Unfamiliar Woods

The Arboretum Mustila, founded 1902 as a test site for exotic conifer species, was about a four-hour bus ride from the SeAMK School of Agriculture and Forestry in Tuomarniemi, Ähtäri. Myself and the other exchange students tagged along with the Tuomarniemi students on a field trip to see the diversity of species that can actually grow in Finland.

Many landowners are hesitant to try planting new species because the time between the investment of planting and harvest can be nearly 1oo years. This arboretum is a living laboratory testing species compatibility with Finland’s climate, disease resistance and growth. Almost 100 conifers and 200 shrubs, vines, bulbs and deciduous trees fill the 120-hectare arboretum.  This field trip was an opportunity for future forestry professionals to keep an open mind about the diversity Forestry can offer.

We walked through large stands of trees non-native to Finland.  The hemlocks and Douglas firs that were familiar sights to me, are a special spectacle in Finland. Our tour guide chatted to the Finnish students about different species and plants they were observing and snippets were translated for us in English.

It was quite odd to understand more of the latin names (tree species learned in Dendrology class at Cal Poly, thank you Wally) than any English for an entire day. I felt a little bit like the Douglas fir in this foreign soil, a test being observed growing in a new place  Before this day I really hadn’t experienced this feeling of alienation.

I hope you do not misinterpret, the people we have met in Finland have absolutely been some of the most kind and welcoming people I have met. Our teachers, staff and new friends have been incredibly accommodating. Most students we meet are friendly, sometimes shy, but always kind.

This day was the first difficult one though. Somehow the grand total of eight hours on the bus in addition to two hikes were not accommodating for our group to meet friends. I was overwhelmed by the unfamiliar words and confused by walking in the woods, somewhere that has always, always, been familiar to me, and not understanding. Feeling a bit unwelcome.

I had a long time to think about this experience on the bus ride home. I can’t help but feel a little stupid living in a country where I started with only “hello”, “thank you” and, counting “1-5” in my toolkit of conversational words. I could never compare this experience to that of a fresh immigrant to the United States or a migrant farm worker by any means, but this experience was a bit eye opening to my own country’s attitudes and customs towards people who do not speak English. For me, it was absolutely exhausting trying to figure out what was going on.

A new Austrian friend of ours, Florian, who was also on the trip spoke English as a second language. I cannot imagine how different an experience this day was for him. It would be a whole new challenge to live and work in a country where English is the common ground language that you are also learning.

It is interesting to think about English as a language spoken in so many counties around this world. Some people speak fluidly,  but for others, I’ve realized just how much I have pushed the boundaries of what is comfortable for these new friends by asking them to speak English. English, being a language that became so versatile, makes me feel a little selfish. I caught myself this day feeling almost entitled to a translation, which I know is wrong.

Once we returned home I called my Dad, the logger, and pouted a bit about this frustration. He listed and gently but bluntly said “Well Val, I expected this. I mean, you are not in America, you are in Finland. Just because someone told you every Finnish person speaks English doesn’t mean they will want to speak English to you. You are on their land sister, you have to adjust to that.” He is a good Dad and constantly a steady voice of reason for me. He concluded with an important statement, he said “What exactly did you expect? What did you go all the way over there for?”

This was good advice. I am in Finland to learn about a new culture and forestry. I am here to see new places and gain new experiences.  The arboretum trip was a perfect example of learning something that could never be taught by a book or in a classroom or even to me as an American living in my own country. Sure there are towns where I would feel isolated in America. It would also be quite a different experience if I was in a country that didn’t speak English at all.  However, this is a different feeling, one I still can’t quite explain.  I suppose figuring this out is part of why I am here.

I apologize for the lack of details on the arboretum. This post is really about language and diversity. Unfamiliar words in unfamiliar woods.  More about Mustila, Finland’s largest arboretum can be found at http://www.mustila.fi/en. They are currently expanding their webpage for more English translation.

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