The broken duckboards of Hitonhauta

Anna-Mari Laulumaa

In August 2019, Kaisa asked me if I was interested in participating in an art & science project. We had just finished a site-specific performance in Patarei prison, Tallinn, Estonia, and the idea felt refreshing after the rough themes we had dealt with there. Oh, site-specific performance about the human–nature relationship… Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Back to the nature! After the performances adapted to the stony prison buildings I could see myself lying on the moss and wandering in the nature looking for the right place for each scene.

The first cell of the performance is usually created in a second. I chose Hitonhauta in Valkola, Laukaa, for the site before I even myself knew why it is so suitable for this project. The choice has been right, but not an easy one. Hitonhauta is an optimal place to study the Finnish nature relationship. It is an impressive gorge near the city of Jyväskylä and easy to reach by car. But the easiness ends there. When you try to crawl to the gorge, you find that it is not very accessible, some curses enter your mind and the name of the place, “Devil’s grave”, starts to make perfect sense.

Hitonhauta is not an easily accessible site. One needs to climb over tree trunks and rocks while descending to the steep gorge. Photo: Kaisa Raatikainen.

Nature is not just a mother’s warm lap, but a harsh and hard, even demanding being.

Hitonhauta is a strong name – Devil’s Grave – and it has actually been a grave, at least for the moose that were hunted by driving them down there at the ancient times. The word ”hitto” or actually the word ”hiisi” means a holy place in the Mari culture. The Maris are a small language group living in Russia, linguistically related to Finnish language. But when the Christian church came to Finland, the former word related to holy places, “hiisi”, was changed to mean something bad. The old belief systems were transformed by changing the meanings of the words and places. The history is present at Hitonhauta also in many other ways. During the time of so-called Big Hatred, when Russia was attacking Finland in the 18th century, the gorge was a hiding place for the local people. And when you look at the kettle holes of Hitonhauta’s surroundings, you know that those rocks have been there at the same place for 11,000 years, since the last Ice Age.

Hitonhauta belongs to a nature conservation area, partly owned by a private person and partly by the state. The former is governed by the ELY Centre for Central Finland, and the latter by Parks & Wildlife Finland within the Metsähallitus organization. The gorge itself is protected, as are the plants growing there. The regulations forbid using the site as a venue of any events. Therefore, Hitonhauta is not a national park nor a target for trekking, but literally a protected area. Anyhow, it is such an interesting and magical place that it attracts a growing number of visitors.

To protect the plants, Hitonhauta would need duckboards on which the visitors could walk. And the duckboards need to be maintained and repaired.

Yet, Parks & Wildlife Finland and the regional ELY Centre have no funds for managing all conservation areas and the infrastructure within them. The state’s resources are mostly spent on national parks. When we planned our project, we were thinking that we could build the duckboards, and the wooden structures could be left at Hitonhauta as a sign of our gratitude for getting the permission to conduct our project there. But this was found to be impossible. When there’s no money earmarked for repairing the duckboards in the future, it may happen that the government has to pay the possible damages caused by the broken duckboards.

The conservation decision is only a starting point of a process. An area can be protected, but there is not necessarily enough funds earmarked for building and maintaining the protective infrastructure such as walking routes. The conservation decision excludes the utilization of the area for forestry, but the public right of access, “right to roam” or “everyman’s right”, as it is often called in the Nordic countries, can only be restricted by a very special protective decision. Even then, we would not have the economic resources to fence off the area, but the results of the attempt to close a certain site depended on the good will of the citizens – the everymen.

Hitonhauta illuminates the strained field of nature conservation in a way that I could never have imagined beforehand.

Thus, Hitonhauta has turned out to be an excellent place also from the research perspective. The landowners, local people, tourists, businesses, and conservationists may have extremely contradictory visions about the utilization of the site and its surroundings. Similar tensions can be sensed in the conversations related to other conservation sites, for example at the Pallastunturi, where an economic pressure to build on the fjell is debated. Or the plans to build a mine in Hannukainen, near Ylläs. Situations and sceneries may change and vary, but tension and contradictions remain invariable. From the point of constructing a performance, the challenging atmosphere feels sometimes overwhelming. If I have learned something so far, it goes like this: whether it concerns nature conservation or anything else, it would be best just to sit down and have a talk with people who look at the subject of discussion differently or from a different point of view. It is very healthy to expose one’s own point of view and its scale to rethinking, and that can be achieved through an open-minded, true discussion among people. In a true discussion, a common language may be found, words that the other one can comprehend.

The Hitonhauta gorge was protected in the mid-1980s. Old signs that mark the border of the conservation area can still be found. Photo: Kaisa Raatikainen.