Kristiina Valtanen has been the growing guru for Warjakka Community Gardens and, over the last two years, has blessed us with her wisdom. She has also advised us as part of the Keho On Dacha / Body Is Dacha art project which connects Varjakka with Kalinushka through a range of artistic practices including dance, installation and gardening. 

This TaikaTalk happened in Kristiina’s wonderful garden, accompanied by the sounds of the turkeys and chickens that she raises, and the Varjakka soundtrack of the wind, forest birds, dancing mosquitos and the silence.

Is this an apple tree? (rooster sings)

No, I think this is alder. We have quite many of these in Northern Finland, but this one is special – it has bubbles on the trunk. It is a good tree – it can itself fertilize the soil. One doesn’t have to buy anything for this from the shop – just have the alder.

How long have you been living in Varjakka and creating the beautiful space – by which I mean your garden, kitchen garden, bird farm and flower beds in Warjakka Community Gardens? And what brought you here in the first place?

Our family moved here in 2000 and to this particular house in 2008 – I just saw an advertisement in a newspaper and bought it. It may sound easy – yet it is rooted in my childhood: I grew up on a farm. 

I had to live in the city while studying, but never really liked to be there. I realised I had to get out of the city – to the soil, and the sand, and everything I can relate to and take care of.

Were you studying gardening in Oulu?

(laughs) No, I studied electric engineering. I work in Technical Research Centre of Finland – VTT, doing things related to bitcoin – and the blockchain technology on a wider level. We try to use this technology not as a cryptocurrency, but for industrial purposes, supply chains for example.

My mother is a biologist, she likes organic farming, and my childhood was informed by this. We, the children, felt a little like work horses there in her garden at first – it was big enough for her to actually not have time to take care of it all by herself. When I was studying in the city, I thought I would never ever do anything related to gardening. That changed dramatically: gardening has been my hobby for many decades. It is always a good time to think and spend time with myself.

Is it your way of balancing things? Gardening might seem as quite the opposite to the high-tech…

In fact, it’s not. Through decentralised technology you can build ecosystems sustaining organic growth in communities. I am engaged in many projects that are related to sustainability and the circular economy. We use this technology a lot because it is easily distributed, nobody owns it – and it helps incentivise people. It goes so much in line with gardening!

The garden is also a powerful image of heaven – that’s where Adam and Eve lived and ate, till the very last at least. Is your garden your heaven? And if yes, what is the hell you are escaping from here?

(Both laugh)

While gardening I keep my phones in my pockets and know what is happening around me, answering Emails or messages in the WhatsApp. I’m an introvert and it is stressful for me – the garden reduces the stress. Many people who have come to this place in Summer were quite horrified by the mosquitos. I think they are such a minor thing in here – at least there aren’t as many people as in the city!

So people are your mosquitoes in a way.

(Smiles) And concrete buildings with no green between them or a garden around! It is such a horrible thing to picture myself living in. When you own even a little piece of land, you can do something with your hands. It’s totally different than just walking in a park.

Do you feel that the connection of humans and nature is becoming a little bit deeper, triggered by the Corona experiences?

I did have to travel quite a lot – for 20 minute presentations I had to travel here and there for miles and miles, and my CO2 footprint must be looking awful (yet I am also a victim of this system). 

Now we are all using video conference calls – and that is another positive thing. I am also very happy with the EU green deal – the ecological guidelines on sustainability suggested by the European Commission. There are quite many people who are now taking action on the climate, economy and industry. Will it turn out to be sustainable though?

Sufficiency used to be seen in making things cheaper. Now we seem to have a completely different way of thinking – and this dramatic change has been happening during past two – Corona – years.

Hopefully big and small positive things last – social media teaches us that everything gets forgotten, it is difficult to keep right things in hit lines. It should actually be 200 hundred years of the proper awareness and action – not just the two years – to be optimistic…

More and more artists seem to be appreciating natural sites and prioritizing sustainability. What is your favourite arts?

I completely agree with what Mirjami Mäkelä (Varjakka based artist, creator of Varjakka Art Path – TaikaTalk) says about making art in the forest – how it brings additional joy of not having to produce and waste more paints and packages, for example. Little pieces of natural art are all around us – looking so incredible that I am curious why we used to think we had to travel thousands of kilometres to see some kind of a statue.

I once carried a log to my garden from the nearby swamp, walking five kilometres. My children said I am crazy. But I like it so much: the feeling I have when I look at this is bigger than the impressions I have ever had when seeing statues…

A book by Frances Burnette called ”The Secret Garden” following an orphan girl who finds the mysterious hidden garden. One of the metaphors here is that the abandoned – and rediscovered – garden is actually our planet Earth. What would be the flower you would want to plant in the Earth garden – speaking both about real flowers and allegories?

I can show you the real flower in my garden – it is a very special lily of the valley! And as to the metaphorical flower – it would be the flower of democracy. And connection with nature. We are missing it quite a lot: people who have no interest in how nature works, find it harder to get the very idea of an ecosystem – in all possible spheres. Such people then make decisions which don’t support sustainability.

It seems so simple to just put a flower somewhere in your garden. But first you have to get the soil to be alive, and that is a process. No flower can emerge from the dead soil. If you buy the ready made bags of soil at the shop, they are usually the ones that had been heated to 70 degrees and fertilized so that no unexpected things happen and nothing harms economic systems that make it easy to sell those soils easily. Basically such soil is killed from the start. A tomato will look like a tomato, but it will not be one. That’s the thing many people don’t understand – one can’t fake the inside.

Therefore, chemicals that can harm flying insects – we don’t even know and understand how poisonous they are! My mother, the biologist, has always told me a story of how they worked in the university. They made tests in 1970-s, researching how poisonous things were. To do that they used a hundred of mice or rats. They just gave that product to the animals and then observed how many of those animals died, and that was the official measurement of how poisonous something was. There are quite famous chemicals that were considered fine to use to get rid of unwanted plants or insects, also tested on rats. After having been in use for over a decade, they are finally investigated: at last it is official that the negative effect is long-term and will show itself again in time, the second generation suffers, the third is at risk and nothing is clear in future…

Everything affects everything and everything has consequences.

Yes, yet gardening is also about hope. Some of my plants don’t survive and die, yet every year I witness how nature has the second card somewhere. Take yellow buttercups – gardening books insist on getting rid of them as waste, they are not accepted by the gardening tradition. I simply don’t have time to take these away – and am completely happy about it, because I like how they look. Nature always takes its place. It comes to the places we have abandoned. That nourishes foundational hope that we are only little pieces in this puzzle, and whatever mistakes we do as people, the human kind, against nature, the nature will always survive. Of course, some species will disappear or at least have big problems. But there will be something coming from nature anyways. Perhaps not people (all laugh).

Sounds optimistic!

At least peaceful: we can’t destroy so much as people.

Do you feel Varjakka community is reviving through the Warjakka Community garden, that it is helping people connect?

I hope so. There are so many possibilities ahead. So much digitalization going on – I am looking forward to the impact we don’t even know of yet, and technology is a powerful tool to make one. Organic growth teaches us that all happens by itself – when you maintain things in a right way. Little right things and incentives lead to exciting harvests.

Kristiina Valtanen was talking with Lölä Vlasenko

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