Away from it all at the centre of all things in rural Finland.

It is early September in 2023, I am sitting in a rocking chair in a cottage, a converted 19th century log house, in a little village called Virtaa, 7.7 kilometres from a small town called Sysmä. The cottage is in the grounds of an old manor house, Virtaan Kartano, owned by Juhani and Tiina Stjernvall. It is a working farm for Juhani and Tiina, but for me, left to my own devices, just here to find peace in the magnificent vastness of the Finnish countryside, it was an oasis – one haunted by the voice of Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957), whose music, at the annual Sibelius Festival in Lahti, first brought me to this hypnotic country. I spent a week here, before doing south to Lahti for the annual Sibelius Festival and, during most of that time, a piece of Sibelius’ music kept up its persistent call.

Tapiola (1926) is a one movement tone poem for orchestra, loosely about Tapio, the spirit of the forest as found in Finland’s epic creation poem, Kalevala. Sibelius wasn’t usually cooperative about the ‘meaning’ of his work, but his publisher asked him to explain the legend behind Tapiola, and then converted the composer’s reluctant reply into a poem:

Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests,
Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams;
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God,
And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.

If there is a mighty god in Sibelius’s tone poem, it is an ambiguous one, it probably is more brooding dream than god, but, believe me, if you go walking in Finland’s forests, you will feel the presence of Tapio. I did.

Virtaan Kartano, the farm, is in a typical Finnish landscape of forest and lakes, with the River Tainionvirta leading to Lake Päijänne. This was the first week in September and, therefore, the beginning of the end of the summer season, maybe a few weeks earlier there would have been more people around. The god Tapio may have scared them away, making the place a silent haven – just for me. I doubt it, but that is how if felt. I was under his spell, and could only have left my rocking chair for another chair outside on the porch to sit there all day looking and not looking at the fields and the trees beyond them, and wondering what forces really hide in these forests.

I did move back inside later to have a sauna, the Finnish way, eat some food from Sysmä’s supermarket – like a farmers’ market in terms of quality. A glass of wine and then I’d read some of the Kalevala on my Kindle – then it was back to watching and listening on the next day, and so on.

Juhani, drove past a couple of times on his tractor, and our conversations flowed in an impressively economic Finnish use of friendly monosyllables. Mostly he was occupied in another part of the forest,.

The splendid cockerel and his harem of hens, were a constant clucking murmur, heard like a day-time lullaby from across the yard…

…and of course, there was always an alarm call in the morning.

There were eggs too – warm from the hens, a present from them, via Juhani, for the breakfast table.

From the Sysmä supermarket there was reindeer cheese. It was delicious on hot toast. I didn’t see any reindeer, but knew they were out there somewhere, probably further North, and I send them my thanks.

In case you are wondering, and I didn’t know this, female reindeer, like the males, have antlers, but they keep them through the winter, unlike the males. Don’t ask about Father Christmas’ Rudolph, he is probably a she.

Virtaan Kartano is a wonderful place and, if you want to find out more, here is the link: https://www.virtaankartano.fi/en

There was no problem finding somewhere for my morning martial arts practice here. This must be one of the most tranquil dojos I have ever had for my Chinese-style White Crane Kung-fu. The style I try to learn has moves inspired by the movements of the white cranes still common in China.

I was in the middle of the tai-chi move called the golden cockerel stands on one leg, when an extraordinary sound came from behind me. It wasn’t a Chinese white crane, but a group of Common Cranes, the first I had seen in the wild.

Common Crane (Grus grus)
Pine, Plum and Cranes, 1759 AD by Shen Quan (1682 – 1760)

I had never heard their calls before, and I had no idea they could be so loud. I know they can be found in other countries too, but those Finnish cranes were thrilling when they came flying over the forest calling out like instruments in a Sibelius symphony before landing in the field behind me.

This is the land of forests and lakes, a tenth of Finland’s land area is covered by water, and 73.9%, or 66%, but definitely a lot more than half of the land is forested. It really is one of the biggest rural spaces in Europe.

The river here, River Tainionvirta, is rich in salmon, and the furthest river south in Finland for salmon fishing. It was also a bathing spot for the inhabitants of my log cabin.

It wasn’t hot in there, but I’m sure it get a lot colder when the snows arrive. I suspect you can’t have the full experience of Finland without going in for some wild swimming, even better if there is a sauna nearby. It was my first time swimming in a Finnish river, to the fish seemed as interested in watching me as I was watching them. When I say fish, I mean big fish. Honestly. As big as this.

The main activity for me in this inspiring place was just to go walking, breathing in the clean air, listening for crane calls, and watching the occasional jumping fish. I took a lot of photographs and was pleased I had packed my old Canon EOS. For much of each day, I was the typical one man and his camera. Here are some of my shots. They are not exaggerating when they say Finland is the land of forests and lakes.

After a week in this spiritually uplifting place, I could genuinely salute the sun in gratitude every morning before starting my tai-chi, feeling that I had grounded myself here in Finland, set down some roots, literally under my feet, but also, if I dare say this, I felt that I had put down roots into my soul here too. It might have been Tapio, the Finnish god of the forests, he was there in the low-lying sun, it might have been Sibelius, he was always playing in my head, but I think coming here, I was simply opened up to spirit of the Nordic world that opens for us if we imbue its spirit in silence.

Here is Sibelius’ tone poem, played by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, a worthy addition to the cannon of his seven completed symphonies, and a major consolation for the absence of his destroyed eighth symphony. The opening phrase that encircles the whole piece, one way or another, haunted me during my wanderings through the Finnish countryside – and it still does. It is possibly describing what you might find in the forest if you are bold enough to go there. I felt I was getting a glimpse out there of the ‘silence’ of the natural world in the sense that Sibelius meant in his long search to empty classical music down, or, more properly, up, to its profound and ideal of union with that silence. In this music there is beauty, but also fear, and a sense of the inexplicable intercommunication between us as individuals and the great mysteries of the other. It is almost enough to frighten us so much that we daren’t walk into that forest. I’m glad that I did.

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