January 1999  

Nature walks

Editorial by Henrik Stenius

In the far North of Europe, you meet people with a peculiar sense of Nature, people for whom Nature is an important part of their mentality. They experience nature 1) in solitude, 2) outside civilisation, disassociated from society, 3) as big: from a vista where earth meets the firmament or deep in the woodland completely surrounded by the spirits of the Forest.

Most readers might dismiss such generalisations as prejudiced. I don't agree: such statements are not prejudices at all, but hypotheses and, as a matter of fact, rather good hypotheses, as empirical evidence and critical comparisons show.

1. William Wordsworth, one of the big country walkers in the history of Britain, used to explore the beauty of the lakes in good company. He used to walk up and down the hills either with his sister, wife, daughter or a fellow poet, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott.. Mr Josef Eisendorff wrote the German Wandervogel songs to be sung collectively by youngsters travelling on foot along the paths of the German countryside. A German visitor to Finland once complained that there are no forests in the country, by which he meant that there are no proper paths in the forest.

The lonely man sitting all day long on a lake fishing through a hole in the ice is an appropriate counter-image of the Nordic way of experiencing Nature.

2. Nature gives you confidence. According to the Pan-syndrome (Knut Hamsun), society is the sphere of alienation, artificiality, superficiality, hypocrisy and snobbery. Nature is the place where the human being – the solitary human confronting himself with the mystery of nature -- senses what life is; nature is the place of authenticity. With the help of Mother Nature we prepare ourselves for life with other human beings.

Comparative studies on tramps might clarify the point. If one compares how writers describe the way tramps drop out of organised society, the Nordic explanation of the phenomenon depicts it in rather gentle, idyllic terms. Harry Martinsson’s vagabond makes his exodus to Nature in a way that is not irreversible. He goes out to the realm of authenticity in order to be personally purified and hence capable of advising his fellow beings inside society on how to be more authentic and humane. In Astrid Lindgren’s books you find the same logic.

How different then is a tramp like Jean Genet. His life totally outside organised society, was nevertheless dependent on it. His deep dislike of the conformists inside organised society was at the same time his elixir of life. In the US, again, you meet tramps who create cosy sects. They are not necessarily more outside the society than other sects. A Jack Kerouac could certainly be one of the happy ones at the knights’ table (John Steinbeck). England has one famous tramp, George Orwell. The move away from a suburban green environment was a move into rather than out of society, a necessary step for a sociologist who wanted to alter the state of the poor. Maybe when an English writer leaves organised society to study organised life from outside, he or she does not return to nature but goes to live in a remote house - Wuthering Heights, for instance, "completely removed from the stir of society" (or the life of criminals).

3. The gifts of creativity are tangibly impressive. Sibelius stood on the top of hills, viewing the lakes and forests, while in his mind he was composing his music. He did not crouch down in ditches. The song in praise of the ditch has yet to be composed, perhaps with the exception of Kalevi Aho’s opera on the life of insects.

Confronting the forces and elements of Nature, you come up against the problem of how to measure yourself. Nature makes you small. Nature makes you big. Funnily enough, nobody has so far succeeded in measuring how big the Moomin Troll is. Sometimes I think he is six foot tall, sometimes two inches. But the important thing is that this applies to all the creatures in the Moomin Valley. If I am small, we all are. If I am big, we all are.

I think the world of Beatrix Potter is very different, because her Nature and her creatures are definitely small. Outside there is the world of the big ones. The Lake District where she lived provided the ideal natural expanse for the small creatures populating her stories. It would probably have been difficult to create such a rich backdrop further south.

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