Looking to the trees – participating in a whisking workshop with Mari Keski-Korsu

Text by Anni Kaila

“Sometimes, if you just look to the trees, you can see that there are also quiet ways of communicating, and of resisting.”

We are on a course where artists and scientists are looking for ways to combine their efforts in the fight against the climate crisis, and now artist Mari Keski-Korsu is giving us a different perspective on active resistance. She is introducing us to the ancient Finnish tradition of whisking (vihdonta), which pretty much every single Finn has engaged in at some point in their lives but hasn’t necessarily given too much deep thought to.

We’ve come to a small clearing in the middle of the forest in the centre of Vallisaari. It is startling how close to the sanded paths and ice cream bars a very different kind of community exists, one of birches, pines, spruces and rowans. As we walk, Mari prompts us to look to our feet – twenty people can make quite an impression in the soft moss and fragile lichen sprawling on the rocks. We sit down and Mari explains briefly how she has come to give workshops like these. She says that even as a child she felt drawn to the woods, calling it simply ‘sitting in the forest’. Now she asks us to do the same, to find a tree that we feel speaks to us, ask permission from it, and lean our upper backs against its trunk, inhaling and exhaling together with the tree.

After some time we return to the clearing and Mari explains the process of gathering branches for the whisks. We are to choose a type of tree that we feel drawn to, then gather about 30 to 40 branches without taking too many from one single tree and without wounding the tree unnecessarily. We pair off and head into the woods with our knives in hand. With my partner we choose the rowan, which I later hear symbolises home and womanhood and is also used for bringing groups of people closer to each other. Birch, the most traditional of whisk trees, is good for muscles and circulation, while a powerfully healing whisk can be made with branches collected from trees that have been struck by lightning.

After gathering up the branches we trim them and make them into whisks, using string to tie the bundles together.

In the sauna, Mari, clad in a red dress and a sauna hat, casts a spell to rid the sauna of any evil spirits that might obstruct the healing effects of the whisking. She instructs us to dip our whisks in the cold water and hold them against our faces to be able to breathe easily even in the hot sauna air. The rowan’s smell is intoxicating, both slightly sweet and bitter. We stay in the heat for quite a while to prepare ourselves for the whisking.

The trees are still very young and their leaves soft and fresh. They emit a strong scent, but don’t hold up as well as whisks made from branches collected closer to midsummer. As we gently strike our skin with the whisks, starting from the legs and continuing the motion upwards, always towards the heart, some leaves stick to our skin and scatter around the sauna. Leaving the heat, I can feel a slight tingle. Even after I plunge into the cold sea water, the warmth stays on, as if the trees were still stroking my skin.

Back to the sit spot

Text and photos by Lauri Heiskanen

5 July 2018

I had some free time today so I went to check out how Vallisaari had changed in these couple of months.

First of all, badgers had moved in into my sit spot. I quess I’m ok with that. Seems like I don’t own that sit spot, even though in my mind the place somehow belonged to me. Maybe I needed to build some walls around it and fill in the proper certificates. And then charge rent from the badgers.

So I had to choose a new sit spot nearby. Still a great view of the sea, a field of flowering fireweeds (maitohorsma), and dead birches. The long drought that began before the camp has caused the death of most of the birches that grew on the rocks around the island.

I hope you didn’t have a favourite birch…

The nature had recovered quite well from our camping activity; grasses were growing tall at the tent site and the pathways we created were being overgrown by weeds.

 

 

 

And then it rained.

Back to Saturday

Text and photos by Havu Pellikka

The camp is now over. At least to me, returning to the everyday urban life from our green island has been somewhat of a culture shock. I miss my hammock bed, evening saunas, morning sit spot, feeling motivated to wake up, and the island of bats, badgers, raccoon dogs, snakes, birds, mosses, lichens, flowering trees, and only one car. (Maybe not the mosquitoes, though.)

The last couple of days were busy preparing the final performance on Saturday. It was interesting to observe how the ideas were flying and taking shape within the group. On Friday, the shape of the performance was still very much open, but teamwork of 20 people can work wonders. Texts were written, materials and props were ordered from the mainland by last-minute phone calls, and the big cardboard letters were being painted until midnight.

Below, you can see a few glimpses of what surfaced from our collective imagination within this short time frame.

The guides ready to lead the visitors safely to the dangerous terrain of the island.
First stop: Homo sapiens in their natural habitat.
Second stop: the Witches’ Circle, or climate crisis therapy.
Where trees used to stand.
Third stop: Our message from the island. First, participants suggested how to organize the letters…
…fear…
…risk…
…fake…
…fate…
…elate…
After the message was formed, the poem ‘Resist like a forest’ was read aloud.

 

Our message to the outside world.

Resist like a forest

 

come

together  in diversity

like in the forest

where richness of life

is the guardian of itself

 

sense

trees are on our side

wounded by clear cuts

clearing out carbon

reaching for the light

 

squashed

by this economy of death

we want a future

that is not only for survivors

but something to be lived for

 

forest

connected by roots and touches of the leaves

the swirl of the tree rings carved by time

its way is that of waiting and returning

each year ferns uncurl

 

nature

does not maximize profits

clear blue sky is not there for our health

flower fields are not for us to see

waterfalls not for us to dive in

 

nature

is where we belong to

clear blue sky is there for our health

flower fields are for us to see

waterfalls for us to dive in

 

we need common dreams

join the trees

join us

 

On the island of Vallisaari

May 26, 2018

Welcome to visit the camp

The final day of the course is tomorrow and anyone is welcome to see what we have come up with during the past few days. Free guided tour of the island starts at 14 from the ferry port in Vallisaari. This is an invitation to connect to nature and rethink our place in the world. See the poster (pdf).

Speaking with hands?

Text by Hanna Vehkamäki

Ever been chairing a group discussion with the intent of making everyone’s opinion heard but fearing that reaching a compromise will take ages and still you can’t be sure the quieter ones have had a chance to express their views?

Interrupting people is often socially cumbersome,  especially in multicultural groups  where  the finesses of social norms vary strongly between individuals, but  interruptions are needed  for effective  meeting culture – important pieces of information should be presented  at a relevant point of the discussion. How can any chairperson (or facilitator) know in which cases they should allow interruptions?

Campers signaling agreement in a group discussion in Vallisaari. Photo: Havu Pellikka

I have often dreamt of a colour changing light installed to my forehead, such that I could switch it  on to indicate various things without raising my voice to interrupt the speaker, for example ‘I don’t understand’, ‘There is a fact that you need to know now, because that will change the direction of the discussion’, ‘I need to go to the toilet’ , ‘I can’t hear what you are saying’.

Apparently there is no need to install such a light, as we can use our hands to signal these things, and many activist movements have developed their own sets of hand signals (see for example https://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/handsig.pdf) to make meetings smoother.  Signs for ‘Sounds good’  and ‘I’m not too keen on that’  help the speaker to gauge how far from collective agreement the group is without having to call a vote.

Some of the hand signals used in Vallisaari.

Even if this sounds artificial for use in workplace meetings, I would give it a go even one single time: teaching a sign system to a group is a way of making the rules of  group discussion and decision making clearer – even if the signals are not adopted as a permanent feature. It is for example worth realizing that ‘the rest of you can do that, but I won’t join you in this activity’ is a different statement than ‘I don’t want this group to get involved in this activity, I will have to  leave the group if you do that’. Turns out that my 10 year old daughter had learned several of the signals at school, most notably the ‘let’s get  back to our topic and stop all speaking chaotically’ signal.

The introduction of signals in Vallisaari made me start to analyse the diversity of types of interruptions and failure modes of group discussions. The ‘too much macho-alpha-crap’ signal will come handy, too!

What can climate activists learn from quantum mechanics?

Text and photos by Havu Pellikka

The camp has been up and running for four full days already, and its inhabitans have been way too busy to blog. The days have been packed with various activities such as games, learning about group dynamics and collective decision-making, sorting out practical matters, getting to know each other and the island, learning about the role of forests in the Finnish economy and culture, miming the principles of permaculture, studying tree rings, sharing feelings and emotions surrounding the climate crisis, swimming in the chilly sea, and crowded evening saunas, among others.

Group discussions in Vallisaari

One of my personal favourites in the program was the lecture on quantum mechanics on the second evening by Hanna Vehkamäki, professor in computational aerosol physics at the University of Helsinki.

Quantum mechanics has revealed that instead of the deterministic laws of classical physics, our world operates in a very quirky manner. In the very small scale, the only information available to us is in the form of probabilities.

If we send electrons towards a wall with two narrow holes (the so-called  double-slit window experiment), it is impossible to predict the route of a single particle or its final position on the screen behind the window. According to Hanna Vehkamäki, it is wrong thinking to even talk about the route or location of a single particle. The electrons arrive on the screen randomly, it is only with a sufficient number of particles when we begin to see the underlying, unexpected probabilistic pattern. But when do we see a pattern forming from the random observations?

Hanna Vehkamäki lecturing on quantum mechanics

Likewise, we can think, the state of the world consists of an indefinite number of local events. Only by looking at things with sufficient distance (both in space and time) it is possible to see patterns and narratives forming out of this chaotic web of happenings.

Climate activists and theoretical physicists both need to live with the unsatisfaction – and fascination – of not understanding, not being able to predict, not knowing the outcome in our world which is incredibly complex and deeply rooted in uncertainty.

Aino and Tarleena during the permaculture excercise
Bird cherry (Prunus padus) flowering
Our camp and the morning circle
Summer unfolding
Tree rings reveal a rich archive of past climate variations

Setting the stage

Text and photos by Havu Pellikka

Dear readers,

Over the upcoming week, this blog will follow the activities of a bunch of people on a small uninhabited island, coming together to work on a pressing issue: tackling the climate crisis.

Each individual will bring to the island their personal skills and perspectives of our common world. We are a group of 20 artists, activists, researchers, and university students representing various disciplines: forestry, dance, meteorology, acting, dramaturgy, geophysics, light and sound design, and aerosol physics.

Embankments of Vallisaari on 30 Aug 2014

The work on the island will start from the very basics, covering the fundamental needs of food and shelter in our tent camp. There will be visiting lecturers and teachers, discussions, bat observing, and preparing the grand finale of the course, the Performance Action. What will be the outcome we do not yet know, but you can come and find out on May 26th, when the camp will be opened for visitors.

The camp will be located in Vallisaari, Helsinki, Finland, a former military island just a stone’s throw from the Suomenlinna UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a long time, Vallisaari (“Embankment Island”) provided fresh drinking water for sailors, supplies such as grazing land and firewood for the neighbouring Suomenlinna sea fortress, and acted as a base for pilots. Later on, under the Russian rule of the 19th century, fortifications were extended to Vallisaari itself.

Nature in Vallisaari has been left largely untouched over the past decades

In the 20th century, Vallisaari continued to serve the military as a storage area of weapons and ammunition. The human life on the island flourished around the mid-century, when it was home to some 300 people, a small rural community having its own school, shop, and cultural life, in addition to gardens and animals.

Roughly 1,000 butterfly species live in Vallisaari, among them many rare or threatened species. The insects here are collected for research purposes.

After the human settlement slowly disappeared, nature has been taking over the fortifications and other human traces on the island. The Finnish Defence Forces gave up the island in 2008 and it was opened to the public in 2016. Vallisaari boasts rich nature, having the highest diversity of species in all of Helsinki archipelago. This diversity is partly a consequence of human presence on the island, the meadows and other cultural landscapes as well as fortifications and caves providing many different habitats for life to thrive.

For 9 days, our group will be part of the web of life on the island, studying our place and role in the world where the human species keeps violating the planetary boundaries and ecosystems are crumbling as a result.

Welcome to follow our adventure!

Embankments of Vallisaari, with the city centre of Helsinki in the horizon