Amongst some snow-covered trees, in the half-dark of a winter’s day in Finland, I meet Pekka Vaananen, who introduces himself by declaring, “I am a man of the forest”. He’s a rugged-looking Finn, with bright narrow eyes and rough skin on his face that shows his age. He smiles broadly and welcomes me to his home.
Well, I say ”home” but in reality this is more a compound that he has built amongst the nature beyond the outskirts of Helsinki. Pekka may use this place to sleep and host visitors … but his spiritual home is in the trees around us.
“The forest is my friend and I feel the biggest lesson we can learn is that life is from the forest,” he tells me.
“Because the trees are in their places and they cannot move. But we can move. We are connected to the forest in a way that we don’t normally understand. The forest and the trees are giving us the oxygen which we breathe. Without them we cannot exist.”
It’s a rather transcendental introduction but it doesn’t seem out of place in these surrounds. The ground is covered in snow and the trees all around seem to rise by enchantment out of this frozen earth. In the stillness and freshness of the Finnish winter, they give off an energy that I, as just a mere visitor, maybe can’t identify. Perhaps they are making that noise that I can hear but can’t quite focus on – the silence that is not silent.
It’s been a busy couple of days for me and straight away Pekka can sense that I’m a bit weary. The first thing we do is walk the short distance to the traditional smokehouse-style cabin that you often find in the rural areas of Finland in these colder months.
Before we go in, he picks up two handfuls of snow and smashes it down on his head. He tells me to do the same. Now I should be awake, Pekka says with that big welcoming smile again.
Inside the tent, it’s time for another ceremony of sorts. The fire is blazing in the centre, smoke rising up and out of the hole at the top. It’s nice to have a bit of warmth after the cold and wet outside.
I put my hands up to the flames but there’s barely time to relax before Pekka is pouring ground coffee onto my palms.
“You have loved ones who are not here,” he says in a way that makes me wonder whether he’s able to read minds.
The ground is covered in snow and the trees all around seem to rise by enchantment out of this frozen earth.
In honour of them, in a flourish that makes me think of a wizard casting a spell, he throws the ground coffee onto the fire and bright sparks fill the room. I do the same. When the sparks subside, my loved ones haven’t appeared. (And, just between you and me, I start to form some doubts about Pekka’s magical abilities.)
What is miraculous (although I suspect it’s not Pekka’s doing) is that I have driven just 30 minutes from the centre of Helsinki, near to the city of Espoo, yet it feels like I could be in the middle of nowhere. It’s one of the things I’ve learned about Finland during my time here – this country belongs to the nature and we are all just visitors.
Pekka seems to know this and that’s one of the reasons he has created his small complex here called Green Window, which offers locals and tourists the chance to spend some time amongst the trees, walking around the lake, trekking in the snow.
“I want people to come out to the forest,” Pekka explains, “because the more people that come, the forest believes that they will then protect the forest.”
We spend an afternoon together with the forest’s branches swaying softly above our heads. Pekka shows me how to play curling, I try my hand at sledding, and we even head out onto the frozen lake to drop a fishing line down a small hole. (No bites, for the record. Perhaps it’s even too cold for the fish.)
And in the evening, as we eat dinner in the timber lodge after a sauna, I ask Pekka about the best ways to enjoy this region.
“Just relax,” he says.
“The forest doesn’t say you’re guilty of something. Just enjoy the tranquillity. There are some values which have been like that forever. It doesn’t change, the people change.”
It’s a deeper answer than I was expecting – a very pensive way of contemplating something that I had just seen as tourism. But perhaps the long dark nights of a Finnish winter make you look deep inside yourself.
Perhaps we are, as Pekka suggests, all connected to the forest in a way that we don’t understand. But if anyone would understand it, he would.
It’s not always dark here. The days don’t always feel like a hazy dream with the sun low in the sky and the soft light always reflecting right into your eyes. Pekka Vaananen has had the luxury of many decades spent amongst this nature, through changing seasons, the transitions of colours, and all the various silences they produce.