Friday, August 28, 2015

It's a Pieni Maailma After All

One day this week I was at the summer cabin we’ve been building about an hour east of Helsinki, trying to apply another coat of paint to the log walls before the last of the precious warm, summery weather completely evaporates.

It’s usually very quiet there on the shore of our sheltered bay, far from a paved road, surrounded by forest, with just the sound of birds, or an occasional boat or airplane passing by, or children playing on the opposite shore.

At one point, as I swiped the paintbrush back and forth over the wood, I noticed a faint, percussion-like sound in the distance behind me. At first, I took it for the sound of blasting, like someone dynamiting granite bedrock at some construction site. But this sound was sharper than that type of rumbling explosion. And it continued for a while, rhythmically, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

I had a fleeting thought that it could have been a Finnish navy ship somewhere in the open Baltic to the south, firing its guns in some sort of war exercise. That would be extraordinary, to say the least. I have no idea if those kinds of exercises ever take place.

Then I realized it probably could have been Santahamina, the sprawling military base occupying an island just offshore from Helsinki.

A few years ago, during my son's compulsory army service, I undertook an almost weekly ritual of driving over a small drawbridge to the gates of Santahamina on Friday evenings to pick him up for his weekend leaves. It’s surely a place well known to many young men (and a few young women) in this part of Finland. As Santahamina is practically just another suburb, Helsinki residents can sometimes easily hear the boom of artillery practice on the island. And since it’s just a little under 25 kilometers (15 miles) from our cabin, as a seagull flies, I decided that this must be the origin of the dull, thumping sound I was hearing.

And with that thought, an old memory stirred, a reminder of how small the world can sometimes be.

In the early 1980s, I lived a couple of years in a basement apartment in an antebellum house in Athens, Georgia. “Antebellum” in this case meaning a house predating the American Civil War of the 1860s. In fact, it was a registered national landmark of some kind, although unlike the finer southern mansions elsewhere in Athens, this house was badly rundown, almost decrepit, in a relatively seedy part of town, behind the bus station. It was musty and infested with cockroaches, but was cheap – the monthly rent was a mere $75 – and it suited a certain bohemian lifestyle I envisioned for myself at the time.

As it happened, the person living in the (hopefully less decrepit) apartment above me was someone I was acquainted with from Young Harris, the junior college in north Georgia I had attended a few years earlier. That’s not so surprising, since many of my classmates from Young Harris had gravitated to the University of Georgia upon graduating, and Athens wasn’t such a big town. Still, it was a coincidence. 

Charles was older than me, and actually maybe more of an artist than a student. At Young Harris, he had been a director of one of the men’s dorms, more mature than us 18-year-old freshmen.  

When later, as fellow tenants in a crumbling Athens landmark, I introduced Charles to my future wife, he was intrigued to hear she was from Finland, and happy to share an unexpected memory with us.

It seems that as a young child, Charles had lived in Helsinki. What are the odds of that? It is a small world, after all.

This would have been in the late 50s, early 60s, a time when Finland was even further off the beaten path than when I arrived some twenty years later and was an even more unlikely a place for someone from Georgia to end up.

The explanation was that Charles’ father, an officer in the US military, had been stationed to Finland in some capacity, perhaps in connection with the American Embassy, no doubt a plum assignment at the time, as Helsinki lay only some 40 miles from the Soviet Union.

Whether or not Charles had any other early memories from Helsinki, the one thing he did mention was hearing the booms of artillery from his home there. 

My future wife knew immediately where that had come from, the only place it could have come from:  Santahamina, which even today occasionally emits – from the edge of a peaceful, even sleepy, capital city – war-like sounds that can be heard miles away by random, misplaced Georgians. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Once, when I was a kid, we had a visit from the family of my mother’s uncle, a preacher who at the time was living in Macon, Georgia. For some reason, we decided to take them, including his mostly grown sons (my first cousins once removed) on a little excursion to one of our favorite spots in the foothills of the Cohutta Mountains, a place called Bear Creek, a place I’ve taken my own children many times for picnicking during summer visits back to the States. 

I only remember this little outing because, as we walked along the graveled Forest Service road deep in the woods, my brother, sister and I spotted some ripe blackberries growing on the sunny slope of the road bank. We immediately started helping ourselves to the berries, while our city cousins looked on, almost regarding us as feral children, wild people of the mountains. At least they declined to join in the berry picking themselves.

I thought of this earlier this summer when my wife and I were walking along a similarly graveled road near the little sauna-cabin we’ve been building not far from Helsinki. We spotted some ripe wild strawberries (metsämansikoita, or “forest strawberries”) on the side of the road and started sampling them. No one passing by would have batted an eye at this. 

Foraging for wild food like this is extremely typical in Finland, and one of the local customs that unexpectedly echoes a familiar way of life in faraway North Georgia. 

In the past few weeks, all along the road to our cabin we have been seeing cars parked in every little pullout or side road, a sign that the blueberry- and mushroom-picking season is well underway. With the summer so cool and rainy this year, everyone is expecting the season will be exceptionally good, and in fact we’ve already found keltavahvero (chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius) in places where you don’t normally see them. I didn't grow up foraging for fungi in Georgia, and I'm far from being an expert. Even now, chanterelles, along with suppilovahvero (winter mushroom, Cantharellus tubaeformis), are the only ones I can safely identify by myself.

My first haul of suppilovahvero, winter mushrooms.

Growing up in Georgia, we didn’t really do much foraging for blueberries, either. What we did go after was blackberries. I remember our whole family, donning boots and long-sleeve shirts in the middle of the sultry Georgia summer heat to wade chest-deep into a thicket of blackberry vines (as we called them), an almost impenetrable tangle of thorns. It was worth it. My mother would turn our haul of fruit into jellies and jams and usually more than a few blackberry cobblers that I can still almost taste.

Blackberries (called karhunvatukka, “bear raspberry”) don’t grow wild in Finland, but their cousin, the raspberries, do. The converse is true in North Georgia – raspberries are the less common of the two, as I recall.

The woods where I grew up didn’t off much in the way of blueberries. There was something we called “huckleberries”, growing low to the ground and bearing tiny, round fruit full of gritty seeds. They were probably poor specimens of what the British call “bilberries” (Vaccinium myrtillus) and basically the same thing as Finnish blueberries, only apparently not as well suited to the habitats of Georgia.

The “huckleberries” we knew as kids weren’t very good or abundant, and reaching down to pick them at ground level seemed a risky proposition in the snaky country I grew up in. It was therefore a revelation when we discovered a higher alternative.

It was on a short hike with our parents one summer day to the summit of Springer Mountain (3780 ft., 1150m), the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, literally at the very edge of my home county. On the approach trail, we noticed blueberry bushes, not at ankle level, but five feet or more in height. And they were full of large, tasty berries.

Although spending a lifetime in the woods, we’d never run across these “high-bush” blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) before, and maybe they’re not all that common in Georgia anyway. We only ever encountered them in the cooler, open forests of the state’s higher ridge tops, a fairly limited environment after all.

The much more mountainous landscape of western North Carolina is another matter, however. I used to go hiking regularly in a slice of that landscape called Shining Rock, a federally protected wilderness area of stark, 6000-foot peaks that are mostly bare of the dense forests more typical of the Appalachians. The scenery there is much more “western”, completely out of place in the Southeast.

Often on the way to Shining Rock, I would stop at a spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway where a slope of brush and grass, interspersed here and there with clumps of trees, rises gradually from a high-country stream. This place, Graveyard Fields, already a bit magical and mysterious, was also rampant with high-bush blueberries.

When the berries were ripe, the “fields” would be filled with Cherokees, from the small reservation nestled next to the Smokies, foraging no doubt in the manner of their ancestors.

You might think the berries there would also be a big draw for foraging bears. I never saw one in Graveyard Fields itself, though I know of at least one instance in which a bear got a taste of its berries.

This was on a camping trip with my parents along the Parkway one summer. We had picked some berries at Graveyard Fields that day, and my mother had used them to whip up a pie back at our campsite. Since we weren’t able to finish the pie before bedtime, we put the rest in an ice chest, which we (unwisely) left sitting on the tailgate of our truck. It didn’t sit there unnoticed for long. We awoke in the night to the sound of the ice chest crashing to the ground and a bear devouring what was left of the berry pie.

I haven’t heard of any encounters between people and bears in Finland over blueberries, but the competition between human foragers can sometimes get tense, as well, despite the fact that Finland's "everyman's rights" allow anyone to pick berries anywhere they please, including private land.

Last month, a popular tabloid asked its readers to share stories of the altercations they have experienced with other berry pickers. The resulting examples of marjaraivo ("berry rage") included tales of pickers being threatened by dogs, tractors, and a red-faced old lady, and in one instance the air being let out of a berry picker’s tires.

Normally, foraging competition is limited to keeping your favorite mushroom-picking spots a closely held secret, especially when it comes to the highly prized keltavahvero

Chanterelles from the Finnish forest.

(My parents exercised the same kind of secrecy when it came to the locations of ginseng, a slightly different kind of wild forest product that they loved to search for in the mountains of Georgia.)

Showing off the harvest from your undisclosed mushroom location on social media, is of course extremely typical. In summer, photos by Finnish friends of basketfuls of chanterelles or buckets of blueberries appear on my Facebook feed with the kind of regularity that American friends post memes praising Jesus. Foraging is that central to the Finnish way of life.

I once took an advanced Finnish-language course designed for immigrants to the country. In addition to grammar lessons, there were outings arranged with the purpose of introducing us foreigners to various aspects of Finnish life and culture. These included a visit to a Baltic herring festival, tours of a couple of national museums and, of course, a mushroom picking expedition.

Our little class assembled one autumn morning in Paloheinä, part of Helsinki’s Keskuspuisto (“Central Park”). Before we got started, our teacher briefly instructed us on which mushrooms were easily identifiable as safe, and which were obviously ones to avoid. She stressed that if there was any doubt, we should first check with her before picking something. 
Most of the class, those students from Algeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh and other such exotic places, stuck pretty close to the teacher as we combed the forest floor for edible fungi. I did likewise, since, even after over two decades of living here, mushroom picking is one aspect of Finnish culture this American has not yet managed to pick up.

One group of students, however, immediately disappeared, spreading out into the forest mostly on their own. The Russians. Well, the Russian-speakers, that is, which included Russians, Ukrainians, and one Azerbaijani. If there was one thing they required absolutely no help in, it was mushroom picking.

If anything, our boreal neighbors in Russia are even more dye-in-the-wool mushroom pickers than Finns are. I guess it’s one of those cultural things that transcends borders and languages when there are tasty things growing in the forest well worth foraging for. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Forsyth County

Finland has seen some unusually prominent political demonstrations recently over the question of immigration, including a massive peaceful pro-multiculturalism rally in Helsinki’s Senate Square and a neo-Nazi gathering in Jyväskylä that resulted in some violence.

I’m hoping to write more about those events soon, but since I had almost finished this post on a conveniently related topic, perhaps I’ll get this one out of the way first.

Almost thirty years ago, I marched in what amounted to the only political demonstration I’ve ever taken part in. I even hesitate to use the word “march”, since to my ear that sounds far too self-important. Let’s just say I showed up.

I wasn’t an especially political person in my youth. The part of rural north Georgia I was from was not exactly a hotbed of political activism in those days. I think the status quo was just fine for most folks in my solidly conservative and God-fearing county. There wasn’t lot of diversity of opinion there when it came to the biggest political issues of the day, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. I think it’s safe to say that most residents supported the former and were at best uneasy about the latter.

In high school, the only overtly political act I engaged in was at a public hearing held in my hometown to gather “public comment” about a new four-lane highway to be built between Atlanta and North Carolina. As I recall, there were five proposed routes the highway could have taken through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I felt that at least one or two of them would devastate some beautiful, mostly secluded mountain landscape.

At the well-attended hearing in our old county courthouse one evening, I took my turn to stand before a microphone and briefly, and no-doubt awkwardly, expressed my opinion about which of those alternative routes should be rejected outright, mainly the one through Neels Gap, a high saddle along the Appalachian Trail. I thank God, or whomever, that there is no recording of my statement.

For what it’s worth, that four-lane highway was eventually routed through my own hometown, the least disruptive option really, so in a sense, my side won.

Also while at college in Athens, I don't recall there being any major student protests on the University of Georgia campus, where a diversity of opinions certainly could be found, as well as the kind of young, energetic, sometimes idealistic, student body that is tailor-made for political activism. If there had been some massive exercise of the right of assembly while I was there, other than for a football game, of course, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

Much later, after living abroad in Finland for a few years, I was again a resident of Athens, this time studying journalism, when an unexpected event occurred that harkened back to the civil rights movement of two decades earlier. That event occurred in Forsyth County.

Forsyth is a little county occupying some rolling countryside about halfway between Atlanta and the mountains of North Georgia, a county with a tainted history I had never heard about, despite growing up only two counties away.  

In truth, I didn’t know much about Forsyth at all. We never had much reason to go there. Cumming, the county seat, was not on the way to anywhere we ever went, though I have driven Highway 53 across the northeast corner of the county on innumerable trips back and forth between home and Athens – genteel enough wooded countryside that in a sense camouflages some truly horrible violence from over a hundred years ago.

In 1912, Forsyth County was the scene of some of the most explosive racial trouble to take place in the Jim Crow South. Within a week of each other, two women, both white, were assaulted by black men. Now, whether they were actually assaulted – and one certainly was – is almost beside the point, given the racial tilt of the criminal justice system in the South at the time (and arguably even today). The perception of assault was proof enough for the local white population.

In the first incident, it might have actually been only a case of attempted rape. Race relations being what they were, however, this was sufficient to stoke tensions to the point where white vigilantes patrolled the streets of Cumming, a local black preacher was nearly beaten to death for making disparaging comments about the white victim, and the National Guard was called out to maintain the peace.

The incident that quickly followed the first one was much more serious, resulting in the murder and alleged rape of a second young white woman. Two days later, a mob of townspeople dragged one of the suspects (just an accomplice, not even the alleged murderer) from the county jail, shot and then hung him from a telephone pole in the middle of town, no doubt to the great satisfaction of many of the white citizens.

The other suspects escaped mob “justice” only by being shuttled off to more secure jails in Atlanta.

The white mobs of Forsyth were not done, however. In the months that followed, practically every one of the thousand or so black people living in the county (about 10% of the population) were driven away, often forced to sell or even outright abandon their lands and homes. It was probably the biggest single example of ethnic cleansing to take place in Georgia since the Removal of the Cherokees.

By the 1980s, there were still practically no blacks living in the county, despite the fact that the urban spread of metro Atlanta had almost reached the southern borders of rural Forsyth. The county’s reputation as an unfriendly place for African-Americans had not been diminished in the least.

Presumably, to highlight this lack of racial progress in a county holding such a fateful place in Georgia black history and to commemorate the original violent banishment of the black population, Georgia civil rights leaders decided in 1987 to hold a demonstration in Cumming.

The rally on January 17 was not a huge affair. Fewer than a hundred marchers gathered there. I can’t recall much prior publicity surrounding it, if any. I suspect that, like many others, I hadn’t noticed anything in the news about such a demonstration about to take place. By 1987, that sort of thing seemed mostly out of date, Page Two sort of stuff, you could say.

That changed quickly. The small group of marchers, led by Hosea Williams, was met by a counterdemonstration that included elements of the Klu Klux Klan. Rocks and bottles were thrown, and some of the marchers sustained small injuries. Eight counterdemonstrators were arrested.

The specter of peaceful civil rights protesters being pelted by bottles, almost a quarter of century after Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, captured the attention of folks well beyond a core of civil rights activists. It sparked outrage with the wider public, and rightly so.

A week later, a second march took place in Cumming, following a mounting wave of publicity. I felt I had to be part of it.

I confess that part of me felt this was a chance to get a taste of the civil protesting of the Sixties that I had been too young to appreciate at the time. But mainly I felt ashamed of what had just taken place in Cumming, where thickheaded throwbacks to Georgia’s segregationist past had tried to revive their bigoted ideology in the crudest fashion. I wanted to help show the rest of the world that Georgia wasn’t like that anymore. Looking back, maybe I was too quick to be so optimistic.

On that chilly, sunny Saturday morning, my housemates and I gathered with other Athenians in front of the El Dorado vegetarian restaurant on Washington Street. Whether by design or coincidence, this was also the location of the Morton Building, which was built in 1910 as home to one of America’s first black vaudeville theaters.

Someone laid some old bed sheets on the sidewalk and painted some slogans on them as makeshift banners. We then drove to Cumming, joining the other demonstrators at a little shopping center on the edge of town, to wait our turn to begin a slow mile-and-a-quarter walk to the Forsyth County courthouse. There were some 20,000 of us.

I can’t say I remember many details from the march itself, but a couple of things do still stand out in my mind. One was the wall of National Guardsmen in riot gear lining both sides of the road along the entire route. They were part of the reported 1,700 troops sent, along with some 500 police of different sorts, to prevent violence.

I recall that they were arrayed with their backs toward us marchers. It wasn’t us they were keeping their eyes on, it was the counter-protesters. And there were some of those to be sure. Here and there, on the other side of the phalanx of National Guardsmen, were pockets of outwardly hostile people, shouting at us, though they were no doubt a bit subdued by the overwhelming presence of the police and troops. At least, there was nothing thrown.

There were, of course, some people just watching. I remember one young man standing alone on the road bank, watching the flood of outsiders filing into his hometown. He was wearing a watch cap and sunglasses. He had a big piece of duct tape prominently covering his mouth, and he held a handwritten sign that said, “I have to live here”. The message was clear.

Some of the other onlookers, standing on their front lawns or porches, reminded me of people I knew from my own home county of Gilmer, which was also an all-white county (if that status has been due to a Forsyth-like banishment of blacks, I’ve never heard about it, but I can’t be sure).

Many of these locals seemed to be basic country folks, people that I saw as ordinary, mostly decent people. I felt they weren’t bad people, but just out of step with the times. Watching them watching us, I couldn’t help thinking that they were in shock over the immense public display taking place in what they probably considered to be a town just fine the way it was.

And the public display was immense, with the thousands of marchers and police, helicopters flying overhead, Oprah Winfrey supposedly broadcasting from a restaurant somewhere in town, leading national figures like Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, and presidential candidate Gary Hart giving speeches from the courthouse. The march certainly overwhelmed the sleepy little town, and I’m sure it blindsided the people living there. I felt they couldn’t comprehend why such a thing would happen. They just didn’t get it.

I didn’t necessarily see those individuals, watching from their lawns in stunned silence, as racists. And I had no reason, just by virtual of the fact that they lived there, to think they were. At least, not overtly so.

Nor did I necessarily see them as supporters of the hateful white-supremacists counter-demonstrators – many of whom, after all, had come from elsewhere, just we marchers had.

I had a bit of sympathy for them. Cumming, partly due to its history and partly due to its present, had suddenly become a focal point, a magnet of sorts, for the changing racial currents of America circa 1987, changes that were unstoppable and needed to happen. These folks, ensconced in a parochial, small-town bubble, were simply in no way prepared for those changes, as I saw it, though you could argue they should have been.

They were caught off guard, a bit like a deer in the headlights, at the magnitude of the change that was about to overtake them as. Despite their stubborn wishes for it not to be so, the world was continuing to turn and society was continuing to progress. I thought that for many of them, their biggest fault was only an inability to accept change.

Now, thirty years later, after seeing the recent furious uproar in support of the Confederate Battle Flag, which in my mind can only be seen as a symbol of racial hate, it’s obvious that resistance to change in the South is more entrenched than I would have ever imagined, at least when it comes to race. Not that much has changed. Even now, only about 3% of Forsyth County is black, compared to 26% in adjacent Gwinnett County. Race relations seem as fraught as ever, not only in the South, but all over the country, as witnessed by the Black Lives Matter movement, born almost exactly a year ago.

If I thought in 1987 that Forsyth County was an aberration in an increasingly progressive, modern Georgia, I’m thinking now I was wrong.