One feels an almost mystical kind of reverence for that which seems to be, or to have slipped, beyond one’s grasp. The Forest Finns are one such entity. These people have very nearly disappeared from our shared existence, pure blood Forest Finns that is, but the idea and meaning of being a “Forest Finn” has come to acquire a greater pull than ever.
Around the 1600s, a migrant wave of Finnish farmers came to settle in the forests along the borders of Norway and Sweden, pushed from their original lands in Savo, Finland, due to war, famine and a population burst. Their territory, and thus, their way of being, kept shifting and morphing over time, leaving us with a persisting but vaporous sense of them and their world… And this is not an uncommon history. Many indigenous peoples of our world have struggled to retain their wholeness and culture in the face of dominance, and perished. There are, perhaps, many whose lives no number of researches can recover.
But what is it that is pulling many of us back to them, right now, to that past? Or, what is it that we find missing here?
The stories of the ways of Forest Finns that have travelled to us sing loudly of their kinship with Nature. It was a matter of general awareness to them that all things living and dead, and seemingly non-living, have a spirit. Everything has its ‘haltia’, whether tree or hill, a water body or a pebble. Everything is intimately connected in a web of being. Thus, what is indicated by the term ‘animism’ was what they knew to be their living reality: A flow of spirit, transforming variously.
And this knowing gave birth to the role of the Shaman – the one who knows. The original word, ‘Saman’, comes from the Tungus language of the Evenks of Siberia. A Finnish Shaman was a ‘Noita’, and a Saami Shaman, a ‘Noide’, Finns and Saamis being two prehistoric tribes of Finland. The ‘Tietaja’, as he came to be called later when his role expanded, was the healer, diviner, judge, name giver and spokesperson of the tribe. The Kalevala Rune, the folk poems of the Finns, are a stream of this knowing still running within ours… Quite like the stories of the Native Indians and the Inuits.
The forests, obviously, formed the inner sanctum of the experience of being a Skogsfinner or Forest Finn. For, to connect with the spirit world, the door is the manifest forest. And it was not just the Shaman who entered it, but the lay person too. The evidence of this connection is found not only in their folk stories, but in symbols carved in wood, hand-paintings on stone walls and caves, their saunas and their drums etc. In a poem titled, “Barn Door“, Tove Elise Ilher, writer and Senior Advisor at The Directorate of Cultural Heritage, Norway, speaks of the symbols found on the door of a barn hidden deep in the Finnskogen. These symbols, pentagrams, animal figures and hands symbolize a pact, a handshake between two worlds etched into wood. Tove writes,
"Now, through his hand,
I turn into significance,
Marked with meaning and prayers...
...So I can create something bigger
And connect worlds -
Our world with the one beyond it, now, just now.
For it is so important to get in touch
So as to receive through mere symbols
The blessings of the forces of life
From the world behind ours..."
The symbols by themselves have no power, she says. It is the “covenant” that man makes with nature that sets the charge flowing. In another story, a Finnic woman in the north-west of Russia, different stream of migration, speaks of her rituals of connecting with her mediator, a Fig tree.
When I go to the forest to pick mushrooms, I take [something] with me. I put candies or cookies in my pocket. If I’ve got any. Then I put [them] on the root of a tree. Then I memorialize this whole people. Then I bow to one fir tree all the time. And I put a chicken egg on the roots. And I constantly find mushrooms there on the hummock. I call it kuldakuusi, the golden fir tree. There’s a bare spot all around here. And I call this the fir field. And here I always find mushrooms. If I’m going to pick berries, then I place or pour out something on the berry mound again.The Personal Rituals of Finnic People with Forest Trees, Madis Arukask 2017 (VE XVII, 130–31)
Then the birds peck.
The “fir field”… “Whole people…” These are living nouns. And they have a place in the geometry of existence, a place very ‘real’, something which the Forest Finns recognised. To them, everything had a place. A tree, a fire, a rock, a river. It was put there or grew there or happened there for a reason. You had to respect that natural law, invisible to the five senses. To move it or disturb it would be to cause disturbance in the natural way. Of her conversation with the owner of an old abandoned dwelling in the Finn Forest in Norway, Tove says,
“For a specific tree in front of the house, he said, it had to be left alone. They have been ‘placed’ there, he said, and it won’t make sense in a different place…” Sacred groves.
If some element/form of Nature was seen to have gone out of control, all they had to do was to “return” it to its original place/source, for which purpose they had mythical origin stories for everything. Telling these stories ritually was to remind the angered spirit where it needs to return to, and why. It is like reminding someone of their goal, or their purpose in life, if they are lost and hurt and angry. It is also a way of respecting the role each and everything plays in the scheme of being. It is about understanding what ‘balance’ is. And to that end, the symbolic handshake is an affirmation that says:
“Hello Everything, I ascribe to you the same value of being as I deem I possess...”
“And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me
As good belongs to you.”
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman. To a Forest Finn, this was not poetic, it was exactly how the road went. If they were really ill or hurt, they would sit with a tree or a moose and tell them about it. A knot on the tree stood for that which needed resolving or unknotting. A lyrical rhyme is all it took to let the invisible share in the pain. To cure a backache, they would look for a tree bent over due to snow and walk under it. To test the soil, you could smell and taste it, and thus determine whether the location was suitable or not. And on and on.
The basis for all asking and taking was partnership, gratitude and respect. They say, “These are my forests, but I don’t own them…”
This is my earth/Earth, but I don’t own it…I belong here. Something invisible in me belongs with the invisible around me. This is what we go back for. We go back into the past to feel this feeling. This gentle harbouring of the mystery of life. Terje Abusdal, the celebrated Norwegian photographer, has tried to re-conjure this mysterious knowing which is the essence of being a Forest Finn, in one of the forests where they once physically dwelt.
“What remains [of Forest Finns] is psychological…”, Terje says. The question of identity and belonging runs through his spectacular works. That’s also what this lopsided world is looking for in that one. Identity. Belonging. And a desperate ‘how to ?’… While we rock between ‘lonely in a crowd’ and ‘chosen solitude’, depending on when and where our awareness leaves us, there is the way of the Forest Finn…where to ‘be’ is to be in connection with it all, without creating unnecessary lines.
In the course of adapting to their various new homes, the Finns had to go through many forms of oppression and dilution. Now, long after all those political exercises succeeded in effacing them, there is the realisation that we need them. We need to learn from them. Perhaps, even be them. And that is why the only official criterion for being a Forest Finn is that, regardless of your origin, you simply feel that you are a Forest Finn.
Here’s kissing the ground to that. Here’s to this growing river of new indigenous people all over the world. Here’s to all who know it and hold it.