Category Archives: Finland

l i v o n s a a r i

[ 10:15 monday 30 august – livonsaari, finland ]

i’m thirty feet above the ground in a treehouse woven between three pine trees. this has been my home since i arrived with kirmo and tim on friday night.

the house is a tangle of ropes, beams and platforms which has evolved around the angles and conjunctions of the branches. it’s roughly pentagonal in plan with a diameter of twelve feet or so. one corner is sheltered by a tarpaulin roof but other than that the structure is open to the elements. the mid-morning sun casts flickering shadows across my keyboard as it filters through the tree canopy. from the front there’s a view over recently-harvested grain fields, forests and smooth grey rock outcrops.

reaching the platform involves a climb of twenty feet up a slender oak before crossing to a pine to ascend a further ten feet. i suffer from a fear of heights so my first few ascents and descents found me clinging in mortal terror to each bough. stepping across from one tree to the other required an act of particular determination. but as i grew familiar with the location of each foothold and how i needed to move to get from one to the next my fear gradually became more manageable.

five years ago tim clubbed together with nine friends to buy sixty-five hectares of land here on the island of livonsaari in finland’s south western archipelago. several of them have built houses, settled here permanently and started families. there’s now a full-time community of 13 adults and 8 children. one of them farms the fields. two of them can build and repair just about anything. at the centre of the community there’s a communal house and a wood-fired sauna. tim started building the tree house in the first year and has added to it each summer. yesterday we carried some windows from an old pig shed and hoisted them up to the platform. two of them are already fitted and as i write tim is hammering a third into place. eventually he plans to enclose the roofed corner so the tree house can be used for brief visits in winter.

on saturday night the community’s wood-fired sauna was lit, a lengthy process undertaken about a dozen times each year. the stove must be lit and kept fed with wood for six hours before it’s ready to use. there’s no chimney so the hot fumes fill the sauna cabin. when the last wood has been consumed vents are opened to let clean air in and the sauna begins. we were amongst twenty-odd people roasting in the sauna, sitting wrapped in towels on the terrace and singing songs around a bonfire. after our first spell in the sauna kirmo, tim and i walked down the track to the shore and threw ourselves into the baltic. the water was surprisingly cold and the bottom was slimy black mud. this was more than compensated for by the electro-illuminescent plankton which sparkled in the water as we swam and left a milky fizz behind us.

it’s three days since i touched running water, saw a mirror or used a mobile phone. i’m mostly wearing mostly the same clothes i arrived in. the night air is chilly so we remain fully dressed in our sleeping bags. our meals have been cooked alternately on a small paraffin stove and a steel brazier burning small branches. an escape of this kind works wonders an soft, urbanised, over-networked creature like myself.

: c :

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f e a r

[ 19:15 wednesday 22 february – levi, finland ]

i’m with my family in lapland for a week’s skiing  to celebrate mum’s sixtieth birthday. the sun peeps above the horizon for seven hours each day, bathing the snow-clad expanse of forest and lake in golden light. on monday the temperature hit twenty-six below zero, cold enough to freeze my eyelashes together.

i’m learning to snowboard, which i never thought i’d do. from birth i had a defect in my knees that periodically caused excrutiating pain. i was a pallid and bookish child. sports like skiing were out of the question and i retreated from sports i might have tried. when i was eighteen i had an operation that fixed my knees. but it took a long time to stop thinking of myself as a cripple. little by little my physical confidence grew and i began to enjoy my corporeal capacities as well as the cerebral ones. i thought it might be too late to start skiing but when mum chose to celebrate her birthday this way i wanted to try.

i’ve been throwing myself into it with all guns blazing. each day i accomplish something that seemed impossible the day before. i’m learning in a group of teenagers which sets a brisk pace.

my progress suffered a jolt this afternoon when i took a hard fall and got myself concussed. standing at the foot of the piste it slowly dawned on me that i had no idea how i got there or, more problematically, where i lived. the row of houses and restaurants seemed vaguely familiar but i couldn’t pin down anything specific. my heart was pounding. a boy tapped me on the arm and handed me my goggles. i saw my instructor and hailed him. he said something and it jogged my memory, returning my chalet’s location to mind. i thanked him and gratefully made my way home.

it was a strange experience, a reminder how fragile our perceived realities are. i was quite frightened and felt anxious about the prospect of snowboarding again. but after sitting quietly for an hour and drinking several cups of tea i pulled my skiing clothes on again and went straight back to the piste. i knew if i didn’t get back out immediately i might never overcome my nerves. i took the lift up and boarded down three times without incident. that’s all i needed to get my confidence back.

i think you either confront your fears directly or you become a slave to them.