Scratch animals’ bellies and roll around on the forest floor, and you’ll stay healthy. This is what rock-solid current research in microbiology is teaching us. At the same time, ancient Karelian rune singers understood that the forest can help with numerous ailments. Across various disciplines, researchers have realised that the previously disdained relationships between humans and sympatric species (that is, species living in the same geographic region with us) are actually vital to our well-being.
Long ago in Karelia, people used to share their worries with the forest. The forest didn’t moralise or judge them like other people did, and even in its ruthlessness nature could choose to be gentle. The homeless, the underprivileged and people who had done something wrong and given up hope put their faith in the forest when they felt suffocated by the village community. The forest had its own ethics.
“The forest may have denied murderers a refuge but provided it to women who came there to give birth to a love child, as well as others who were ostracised,” says folklorist Tiina Seppä, who studies Finnish folklore.
Many rune singers also had misgivings about the untamed nature of the deep forest. A particular young woman who took too long collecting birch switches for the sauna could be accused of losing her honour: “Menes, portto, poikemmaksi / tulilautta, tuonnemmaksi! / Et ollut vejen kannannassa, / olit sulhosen etsossa” (Go, you harlot, away from here! / You weren’t here to carry water, / you were in the arms of your lover).
Aino from Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, meets a similarly bad end.
“It wasn’t easy to be a young woman in a village community, and it’s fascinating to examine how women’s relationship with the forest is handled differently in runes sung by women that depict their worries,” Seppä says.
In one rune from the Kalevala, a young maiden flees to the forest, which welcomes this homeless, disadvantaged person. After learning the language of the birds – “aloin kukkua käkönä, sisovana sirkutella” (I began to sing like a cuckoo, to chirp like a bird) – the maiden returns, and the older people in the village admire how she “on ollut opissa, Seissut sepän pajassa” (has been tutored by the blacksmith, stood in his workshop). The forest has granted her the skills of a soothsayer.
“In these runes, women make the forest their own with their song. Even then, people went to the forest to mull over their worries and then returned recovered,” Seppä explains.
Modern people are not surprised to learn that the woods can help one recover. Many Finns take to forest trails, seaside or lakeside cliffs and familiar landscapes when they feel the need to take a break from their everyday worries and responsibilities. Research supports this rediscovered appreciation for the nature surrounding us: walking in the forest lowers blood pressure and stress hormones. Rune singers had no idea that the terpenes secreted by conifers have a positive impact on one’s mood.
Rune singers spoke to the long-tailed ducks on lakes, massive stones, bears and the wilderness itself. This conversation opened up to them a forest that was alive and that followed its own laws, one not governed by people or even necessarily understood by them. Runes about hunting strive to appease and cajole the deep forest, sometimes asking humbly, other times sweet-talking and “making love to the forest maiden” (“lähdetään lempimään metsän neittä”).
When researchers examine the constant dialogue of the rune singers with their environment, they talk about interspecific communication, and about other species when referring to trees or water birds, etc. “Interspecific coexistence” sounds like an academic catchword, and maybe it is to some extent. However, new concepts open up fresh perspectives. Previously, dialogue between rune singers and the forest was not seen as interspecific communication, with the forest and its animal species acting as participants, but this is how Tiina Seppä interprets it.
New information about the nature of reality has blurred the boundaries between different species and individuals. Studies show that trees communicate with each other via a network of latticed fungi buried in the soil (i.e., mycorrhizae), as well as via pheromones and other methods as yet unknown to humans. Similarly, researchers are taking leaps and bounds in learning about the cognitive and emotional skills of animals other than humans. A manta ray recognises itself in the mirror, fish feel pain the same as anyone else and many birds have skills previously assigned only to apes. The world of research that has expanded with our understanding of plant communication and animal consciousness is very similar to the animistic sung runes that describe a forest singing when it chooses to while also remaining obscure about itself and its life.
At the same time, the relationships between species become visible as a result of human action. Ecologists and climatologists are showing us how the climate is warming perhaps faster than ever before, how biodiversity is declining and how bulldozers are moving more earth than all natural phenomena combined. The Western worldview has always honoured history, progress and reason, as well as the image of humans in charge of their own destiny. It has now become clear that humans are capable of changing the world to a greater extent than we ever dared to hope, but also that we are more dependent on other species and nature than we ever wanted to believe. Lately, we have not sung songs asking the forest for anything; we have simply taken what we want.
These and other reasons have led to species boundaries being challenged and stretched, not only in natural sciences but also in human sciences. We talk about posthuman research when the methods of human sciences extend beyond humans to animals, plants or, for example, algorithms. In light of current knowledge, folklore and incantations deserve to be interpreted from an interspecific perspective – not least because pre-modern runes consider non-human beings our equals. With the runes, rune singers recounted things to stones or the forest itself and often received a response. The forest and the species living in it also have their own will, independent of humans.
Finns’ special relationship with nature
While collecting runes in the heartland of White Sea Karelia, Elias Lönnrot hoped to find the “original” mental wealth of the people. During the Finnish national awakening of the 19th century, Finnish identity was being built on the relationships illiterate people living in poor border districts had with nature. Many later visitors to Karelia, the land of folklore, were disappointed to discover slash-burned forests and ordinary rural life.
“The concept of Finns’ relationship with nature was created to meet a specific need. Of course, people in White Sea Karelia were poor at that time, and life might have seemed primitive, but there was plenty of trade going on and the region was by no means isolated or in a kind of ‘original’ state,” Seppä says.
Tiina Seppä is interested in the birth and development of Finns’ relationship with nature, even though modern Finns’ conceptualisation of the forest are not directly inherited from rune singers. It’s true that prominent writers such as Elias Lönnrot and Zachris Topelius developed an ideal based on life in the Karelian forests, a model with which Finns have tended to compare their own relationship with nature ever since. It has been suggested that this mythical relationship with nature was created as a core part of the Finnish identity in order to make a virtue of necessity. Forests have always been vital for Finns, whether the citizens’ actual opinions about them over the years have been respectful, fearful or completely instrumental.
Seppä and her colleagues are not seeking Finns’ “original” relationship with forests and animals. Through their perspectives and interpretations, they strive to examine interspecific coexistence in the oral tradition and popular culture more broadly. Seppä’s aim is to bring runes that have been passed down through generations closer to modern people in new ways at a time when natural science is making us aware of our place in the world as a part of nature. Perhaps posthumanism could even work out meanings that have been lost along with the singers?
One way Seppä and her colleagues are doing this in their research project, A Return to Interspecific Coexistence, is to also produce forms of artistic expression on the basis of the research. The general public is unfamiliar with the contents of the oral lore compiled by Lönnrot and other rune collectors, which is stored in the Finnish Literature Society’s database known as Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (Old Poems of the Finnish People). In addition to in research articles, it might be wise to look for fresh interpretations of the Ingrian-Karelian-Finnish rune singing traditions in other ways too.
“For a researcher, art can be another form of knowing. Our material consists of oral folklore, and reproducing it in a form where it is orally performed in our time may provide researchers with new perspectives and reach new audiences,” Seppä says.
Our disease resistance improves when challenged
Elias Lönnrot was not the last doctor to look longingly towards Karelia. At the turn of the new millennium, a group of medical researchers were once again hoping to find a better, healthier relationship with nature in Karelia – and they were not disappointed. Finland’s eastern border provided a unique laboratory for medical researchers. There are many shared attributes: the climate, geography and population on both sides of the border are very similar. But there is also a discrepancy in living standards. There is unlikely to be such a difference in poverty and wealth so close to each anywhere else in the world.
“We are much more interested, however, in what is good in the parts of Karelia that lie beyond the eastern border and what we can learn from them,” says Professor Harri Alenius, research director.
In 1997, researchers began to collect data from both sides of the border in order to investigate the differences in people’s living environments and the incidence of allergies. They wanted to know why there are practically no allergies, for example, to birch pollen on the other side of the eastern border, although there are plenty of birches on either side. Based on the study, the researchers, including Emeritus Professor Tari Haahtela and the late renowned ecologist Ilkka Hanski, presented the biodiversity hypothesis. It proposed that exposure to the biologically diverse nature of their living environment protects people against allergies and, conversely, not being exposed to it causes allergies. The difference between cities and rural areas had been observed in both epidemiological studies and laboratory tests with mice, but studying the two sides of the border in Karelia offered a unique opportunity for real-life testing.
The researchers found that allergies truly arise or abate depending on lifestyle and the living environment – a romantic might say such a phenomenon depends on a person’s relationship with nature. This relationship may not represent the one Lönnrot and his partners longed for but instead one that is determined by how close to a person’s body nature gets and how many microbes are found on their skin.
“A person’s exposure to microbes all the time and starting in early childhood makes a big difference. Most microbes are not baddies but goodies,” Alenius explains.
According to Alenius, when a person’s immunological defence mechanism is constantly exposed to a diverse array of microbes, it becomes relaxed and lazy. It has a limited amount of energy, and it doesn’t make a fuss without good reason. Immunity acquired in more sterile environments may get overly excited and result in the body fighting against even minor foreign substances.
“The immune system is like a pack of boys. If it has nothing to do, it will get into mischief,” Alenius says.
In other words, it’s not so much a question of specific microbes or miracle drugs as it is about the whole picture. It’s about dirt under the fingernails, and animals and plants – touching them and breathing in the air around them. Countless types of microbes act as intermediaries between us and other more familiar species. Evolution has made this constant connection a familiar situation for our immune system, whereas the typical life of a Westerner sheltered from nature inside their house is an extreme exception. Interspecific interactions provide primitive power and harmony to our body’s disease resistance.
Most of the genes in the human body exist in microbes
It was long thought that the purpose of medicine was to protect people as much as possible from threats outside the body: pathogens, toxins, unhealthy lifestyles. Until the reality began to look different.
“There are 25,000 genes in the human body, and 10 or 20 million genes in our body’s microbes. It’s not just our second genome, it’s much more than that,” says Harri Alenius.
According to Alenius, we have come to the end of “the path of avoidance.” Today, we need to consider health and illness more broadly, through the relationship between a person and the environment.
“Medicine has achieved a great deal, and no one wants a return to the infant mortality rates of the 19th century. What we need now is to hold on to the benefits we have achieved while having a better understanding of our bodies’ connection to our diverse environment.”
Alenius hopes to take new microbial samples from the Russian side of the border for research purposes. Microbiological high-throughput screening and other modern sequencing methods could uncover multiple times more new information than the original study at the end of the 20th century.
“It’s a great time for someone interested in this system to be alive,” Alenius says.
There is plenty of data waiting to be discovered, and this is the new golden age for microbiological research. It may well be that, as well as allergies, many other non-communicable diseases of affluence, such as some gastrointestinal infections, arise by similar mechanisms – from an inadequate connection with the abundance of species in our environment.
Microbes have always been with us, but we haven’t truly understood the connection until the last few years. The research carried out by Alenius and his partners shows clearly that our smallest neighbours act as intermediaries in a healthy and balanced relationship between us and other species larger than microbes. The importance of animals and our partnership with them is self-evident. Many species have lived and evolved side by side with us for centuries.
For example, there have been horses in Finland for two and a half millennia. The oldest archaeological discoveries of domestic horses in Finland were made in Nakkila in the Satakunta region, but Karelia was also known for its horses, as proven by the nickname “Mare Karelia”, coined as early as the 14th century. Like the runes about nature, the Finnhorse was also harnessed to strengthen the emerging Finnish identity. Since the increasingly common use of the internal-combustion engine, the number of horses in the country has declined, but our age-old companion is still with us.
Horses and humans – soulmates
There’s a white sheet spread out on the sand. The horse startles when an unfamiliar person asks it, in a friendly tone, to step onto the strange fabric. Researchers stand close by, recording the horse’s reactions on video and taking notes.
Research on animals’ ability to know things has greatly increased our knowledge, for example, about pets and many farmed animals. Dogs have been studied more than other animals. A new understanding of canine learning, training, emotions and communication has been welcomed with joy in dog circles and, thanks to science, a thousand years of coevolution is taking a huge step forward.
Funnily enough, this is not the case with horses. That’s why primatologist Sonja Koski is conducting personality tests on horses, including ones where the animal is invited to step onto a white sheet.
“Even though animal psychology has made huge strides, the horse has somehow slipped through the net. Maybe because it’s not a pet, nor entirely a farmed animal, let alone a wild beast, but something in between,” Koski says.
From the point of view of interspecies interaction, the relationship between humans and horses is historically significant, and researchers are beginning to show a new interest in it. Archaeologists are studying burial grounds for horses, ethnographers study horse agency and biological anthropologist Koski is studying horses’ individual personality characteristics and their influence on cooperative interactions with humans.
“In our study, we also interview the horses’ owners. The study is not yet complete, but so far our findings suggest that horses’ history and experiences affect their personality.”
Koski is interested in whether the owners’ experiences correspond to the personality tests and what impact interspecific partnership has. The owners of both horses intended for recreational riding and athlete horses at competition stables feel “a relevance” and “a connection” to their horses, even if they differ in their ideas on training and practicalities.
This is another subject that has been more extensively studied in relation to dogs, although humans have thousands of years of shared evolution with horses and dogs. For example, because of the proven positive effects of stroking a pet, the use of dogs in retirement homes and other care tasks is commonplace.
Koski’s research is taking a step forward in this regard. The aim is to find out, among other things, how the interspecific relationship between a human and a horse impacts how the person experiences their relationship with nature on a broader level.
Sonja Koski has never been a horse enthusiast, nor did she take care of horses in her youth. Getting to know a world that fosters traditions and is only superficially familiar to her has at times been a startling experience. The interviews relating to the research have been conducted by a researcher of compassion, Jenni Spännäri, as Koski has previously mostly studied primates other than humans.
“The transition from studying chimpanzees to studying horses has been quite natural, especially as I have studied zoo populations, which means that the difference between them and horse stables is not as great as it might have been with wild mammals.”
There is a huge number of traditions and customs involved in the coaching and training of horses. Equestrian sports are a traditional field; Koski believes that is why only a limited amount of fresh research data has filtered through to the training of horses, even though the ways animals in general learn is studied more extensively today.
Koski believes that horses, especially in competitive equestrian sports, are seen as top athletes. After all, reaching the top is thought to take some sacrifices, even for humans. Through hardships to victory.
“I’m interested in how early training of horses could be planned more individually, taking into account the features of the individual horse in question,” Koski says.
It’s a well-known fact that negative reinforcement, at its harshest punishment, strengthens a prey animal’s fear reactions and makes learning more difficult. With that in mind, the next step in Koski’s research project is to study the psychology of young foals by various means, with a view to more sensitive planning of their training, once the coronavirus restrictions allow research to be carried out with their partners in Estonia.
“As animals, we are not special”
Interspecific coexistence is important, because it’s a fact. We communicate with other species in ways we don’t understand. These connections are more important than we realise.
“I’m an ecologist, and I want people to understand that we are animals, and as animals, we are not special,” says Sonja Koski, who studies the cooperation between horses and humans.
Of course, humans are very different from other species, but all species are different from each other. Although the relations between species are more important and diverse than we thought, the concept of species has not become obsolete. Research on animal psychology and animals’ ability to know things has revealed that many habits considered particularly human, such as cooperation and empathy, are a legacy shared by all primates. Perhaps our most human qualities, in the end, are our most animal-like qualities.
“When I teach this in my anthropology courses, it’s often a startling realisation for the students. The things studied in anthropology are not unique to us as a species, and concrete examples of interspecific communication open up new ways of seeing the world,” Koski says.
“Minä mies meelle haisen, / Mehtä haiskoon havuille” (I’m a man that smells of honey, / The forest smells of fur twigs). Seeing humans as separate from the environment and culture as separate from nature is typical in anthropological research, a kind of accepted “truth”. The way tradition researcher Tiina Seppä sees it, while we shouldn’t disregard humans, it would be a shame not to make the most of fresh, enriching perspectives.
“Folklore indirectly connects us to a time before industrialisation and the emergence of anthropocentric thinking. Interspecies perspectives are one way of understanding those connections,” says Seppä.
In the end, even scientific knowledge about the relationship between humans and the environment is useless without looking at history. People used to talk to and consult with nature, strive to maintain a balance with it and see meanings that have since been lost. Perhaps it’s time to talk about posthumanism and interspecific coexistence again, now that the world and the natural environment are shrinking. Our environmental crises are also crises of our relationship with the environment.
During the coronavirus pandemic, for example, there has been talk about how population growth, biodiversity loss and questionable treatment of animals of other species are conducive to more epidemics in future. We need to see interspecific coexistence as networks of nature and humans and to recognise the immeasurable importance of these networks to our health.
“When our connection with nature is in order, microbes will help our bodies find a balance where no species can dominate at the expense of another,” says Harri Alenius, Professor of Molecular Toxicology.
Once researchers further decipher the mechanisms involved, Alenius hopes that the results of allergy research can be utilised in urban planning, construction and environmental protection – which, from an interspecific point of view, also includes the protection of humans themselves.
“I base my arguments solely on hard-core scientific research. As a biologist, I believe it’s my duty to learn to think in a new way when faced with new information.”
Researchers interviewed for the article
Research Director, Human Microbiome Research Unit, University of Helsinki.
Professor of Molecular Toxicology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.
Leader of a project funded by Kone Foundation, which studies the regulation of allergy and the impacts of the living environment on the human microbiota, based on data acquired in allergy research in Finland and Karelia.
Docent of Biological Anthropology, University of Helsinki.
Leads the project Yhteistyötä yli lajirajan (Cooperation Across Species Boundaries), which studies communication between humans and horses and their relationship. Funded by Kone Foundation.
Postdoctoral Researcher, Karelian Institute, University of Eastern Finland.
Involved in the project A Return to Interspecific Coexistence, which is led by Postdoctoral Researcher Jyrki Pöysä and focuses on studying interspecific coexistence in Finnish folklore through art and research.