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Revisiting the ancestors

On Friday, at home after work, I packed some camping equipment and went walking to the lake. It was full moon and despite the sky being overcast the world was dimly lit with silver twilight. As I approached the location where my boat is I heard a constant sound, like chime, clank, clink and jingle. And a cold wind hummed in the woods. As I got to the lakeside I got my guess confirmed - part of the lake had already been frozen over, but now the wind had broken the ice into palm-sized pieces, and the waves made those pieces constantly hit each other, emitting a chiming sound.

I pushed the boat into the icy water. Since I couldn't row in the midst of floating ice blocks, I held an oar upright and pushing it against the lake bottom, each push propelling the boat forward until I got through the belt of ice blocks. Out at the lake there was enough light to recognize the land masses all around the lake. I spotted my favourite island, the tiny one without cottages. My plan was to first go there, prepare everything for camping the night, and then row to the next island where there is an ancient burial site. I had bought a small bottle of Finnish booze, for the purpose of being shared with the ancestors. As I might have said, I'm agnostic to what comes to afterlife or spiritworld. I don't need to know if there is something or not - for me what matters the most is the experience, not the explanation. Just like a good rock concert can give you an emboldening experience (without a need to assume a supernatural explanation behind the emboldening effect), I think visiting an ancient burial place at cold November midnight might be a poetical experience touching deep emotional layers of human mind.

I've visited the ancestors a few times before. One of the trips was about fifteen years ago, when I was still rather heavily depressed and often tortured by suicidal thoughts and feelings. I lived in a countryside collective, not far from my current place. And one cold winter day I decided to try something radical - I got this idea to ski to the ancient burial site, hoping that my suicidal moods would somehow get sucked into the netherworld. Just like about all indigenous and pagan world views, the traditional Finnish mythology says that most of the pains and ailments are unseen spirits - and often to heal is to catch the evil spirit lurking in human system, and then transporting the evil spirit to a place where it belongs to, or where it came from. Again, being as agnostic as I am, I thought that I have nothing to lose - even though I don't quite literally believe in such spirits, I have seen, felt and experienced a bunch of phenomena which could easily be explained by such a mythology. So experience first, explanations aside, I decided to wrestle my depression by taking a winter night trip to a burial site. So I did, and the dog living in the collective decided to join me. He was originally a street dog from Paris, adopted by the elder members of our collective. And the dog always seemed to be rather good at reading human emotions. I have no idea why he followed me, but on we went, skiing down a lake. It was snowing a little, and it was pretty hard to navigate as I couldn't see that far. Sometimes the dog found a ski-do track to follow, and eventually we found the right island and spotted the burial site. I greeted the ancestor spirits, asking them to come take my suicidal mood with them - telling the suicidal mood that this is where it belongs, there's company for it, as I don't want to keep it company any more. After that the dog and me went to the tiny islet, I found dry wood and started a fire to cook myself a meal. The dog got it's portion, too. We rested for a good while before returning home. (And in case you wonder; no, that trip didn't put an instant end to my suicidal moods. The process went on, there were further steps to be taken, it wasn't easy. Yet, now when I think back to those years, I have no doubt that this trip was one good step in the process of recovery. Among other things, it showed me that I still do have enough inner strength to brave harsh conditions, to navigate in the dark, to overcome hardships. That gave me more faith to keep on navigating in the dark of depression, until I eventually started to find more inner light.)

Oh well, but where was I? Yes, it was a windy Friday night, the temperature at freezing, and I was rowing to the tiny islet. I got there and using a led light I collected dry branches for firewood. But everything was a bit moist, and the weather forecast had said that in the night it might be a little more rain. What I usually do when sleeping a night outdoors is that before going to sleep I collect some kindling and dry wood ready so that when I wake up it will be quick and easy to start a fire. But this time I knew that what ever I collect it won't be that dry in the morning. Luckily enough, I found a hollow piece of felled three trunk. It was partially rotten, but the outer walls were still good enough to burn. I took that to my heap of firewood. After that I was ready to row to the next island where the burial site is.

This time I had no such special reason to visit the ancestors. I just wanted to greet them, or to have a ritual experience for myself reminding me that generations and centuries pass, and that despite I have a somewhat distant ties with my own biological family, I still am a part of the long chain of generations. That years and years ago there have been smallish packs of stone-age hunter gatherers fishing on these very same waterways. That Life and Death are such a mysteries, yet beautiful ones. With this kind of thoughts I rowed to the island. I tied the boat to a tree at the strand. In the silver twilight I slowly walked a rocky point, looking for the burial site. There it was, under a group of pines. At the same time the wind got stronger. I knelt down and felt warm, as if the wind passed above. I opened a flask of vodka, greeted the ancestors and poured some vodka onto the stones. I took a sip myself, and just concentrated on the idea that generations ago there were people who buried their loved ones at this spot. Somehow that made me remember how, when we were kids, on some windy summer days we realized that diving under water one is protected from the wind; submerged in a lake it felt warmer than above the surface. Now that memory serves as a metaphor for how the netherworld might be like - a wam protected place not troubled by the winds of the world. I felt peaceful and tranquil. On we went, sipping the vodka, the ancestors and me, until the flask was consumed. I thanked the ancestors and slowly walked back to the boat.

Back at the tiny islet I started a fire. To make it easier I had packed left-over pieces of burnt candles. I placed one piece above the kindling - as the kindling starts to burn it will smelt the stearine which will boost the flames. That way I got the fire started even though all the firewood was a bit moist on the surface. I set up a hammock in between two pines. Then I sat down next to the fire, cooking a late night meal. When I had eaten I placed that hollow piece of tree trunk on top of the remaining fire. I wore a winter overall and slipped into a sleeping bag in the hammock, covering myself with a blanket. I wished it won't rain that much so that the blanket will be enough to keep me dry. Luckily, that turned out to be true. Only that I slept somewhat restlessly, woke up to a nightmare once. And in my sleep as I tried to roll or to change position inside the sleeping bag that always made the blanket to fall off, leaving me more exposed to the cold moist night air, and then I woke up slightly shivering. Several times I corrected the blanket and the sleeping bag and fell back asleep. Around 7 am, a bit before sunrise, I felt rested enough to get up.

Indeed, during the night there had been enough rain to make all the surfaces rather damp. My camp-fire had burnt out long since, but a piece of that hollow trunk remained. I turned the piece over and to my delight I found a spot of red glow remaining on the inner surface. I placed some small twigs onto the red glow and started to gently blow air into the glow. The twigs hissed, emitting vapour. I kept on blowing, making the red glow brighter and hotter. Eventually the twigs got dry enough and caught fire. I added more kindling and then bigger branches. Soon I had a merry camp-fire going. Using my old military-style kettle I scooped some water from the lake and boiled it to make a mug of coffee. After the refreshing effect of strong black coffee I felt like going fishing. I rowed around, dragging a lure. No luck with the fish. There were no other boats around, the world was silent and peaceful. For a while I felt connected with the ancient generations, fishing around on a cold autumn morning just like so many people have probably done before me. I returned back at the islet for a breakfast and another mug of coffee. Then I packed my stuff and headed back home.

PS. I didn't take pictures at the burial site, for it felt better to just experience that moment first-hand without reflectively thinking about documenting it. But Friday's Picture of the day is when I've landed on the island, preparing to go searching for the burial site. Below the third picture is taken on Saturday morning when I rowed around fishing - the picture shows the rocky point of the island, the burial site is located on the left where you can see densely packed group of pines.

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Hey Erkka, I think your thoughts on the ancestors are very interesting. It can sort of bum me out sometimes how I have no real homeland (a place where my ancestors have lived for generations; I am a white American), but it is interesting regardless to think of all of the ancient people who have walked the same ground as me, and experienced the same nature. Your writing is very good btw!

Thank you for your feedback!

Historically speaking, at my current region of Finland there is no proven nor probable continuity running from the stone-age population to the current population. Historical documents say that at 1500AD my area was unsettled wilderness. So either the earlier stone-age population had vanished or moved elsewhere - or remained scarce, scattered and nomadic, leaving behind no artefacts to be found.

Well, anyhow, the genetic history of Finnish people is a long-term mixture of the finnic population assimilating small waves of newcomers from other nations around the Baltic Sea -region. So, seen from this point of view, I imagine that if the ancestral spirits exists for real, they probably won't care about what set of genes I have in my DNA. What matters is the attitude, that one loves the way the local waters wash these shores.

Sorry for the late response, but I totally agree with you. My feelings at the time of my last writing were somewhat temporary, as even though I may have no real ethnic identity to identify as, that doesn't matter. Everywhere you go in the world people are the same, and we are all touched by nature. Thanks for helping make the best video game, and I wish you the best!


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