Finnish Journey

Adrian Duncan

On Friday, we went by bus to Otava and then in horse-drawn sleigh over the frozen roads and across several lakes along the margins of which our poles were piled. All the time, a lot of work was involved in scraping off snow and breaking up the ice with axes … The day was rounded off by a wild rush in the same sleigh with the snow falling and the horse’s hooves sending big chunks of the ice off the road back on top of one – in order to catch a train, which was just pulling into Otava as we got there.

— D. Mangan from the REO News, 1947

During the third week of March I travelled with my friend Feargal to Finland. We were in the early stages of planning a film we hoped to make, in which we would retrace the steps of a young Irish forrester, Dermot Mangan, who was sent to Finland by the Irish Rural Electrification Scheme in 1946 to find trees sufficient in size and number to be used as electricity poles in Ireland.

Feargal and I had worked together on a few projects before, but as we drove out to Berlin’s Tegel airport I was apprehensive about us spending a whole week in each other’s company in case we fell out over the course of the trip and this somehow altered our easy and enjoyable friendship.

I came across Mangan a few years back in the ESB Archive in Harolds Cross, while reading through a series of internal newsletters, the REO News, published by the Rural Electrification Scheme (RES) head office during the first few decades of its existence. At the bottom of the cover page of the first edition I noticed a heading announcing: ‘Poles’. The article explained that in the immediate postwar period there was a world-wide shortage of timber poles. Despite this, the RES had secured supplies of over 100,000. They were to be delivered to Ireland during the summer of 1947, before the ports in Finland froze up. These poles were transported in loads of over 10,000 at a time, on huge barge-like steamers, to harbours in Dublin, Limerick and Cork. Upon arrival, they were unloaded, skinned, creosoted, marked and disseminated to the twelve RES districts where they were thrust into the ground to hold the electric cables of the scheme aloft.

Further on in the newsletter I found the first extract of Mangan’s ‘Finnish Journey’. His travels were published over three editions and they read like a radio-play thriller as he navigated north from Helsinki, over and back across the frozen lakes and impassable roads on treacherous sled and train rides, locating forests and logging companies to fulfill the RES’s requirements. In Mangan’s dispatches I was struck by his gumption, his sense of adventure, and the strangeness of the landscape he witnessed.

The first night in Helsinki, Feargal and I stayed in an Airbnb apartment in a desolate suburb in the north of the city. The place had a small sitting room with a fold-out couch, a bedroom, and a cat that spent the night leaping about in the dark, sometimes wobbling a glass or a trinket on a shelf or a locker. We sat up for a few hours eating homemade sandwiches, drinking beers and looking over Mangan’s dispatches while planning the next day.

Feargal works as a documentary filmmaker and his sense of vision is more refined and ambitious than mine, and when we discuss ideas, the sense of possibility he suggests pops my thinking out of its usual confines. I don’t habitually think in expanded views; I see in details, and when limber enough these details can suggest something larger. It almost always takes conversation for this to happen. I can’t see well on my own, which is why I like collaboration and am drawn to projects that require it. Before we came to Finland, other than the film treatment we submitted for funding, we had no real idea how the film would open up to us or what it was about. We hoped that spending time on the ground would generate some thoughts.

By the afternoon of our second day in Finland, we were driving through Lahti, a small town about two hours north of Helsinki, where Mangan had once happened upon a ski-jump competition and a firework display. We stopped for some food at a lakeside restaurant and took in broad vistas of white – dotted, then cleaved, with expanses of dark conifers. In the distance, figures crossed the lake on skis and snowmobiles. To our left, way up on a hill, the back end of a ski-jump protruded skyward.

After eating, we drove up towards the supports of the jump, before trudging through the trees, the knee-deep snow, and the bitter cold, to where we could take photographs and video clips attempting to frame its scale. The more time we spent there, the more convinced we became that this would be one location for the film. Enthused, we drove back down and continued around the lake searching for further locations.

Next morning, having flown north the evening before, I woke in Rovaneimi, the low-slung and quietly self-reliant capital of Lapland. Around midday, I took myself away to make audio recordings of the snow-covered streets, then called up to the city’s contemporary art gallery to see what I could of the Lapland art scene. Soon Feargal rang saying he’d been on Google Maps and had found a logging depot in Rovaniemi, where all trees felled north of there are stored.

Twenty minutes later we were driving through giant corridors of stacked logs, getting out every now and then to stand among them. Feargal was trying to visualise a scene where our main character walks across a huge lake, up onto the land, and seamlessly arrives down at this rolling landscape of stacked logs. The visual glue of the snow linked our locations well. We left the depot, which was empty of people, and returned to the apartment, where we planned the following day’s trip to a certain hill just outside a town called Posio. Even though by going there we were deviating from Mangan’s route, we wanted to visit a particular stand of trees we’d heard of before our trip. In the depths of winter these trees apparently become so laden with snow and ice that they cease to resemble trees and instead take the form of outsized globular monks silently ascending the incline.

There’s a narrow trunk road that runs from my hometown, Ballymahon, in the south of county Longford, to my mother’s hometown, Lanesborough. When I was young, my siblings and I would accompany my mother on this route most Sundays to visit my grandmother, Susan Farrell, who lived alone in a fine farmhouse on the shores of Lough Ree. She was a handsome woman with large, well-worked hands. She had lovely eyebrows – similar to mine, I feel – and was a fashionable dresser too. A couple of times a year she’d visit Kenny’s in Longford town to buy something of the latest fashions. I never accompanied her on these trips but I’d love to have seen how she shopped. From the yard of her house you could see a dense ash forest up to the right, and to the left lay the lake. Beyond that, Lanesborough’s electrical power station chugged in the distance.

During the summer months my mother would bring us down to a strip of domestic bog between our house and Lanesborough to help my grandmother foot turf. We’d traipse across the shivering flower-and-whin-fringed bogs until we saw our grandmother working a row. Then, sensing our approach, she’d straighten, wave and call. We’d help her for a few hours until she’d take us to one side and produce a flask of tea, a few stacks of ham sandwiches, and some stale biscuits. Then we’d mooch around in the breeze and eat as she chatted amiably to us. She was a no-nonsense sort, and seemed to enjoy work of this kind. I was fond of her, and I used to visit her as she got older. She died in early 2004 after a short illness.

A few years back, probably because I connect this place to her, I went to visit this stretch of bog again. One dreich spring afternoon I borrowed my mother’s car and drove along the warren of roads that course through this part of Longford, but I couldn’t locate our strip. I pulled over at a Bord na Móna tool shed sitting at the edge of the flat, industrialised bogland which expands out to the north west. I took my camera and tripod out of the car, and shot some footage of Lanesborough power station in the distance, of which there was an uninterrupted view. Streams of dark smoke billowed from its chimney.

Later that evening, I played this footage back and noticed the power station bobbed gently around the frame. I thought at first it was heat or gases escaping from the bogland, but it wasn’t that type of shimmer. When I brought this up with two old school friends in the pub that same night, they reminded me that the bog in that location is effectively sitting on a lake, and that the movement of the camera could be attributed to the imperceptible bobbing of the ground beneath my feet—the tiny angles of inflection between the two sites had been merely amplified by the distance.

At around two o’clock in the afternoon, Feargal and I pulled in to Posio, a small town just shy of the Russian border. Even though it lies south of Rovaniemi, the air felt colder. It was more remote too, and comprehensively covered in snow.

We hired snowshoes, then made our way through some thickets of yellow reeds onto a white plain which extended out to an island of trees sitting in what seemed to be the middle of a lake. The island couldn’t have been more than half a mile away, but walking across the snow was arduous. When we got there, I lingered and recorded the icy breeze threading itself through the branches. Every sound was crisp, clear. There was no detectable thrum of traffic. Feargal continued on, photographing the landscape as it opened out into the belly of the lake.

On the way back from the island our snowshoes kept slipping off, plunging us each time hip deep in snow. The short distance back to shore suddenly expanded. Water filled our footprints and I became anxious that we were in a part of the lake where the ice was thin, and that one of us would disappear.

That evening, after getting towed from a roadside snowbank and falling badly behind schedule, Feargal and I were running up a hill to find the location of these fantastically doubled-over trees. The light was fading and the temperature was plummeting. The lack of light seemed to call onto itself a type of quiet, as if, here, light and sound were two sides of the same plane. This part of Finland is so flat that any sort of incline affords views for miles around. On the way up we noticed many half-covered trees whose trunks had been split brutally in two. Looking at the broken wet boles of these young trees, you could almost hear the snap. Halfway up the hill, I stopped to record the eerie quietness of the place. Feargal pushed on to the summit to see if there were any of those monk-like trees left behind.

I stood for half an hour with my earphones on, listening intently through the microphone to the sound of a gentle breeze breaking across the hill. The grey-blue fabric of light was fading in front of me, illuminating distances which, given the weakness of the light, I felt I should not have been able to see. After some time looking and listening to this palpable land, I realised the audio recording had two registers: the sound of air weaving through the nearby trees, and the sound of a larger laminar body of air climbing over them. As the light failed and snow began drifting down again, the quietness of my expanded surroundings compressed into a tiny, vague form suspended somewhere in the middle of my skull. For a while, all of the land made and remade itself there until I realised I was not so much recording a place as the intensity of a particular time of day. Then, I pulled the earphones off. The form in my head expanded, disappeared, and my surroundings collapsed back into their natural hush. I suddenly felt alone, and it frightened me—for a few moments it felt like I’d lost the company of the land.

In her early twenties my grandmother emigrated from east Galway to London, to train as a nurse in Waterloo hospital. Halfway through her training the war broke out. On that day, apparently, the head matron announced that ‘all Free-State girls’ could go home, but my grandmother chose to remain in London and complete her course. When she was transferred to a hospital in Oxford she met my grandfather, James Farrell. She was many years his junior. They got married in Oxford and had their wedding reception at the Imperial Hotel, a place which I’m not sure exists any more. They moved back to Ireland after the war, where James took on the family farm on the shores of Lough Ree and they had two children—my mother, Jean, and my uncle, Fintan. My grandfather died of a heart attack when my mother was twelve and for years afterwards, according to my mother, my grandmother could be heard crying in the kitchen at night.

My grandmother stayed and farmed the land for the the next forty years. Every Christmas, for a number of years after my grandfather died, my grandmother would receive a letter from an American soldier whom she and James had known in Oxford—he had given her away on the day of their wedding, her father unable to make the trip over from Galway. Each letter from this American soldier was an invitation for Susan to leave Ireland and live with him in sunny Florida, where he offered to take care of her. My grandmother turned him down each time, because – as she said to me one afternoon, late in her life, while she and I were having tea in her kitchen – she only ever loved James; she said he was a lovely little person.

From a few photographs and some stories my mother has told me, my grandfather seemed to have been a clever, well-educated man, and kind too, but in a stern, Victorian way. He was apparently a progressive farmer, and was one of the founding members of what is now the Irish Farmers’ Association. There are two photos of him I can recall easily. One is a small framed portrait in my parents’ kitchen; in it he’s smiling, softly side-lit, has thinning spiky hair, a slight overbite, and looks to be in his mid-fifties. The other is in a drawer in my mother’s bedroom. It’s a tiny photo of him, a gentleman farmer sitting astride a horse in the farmyard of my grandmother’s house, and it looks as though he is about to head off down the fields. This image of him sitting on the horse, instead of drawing him closer, has the strange effect of placing him at a remove from the land and the farm work I associate with my grandmother.

I stood for a while longer, watching the snow drifting onto the higher climes of the hill until Feargal reappeared, and we walked down together. He told me the view from up top was perfect and that the location generally was promising. We got back to the log cabin after dark, lit a fire and ate some haddock and bread, drank a few beers and looked over the photographs of the day. Then we cracked open the patio door, smoked a few cigarettes, and chatted about our trip back to Helsinki and on to Berlin the next day. The space outside was still and dark, and I imagined a brown bear, a not uncommon thing in this region, appearing out of the blackness, padding up onto our front deck and nosing around for some food.