suomi and ellada. finland and greece. as i mentioned before, a hybrid of the two would be my dream place with select features enhanced and magically fused. flat, filled with meadows and forests of pines, birches, and aspens in the north. mountainous, rocky, minimalistic in its arboreal scarcity in the south. of course, the sea would be omnipresent. there would be thousands of islands off the coast. the inhabitants would be friendly, unpretentious, and polite. they would know how to be silent and how to party, each in its good time. there would not be too many of them so that everyone could have their vis-a-vis with nature when they felt like it…
i like going through my family photo archive. archive, of course, is a big word and is not entirely applicable in this case. it’s mostly old prints that i keep in a plastic bag in a paper box. not the most sophisticated way to treat an archive, i know.
i have looked at those photographs since i was a child. both of my parents were enthusiastic about photography and we always had a decent camera at home. my dad showed me how to develop film and make prints. as in many other families, we did it in our bathroom, oblivious to the deadly effects of the chemical soup we were releasing down the drain. it was the late eighties.
the family archive grew and i found it mystical to study in the privacy of my room. old and new together. i don’t know what it was (and is) that i enjoy so much about it. a good old mix of nostalgia, curiosity, imagination, and day-dreaming. the other day, i was looking at the few photos that i have scanned and was struck by one in particular.
it’s a picture of me hanging on a pine branch. i am four. we have just moved out of central asia to the baltic region and everything is new. especially the landscape. the smells, the trees, the light, the way the air feels when you breathe it in. the minimalistic and elegant nature of a flat forested landscape where water collects in myriad lakes or flows towards the sea. when land and sea meet, they make an impression as if they’re kept apart by a magic power because they almost form a single horizontal line. how does the sea not wash over?
the old photograph spoke to me with newly-discovered significance. perhaps it is my presently heightened awareness of how childhood experiences can help form attachment to or detachment from a certain environment later in life. i have spent the last two years studying human attitudes to nature and landscape and it most certainly prompted me to look at that photo with new eyes. it suddenly dawned on me that this is it, that is where and when it all started – my aesthetic attachment to moderately northern, baltic landscapes. i saw it very clearly.
i remembered feeling exhilarated as my dad picked me up so i could reach the branch. he did that a lot, probably encouraged by seeing how happy it made me. i was intoxicated by the new atmosphere. there was a small pond deeper into the woods where it was quite dark and where we went to feed the ducks. there were mushrooms and berries to pick. there was a thousand things to explore. late summer to early autumn as they unravel around the gulf of finland is still my favorite time of the year. i wish i could define what it is exactly that makes my heart clench in joy but i can’t. i can only try to record glimpses of it – natural details and human-made artifacts. i can find them anywhere, in thicker or thinner concentration. but sometimes nothing can replace the real thing…
it was a day one could rightfully call tranquil. in the nordic sense of it. a fine september day of warm, humid air that somehow always reminds me of milk. barely any wind. barely any mosquitoes. quietness. there is no direct sunlight; instead it comes through a greyish layer of clouds that form a blanket. it hangs low and makes you feel comfortable. the smells pull your nose closer to the ground where you can take a better whiff. they are warm and casually intense. the ground is the olfactory treasury of autumn as opposed to summer when the smells seem to come at you from above.
i hadn’t seen my parents in a few months as i lived in a different city. we went to our dacha not far from the ladoga lake. dacha is a russian word for a summer house/ cabin, the distinction being that in russian it is strongly associated with garden labor as people usually grow all kinds of vegetables, berries, and fruits on the attached parcel of land, however small. my family is no exception. over the years, however, produce was to a solid extent replaced by grasses and flowering flora as my mother’s interest in the plant world and her knowledge of botany, sustainable practices, and landscape design grew. she now even receives commissions to create small-scale landscapes. it is quite ironic because, according to her own words, when she was younger the concept of “digging in the ground for pleasure” was wholly foreign to her.
my dad is a retired military man. he is really good with his hands. he built the cabin all by himself and he helps my mom with gardening and landscaping work. they are a power tandem. they of course still grow tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, pumpkins, and various squashes. berries are a BIG thing, too, as for most people in northern europe. honeysuckle, gooseberry, barberry, red and black currant, wild and garden strawberry, raspberry, juneberry, physalis are all there…
we spent most of the day outside. we did nothing extraordinary and yet i often go back to that day in my memory. there is something archetypal in it for me that i cannot clearly explain. the place, the weather, the family. everything as it should be when you are home.
is there a day like that for you?