Different Routes


Different Routes: Yrjö Kokko spent more than five years looking for whooper swans in Lapland – then he wrote a book with them


Different Routes


Different Routes: Yrjö Kokko spent more than five years looking for whooper swans in Lapland – then he wrote a book with them

Literary historian Katri Aholainen wants to view literature from an animal perspective. In her doctoral dissertation, she examines Yrjö Kokko’s classic works on birds as a co-production between a human and swans. In an article by journalist Kyösti Niemelä, Aholainen explains why it is useful for a literary historian to also understand biology.

By the end of the 1940s, there were only a few dozen whooper swans left in Finland. They nested mainly in the wilderness of Lapland and flew to the other side of the Baltic Sea for the winter. Seeing a whooper swan, let alone photographing one, had become a rarity.

Veterinarian Yrjö Kokko tried to do both for five years. On the sixth, he finally succeeded. In May 1950, Kokko and his hiker friends found a whooper swan nest in Lapland. They built an imitation reindeer from reindeer hides and used it to get within photo distance.

The events are recounted in Kokko’s novel Laulujoutsen – Ultima Thulen lintu (Whooper Swanthe Ultima Thule Bird, 1950). It became a best-seller. The book and its successor, Ne tulevat takaisin (They Return, 1954) changed Finns’ attitudes towards whooper swans. People began to have a more negative view of hunting them and collecting their eggs. In 1981, the whooper swan was chosen as the national bird of Finland, which would not have been possible before Kokko’s books. Today, the population of whooper swans in Finland in the autumn is around seventy thousand, and the bird can be found throughout the country.

The book Laulujoutsen tells the story of how two hikers found swans in Lapland, but it also reveals a great deal about the swans themselves. Kokko names the pair of swans he found Hanna and Marski and describes their behaviour with admiration. In a sense, the swans are the heroes of the book.

Literary historian Katri Aholainen from the University of Turku takes it a step further: according to her, the swans in the book are, in some essential sense, also the creators of the book – they are in fact the authors of the book.

How to think about birds?

Aholainen has spent three years writing full-time a doctoral dissertation on Yrjö Kokko’s bird-themed works: Laulujoutsen (Whooper Swan), Ne tulevat takaisin (They Return), Ungelon torppa (The Ungelo Cabin, 1957) and Alli, jäänreunan lintu (Alli, Bird of the Icy Edge, 1966). One of the basic premises of the doctoral dissertation is to understand authorship in a broad sense.

“Kokko’s authorship could not be what it is if the birds had not made the impact they did. In that sense, the birds are the authors,” Aholainen explains.

The books include photographs of birds taken by Kokko and observations of bird activity. When the birds straightened their feathers, when they craned their necks or made noises, flew away or swam, they participated in creating the books.

The photographs highlight this. They are a reminder that the animal characters in the books are real, living, individual animals.

“I am interested in how the animals in the book are the joint product of human and non-human activity.”

Aholainen’s research approach falls under posthumanism. Traditional humanism focused on the human as an agent: an autonomous, conscious subject and individual. In posthumanism, on the other hand, human agency exists more in relation to other things, such as birds.

One question Aholainen asks is how the non-human, such as the birds Kokko encountered, could be considered in ways other than just through the human in literary research.

Bird photography, for example, has traditionally been seen as something where the human is the agent, the bird is the subject and the photograph is the human view of the bird. Aholainen, on the other hand, interprets Kokko’s photographs from the point of view that the swan and the human were acting together. 

The Department of Finnish Literature at the University of Turku, where Aholainen studied and now works, has a strong posthumanist tradition.

“I became interested in posthumanism because it seemed to offer a new perspective on literature as art. It made it possible to see literature as more than something that involves just people.”

Of course, the posthumanist approach is particularly radical when it comes to the study of prestigious novels. Fine fiction has traditionally been seen as the product of the human mind, specifically the fruit of an individual artist’s ingenious mind, and the novel as one of the greatest achievements of human culture.

Aholainen stresses that posthumanism does not mean the disappearance or pushing down of the human being, but understanding people in a new way. Human beings are no longer the centre of everything. Posthumanism is influenced by recent events in human history.

“It is influenced by the fact that the environmental crisis has been caused by a way of thinking that emphasises the special status of human beings.”

Ahola is also interested in posthumanism because its methods are not yet well established. This emerging research trend offers a new kind of freedom to a researcher.

“There is quite a lot of leeway as to what posthumanist research means in practice.”

Aholainen explains that this approach was inspired by the author Kokko himself. She quotes a passage from Laulujoutsen, which calls for literary historians to acquire a knowledge of animals:

“Literary historians delve into the minutiae of authors’ lives, snoop through their private letters, even examine their medical reports to find out why they wrote poetry and why they wrote what they did in the way they did, why they thought the way they did…

Isn’t there just as much reason to finally try to find out more about the habits of that mysterious bird, the whooper swan?  That, if anything, would be ornithology, but at the same time it might clarify the origins of certain aspects of poetry, beliefs and art.”

Aholainen explains that posthumanism offers an opportunity to take Kokko’s idea seriously. Traditionally, literary research has examined animal characters in books from a human perspective, for example by interpreting swans or bears as symbols for other things. Aholainen’s starting point for her research is that in order to understand swans in literature, we must also understand swans as animals.

Illustration: Kiia Beilinson

The love story of a goblin and a fairy gave way to birds

Yrjö Kokko’s most famous work is Pessi ja Illusia (Pessi and Illusia, 1944). Many Finns will have read or listened to their parents read them the children’s version, published by the author in 1963. This love story of a goblin and a fairy was one of Aholainen’s favourite books as a child. She directed a play based on it at her art-oriented general upper secondary school and wrote a proseminar paper and a bachelor’s thesis on it at university. At different stages of her life, Aholainen has focused on different aspects of the book. As a researcher and student, she was inspired specifically by its philosophy of art.

Pessi ja Illusia was a long-time candidate for her doctoral thesis too, but in the end Aholainen decided to limit her thesis to works in which birds play the main role. She published a separate research article on Pessi ja Illusia.

Aholainen had not read any of Kokko’s other works before starting her thesis. She wrote her thesis on his books about swans, Laulujoutsen and Ne tulevat takaisin, which are also the subject of the doctoral dissertation she is working on. The researcher says she still enjoys Kokko’s books, even after reading them several times. However, she adds that their quality is uneven.

“There are a lot of things in them that I like and a lot that I don’t like. That is probably one of the reasons why I decided to study them. I feel I can keep an open mind because I’m not tempted to defend my favourite books and I’m also not interested in just showing what is problematic about them.”

For example, Aholainen likes the lyrical scene of Laulujoutsen, which tells the story of how the protagonist Tiiti blends into the wilderness. She also likes the idea of combining folklore and biology. The gender roles in the books, on the other hand, seem outdated. The swan couple, Marski and Hanna, are described in a very humanised way in Laulujoutsen and also in a very gendered way. For example, when Marski returns to the nest after a long absence, Hanna starts to swim around, ignoring Marski. This is presented in the book as a protest by a wife who feels offended.

In Finnish literary historiography, not much time is usually spent on Kokko. Pessi ja Illusia and his nature conservation work have featured most prominently. Kokko does not fit into the history of genres and schools of thinking. He does not write like the modernists, nor can he be placed within the post-war rise of modernism. His conservationist ethos is different from those belonging to the 1960s and 70s environmental awakening. Kokko published works until the 1960s, but his main influences came from the early 20th century, such as the early nature thinking of National Romanticism.

According to Aholainen, this is one of the reasons why academic research has not been very interested in Kokko, despite the fact that his works are still more widely read than those of many other writers of the same era. Laulujoutsen and Pessi ja Illusia are currently available as eBooks and audiobooks.

A major influence on Kokko was the American book Two Little Savages (1903), Aholainen says. Written by Ernest Thompson Seton, the book was published in Finnishin 1917, translated by I. K. Inha. In it, two preadolescent boys explore nature and living in the wild under the guidance of an old hunter. Kokko’s works were influenced at least by Seton’s descriptions of the wilderness and of a return to nature, away from the city and modernisation.

“In Lapland, Kokko found the wilderness he had read about in American wilderness and nature literature,” Aholainen explains, adding that this is something other people have pointed out too.

Theory and the research subject on the same line

When a wave motion encounters an obstacle, the waves are refracted or propagated. This is the case for radio waves, sound waves, light waves or even waves in water. For example, when waves in water collide with a rock, the shape of the wave changes. The parts of the wave break up and overlap with each other.

This phenomenon is referred to in physics as diffraction. The humanities have borrowed the term. The main theorist quoted in Aholainen’s work is Karen Barad, an American Professor of Feminist Studies and Philosophy who has written about reading diffractively.

“For Barad, diffraction as a metaphor to guide research is about trying to look at things that overlap and extend into one another.”

In her research, Aholainen reads different texts through one another – for example, Barad’s theoretical texts and Yrjö Kokko’s novels. She also reads texts and the world through each other – Kokko’s novels and the real-life birds described in his books.

This differs from traditional literary research. A more traditional dissertation might have been structured like this: The subject would be, for example, humans’ relationship with nature in Yrjö Kokko’s novels. By close-reading the novels, the researcher would examine what kind of a relationship with nature is revealed in the books, and the research result would be as accurate a description of this relationship as possible.

In such a case, the novels would be seen as a place where Kokko’s relationship with nature is preserved. It would not be diffraction, but reflection. Kokko’s novels would be thought to reflect a certain kind of relationship with nature. 

One of the problems with this kind of research, according to Aholainen, is the fact that the literature is easily seen as simply describing something else. This could be, for example, the author’s relationship with nature or their national romantic ideological heritage. The titles of such studies sometimes take the form of ‘this here’, such as ‘The Enlightenment Ideals in the Works of Aleksis Kivi’ or ‘Perceptions of Mental Health Problems in Dostoevsky’s Novels’. 

Aholainen says she by no means wants to belittle this tradition of literary research. However, she stresses that she herself does not study literature from the point of view of how it represents something else.

“My focus is on how the text happens or how it exists, not on attempting to find hidden meanings in the text.”

This is also reflected in the way Aholainen uses theory. Theory is often used to interpret the work being studied, so that the theory is above the text, a bit like a magnifying glass. Aholainen, on the other hand, wants to put the theories she uses and Kokko’s novels on the same level as much as possible, to read them together. The result is not just observations on the books, but broader reflections.

“I am trying to say something philosophical about the relationship between literature and the world by reading both the theory and Kokko’s books.”

To Aholainen’s knowledge, her Kokko dissertation applies Barad’s theory more widely than any other Finnish literary study. She has seen the main theorist of her thesis once, via Zoom, giving the keynote speech at a conference.

“It was nice to see that she is a real person, because I’m used to only reading her texts.”

Karen Barad started her career as a physicist and has combined quantum physics (in particular the ideas of Niels Bohr) and social science in her theories. In the same spirit, Aholainen is interested in combining biology and art research in the future.

Illustration: Kiia Beilinson

Yrjö Kokko knew how to marvel at nature

Aholainen says she has found many things in Kokko’s works that resonate with posthumanism. Of course, schools of thought similar to posthumanism existed even before the term became widespread in the 2000s.

“Kokko says very directly in the books that humans are part of nature. In them, he criticises humans’ attempts to separate themselves from nature and present themselves as special.”

In addition to the human condition, another theme linked to Kokko’s posthumanism is a sense of wonder. Karen Barad wants academic research to take seriously the possibility of expressing a sense of wonder at the world and taking pleasure in it. This presents a clear connection to Kokko.

“Above all, Kokko’s production shows a strong delight in and wonder at nature. Reading about nature can provide emotional experiences of wonder at how diverse the world is. This is where Kokko could contribute to debates today.”

Wonder and delight could, in Aholainen’s view, provide motivation for tackling the environmental crisis. Ecology and improving the status of animals are the ethical principles guiding his own research. Protecting life forms from the threat of climate change could draw support from joy and wonder.

There are also passages in Kokko’s works that suggest that nature has ways of functioning and being that cannot be explained by scientific theories,” Aholainen says.

As Aholainen’s research progresses, these views are likely to become clearer. One topic that Aholainen has not yet explored is the influence of the Sami worldview on Kokko. She speculates that the Sami theme in the books has been coloured by the American literature Kokko read. There may be interesting tensions to be found when exploring this aspect.

Literary historian studying biology

The study of the swans she has encountered in literature has inspired Aholainen to take up new studies. She started studies in biology at the University of Turku at the same time as writing her doctoral dissertation. So far, the courses she has found the most inspiring have been those in ecology. They explore the relationship between organisms and the environment.

For example, studying how ecosystems and biosystems are formed so that things interact with each other and nothing works in a vacuum has made an impact on her. Everything is intertwined. It is not possible to understand things in isolation.

Karen Barad’s thinking also emphasises connections and relationships in general, not separation. This means not having the view that the world consists primarily of separate things and secondarily of their interrelations. Instead, interrelationships come first, and individual things can only be seen through them.

“Getting to know the biotic community and the ecosystem has reinforced the idea that it makes sense to think in terms of interrelations. And to see animals as part of wider communities.”

“It inspired me to think that even literature could not be what it is if it had not been formed in the system and society in which it was formed. And that, in my view, includes non-humans.”

Like the two whooper swans that Yrjö Kokko found in Lapland more than 70 years ago.

Katri Aholainen is a doctoral researcher in Finnish literature at the University of Turku. With funding from Kone Foundation, she is writing her doctoral dissertation on four novels by Yrjö Kokko.