, the Catalan novelist and poet, and the composer Olivier Messiaen, wildlife symbolised freedom and identity and their works mined deep reserves of personal and cultural connectedness to nature. In Finland, I read some of Elias Lönnrot’s epic Kalevala, the poem that inspired so much of Sibelius’s music. When the poem and the music inspired an independent Finland a hundred years ago this month, wildlife was an inextricable part of the narrative.
In this first in a series of articles, I recall my journey through that young country.
May 21, Liminganlahti, Northern Ostrobothnia. Liminganlahti is Finland’s largest wetland, and from the visitor centre you can scan a corner of its 30,000 acres and 70 miles of shoreline. When I visited, there was an exhibition of watercolours, the work of artist and broadcaster Minna Pyykkö, who is the face and voice of Finnish nature on television and radio, regularly hosting the Areena programme and Minna Pyykkö’s World.
The pictures were all between about ten and eighteen inches square, and all depicted owls, of the ten native Finnish species. Some were portraits – studies of attitudes and moods that among birds, only owls can betray. These were finely and accurately observed, yet rendered with an economy of brushwork. Others were landscapes and lightscapes with the owl a discreet luminous presence.
Like generations of Finnish artists, Minna has created many works inspired by Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem. As epics go, it is relatively recent, completed in 1849 by Elias Lönnrot, a physician who used his spare time to collect and compile the ancient oral folk tales and myths of the Finnish people and then used them as the raw material for his masterpiece. I wanted to know whether Kalevala reflected some deep-rooted connection between Finnish people and nature.
“Birds play a big role in Kalevala”, Minna told me. “From the very beginning - the world is created out of the shards of a goldeneye’s egg. In Kalevala birds are companions to people, they whisper advice, they tease, they lift and carry tired travellers, they attack and fight with people. They also feel cold in winter and are happy when spring comes.”
Later, I read a few of its 22,795 lines:
Wainamoinen then departed,
Straightway hastened to his country,
To his home in Kalevala,
Spake these words upon his journey:
"What has happened to the cuckoo,
Once the cuckoo bringing gladness,
In the morning, in the evening,
Often bringing joy at noontide?
What has stilled the cuckoo's singing,
What has changed the cuckoo's calling?
Sorrow must have stilled his singing,
And compassion changed his calling,
As I hear him sing no longer,
For my pleasure in the morning,
For my happiness at evening.
Never shall I learn the secret,
How to live and how to prosper,
How upon the earth to rest me,
How upon the seas to wander!
Only were my ancient mother
Living on the face of Northland,
Surely she would well advise me,
What my thought and what my action,
That this cup of grief might pass me,
That this sorrow might escape me,
And this darkened cloud pass over.”
At midnight I walked to the shore through light rain. The clockwork tick-tock of a snipe seemed to emanate from the humid fabric of the air itself, and set a presto tempo. Two male whinchats, out on the marsh, lay out a relaxed refrain of short, airy phrases. Overlaying fast and slow tempi was a favourite technique of Sibelius; as the British composer Michael Finnissy says: “his pieces have a long perspective, always in long-shot, not close-up; then you get close up events that seem unusually magnified in importance because there’s such a huge contrast between vast and close-to." I returned to bed with the thought that Sibelius will have heard these sounds on spring nights, and absorbed them into his art.
Finnish-speaking lands were dominated by Sweden for nearly six hundred years, before being ceded to Russia as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. Following the revolution in Russia, Finnish nationalism finally came to fruition with the declaration of independence on 6 December 1917.
Next: the poet Maria Àngels Anglada, a voice for the Catalan nation and wildlife
The Long Spring will be published in March 2018
Laurence Rose is a conservationist, writer and composer. He has worked for the RSPB since 1983.