Friday, July 10, 2015

Hey, Hei, Heinä!

Near my home in North Helsinki is what I usually refer to as “the horse farm”. That’s not a completely correct description of Tuomarinkylän kartano, but it will do. They do have horses.

Tuomarinkylä (“the judge’s village”) is, in fact, a former kartano (“estate”) that was founded almost 300 years ago on the broad, rich bottomlands of the Vantaa River. It was a Finnish equivalent to the Georgia plantation or Russian usadboy, though of course with the arduous farm work being done by sharecroppers, not slaves or serfs.

The manor house at Tuomrinkylä.

Today, Tuomarinkylä is owned and run by the city. Its well-preserved manor buildings  contain a cafe and an interior decorating shop (and formerly a couple of museums, now closed due to austerity cuts). Its barns and stables are home to dozens of horses belonging to a couple of riding schools operating there. Its fields are sown in grain and hay. It’s a nice place to visit to be sure.

Driving past there recently, I noticed a sign saying something about an upcoming heinä-something-or-other. I should have taken a closer look. Seems that for quite some time I’ve been missing an unexpected side of the farm.

The past couple of summers or so, I have noticed a field along the road running past Tuomarinkylä has been filled with rows and rows of haystacks, the old-fashioned kind formed around a wooden pole.

As a child, I remember seeing these kinds of traditional haystacks near my hometown in Georgia, presumably because that’s how one local farmer still did it in the 1960s, though by then the de rigueur method of gathering and storing hay had long been mechanized bailing.

I have also seen such hay stacks here and there in the Finnish countryside, though it’s not clear whether they were erected simply for decoration or out of nostalgia. Come to think of it, the place where I have regularly seen them was the small corner of a field cut off from the rest of the farm by a highway. Maybe the farmer figured it wasn’t worth getting a machine in there, and just did it by hand. Respect for that.

In any case, the time when hay was stacked by hand in Finland probably isn’t that far removed from today. Hiking in the woods with my wife a couple weeks ago, we happened to pass a farm where we saw leaning against a barn wall a dozen or so wooden poles, each sharpened to a point at the ends and with holes drilled through them at regular intervals. It was obvious what they were for.

Riding training at Tuomarinkylä.

For the record, nowadays hay in Finland is packed into in the huge, round bales also common in the States. The ones completely covered in white plastic and often left in the fields are whimsically called dinosauruksen munat ("dinosaur eggs").

It may not be going too far to say that haymaking is one those mundane things that underpin civilization – at least any civilization with livestock. And it’s been romanticized in plenty of artwork over the centuries, as well as lives on in such English expressions as, “needle in a haystack”, “hit the hay”, “make hay while the sun shines”, and the ever-popular “roll in the hay (!)”.

All through my childhood, my family always owned some cattle, though my parents were mainly running a small business in town. When I was in high school, we had maybe twenty head or so, which we kept on some pastureland we rented along with one of my uncles. Each summer, we’d close off one part of the pasture from grazing, allowing the grass to grow freely to its full height without fear of being munched by some ambling bovine. When the grass was high enough (and a long-enough stretch of hot, dry weather was forecast to allow harvesting), we’d hire someone to cut and bale the hay.

When the hay was dry enough for bailing, my brother and I were recruited to help load the bales onto the back of our pick-up truck, often driven by my mother, as we followed behind the hay bailer. The machine, pulled by a tractor, spat out the rectangular blocks of hay remarkably fast. We had to work quickly, slinging the 50-pound bales up onto the truck and stacking them five or six layers high, before hauling them to a barn to be unloaded and stacked there for the winter.

We once had to cut short a hiking trip in the Smokies because a window of hot, dry weather had opened up, and we were needed back home to bring in the hay. It was hot work, and I remember we couldn’t wait to finish so we could jump in the cold creek flowing past the field to cool off.

Crossroads at the farm.

As I recall, we cut hay in June back then in Georgia, in fact in early June. In Finland, it seems it’s traditionally done a month later in July, based on, if nothing else, the Finnish word for “July”.

In Finnish, the month of July is called heinäkuu, literally “hay month”, so that must be the month when you do something with hay. Obviously. I guess that goes to show the role that hay has played in ancient Finnish life, as opposed to, say, the corrupting influence of the Romans. (The English “July” is named after Julius Caesar, who without a doubt never spent a single day cutting hay.)

It’s almost surprising that the word for “hay” in Finnish (heinä, pronounced “hay-nah”) is so close to the English, given how weirdly different most Finnish words are. Obviously, it’s been borrowed from one of English’s Germanic-language cousins. I’m guessing Swedish, in which the word is “” (pronounced something like “heww”).

(Also a bit surprisingly, an informal Finnish word for “hello”, “hei” is identical in sound to the “hey” used in America. In this case, it definitely comes from the Swedish “hej”.)

Another way of translating heinäkuu (and my preferred way), is “hay moon”, since kuu means both “month” and “moon”. The connection there is, well, obvious. It reminds me of the names that Native Americans gave to their “moons”. For example, the Cherokee called July “Ripe Corn Moon”.

The fact that Finnish often has such descriptive names for different “moons” of the year adds to the sense I often have of the aboriginal character of the nature-loving Finns, though sometimes those descriptive names miss the mark. The Finnish word for June is kesäkuu, which can be read as “summer moon”, a twisted joke this year when June was the least summer-like it has been for years, depressingly cool, cloudy and rainy.

Haystacks under cloudy skies.

July hasn’t been much better, though the weather improved enough to put up hay at Tuomarinkylä, with a little help from the villagers. The sign I had seen by the road was for an upcoming heinätalkoot, which was held on July 2nd. Apparently, these events have been held for years, maybe even decades, but I’d never noticed. My only plausible excuse is that in the past I often spent that part of July out of the country. The more realistic excuse is that I just wasn’t paying attention. In any case, the heinätalkoot seems like a great idea.

Talkoot are probably best described as “communal work”, where a group of people pitches in to get some chore done. In the past, this included putting up buildings, in the same vein as the legendary "barn raisings" of the Amish. The most common form nowadays is when all the residents of a housing co-op periodically get together to fix/clean up the premises, mow the grass, trim bushes, clean gutters, that sort of stuff. Strangely enough, these kinds of group work could be called "bees" in America.

The heinätalkoot at Tuomarinkylä, one of those creative public happenings arranged regularly around Helsinki, gives city folks a chance to tap their country roots by pitching hay for a few hours like their ancestors used to do. From the photos, it looks like it would have been a fun outing. At least fun to watch. Hopefully, I’ll remember it next year, and try my hand at tapping my own haymaking roots, such as they are. 

Pekka Halonen's "The Hay Cutters".

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Stillbirth of a Nation

Years ago, sometime after I had moved to Finland, I ran across a small pamphlet that Finnair had produced for their customers traveling to the United States.

The booklet offered practical guidance on such matters as how much to tip in restaurants or how the hell to identify a dime as a ten-cent piece, despite the fact that “10” or “ten” are nowhere to be seen anywhere on the coin. Another one of those little American oddities to perplex foreign visitors.

Among other useful information was a page dealing with US public holidays, listing about half a dozen of the most significant ones, including the quintessential American holidays of Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Labor Day. What struck me as odd, in fact extremely odd, was the inclusion of a day I did not recognize as any holiday – Jefferson Davis’ birthday. 

Though I was born and raised in the South, I can’t recall anyone ever talking about the birthday of the Confederacy’s one-and-only president, let alone celebrating it. As far as I was concerned Jefferson Davis had long been thankfully forgotten, certainly not a figure to be commemorated.

I’ve since learned that his birthdate is indeed an official holiday in Florida and Alabama. Of course. No doubt, it’s also celebrated unofficially by certain segments of the population in other southern states, and by that I mean folks who, 150 years after the fact, can’t come to grips with the thought that the South waged a misguided and treasonous war against the United States, and lost. Lost badly.

Obviously, the creators of the Finnair booklet must have sourced some bad information if they thought that Davis’ birthday merited a mention as any kind of national holiday. To me, it would be as absurd as celebrating Benedict Arnold Day. I trust no one does that.

When I was growing up in the South in the 60s, the Civil War was a very faint backdrop to the modern world, but not much more than that. No one took it too seriously where I lived, though we definitely identified ourselves as Southerners.

We jokingly called a neighboring family who lived along our dirt road “Yankees” because they had moved there from Ohio. That’s about the extent of the Civil War intruding on my childhood as I can recall. I remember hearing only one Civil War-era story handed down from the older generation of my family. 

Years later, when a co-worker from Boston asked me to demonstrate a “rebel yell”, I had to disappoint him. It was not something we ever did growing up in my part of Georgia. I’d be able to do an authentic rebel yell as likely as an authentic Swiss yodel.

Back then, if we were preoccupied with any events outside our own daily lives, it was with a different and still-on-going civil war, one in Indo-China, and a lower grade of political unrest in the US, the overall turbulence of the 1960s. The Civil War wasn’t much of a topic of conversation. No one felt strongly about what had happened 100 years in the past. No one harbored simmering resentments over it.

I should perhaps pause to explain that mine was not the South of “Gone with the Wind”, by any means. The Georgia haunted by the ghost of Scarlet O’Harra was actually a bit foreign to me, so my experience may not have been typical for what used to be called the Cracker State. ("Cracker" is a slang term for poor, white Southerners.) 

I grew up in the mountains of North Georgia, in a country of small upland farms and forested wilderness. This mountainous area was surely not as dependent as the rest of the state on the slave-based economy that sustained the genteel cotton-growing elites, the aristocratic plantation owners. In 1860, only about 150 slaves lived in Gilmer County, where I was born, according to one source I have found. Gilmer was mostly a county of “small-fisted” farmers.

The two delegates sent from Gilmer to the Georgia Secession Convention in the spring of 1861 voted against leaving the Union. When the war came, a decent number of local boys fought on the side of the North, including at least one of my ancestors. There were no battles fought near the county and no Civil War memorials erected there. Reminders of the war did not really exist there.

That's why it shouldn’t be too surprising that I don’t recall as a child hearing anyone expressing the view that the Confederate States should have won the war. In my predominately Republican county, probably no one strongly felt that that President Abraham Lincoln, the icon of the GOP, was wrong to fight in order to keep the Union together. (Obviously, this was long before Fox News arrived on the scene.)

As I write this now, it seems the Civil War should be even less of an issue than fifty years ago. It should all be ancient, and settled, history, with no real relevance to today.

Oh, how I wish that were true.

In recent years, I’ve spent enough time browsing the history sections of American bookstores to know there is a lucrative enough market for revisionist history books recasting the past from a right-wing worldview.

My impression is that the drive to rewrite (or to be more charitable, to “reinterpret”) history got a boost after the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, when the country took a noticeable turn to the right. And now, with the murkiness of the internet, where everything and nothing is true, rewriting history has never been easier.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised, therefore, to hear Andrew Napolitano, some kind of Fox News “personality”, railing on-air last year against Abraham Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln! – for his unnecessarily launching a “murderous war” against the South. What the hell?

I don’t greatly admire that many American presidents, but the more I read about Lincoln, the better I understand what an extraordinary politician and leader he was. I found it shocking that someone on “mainstream” TV would lambaste the president for struggling to hold the United States together. I might as well have been watching Russia Today.

I know that some contemporaries of Lincoln similarly railed again him as a “tyrant”, but those folks were on the side of the Confederates, dead set against any restrictions on the rights of the good people of the South to own other human beings. That was presumably a more acceptable form of tyranny, one based on race.

Following the terrorist killing of nine African Americans in Charleston last month, the issue of the Civil War is rising again, with a twist.

The white-supremacist murderer posted photos on social media of himself with the Confederate Battle Flag, provoking a groundswell of anti-rebel-flag sentiment that was inspired in part by Ta-Nehisi Coates in an article in the Atlantic Monthly. In reaction to the shooting, Coates set his sights on the rebel flag still flying on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol in Columbia, insisting that it was time to “take it down”.

Let’s be honest, compared to the bigger problems of racism and political violence, the matter of one flag is small beer. Still, for a native southerner, like myself, who has come to see that flag as a disgraceful throwback to disgraceful times, it was a welcome development.

Perhaps because the Charleston shooter also posted photos of himself burning an American flag even some conservatives in the South have felt justified, or chastened enough by the public outcry, to come out in favor of taking the flag in South Carolina down. But, it also seems they’ve often missed the point.

The rationale I’ve seen repeated here and there is thus:  although the flag is in reality nothing more than a benevolent symbol of Southern heritage, it had sadly been appropriated as a symbol of white supremacy by hate groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan. (“Appropriation” is a particularly popular buzzword nowadays.)

Using this argument, it has finally become socially acceptable now in 2015 for even true sons and daughters of Dixie to support taking the flag in Columbia down. Progress, of a sort.

This conservative argument seems reasonable, up to a point, so perhaps it’s best not to quibble. It is true the flag has for years been used as a banner by reactionary groups opposed to civil rights. But what the new-found opponents to the flag conveniently ignore (assuming they even know) is that this “appropriation” is nothing new and the reactionary groups using the flag this way have also included state governments.

The familiar Confederate symbol of rebellion was incorporated into the state flag of Georgia, but not until 1956, at the dawn of the civil rights movement. It’s doubtful that pride in Southern heritage, on an official state level, had been dormant all the years prior to that.

Of course, it was clear to everyone at the time that the change was made as an act of defiance against a tide of racial integration. Georgia was thumbing its nose at folks, especially in the federal government, who thought that the “separate but equal” principle of segregation was a cruel joke.

Georgia removed the rebel symbol from its flag only in 2001, and only after an acrimonious debate. Mississippi, whose flag also features the old battle flag, is now discussing doing the same in the wake of the Charleston shooting.

Not everyone, though, is jumping on board the anti-flag bandwagon. Not far from my home county, a parade of pickup trucks and jeeps flying the battle flag whizzed through the streets of Fort Oglethorpe, protesting the removal of the flag from a gift shop at the nearby national military park. A couple of the trucks in the speeding procession rear-ended each other, showing that enthusiasm for a white-supremacist Lost Cause doesn’t necessarily breed safe-driving habits!

And while moderate southern conservatives are now seemingly willing to concede that the “optics” of the battle flag are a liability in today’s world (due to hateful appropriation!), I have come to understand that many of them are still in deep denial over the fundamental truths of the war that spawned the flag. Even today.

I recently had an internet debate (always a bad idea) about the Civil War with some folks from Georgia and elsewhere, some of whom I would have thought were thoroughly modern and well-educated people. While they seemed to agree the time had come to abandon the battle flag, they dug in their heels at any suggestion that the Civil War itself was fought for anything as unrighteous as slavery.

It was dismaying to see people of my general age and background, four or five generations removed from Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, insisting that a war that resulted in some 750,000 deaths on both sides was fought over "tariffs". Or the "banking system". Or the always-useful excuse of “states’ rights”. Anything, anything but slavery. At first, I thought they were joking or being ironic. They weren’t.

I thought such willful twisting of historical reality was only found on the fridges of society, bringing to mind marginalized loners hunkered down in some tumbledown house trolling the darker reaches of the internet, not people who function in the open sunshine of the modern life.

This kind of slavery-denial is difficult to understand, especially since all it takes to dispel such illusions is to read the Georgia Declaration of Secession*, basically the equivalent of the US Declaration of Independence.

A long-winded document by any definition – three times the length of the American Declaration (and even longer than this post!) – it leaves no doubt about what moved the pompous blowhards who wrote it to take the drastic action of revolution.

By my rough analysis, some 78% of the text is devoted to slavery. Only 15% deals with other grievances southerners had with the North, namely tariffs and “internal improvements” (infrastructure spending), where they felt they were being victimized by the Yankees. The Declaration reeks of victimhood.

Yet, despite the Declaration being readily available on-line and crystal clear in its meaning, some people contrive to find that slavery wasn’t the South’s motivation for secession, and therefore, racism wasn’t behind it. That, after all, wouldn’t be “honorable”.

Seriously, I can’t understand the point of trying to whitewash the past by denying that Southerners, even if they might have been our own ancestors, went to war over slavery. Why do folks today feel the need to make excuses for people long dead and gone? And why do I now seem to be encountering more of this denial than years ago?

I suspect that some of the people I was arguing with recently grew up in middle or south Georgia, or some other part of the state seeped in Civil War lore, dotted with war memorials and statues of Confederate generals. (Don't get me started on Stone Mountain, the "Mount Rushmore" of the Confederacy.) Perhaps most other Georgians learned such archaic attitudes at their mama’s knee. At least, I didn't.

Or perhaps the traditional, pro-American, narrative of the Civil War has now been successfully hijacked by neo-Confederate apologists, like Andrew Napolitano and other right-wing revisionists. I would see that as brainwashing. 

Anyway, I would hope the stark contrast of the Charleston shooter burning the American flag, while flaunting the rebel one, brings home to modern-day fans of the Confederacy a contradiction that has always seemed obvious to me: how can you claim to be a loyal patriot of the United States – as southern conservatives certainly do – and also feel pride at the sight of a symbol of an enemy “nation”?

In any case, on the Fourth of July this past weekend I was happy to commemorate the founding of the United States  and not the stillbirth of a different nation, one that did not deserve to be born despite what some folks in the South might still prefer to believe, even today. 

Words of President Barack Obama, in his eulogy for the nine slain parishioners of
the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

* Correction: This should perhaps be referred to as the "Declaration of Causes of Secession". While the "Ordinance of Secession", adopted Jan. 22, 1861, was more properly Georgia's "declaration of independence",  it was followed a week later by the Declaration of Causes.