Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Moon-eyed Finns

Situated to the west of my hometown in Georgia is a mountaintop called Fort Mountain.  It’s a spot that always figured prominently in our summertime visits to the States because of the 3712-acre (1500-hectare) state park that occupies the top of the mountain.  When the kids were small, we never failed to make at least one trip to the park each summer so they could enjoy a round of mini-golf and cool off in the park’s lake, one of the highest in the state. 

At 2848 feet (868 meters), Fort Mountain is not an extremely high peak, even by Georgia standards.  But from the west, where the mountain plunges over 2000 feet to a flat, broad valley, it appears like a towering rampart. 

You might be mistaken in thinking that the striking view from the valley of this natural barricade was the inspiration for the mountain’s name.  It’s more complicated, and strange, than that. 

Near one of the mountain’s summits, a short distance from rocky cliffs that overlook the valley far below, is the mountain’s real namesake, a primitive “fort” of low zigzagging walls made up of loose rock.  The builders of this rudimentary structure are a mystery, and archeologists doubt that defense was even its intended purpose.  Still, popular speculation is that Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s men might have constructed the walls as improvised fortifications when passing through the area almost 500 years ago. 

Conquistador Hernando de Soto, probably never 
mistaken for a Moon-eyed Person himself.

The native Cherokees had a different explanation.  According to a legend of theirs, the rubble walls were built by a race of “Moon-eyed People” who lived in the area before them.  Adding to the mystery, the Cherokee said this tribe of fort-builders were blond, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and able to see in the dark. 

Some people have seen these stories as enticing evidence for the hoary legend that a Welsh explorer, Prince Madoc, sailed twice to America three hundred years before Columbus and settled among the Indians. 

I used to joke with my kids on our visits to Fort Mountain that they, in fact, are the Moon-eyed People, because of their blue eyes and blond hair.  And because they, like all Finns, can see in the dark.  Or so it seems to someone like me who needs all the bright light he can get. 

I’m reminded of this now that we’re at the end of November, it’s dark by four o’clock, and the very gloomiest time of the year is still three weeks away.  Already for several weeks now, I’ve been going around the house in the evening turning on lights for members of my Finnish family who somehow haven’t noticed that they’ve been sitting there for an hour reading in the dark.  Being a Moon-eyed Person certainly has its advantages during these dark Finnish nights – at least you can save a bundle on electricity bills.  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Famous Georgians

Often when I tell someone in Finland that I’m from the American state of Georgia, I get a blank look in return.  If “Georgia” seems to mean nothing to them, I offer the explanation of “Floridan lähellä” (near Florida).  Everyone knows Florida. 

In the past I’ve tried to correct this lack of Finnish awareness of Georgia by listing (or boasting, as the case may be) some of the famous people who have come from the Peach State.  I even gained a bit of a reputation among my colleges for doing this to a highly annoying degree. 

Foremost is Martin Luther King, who is without question the best-known Georgian anywhere in the world.  And, of course, there’s Jimmy Carter, whom Finns of a certain age are definitely familiar with, though they might not necessarily associate him with Georgia. 

Beyond these two famous men, Finns (and, for that matter, anyone else outside of Georgia) are much less aware of the other prominent folks from the state. 

This is where I come in, happy to enlighten the uninformed that renowned Georgians also include Mr. Ray Charles and Mr. James Brown.  Okay, it’s true the Godfather of Soul was born across the river in South Carolina, but he lived most of his life in Georgia.  And Ray Charles, the man who made “Georgia on My Mind” such a classic, would deserve to be an honorary Georgian, even if he hadn’t been born there. 

But, the list goes on, especially in the musical realm:  Little Richard, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, all R&B and Soul legends, all from my home state.  Closer to my own time, the alternate musical scene in the college town of Athens -- a liberal oasis in a sea of diehard conservatives -- spawned acts such as The B-52s and, of course, R.E.M., the best band ever, period.  Sorry, Tenacious D. 

And then there’s the Georgians who left home to make it big in Hollywood, starting with Oliver Hardy, the larger half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo.  Hardy briefly attended boarding school in Young Harris, the tiny mountain town where I went to college almost 70 years later.  Other, somewhat more modern entertainers from Georgia are Julia Roberts, Burt Reynolds (how could Burt not be from Georgia), and the delectable Kim Basinger.  I once worked with someone in Athens who had gone to school with Kim.  She once showed her high school yearbook, where the teenage Basinger certainly looked pretty in her school photo, but not so different at the time from many of the other girls in her class. 

I realize I’m dating myself badly with all these references to figures who are already starting to fade from the scene.  Or maybe it shows I haven’t lived in the state for a long time.  Anyway, the best-known native sons of Georgia nowadays are two that sadly I’m not proud of at all.  And both are running for president. 

One of them, Newt Gingrich, is in fact the current Republican frontrunner, which means he is the “anti-Romney” of the moment.  (Republicans seem desperate to find some marginally acceptable candidate who is not Mitt Romney so that this person [fill in the blank] will appeal to Republicans apparently desperate to vote for anybody – except maybe Mitt Romney – who is not Barack Obama.) 

Finns might be puzzled by the name “Newt”, especially if they realize that it’s English for vesilisko Of course, Newt’s simply a nickname for Gingrich’s actual first name “Newton”, but it’s hard to imagine a name more fitting to his personality.  (And for this I mean no disrespect to actual newts, God bless ‘em.)

As Speaker of the House in the 90s, Gingrich led rebellious Republicans in a failed and ill-advised attempt to shut down the federal government.  A bit later, he was more successful in clamoring for the impeachment of Bill Clinton over his lying about sexual misconduct – while Gingrich himself (who was 55 at the time and married) was dappling in a little sexual misconduct of his own with a 32-year-old congressional employee.  She became his third and  at least for now  current wife.  Gingrich has since blamed his forays into adultery on his overriding passion for America.  Seriously. 

Despite all this, Newt has somehow gained the reputation of being an intellectual, the gray eminence of the Republican Party, which does nothing to mask the belligerent, mean-spirited nature that makes him a uniquely unlikable person. 

On the other hand, the other Georgian running for president appears to be extremely likeable.  Too bad he also appears completely incompetent for the job of highest office in the land.  Herman Cain is, by all accounts, a likeable guy, a powerful motivational speaker, and – as the former CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain – probably a fairly successful businessman.  That doesn’t, however, make him presidential material, as recent events have shown.  His only shtick is a simplistic flat tax plan, branded “9-9-9”, that most economists agree would hurt poor people the most.  Beyond that – and a fine singing voice – he’s got nothing. 

But Cain is good at promoting himself and was briefly the frontrunner in the quest for the “Anti-Romney-Obama”.  That was until his star began to fade a few weeks ago after stories of past sexual misconduct started to emerge and his campaign started to stumble. 

The sex allegations now seemed to have fizzled, with no new developments lately, and I think that’s fine.  I would hate to see Cain drop out of the race due to unproven claims of hanky panky with any woman he happens to run across who isn’t his wife.  Instead, it is much more fitting that his campaign self-destructs because voters finally can’t ignore the fact that, behind his upbeat nature and his gimmicky 9-9-9 plan, he hasn’t got a clue what he would do as president.  His recent flubs at answering straightforward foreign policy questions on Libya have proven just how out of his depth he is. 

I think that even more than Gingrich, who probably seriously thinks he could be president and actually has some chance of winning, Cain is only in the race for free publicity to sell his books and boost his personal brand.  Both men, in their own ways, are embarrassments and not the kind of Georgians I would want to brag about – or be president.   

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fungus of the Forest

This autumn on my regular bike rides through the local forest, I have occasionally encountered some earthy-looking individuals suddenly emerging at random spots from the woods.  They were all carrying plastic bags.  Some were holding knives in their hands. 

There was nothing, of course, to be alarmed about.  As everyone here would instantly recognize, these people are mushroom hunters, taking advantage of this autumn’s unseasonably warm and wet weather that has resulted in one of the best seasons ever for fungus foraging. 

Chanterelle mushrooms. Photo: Strobilomyces
Finns are great forest scavengers.  Even for urban Helsinkians, it’s not uncommon to head out to the nearest woods to pick berries or mushrooms.  It’s practically a national pastime, and another one of the ways that Finns are more closely connected to the land than, say, the average American would be. 

When I was growing up in Georgia, my family did its share of berry picking, mostly blackberries.  (Blackberries do not grow wild in Finland, where they are called karhunvatukka or “bear’s raspberries”).  My parents would have us put on sturdy boots and long-sleeve shirts (almost unbearable in the middle of a Georgia summer) and wade into thorny thickets of blackberry “vines”, sometimes chest high.  My mom would make jelly and jam from the berries, and fantastic cobbler pies that I can still almost taste. 

But mushroom picking is not something that we – or, for that matter, anyone I knew in Georgia - ever did, so I’ve never felt inclined to search out rotten logs for a little something to put on my pizza.  In any case, as long as I’ve lived here, we’ve had enough wild mushrooms in the freezer, thanks to my wife’s parents who keep us well supplied with various berries and fungal staples, like chanterelles, that they find in the forest. 

Poisonous false morels for sale.
Photo:  Imari Karonen
And then there’s the poison thing.  The woods here are full of delicious safe mushrooms, and others that can kill you in a matter of hours (which may also be delicious, but that’s kind of beside the point as your liver turns to goo).  So, I’ve been happy to leave the mushroom gathering to the experts in my family, or just stick with store-bought variety. 

Even there you might have watch out.  A few years ago, a foreigner shopping in large grocery store in Helsinki bought some korvasieni (false morels), which are dangerous to even touch but are (apparently) delicious once properly prepared (in this case, that means boiling the piss out of them).  As I recall the story, there was no sign in the store warning that this particular produce was poisonous, since  as steeped in mushroom culture as Finns are  “everyone” here knows this already.  Or, it could be that the warnings were only in Finnish.  (Stores now by law must warn customers in six languages how toxic these morsels are.)  Luckily, the unsuspecting foreign shopper survived his encounter with this delicacy of the forest. 

This is an example of why I’ve never been overeager to go looking for mushrooms on my own.  However, a few weeks ago I joined a group of well-informed friends and harvested my first haul of wild fungi.  I picked only one type, suppilovahvero (trumpet chanterelle), a perfectly safe and impossible-to-mistake-for-anything-that-can-possibly-kill-you mushroom that also happens to be highly prized in Finnish cuisine.  I sautéed them with creme and served them with boiled potatoes.  Can’t get much more Finnish than that.  

My haul of suppilovahvero (trumpet chanterelle).