From 2006 to 2010, Syria’s fertile lands faced the most severe drought in the country’s history. As a consequence, 1.5 million people fled the countryside and moved to the cities, social unrest erupted and finally culminated in the devastating war that has not yet seen an end.
Hassan, a refugee of the Syrian war, is wading in a small river in an old-growth forest in northern Finland. It’s early summer and the water is bubbling and gushing and hissing everywhere. It is seeping through cracks in the ground and diving back into the depths of the earth, falling down in droplets, forming rivulets among the moss and rushing down the sides of hills. It is hard to imagine any way of experiencing a more tangible connection with the forest, the earth, the diverse vegetation and the abundant flow of clean water.
This secret forest offers refuge to us Finns as much as it does to Hassan. Here, at the furthest edge, everything is still in place. The network of interactions forming the ecosystem between the trees, the fungal mycelia, plants, insects, small and large mammals, reptiles and birds is still functional. Diversity feeds diversity. The forest is thriving because the system is still intact. The forest filters the water, guarding and circulating it, binds nitrogen from European industry to the plants and stores carbon in the trees and in the ground. Most importantly, it leaves us speechless! We can see its vitality, and that it offers answers we must discover.
For a brief moment, all the major problems fade away: terrifying phenomena caused by global warming, casting people out of their homes and causing various kinds of chaos everywhere, and the sixth wave of mass extinction affecting the entire planet, reducing the diversity of the Earth faster than ever. Entire ecosystems are being destroyed as humans mould them to suit their needs.
If the plans concerning the so-called bioeconomy come to fruition, the substantial increase in felling will accelerate climate change and threaten the already decreasing biodiversity of our forests. Some one thousand endangered species living in the forest will no longer have a habitat, as two thirds of the nearly one hundred different forest biotopes, also known as ecosystems, are also considered to be endangered. Who cares if one species of insect disappears from the earth? Or two, for that matter, or a hundred, or even a thousand? But as we know, the impoverishment and destruction of entire ecosystems is a loss for everyone. Humans, too, are part of a complex system of interactions. We cannot survive alone.
Our project 50 hectares of boreal old-growth forest brings together science and art to describe and document a piece of the Nordic old-growth forest. The subject of the project is the Värriö Nature Reserve in Eastern Lapland. Last summer, we brought Syrian Hassan with us to the field. The pristine forest and the clean water were an unforgettable experience for him.
Hassan’s unlikely journey from Syria to Värriö is an example of the global consequences of natural disasters and the related crises ravaging human populations. The northern old-growth forests aren’t safe from them, either: the effects of globalisation are felt everywhere in the world. In fact, it is the northern areas that will be relatively the most affected by climate change. It is likely that as a result of the accelerating climate change, felling and the mining industry, northern forests, even in the protected areas, will be altered in the decades to come. Conservation will no longer mean protection from change.
How do we make people understand the value of conserving natural ecosystems before it’s too late? Scientific knowledge is a prerequisite for the sustainable use of ecosystems. However, we need more than information to change our behaviour. The forest only reveals its true meaning through experiences, smells, tastes and feeling it on one’s skin. The objective of our project is to combine information with experience and bring them closer to people. We try to speak to both the rational mind and the heart, presenting the forest as an inexhaustible source of wonder and inspiration. We believe in an all-encompassing approach that touches people on many different levels. Perhaps this way we can make people understand that protecting the forest is also about protecting humans.
Ritva Kovalainen, Timo Kuuluvainen, Sanni Seppo, Ville Tanttu
Watch the video Hassan at Värriö: