Read the audioguide to the Forests of the North Wind exhibition

Ritva Kovalainen & Sanni Seppo: Forests of the North Wind
10.6.–2.10.2022
The Finnish Museum of Photography, K1

 

1. Microcosmos 

The forest takes you in its arms with many gestures. Sometimes I walk about closely listening, sometimes sniffing. At times I sense with my body, with my every step, that my consciousness is changing, and I feel part of the forest itself.

Quite often, I end up making discoveries. I peer into hollows in the wood, I trace the surface texture of the trunks, and lay myself down under fallen trees. The rich range of blossoming colors and shapes are indescribable.

The forest is full of worlds, within which further miniature worlds await. Holes with holes inside them with holes inside them; hollow-cavity-burrow-sockets. Endlessly. A prime feature of natural forests is that they house a dazzling array of different circumstances where life can flourish.

I do not recognize all of my discoveries, but I know some of their almost mystical Finnish names. They thrill me a great deal. Nuijanuoranen, hytyrypykkä, valkoparvipiikki, valkoludekääpä, aarninappu, rusokantokääpä, kultarypykkä… These are "mallet-strings", "white flock spikes", "little gold wrinkles"...!

My way of experiencing the forest has changed through the knowledge I have gained. My experiences continually gain new and ever more fascinating layers. All these brilliantly colored and shaped growing beings along the treetrunks and the ground; they are manifestations of the diversity that the forest maintains. It is life, having sprung up some four billion years ago, multiplying and morphing from one generation to the next. And these living organisms around me are the current phase and end product of evolution, these beautifully specialized creatures.

 

2. Forest spaces

This series contains photographs of forests in their untouched, natural state, such areas are now so rare that they exist mainly in Lapland or on the easternomst borders of Finland. I have tried to photograph the forest space in a way that lets the pictures divulge the uniqueness of the living environment as a subject. I have also chosen sweeping vistas or dramatic lightings, so that the forest's characteristics could take center stage in sharp relief.

The forest, as a place as well as a concept, is foreign to many people; nevermind primeval forests, which only few people now alive have ever experienced. That has lead me to think whether the viewer can see the forest and the image in the same way as I do, as special and one-of-a-kind.

The forests in the images have grown due to nature's own evolutionary developments, they have not been planted, managed, ploughed, trenched, thinned out, or hacked into seedling positions. No creeks have been gutted, no lakes dredged, and no rapids dammed. No paved delivery roads criss-cross the region.

Trees grow differently in different places; slowly, almost stunted, twisted, persevering upright sometimes for a thousand years, until they collapse and crumble. But even in this so-called final act they help to rejuvenate a vast ecosystem of sylvan life.

It is clear to see that forcing forests such as these to produce commercial wood material with a 60-80-year felling cycle would require gargantuan upheavals that would destroy all the forest's characteristics that uphold natural diversity. This is precisely what has happened everywhere in Finland; varying untouched forest types have been forcibly mangled into monocultural fields of trees. Shockingly, more than 90 percent of our forests are essentially commercial wood harvesting gardens, one way or another.  

We should be able to afford nature more space to exist.

To me, these untouched forests are the most beautiful thing I know.

 

3. Flowing forest

When we speak of the forest, we approach it with different terms, in an attempt to attain it or own it. For the past half-century at least, in Finland forests have been primarily branded as breeding grounds for industrial raw materials, and that attitude can find its way into our ways of speaking. Arguments for maintaining a system as short-sighted as our growth-for-profit structure have had to be dug up and bluffed so the practices may continue.

I would like to create an artwork that justified the majesty of the forest from an experiential perspective.

Flowing forest as a video artwork is both documentarian and allegorical. It was filmed in the Värriö nature reserve, and it makes visible the variance in in environmental conditions within an untouched forest.

The allegorical aspect of the piece attempts to communicate the idea of the forest as a guardian of life that nourishes us, as well, physically as well as psychologically and spiritually. The unseen processes of the forest as carbon capture mechanisms, producers of oxygen and aerosols, and upkeepers of flowing waters and their purity vivify the entire ecosystem, the diversity of nature, and the humans sleeping peacefully under its canopies and nestled in its biome.

An upward-moving rain rises through the video work, the flux of the forest, and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's minimalist composition Spiegel im Spiegel transports the artwork and the viewer alike, like an endless stream. Additionally, noted Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer's forest-themed poems do their part in helping us appreciate and apprehend natural phenomena in their proper proportions.

That is the mercy of the forest.

 

4. Carbon

In the photograph series Carbon, I want to tell the story of the forest's carbon cycle. I think of it as sort of special power that has accumulated under the dense branches over the ages. In actual fact, the carbon cycle is invisible and practically impossible to describe. But it is fascinating. It's exciting to think that all carbon is stardust that made its way into this planet whole eons ago through the explosions of supernovae. And here it is now, within us, and all around us, a part of everything living.

But carbon, and the coal that it forms into, is also a frightening thing. It is a substance to be avoided, because there is too much of it in particle form in our atmosphere, which is heating up and destabilizing our climate.

In order to understand carbon, we must understand time, and the places that carbon comes from and the places it ends up. An old forest shows forth something especially important about the carbon cycle. This has especially to do with how carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere and stored in plants. Over the course of centuries, the forest has sucked up carbon from the air through its needles, leaves, and everything else green in its biosphere. By assimilation. The forest has become a massive carbon sink. All the tingling, vibrating natural diversity is carbon and recycles carbon. And even old forests are constantly adding to their store of the all-important molecule.

A young, fast-growing commercial forest also sequesters a great deal of carbon, but it is not given time to amount to much of a sink before being harvested again; too often as juvenile forests, far too young. What carbon such a forest did keep tied up in its life cycle is also usually released again if the wood is made into cellulose or burned as energy without accounting for a balance in reusability.

In an old forest, the carbon is kept safe. Carbon has seeped in along the bark into the roots and from there on to feed the multitude of various fungal networks, which communicate it forward and store it underground for long, long periods of time. And there, within the earth, in the subterranean worlds of mycorrhiza, is where the carbon motherlode resides. Another crucial carbon sink comes in the form of decaying trees, which have grown slowly and also die slowly, releasing their carbon in gradual increments over decades.

We know that digging up ancient carbon in the form of petroleum, coal, or peat and letting it into our atmosphere is damaging our environment. Natural forests are full of carbon — and of mind-boggling diversity. Natural forests hold a true power. And we must not tamper with that power.

 

5. Outlaws

The first nature reserves were created from the need to safeguard untouched endemic natural surroundings for future generations. No one back then, a century ago, could have imagined how radically humans would shrink those original ecosystems, and how important it would become to grant such regions legal protection.

The Outlaws photograph series is like a treatise on state-owned commercial forests, which still contain precious and valuable untouched environments but have not been granted protected status. These are our shared forests, there for all of us. The series also visualizes different ways of thinking about the forest.  Someone may see the woods primarily through its atmosphere, or its biological species, or its history. But the dominant attitude we take and which most affects the health and longevity of our forests is to see them as storehouses of raw materials.

One of the works in the Outlaws series is about Häädetkeidas, a beautiful spruce forest in Central Finland that I visited in the autumn of 2021. Even though the state-owned Metsähallitus forestry administration was aware of the species sightings and natural heritage assessments given by volunteers on the significance of the locale, that very same autumn the clearing equipment came in and men began to fell the spruces. Activists arrived on the scene to stop the logging, and the confrontation was made public. A Metsähallitus spokesperson said in an interview that the clear-cutting had no economic significance. However, after the activists left, the machines were brought back in and Häädetkeidas was torn down.

Häädetkeidas would have had a whole host of meanings and significances, if it had been spared. The problem with nature reserves is that they are small in size and situated in remote areas. Häädetkeidas was a woodland that thrived right on the border of an existing reserve, and would have been a valuable extension to it.

I couldn't bring myself to return there to see what it looked like after everything had been cut. In my pictures I represent the death of the forest as something of a black memory.

The works in Outlaws are like jigsaw puzzles. Discovering valuable forests, telling the forestry enterprise about them, and then crossing our fingers and living with doubt as to the outcome is a bizarre and outlandish game with no sensible rules. I hope one day to be able to extend the series with a puzzle piece that recounts how a forest was saved. But it may be that, as of now, all the forests I photographed have been logged out of existence.

Finland has committed to protecting all of the untouched old-growth forests within its borders. At the same time as the government is awaiting detailed EU directives concerning forests in their natural states, Metsähallitus continues to mow down unique old forests. Spruces more than two hundred years old are hacked and shipped, decaying trees with their rich ecosystems are crushed under the treaded tracks of lumbering multifunction machines, ruining the homes of innumerable species.

The lives of humans and forests are very different indeed, and time works differently for them. A living species that can only survive inside a thousand-year-old deadwood log, fewer of which can be found each year, is a species that exists in safety for only a moment. As though on a small rock or piece of driftwood on the ocean of extinction.

 

6. Water

Water is an intriguing and ubiquitous element in an old-growth forest: as springs, seepages, trickles, streams, rapids, rivulets, pools, and ponds. Water is intrinsic to forest ecology, and the forest itself is instrumental in maintaining the water cycle and its purity, channelling, and humidity.

The series features some water-themed photographs: a video installation of the nature reserve's natural waterways, along with various documentation of water types and humanity's effects upon them.

A kind of "river portrait" presents the Ii river's entire sweeping 14,000 square kilometer delta. The tract of land from Kuusamo to the Bay of Bothnia was previously wilderness, forest, and swampland, but only the water elements are visible in the picture as well as man-made channels and ditches. The picture speaks of the routes that water takes, their interrelatedness, and how human populations have always modified them.

Even though bewildering networks of little streams and rivers hundreds of thousands of kilometers long tremor through our forests, small and untouched surface waters are all but spent in Finland's forests, at least in the south. A mere 2 percent of the Ii river's streams were found by research to be in their state of nature. Small untouched waters were found in a nationwide survey to account for just 1-2 percent of all low-volume waterways.

Forest drainage digs, which is the single most impactful human encroachment on small waters, has debased the quality of the water and changed the habitats themselves. Drying-out projects often also require streams to be straightened out and picked clear of rocks and trees, which would naturally compose part of the diverse waterways.

These altered areas cause water to flow quickly all the way down to the sea, carrying soil, nitrogen, phosphorus, and methyl mercury, which it distributes all along its course. Clear-cutting and tillage also worsen the severity of this leaching. The spawning grounds of fish are clogged up; the waters become eutrophic; the trout, grayling, and whitefish disappear; but the blue-green algae bloom significantly.

Research has also shown that wetlands with such dykes from 50 years ago leach out 2-3 times as much nutrients as dykes that are just twenty years old, as the peat decomposes deeper and deeper. The nutrient overload problem is equally serious with agricultural runoff.

Portrait of the Ii river is a picture to look at while imagining what a space would look like where nature was allowed to flourish on its own, what it would be like to walk in such a landscape, how would the forests and marshes spread out — and how natural environs could be restored and rewilded back to their former glory.