Sampo

The lake was her refuge, the place that she came when she wanted to be alone. Recently she had wanted to be alone often.

Her family, like many other Finnish families, owned a summer cabin that was used as a weekend retreat on hot summer weekends, a welcome break from their busy lives in the small city of Kuopio. The cabin was nestled amid pine and birch on the southeastern bank of Hirvijärvi, a modest lake about an hour’s drive to the west of the city. Hirvijärvi meant ‘moose lake’, referring to the huge, subarctic deer that made their home in the area. Rather aptly she had once seen a moose swimming across the lake, impressive head and mighty antlers held proudly above the surface as strong legs worked frantically, unseen.

Although the summer exodus from the cities was tradition, their cabin had seen little use in the past three years. Her parents had always had a turbulent relationship, a product of two hard upbringings creating two equally combustible characters, but they had always loved each other fiercely. Things seemed different in the past few years, however, with the eruptions of anger becoming more frequent and protracted. She suspected that something must have happened to cause this change, but she was too scared to ask. Asking led to talking, and talking made unspoken things real. She preferred not to know, so she increasingly chose solitude.

As an only child solitude was no stranger. She found it comforting, and lately she had chosen to spend her solitary time at the family cabin away from the verbal sparring at home. This spring was the first time she had ever ventured to the cabin alone. At seventeen she was still a year away from being old enough to drive, however the key to her freedom had arrived in the form of an inherited moped from a recently departed great uncle. The moped, named Tunturi after a Lappish mountain, was far from perfect, having grown tired and sluggish from many years of use. It’s two-stroke engine buzzed and gargled, spitting out thick puffs of rich, acrid smoke, but it hadn’t let her down yet. It didn’t need to be fast or quiet, the moped was her freedom from the disquiet of home life and she adored it.

She had ridden to the lake early that morning, arriving when the mist still clung to the surface of the water and dewdrops glistened on the rushy margins. The sun would burn the mist away before nine, but until then she sat at the edge of the water, basking in the ethereal beauty. Her mind invented shapes and figures in the swirling vapour, heroes and villains playing out tales from the Kalevala. She saw brave Väinämöinen battling Joukahainen, saw the hunt for the swan of Tuonela, and saw the first kantele being forged from the jawbone of a monstrous pike. If she concentrated hard enough she could almost hear the soft bell-like tones of the kantele, a lilting soundtrack to her rampant imaginings. She had been taught about the great epic poem of her people from a very young age. Many of her friends found the tales unspeakably dull, but she had always enjoyed the stories that the teachers told. As a child she imagined herself as the brave hero, but recently she found kinship with beautiful, tragic Aino. The drowned maid frequently stalked her dreams.

As the mist faded her mind turned to more practical matters. She walked slowly to the cabin, a fifty yard trudge through damp, coarse grass. Her shoes were soaked with dew by the time she arrived at the tatty wooden door, the key sticking slightly in the lock after years without care. A firm tug separated the swollen door from it’s tight wooden frame, and it swung slowly outwards with a protracted creak. The interior of the cabin was basic yet functional, and everything was arranged just as she had left it three weeks before. Nobody had entered the cabin since her previous visit, which meant that the small stash of firewood that she had stowed in a wicker basket had remained untouched. Sometimes she was impressed by just how organised she could be when she put her mind to it. Sometimes. Slipping the rucksack from her back she unzipped a side pocket, rummaging inside for the tools needed to create fire. The cabin used to have a gas burner which was a far more practical means of heating water and food, but the gas hadn’t been replenished for years. She didn’t mind though, making fire in the wood burner was an enjoyable challenge. She lay the tools on a small folding table, and pulled two slender birch logs from the basket. Birch burned much better than pine, which was filled with sap and filled the cabin with acrid smoke unless fully dried. Her first task was to prepare kindling to start the fire, which she did by using her puukko to shave thin strips of bark from the lengths of birch. The puukko, a small yet functional knife carried by most Finns as a rite of passage, was the perfect tool for the job, creating paper thin strips of dry, curled wood that practically begged to be consumed by the flames. Whereas her father would have gamely tried to ignite the tinder with a flint and steel, she found the quick strike of a match to be far more efficient. The warmth radiating from the burner soon filled every corner of the cabin, and a pot of water quickly came to the boil and was transformed into thick, strong coffee. She sat at the foot of a steel-framed camp bed and gnawed on a piece of tough rye bread, a local delicacy, as the hot liquid poured life into her tired bones.

The woodland surrounding the cabin was dissected by a nexus of narrow pathways, some of which were the remnants of old byways through the more ancient parts of the forest. These paths, created by ancient foresters, reminded her of the old caminos that they had walked during the Mediterranean holidays of her childhood. She knew relatively few of the vast array of paths with any degree of confidence, but had learned a couple of circular hiking routes that began and ended in the woodland to the rear of the cabin. It was the second, slightly easier of these routes that she chose for a mid-afternoon stroll. This particular path took her alternatively through bands of mature and young birch and pine, eventually depositing her in an area of recently felled forest where heather and bilberry flourished and woodlark sang joyously. She had walked this route the preceding autumn, and had stumbled on a rich harvest of mushrooms, bilberries and lingonberries, but it was too early in the year for such treasure to be available. The bilberries were beginning to appear, but were still tiny and bitter compared to the luscious indigo orbs they would become. Come August and September a frantic race would begin, as locals fought to harvest the natural bounty before it could succumb to the hungry mouths of deer, mice and songbirds that shared the woodland floor. Autumn in Finland was a particularly wonderful time for rustic cuisine, with seasonal mushrooms and berries providing perfect accompaniment to fresh grouse, salmon and venison. She could almost taste it.

She eventually came to an area of swamp, all rush and willow and reedmace. This was the place where the cloudberries grew, although few people could stand the mosquitos long enough to pick them. Cloudberries made a particularly delicious jam that reminder her of her maternal grandmother, five years dead but still remembered vividly. Alongside the swamp was the remnant of a lofty larch that had succumbed to the weather and now lay fallen and broken. The larch was a waypoint, reminding her to take the left hand path that looped back to the lakeside. This path almost entirely passed through old pine forest, dominated by vast specimens that had long avoided chainsaw and axe. The narrow, sinuous pathway wove between the trees, showing no evidence of having been straightened by man. She liked how the path deferred to the trees, rather than the other way round. A rich green carpet of mosses cushioned her steps and silenced her movement, the eerie quiet broken only by sporadic birdsong and the distant jackhammer bursts of a woodpecker, carving holes into the soft bodies of the birches at the woodland edge.

The shimmering surface of the lake was visible through the trees when a scent hit her, sharp and acidic like spoiled wine. She traced the smell to the edge of the path, where a large mound of pine straw and birch twigs confirmed her suspicion. Wood ants. The ants were swarming over their nest, clearly agitated and spraying a cloud of formic acid into the still air. She eventually spotted the source of their annoyance, in the still form of a decomposing adder half buried in the nest. She had seen adders occasionally in the forest, but never anything like this. She watched the ants milling around the olive form, almost entirely camouflaged against the dry plant matter from which the nest had been meticulously engineered. She couldn’t fathom how the snake had ended up in this situation, and wondered whether it had entered the nest of its own accord or had been found by the ants and dragged inside as a chance source of protein. Either option made her shudder, and she hastened back to the cabin before her empathy for the snake became too much to bear.

It was only when viewing the cabin with fresh eyes that she realised how disheveled it had become, and how much maintenance would be needed to ensure that it remained habitable. The once vibrant russet paint had become faded and patchy, and the shallow felted roof was ragged and no longer kept all of the rainwater out. She had resolved to make repairs to the cabin herself, but this afternoon’s task was somewhat less challenging. The windows were thick with dust and grime, and she set about filling a metal bucket with soap and water. After an hour’s toil she stood back to admire her work, smiling contentedly at the obvious improvement. Her grandmother’s homemade Marimekko curtains were clearly visible through the revitalised glass, cheerful red and yellow flowers vivid against a bright white backdrop. That was more than enough hard work for one day.

Afternoon became evening, and the girl washed the plates of her evening meal in a small stream that trickled into the lake just south of the cabin. The sun sat low in the western sky, reflecting off the lake surface as she prepared for a brief evening swim. Many Finns would end the day with a spell in the sauna followed by a short dip in the lake, but her cabin had no sauna so the lake would have to suffice. She hadn’t seen anyone else all day, and she felt no sense of shyness and she left her clothes in a pile at the shore and slowly waded into the cool water. Ducking her head below the surface with a gasp, she briefly allowed the water to claim her before breaking the surface and swimming thirty yards out into open blue. She felt free as she swam confidently, enjoying the sensation of movement against her bare skin. After ten invigorating minutes she emerged and wrapped herself in a rough towel, drying her alabaster skin next to the dying embers of her cookfire.

As the day drew to a close the girl sat outside the cabin, watching the sky slowly change colour over the water. She wasn’t quite far enough north to experience true midnight sun, but night was still mercilessly brief in these parts. She sipped from a ‘borrowed’ bottle of Koskenkorva vodka as the horizon cycled through hues of tangerine and magenta, and reflected on a day well spent. She would ride the Tunturi slowly home in the morning, but today had been the respite she needed. She felt energised and able to withstand the hardships of family life once more, and she knew that she could stand whatever challenges lay ahead as long as she kept reconnecting with the nature that she loved. Her eyelids grew heavy, and she drifted off to sleep filled with thoughts of Sampo, the magical artefact from the tales of Kalevala that bought untold good fortune. The lake was her Sampo, her well of succour and solace. An owl called from the forest as she slept peacefully beneath the stars.

My First Wild Place

My grandparents’ old house was put up for sale recently, which gave me a chance to have a look at what the owners had done to the place. The house itself had been completely reconfigured internally, to the point that it was almost unrecognisable, but that was inevitable as it had been in need of serious modernisation for many years. It looked good, and I didn’t begrudge any of the changes. What startled me, however, was the change that had been made to the garden, my childhood playground. When I was growing up the garden was huge and diverse and exciting, but it has since been stripped and paved, denuded of vegetation and the potential for adventure. It made me nostalgic about the time I spent there in my formative years.

I was always close to my grandparents, and through a combination of luck and proximity I attained an unrequested but not unwelcome ‘golden grandchild’ status. I spent many long days with them as a youngster, often helping grandad with a madcap scheme in the garage or baking an array of rustic but tasty foodstuffs with grandma. The two of them were without doubt the catalysts for my lifelong love of natural history, and our trips out into the countryside were fulfilling and frequent. The dynamic changed slightly when grandad passed away after a period of illness in 1997, and my role changed from co-adventurer to weekly visitor and occasional lawn mower. Grandma hung on for over 10 more years before a stroke took her independence away, but I still remember those latter years fondly.

As a youngster the garden was my kingdom, and I the explorer in chief. The rear of the house directly overlooked a small linear lawn area, and the job of cutting the grass was frequently my price for the reward of lunch. I didn’t mind though, because once mown the lawn became my archery arena. My equipment was basic, a rudimentary bow made from a sturdy stick of willow and garden twine, my arrows crudely butchered bamboo canes, but it didn’t matter. I was Robin Hood and William Tell rolled into one.

Between the lawn and the house was a small plum tree and rose bed, which is where I first became fascinated with creepy-crawlies, particularly the aphids that clustered around the rosebuds. On the opposite side of the lawn was an area of garden shrubs that held little intrinsic interest for me, although it did attract a good selection of bees and butterflies. I was always more interested in the fruits and vegetables than the flowers, although the rudbeckia blooms hold a special place in my memory.

Beneath the kitchen window a concrete slabbed pathway ran adjacent to the outdoor toilet (unbelievably cold!) and coal place on the left hand side, before sloping up slightly to the level of the rest of the garden. Several points of interest were accessible from the top of this slope, including a quince tree to the left, a home-made cold-frame (built from old windows) and rhubarb patch to the right, and a small spindle tree directly ahead. There is an old photograph somewhere of me standing in this area at the age of four, wearing grandad’s hat, coat and gardening gloves. I haven’t seen it for years.

Progress along the central pathway, beyond the small patch of lemon balm on the left, led to a small apple orchard. This area was grandad’s pet project and contained a broad selection of rare apple types, including several specimens where he had grafted multiple different apple varieties onto the same tree. From the right hand side of the orchard it was possible to access a narrow avenue of fruit bushes, with gooseberries to the left and blackcurrants to the right. I used to gorge on gooseberries until my stomach hurt. I can’t stand them now!

Next to the fruit bushes was a small plot where grandad and I used to plant runner beans in early summer. This was a particularly fun job, involving the construction of a line of bamboo wigwams held together by offcuts of wire foraged from the garage. I can remember the structure and form of the runner bean plants vividly.

A short walk back to the central path gave access to a further large planting area to the left, but this was the domain of more flowers and shrubs that never gripped me. There was, however, a small patch of chives that we frequently used to plunder to enliven our breakfast scrambled eggs. Beyond the tedious shrub bed was a further area of apple orchard, including a tree where grandad and I installed a small wooden bench (a bit of old door if I remember correctly). On at least one occasion bumblebees nested within the mossy grass at the foot on this tree, which was yet another milestone in my ecological awakening.

The garden backed onto my old infant school, and the boundary between the two was a hawthorn hedgerow containing a large mirabelle plum tree that annually showered the garden with beautiful white blossom. After the blossom came a sea of tiny but delicious orange plums, which grandma used to collect and turn into unfathomably sweet jam. I often helped with the jam making process, trying frantically to lick the spoon whilst avoiding scalding myself on the sugary lava.

The far corner of the garden was the most exciting and mysterious part. Concealed behind a cherry laurel bush and in the shadow of a eucalyptus tree, this is where the fun things happened. The first fun thing was the twin compost heap, built by grandad out of wood offcuts and chainlink wire. These composts were used on rotation, so as one became full it was left to decompose whilst the other was filled. My main role in those days was to climb inside and stamp the leaves down, but this also gave me the opportunity to interact with the numerous worms, slugs, snails and bugs that made their home in the compost.

Next to the compost was an even more exciting attraction, the incinerator. From memory this was made from an old cast iron water tank, and grandad and I frequently used to build bonfires to dispose of waste paper and piles of woody garden rubbish. Occasionally the fire would require a splash of paraffin to bring it to life, and the sound and smell is impossible to forget. The bonfires generally occurred in the evening, and i’d spend an age watching the flames dance before arriving home smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, but blissfully happy. I don’t feel sad, but I do miss those times.

This particular corner of the garden was the scene of the most exciting wildlife encounter of my young life, when I happened upon a sparrowhawk in the eucalyptus tree in the process of tearing open an unfortunate woodpigeon. The sparrowhawk was startled and flew away, and I was startled and flew away too. I ran to the house, crying out with excitement until grandad came to investigate. We found the abandoned pigeon, torn and visceral, and we were both fascinated. It seems gruesome in hindsight, but I made grandad put the pigeon in a large jar for me so that I could take it home. It lived at the bottom of my parents garden for several weeks in gradually more advanced states of decomposition before dad eventually disposed of it. It’s hard to imagine that any wildlife encounter in my life will ever affect me like that again, the adrenaline coursing through my veins was extraordinary.

When I started writing this piece I have no idea just how vividly I remembered the sights and smells of the place, and how much my time spent there shaped my subsequent life. A lot has changed since then, and those places of my childhood don’t exist anymore, but I won’t forget them. It was my first wild place.