Finland celebrates its centennial this year and, given my Finnish heritage, I’ve received many lists touting Finland as the “first” (to allow women to vote) or “best” as in public education. I was born in Astoria and raised in the lower Columbia region with such a strong Finnish identity that I have no perspective on Finnish social values or politics – no perspective except if it’s Finnish, it must be good.
After two decades of thinking about it, my husband and I spent five weeks in Finland in 2015 and the trip provided many tangible examples of how we could improve life at the local level, regardless of the national political climate.
Preparing for the trip, I read the usual tourist promotion literature, but it wasn’t “usual” by American standards. Finland’s tourism literature emphasizes two things: Nature and Quiet. If you want to calm yourself, Finland is the place to go. You don’t have to go to a National Park or wildlife preserve to encounter Nature and Quiet in Finland. The first hint of this was landing at the Helsinki airport and using the restroom. Gleaming high-design fixtures — the kind you see in upscale midcentury housing knock-offs here in the U.S. — were accompanied by birdsong. Startling. Not Muzak. Not raucous rock, but what came to be (for us) the familiar song of the mustarastas, an otherwise unremarkable blackbird that sang from every grove of deciduous trees in Helsinki. “This is different,” I thought. What American enterprise would use a source of music that cannot be bought, but only needs to be provided a habitat? Retailers and public spaces in our area could use the melodious song of our native Swainson’s Thrush.
That was the beginning of the differences that we noticed: No litter on the sidewalks or roadways, 745 miles of bike paths in Helsinki alone, 1300 miles of driving (all the way to the Arctic Ocean) with no potholes, a transportation system that integrates buses and high-speed trains as well as highways, where what we call “technology” makes systems easier to use, not more complex; a school system where administrators also teach and teachers have the same status (and pay) as physicians and attorneys, and where students spend time outdoors every day regardless of the weather. All these ideas could be implemented on the local level if we had the will. A Pacific County commissioner friend said, referring to the potholes, “That’s because they do it right in the first place. We’re never willing to spend the money to put down a really good base.”
Finland has long, dark, cold winters. Helsinki, at the southernmost tip of the country, is roughly as far north as Anchorage, Alaska but somewhat warmer as is all of northern Europe — as long as climate change doesn’t shut down the Gulf Stream. Compared to the US, Finland has limited natural resources, a difficult climate, and hundreds of years of domination by first Sweden, for 650 years, and more recently, Russia for roughly 100 years which ended in 1917.
I’ve often pondered two questions: How did the Finns, controlled by authoritarian monarchies for so long, pop loose, form a democracy and keep doing it for 100 years without periodic upheavals? Part of the answer to this is Lenin, who found sanctuary in Finland during the run-up to the Russian Revolution. Once the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Lenin’s principle, that all people deserve self-determination, meant that Finland became a sovereign nation almost immediately.
My second question has been, How did the Finns see themselves as Finns long before the country was recognized as such? Part of the answer for this “Finnishness” could be the Finnish language, that shares no similarity with languages in many other countries. One interesting peculiarity in Finnish is there is no pronoun for “he” or for “she.” There’s just one word “han” for a human. That language distinction may explain my own attitude (raised within a bilingual family) that women are automatically as capable as men — and ought to be recognized as such. Women’s suffrage has been part of Finnish life since 1906, the first in the world, and 14 years earlier than in the US. With female leadership, the Sami, the indigenous peoples of all the Nordic countries, held their first international conference in Norway in 1917; the modern Norwegian Sami Parliament requires half the members be women. That idea, requiring women to have an equal voice with men within our institutions could also be adopted in local organizations.
There are a lot of Finns in the Lower Columbia region. While subtle, their impact on community institutions is exemplified by the old Columbia River Packing Association, formed so that Finnish fishermen would have a role in the value-added part of fisheries. A more recent example is Coast Community Radio, founded by two people with a bright idea – one of whom is Rebecca Rubens, partly Finnish, full-time artist, who is also a founder of Astoria Visual Arts. And, you can’t leave out Dinah Urell, another Astoria Finn who is editor, publisher and one of the founders of Hipfish and Kala (fish in Finnish), a cultural venue. And you don’t have to look far to see Finnish-Americans like former Clatsop County Commissioner Peter Huhtala pushing policies to protect fish and habitat for everyone, you and me included.
The concept of private property is present in Finland but it is moderated by “every man’s law,” which provides everyone’s right to walk, gather berries and mushrooms, even camp, on land anywhere in Finland, as long as you do no harm and don’t camp too close to a home without getting permission. Walking on another’s land doesn’t count as trespassing. This Finnish concept may explain my own propensity to walk right past “no trespassing” signs with the belief that the real intent is “don’t blame the property owner if you get hurt.” Until about two years ago, an industrial timber tract about a quarter mile from my home had a sign indicating a similar policy: “Come on in, walk, bird watch, even hunt, just don’t trash the place.” That policy changed when the tract was acquired by Stimson Timber, who quickly put up standard no trespassing signs and clear-cut the forest.
There are obvious things we can do to make life a bit more pleasant right here on the north coast. We only need to muster the courage to educate, innovate, organize, and speak out — and not be afraid of being accused of Democratic Socialism.
More than 30 years ago I had a very vivid dream: I was in a far northern area with lots of water and not much vegetation. It seemed like it was late winter or very early spring. I was standing outside a large circular building, similar to a yurt, but probably 150 feet in diameter. Around the exterior of the building were a series of doors that looked like hatch covers mounted horizontally like awnings. An older woman was with me; she opened one of those doors and said, “You could stay here.” Inside was a cubicle large enough for a person to sleep and store some gear. I responded “Yes, this will do.”
Jump forward to 2014. At the FinnishAmerican Folk Festival in Naselle I saw a film “Suddenly Sami,” a documentary produced by a young Norwegian woman seeking her family’s roots. Her attempts to get straight answers from her northern Norwegian relatives failed. Eventually she went to the Norwegian Sami Parliament located in Karasjohka, Norway, a few miles from the Finnish border to research ancestors. When the film showed the Sami parliament building, I caught my breath, astounded. It was very like the building I had seen in my dream.
In 2016 when we traveled to Finland, we visited the Norwegian Sami parliament. The visit was somewhat anti-climatic probably because by then I had been steeped in many aspects of Finnish culture, including hints in my cousins’ homes at the Arctic circle. One cousin had a photograph of the sacred island in Lake Inari, where only the Sami shaman are allowed to go and many relatives’ homes had “special rocks” near the entrance…just like I do.
I’ve only told the story of my dream and the image in “Suddenly Sami” to a few people; the best interpretation I’ve received was that it was precognition. I am now the old woman and I am saying to myself, regarding staying in Finland, “Yes, this will do.”