Unbeknownst to me, I have ‘lost something’. I have no idea what, where or when, but a local man placed a cryptic phone call to one of the Kevo staff members’ cell phones to inform him simply that “the American girl has lost something”. According to the recipient of this unsatisfactorily vague phone call, the caller then just hung up with no further explanation. Personally, I would have been much more grateful for the shout-out had the caller told us either a ‘what’ or a ‘where’, or even a ‘when’. The funniest part about the whole thing is that I keep getting asked if I’ve lost something by all the various members of staff and researchers here at the Kevo site. Apparently the story of the phone call has spread, but not that I have been informed and quizzed, and am ignorant of, and somewhat concerned about, what exactly I’ve lost. My biggest fear was that my ‘lost’ item was actually all my scientific equipment that I’ve (hopefully) permanently installed at my field site, and that this taciturn good Samaritan would take it upon himself to extract and bring it all back to me. I visited my field site yesterday and all my equipment appears to be in order, but it did remind me that I should draft a sign informing passersby of the permanent and delicate nature of my installations. And so the mystery of my missing item(s) continues. And all this still leaves me wondering: how did he know I was American??
I want to preface this with another tangent about how I feel like I’ve found common ground with the Finnish – these are a people that value picking and eating raw foods in the woods. Finns have a legislated right to harvest from the bosom of Mother Nature almost anywhere they want – it’s called ‘Everyman’s Right’, and entitles people to gather and catch (fish caught with a rod and line are included) what they will, no matter who owns the land, and even if the intent is sale. As a result, Finns are aficionados of wild berries, mushrooms, herbs, and other yummy stuff that you can hunt and gather.
I’m a girl who likes life. I grew up with a healthy respect for poisons and allergies, as I seem to have my fair share of run-ins with both. One of the strongest memories of my childhood is learning about the ‘no-no berry’. The ‘no-no berry’ is not a specific berry, but rather the entire class of small, colorful, botanical fruits that will cause one harm. My mother instilled a bone-deep respect for the ‘no-no berry’ in me at a young age. I think perhaps the poison control operators in Fort Worth may have sent her a muffin basket after I finally retained her ‘no-no berry’ wisdom. :) The ‘no-no berry’ wisdom boils down to this: if you haven’t ever seen it on your mother-prepared cereal or pancakes, DON’T EAT IT! This is especially true of anything red-colored. Red = dangerous. In its most reduced form, the idea that you don’t put anything you harvest in your mouth that you haven’t already survived eating is a pretty good one. I’m a fan.
Over the years, I’ve continued to use the phrase ‘no-no berry’, much to Brandon’s chagrin. It’s made a major reappearance in my internal dialogue since moving here, since there’s a lot of stuff of a tempingly edible-looking nature in the woods. I refrained from ingesting any of it before seeking the counsel of Finns, which is why meeting Heini borders on the providential. I have now been given the green light on eating anything I can find (not including mushrooms), save one exception, explained further below. So here’s an intro to all the yummy things that I have subsequently been gobbling!
Puffy and proud, these little yellow to red gems are an Arctic specialty. I found them in both Kevo and Kilpisjärvi, both in wetter, acidic soils. They look a lot like a blackberry in form and size, but are shot forth from the tundra soils on single stalks that only extend an inch or so from the ground (hence the ‘proud’ moniker, because they look so defiant in their tiny, solitary thrusts). I got here a little late in the cloudberry season, so the ones that I found and snacked on were a little past their prime, evident in their raisin-wrinkly skins and gooey-rather-than-bursting juices. They pack a punch of vitamin C, though. Heini says you get the same amount of vitamin C as you’d get from a whole orange in only 2-3 of these raspberry-sized powerhouses!
I found cloudberry ice cream at the grocery store in Utsjoki and snagged it up. The tart, creamy taste of the berries is a really good complement to the vanilla base, and I see why it’s so common to pair cloudberries with both vanilla and dairy. Cloudberry jam is also a Finnish staple, and has graced every breakfast buffet I’ve seen here, although I thought it was marmalade for the first few weeks until I asked.
I feel somewhat protective of this berry, for it lacks the prestige of all the others, but has a lot going for it. They’re the most difficult to gather, as they do a pretty good job of hiding in very dense underbrush, and the vegetative parts of this plant are extremely fragile and sensitive to touch and trampling. You have to do a lot of leaning, and I tend to leave reverse tonsure-esque clusters of berries when harvesting from patches I can’t reach the middle of. There’s also no hope of recovery if you snag them off their plant and subsequently drop them, as this plant is too thick and sort of floats in a mat of itself above the soil. It’s a black hole for dropped berries. I can only assume that this is how it propagates, because they’re slippery little suckers! That said, they are also ubiquitous and ridiculously bountiful, so they make up for the hassle of gathering by ease of access and quantity.
They taste a lot like pomegranate seeds to me, mostly due to their burst-like texture of slightly watery, red-colored juice. The flavor is less pronounced than any of the other berries, but they contain all the fiber and antioxidants and other healthy stuff, and the refreshing gusher-like experience gets a little addictive. I replaced blueberries with crowberries in a batch of banana oat berry muffins I made last night, and they have a great baking quality – they don’t disintegrate in your batter, but they burst when baked. Perfect.
English: Blueberry (US), Bilberry (UK)
Blueberries are also called ‘Bilberries’ when spoken of in English, because Finns are taught British English, and the Brits have some sort of association between Tolkein and the blueberry?? According to my ‘Welcome to Finland’ brochure, bilberries are the most exported of Finnish berries, and they contain three times the amount of anthocyanins found in cultivated blueberries! These are your standard wild blueberry – round and with a flattish bottom and blue-tinted guts, and a clear but sweet flavor. Now pay attention, because the berry-gut-color matters in Lappish berry taxonomy, and there will be a quiz! :)
English: Bog Blueberry/Bilberry/Whortleberry
In Lapland, the blueberry’s first cousin is the ‘bog blueberry’, which is a slightly elongated version of ol’ blue that boasts clear guts, a slightly smoother texture, and a bit more of an acidic kick at the finish. And if you can’t tell from the berry itself, the bog blueberry plant has leaves that are more rounded on the ends (see directly above), as opposed to the pointed, more oval leaves on blueberry plants (refer to blueberry picture). They also seem to hold on to their flower petals pretty well, as there are often dried petals still attached to the berry ends.
Because I’m late in the season, the specimens I’ve been eating of both blue-tinted berry varieties are a bit more sour than commercial blueberries, but pretty thick on the ground, so I’m not complaining. Yum.
These berries are found in grape-like clusters of small, hard, bright red fruits. You can grab at the top of the cluster and sort wiggle down the stem, knocking off your prey in larger quantities with minimal effort. These puppies pack a wallop of proanthocyanidins (the same stuff that you find in cranberries that helps urinary health) and have the same, slightly astringent flavor of their boggy brethren. Finns are big fans of a soupy jam made from lingonberries, and pair it with everything from cake to cheese to meatballs (Finns use lingonberry jam like Midwesterners and their grape jelly meatballs – you heard me, Peggy!).
Lingonberries are the only berry here that I’ve been hesitant to harvest – it’s that ingrained ‘no-no berry’ red = danger thing…. I’ve subsequently gotten over my reticence and have gathered enough of these to make the traditional jam for myself!
According to Heini, there is only one actual ‘no-no berry’ here in Lapland, which is a small red berry (vindicated!) called ruohokanukka marja (in Finnish it means something like ‘weed berry’), but the plant is very different from the lingonberry’s foliage, so it’s easy to distinguish (as you can see in the picture below). Heini also assures me that this ‘no-no berry’ will cause only a slight stomach upset, but not do me any real harm if ingested accidentally. Whew.
I’ve also been ruminating about my harvesting predilections – is my inability to walk away while there are still easily visible and reachable berries to be had an American thing? A Kim thing? Is this my mortal sin of gluttony rearing its head? I have to constantly tell myself to leave some berries on the plant and walk away to the next one. That’s the messed up part – there’s always another patch within eyesight. So why do I compulsively strip them to their stalks? I combat my natural greediness by being more conscientious about which berries I pick – if I concentrate on only picking the perfectly ripe berries, I inevitably leave some there. Despite this, I have a certain amount of guilt associated with my tendency towards berry-associated voracity, so perhaps I was doing more than just doodling pictures in the bibles during mass all those years as a child….
Due to my dedication to making up for those lost 2 weeks before I knew I could eat it all (muwhahaha!), I have been doing a lot of berry picking here at Kevo. I’ve also found that picking berries in the wild is a lot like those 3D magic eye pictures, where you have to train your eyes to focus on different levels before you can see the hidden image. I have equipped myself with focus filters for each of the berry varieties. This is especially needed for the crowberries, which are masters at stealth. Example: can you see that this is a virtual schmorgasboard of crowberries?
The night frosts are starting in earnest here in Lapland, so the 2012 berry season is coming to a close, but let this serve as an open invitation to all y’all to come for a visit and pick berries with me next summer. I promise that it’s worth it.
In the time since I’ve come to the Kevo field station, Lapland has undergone the ‘ruska-aika’ (roo-ska-eye-kah), which literally means ‘brown time’, but is the word in Finnish for the season when the leaves of the northern birch forests change color. Perhaps because I’m not from the northeastern US where they have also made a tourist industry out of senescence, but I can’t think of an equivalent word or phrase in English that describes this specific window of time for the forests. Much like in the states, the ruska-aika draws quite the crowd from the more southern parts of Finland. Busloads of camera-toting people have flooded the Utsjoki area in the last few weeks to revel in the golden-leaf splendor. I myself had a photo project for the ruska-aika – every day (weather permitting) after dinner I did a short hike up to the highest point of the peninsula the station is situated on, and took a picture of the same scene. The view is of the outlet to the Utsjoki river, which flows through Kevo lake and continues north up to the village. This was my attempt to capture ‘the change’. I’m not really sure it worked the way it did in my head, but it made for some really nice photos, shown here, in chronological order!
My first few days back from Helsinki, I accompanied a small band of station staff out to a small lake about 5km west of the station. This hike afforded some excellent views of the folliage, as well as the 3 rivers converging around the Kevo field station. And how often are you given the chance for a guided boat trip and hiking through the Finnish forests during the peak of ruska-aika?! We started by taking a boat across Kevo lake, and then a ways into the Kevo river, shown below.
Then we hiked through the hills – I learned the names of all the berries that I was picking and eating along the way. :)
I also had a nice encounter with the tail-end of the ruska-aika this week when I accompanied Heini on a field excursion. This is Heini (of the berry-studying fame). She was tasked with retrieving tea bags that were buried to measure decomposition. I’m not dumbing down the science here – they buried tea bags (green and red teas) a few centimeters below the surface of the soil, and left them there for either 3 or 12 months. They then get dug up, dried and weighed them to determine how much of the tea within the tea bag was decomposed and ‘left’ the tea bag.
We also brought along an in-training reindeer dog. The reindeer herding is beginning next week here in Utsjoki. This means that for the next couple of months, the reindeer farmers will be gathering up their herds and temporarily containing them in large corrals. They ear-tag all the new calves, retain those that will soon meet their maker (and the grocery store shelves), and release the rest. The autumn is the only time when the reindeer will be herded together here in Utsjoki (the number of roundups each year is farm/area-specific), and otherwise the reindeer roam about the countryside and mostly fend for themselves. There are fences all over the place, so there are some areas that are clearly not open to the reindeer, but there are so many fences that I think you’d need to be airborne to see any patterns, or understand when you’re in the ‘open’ versus the ‘closed off’ areas.
So this is a reindeer dog. The name of the breed is literally translated from Finnish as such. This little beastie belongs to the field station’s logistics coordinator, Elina. His name is Tuisku (too-skoo). As a reindeer dog, he is supposed to bark when he smells or sees reindeer, and then help herd them wherever you tell him. He’s really good at the barking part, but he was on a leash, so I can’t attest to his skills at the actual herding. We did run into a pack of reindeer at one point, and he went ballistic. The reindeer took off, moving together like a flock of birds – it put me in mind of the dinosaurs in that one scene of Jurassic Park when they were schilling the avian evolution theory. It was actually pretty awesome to see them moving in such a uniform and graceful configuration.
There were parts of the hike where leaves were still on the trees, and the colors were amazing. I felt like this part of the forest would have been the perfect setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The undergrowth is so fluffy and sparkly, and surprisingly almost knee-deep!
And then there were areas, and species, where the leaves were no more. Wind and physical contact with almost any plant would send a cascade of leaves and water down on top of you, so the more forested parts of the hike were like walking through a confetti parade… but much more damp. :)
Our hike took us from the area where the reindeer will be corralled (pictures of this area in previous post, btw) all the way to the village of Ustjoki, a distance of about 20km. It was super pretty the whole way, although the weather left something to be desired in the way of visibility, as it was either too foggy to see more than a few hundred meters, or it was raining. Even so, it was a great hike, and it was fun getting to chat with Heini all day – I’m counting her as a friend at this point, which means I’ve made my first Finnish friend! Woot-woot!!
To get to town, we had to walk along the river and then rejoin the road and the village right at the border with Norway. This is the bridge that divides the two countries. Left = Finland, Right = Norway.
There are a few key areas in which the Finnish and I are in complete sync. The summer cabins are one example. As is their love and respect for free time and outdoor activities. And as with all compatibility, there are definitely specific moments when this simpatico appears in a distilled form. One such moment was earlier this week when I did a ‘town run’ to Utsjoki. Because the town is quite far away (30km), and we’re all tree-hugging scientists here at the field station, there is a weekly communal trip to town in the station’s 8-passenger minivan. There’s a signup sheet, so the driver knows who’s coming, and because when the station is full, there are more than 7 potential passengers. This late in the season, space in the van isn’t a problem. Anyways, we hit both of the village grocery and supply stores (distinguished as the ‘small’ and ‘big’ stores), and then the public library.
Outside of the public library, there was a small table and informative cardboard sign nestled up to the sidewalk, manned by a handful of children approximately 7-10 years old. In this Finnish version of a lemonade stand, they were selling WAFFLES!! Seriously?! Was I born in the wrong country, or what? For the low, low price of 1€, you were the recipient of an outdoor-temperature (cold), thin and floppy waffle (höpöttää), and given the option of smearing it with lingonberry jam (duh!). One could also enjoy a small cup of kahvi (coffee) from a thermos. We bought them out. I don’t have the language skills to know what the handmade sign said, so I don’t know if we helped fund some specific activity, or if we were just a cog in the wheel of young capitalism (I’m thinking of a certain niece of mine that likes to try to sell lemonade for $50 a glass…). Nevertheless, the waffle was scrumptious, and it gives me an added possible dimension to my future as a reindeer taco truck entrepreneur in Finnish Lapland. “Would you like a coffee and waffle with that reindeer taco?” I think I’m on to something here…
Finns are well known as a quiet lot – they’re self-proclaimed lovers of peace and quiet, which they call ‘rauha’ (rau-hah) and ‘hiljaisuus’ (heli-aye-suess) in reverential tones. This respect for ‘rauha’ (peace) manifests in a myriad of ways, from not talking on public transport, to a hesitancy to call people on the telephone lest they disturb their own or others’ rauha. Rauha is also a legitimate excuse for not answering phone calls, as well – it’s not uncommon for someone to leave their cell phone ringing, preserving the delicate illusion of not always being reachable. Busy tones and voicemail come standard in the ‘peace’ package, did you know? I met a professor in Helsinki who is actually writing an academic article on the subject of how the fast-paced, über-connected nature of cell phones is being integrated into Finnish culture and their perhaps overinflated self-identification as ‘quiet’ and ‘not good at verbal communication’.
I have seen the full gradient of ‘quietness’ with people here (there are chatty people everywhere, don’t let them tell you different), but I do feel less verbal communication in my interactions here. Casual greetings are often conducted entirely non-verbally, with none of the fly-by conversations that I’m used to. You can get through an acknowledgement of acquaintance, and an implicit measuring of ‘okayness’ with one-second of eye contact and perhaps a nod. It makes me wonder why I’m so comfortable yelling ‘hey, how’re you doing? what’s up?’ while passing people I know in the street. Why do I start this conversation, given that I don’t even break stride, but rather I only ever expect to hear a floating, disembodied ‘fine, thanks, and you?’ from behind me, which I will often not even bother answering, depending on walking speed. If you ask someone here ‘mitä kuuluu?’ (how’re you doing?), it’s not the same as in the states. Here it’s not a passing greeting, to which only your family and best friends will ever NOT say ‘fine, thanks’. Here it’s a serious entreaty for information, because if you’re all the way to verbal communication, you’re really interested in the answer.
Perhaps predictably, the silence here is a balm to me. My husband often despairs of my lack of verbal communication, never letting my completely honest excuse of ‘I just don’t feel like making noise’ fly with him. I have found a literal haven of quietude here. It’s not unusual, or even remarked upon, if I don’t say anything for the entire 25 minutes I sit at a meal table with 8 other people. I’m in good company in my quiet contemplation. This is not to say that gatherings are silent affairs, far from it. Like I said, the whole spectrum is present, but there’s an imbalance towards the muted, and a conscious acceptance of it as well. Combined with my underwhelming Finnish language mojo, my vocal chords might be taking a sabbatical this year….
On to the noise! I have some kickin’ timing, because I made it to Kevo 4 days before the appearance of an annual concert tour winding around northern Finland, ending each year in Utsjoki! This is the concert ticket, which was also the same design as the flier/posters.
When I was first invited to go by the Kevo station manager, I was told there were 5 bands performing. I was also told that last year they actually had famous ones participate, not that I’m up on my Fennoscandian rock bands or anything. This year was less star-studded, but there are very few excuses for Lappish nightlife, so I was advised to grab it with both hands. Here’s the group that went:
As serious as Finns are about peace and silence, they might be even more serious about their booze. The concert started at 9pm, and so after the Saturday sauna time at the station, we quickly tried to reduce our eventual bar tab by boozing it up whilst getting gussied up. There is a German woman staying in my house, and her contribution did the most damage, I’m convinced. It’s the ‘Mirabell’, which is apparently a fruit something like an apricot that they make into this sickly sweet bottled hangover in the southwestern part of Germany. I contributed a flask of Honey Jack Daniels, and the Finnish women introduced us to Finland’s unofficial national beverage, the Leijona. Leijona is ‘salty licorice’ liquor, and it tastes a lot like cough syrup, but saltier and more licorice-y… The nutella was there for when we all got ravenously hungry, and because it’s yummy and European. See? This was a purely cultural exchange experience!
The concert started outside, with the bands all together in a semi-circle playing their instruments, and then someone lit these symbol posts, and then spat liquor onto them in time to the music for a couple of minutes. Strangely mesmerizing….
Then there was a musical procession back into the bar…
And all 5 bands took the stage together! I had actually been somewhat concerned about the combination of a 5-band lineup and a 9pm start time (I’m not sure if I was ever young enough for that kind of rocking). It did make for quite the crowded stage, and I couldn’t seem to get them all into a single picture (there’s band members off further to the left). I had also prepared myself for death metal, or at least ‘black metal’ (brandon assures me there’s a difference). What I got was a lot more jazzy. One of the bands, 22-Pistepirkko (this means ’22 little fish’), actually sang all their songs in English, and they sound a little like early Wilco. There was also a Tanzanian man (one of the men singing in the shot below), whose songs were comforting in their familiarity for me. There was a whistle used, which made me happy.
This is Heini, who is a graduate student in Oulu here in Finland. She studies berries! She will feature prominently in my future post on berries. She is also the Finn who lives in my house. Heini and I were having a great time. We were here extolling the virtues of water drinking (try not to notice my apple cider I’m hiding in the background).
The concert lasted about 4 hours, and the different bands played their own songs in a sort of round-robin, but each song had been adjusted so that everyone played and just the singers switched out. The place was hopping! There were a few dedicated dancers in the front, who were eventually given a wide berth within which to flail, and there were 2 camera people filming the whole time in what looked like a rather official manner. It also took me all night long to realize there were no women in these bands!
I’m including one last shot of the stage because you can see a few of the audience members in rather distinctive dress. The first is a man on the left and in the front, who’s rocking a Russian-looking fur cap, and wearing an unidentified flag as a cape. We are actually straddling the Russian and Norwegian borders here in northeastern Lapland, so this might not actually be completely unfounded conjecture. And then skip a girl, and the woman in the front on the right is wearing a traditional Saami hat and flannel poncho, for lack of better descriptors. Utsjoki is the area of Finland which boasts the largest concentration of the Saami nation. More on this later, but suffice it to say for now that they have a very distinctive traditional dress, partly shown here in the high, starched and flap-eared red hat.
So I’ve had a fair share of both silence and noise so far here in Finland, both of which are extremely enjoyable. I suggest you not answer your ringing cell phone every so often. See if it gives you some rauha…
That’s right, peeps! I’ve officially decided that I’ll be working out of the University of Turku’s Kevo field station (kay-voh). The closest grocery store is 30km to the north in the small village of Utsjoki (oots-yah-key), and the closest post office is 150km to the south in the airport-worthy town of Ivalo (ee-vah-low). Those of you who know me can understand how much of a quandary this is for me – is the bigger inconvenience the distance to a food source, OR the distance to the place where I can buy postcard stamps??
Before relocating to Kevo after Helsinki, I spent a few days in Rovaniemi getting logistics taken care of (bank, supplies shopping, etc.). I stayed at this super cute and surprisingly thrifty B&B (an accommodation option I had forsaken after a really creepy experience at a B&B in Homer, Alaska two years ago). I had a relatively painless reintroduction to B&B’s, as I was staying at this one by myself, and I opted out of the second ‘B’, so there were minimal potentially-creepy interactions. I also had a private sauna, which was awesome.
In true Kim-fashion, I managed to maim myself in a rather inconvenient way (as opposed to those super convenient maimings). At 11pm the night before I was catching the 5:30am bus to Kevo, I sliced my finger to the bone while opening the packaging on my new field knife! Who knew a 5€ kitchen knife was that sharp? I then had a little bit of an adventure at a Finnish ER, mostly only harrowing trying to figure out what the late-night options for getting stitches were (ER only), looking up directions (all of this one-handed, semi-panicking typing), calling a cab to get there, and then figuring out how to fill in the forms once I was there.
Despite the superficial frustrations and panic associated with my hospital trip, the strangest part of the whole experience was that when they finished stitching up my finger, the doctor and nurse cleaned everything up, and then simply left the room. No words. I sat there a while, wondering if I was meant to be waiting for something, namely instructions on how to take care of my finger, and how to pay my bill. I eventually rather tentatively walked myself back to the nurses station, where I figured out in Finglish that I, too, was allowed to just walk out. I imagine they’ll send me an invoice with my bill in the mail?? Socialized medical care is a little confusing to an American. I was also not given any antibiotics, which I feel like would have been a given when getting stitches in America. Kudos to the Finnish for not over-prescribing, but it would be untruthful of me to say that I don’t stare at my finger sometimes wondering if I’m getting a brandon-circa-2006-like infection.
The culprit (note I’m in there with it):
I’ll have the stitches for a week, and until then I can’t bend my finger. To help me prevent the bending, I tried to buy a finger splint, but they are ridiculously hard to find here, so I improvised with a popsicle stick I randomly had in my field kit. Funny cultural observation: the DIY-nature of my splint was the accepted norm for Finns. At all the pharmacies I tried, and with the Finnish people I talked to about splint options, everyone expressed surprise that I would be looking for a non-DIY version. I was generously offered pencils, pens, wooden dowels, and tightly rolled paper to serve as my splint support. I was really glad I found the popsicle stick, because my fingers are surprisingly short compared to most writing utensils…
Slightly less than whole, I was finally on my way to Kevo! I’m including a few pictures from the bus trip up. I saw a really vivid rainbow out the bus window, which seemed like a good omen.
And there was a sculpture in Ivalo on the subject of gold mining, which is what this area of Finland is known for. I particularly like the dude off to the side chilling/eating lunch? It’s nice to know the Laplanders build their respect for free time into their statues depicting work…
A small resort of cabins on the side of a river in between Ivalo and Kevo. Gotta love the super long Finnish words! This one means ‘snowmobile’. Too bad the sign doesn’t tell you anything else. Is this where you park them? Rent them?
And then I finally made it to Kevo! This is the mailbox where the bus pulls off the highway to let me out (the only roadside indication that I’ve arrived). You have to walk down the steep road you can see start in the background, then do a short boat trip out to the peninsula that the station is situated on.
The field station is quite large, as far as these things go. I’m staying in the Värri cabin, and the cafeteria is in the Main Building, or Kestilä Päärrakennus. I’m cultivating a relationship with the head chef, hoping he’ll teach me the secrets of Finnish cooking and baking. I’ll keep you posted on project-Finnish-cooking. Until then, I’m discovering how difficult it is to do field work, type, and wash dishes one-handed. Lesson in humility: check!