Listening Party: Photo Essay
On 22 June, the Land Body Ecologies team presented our first ever “Listening Party”, an audio sensorial experience hosted at The London Hub.
On this evening, we invited audiences to an audio sensorial experience to hear The Free River, the first of five stand-alone episodes telling the story of Finland’s longest river, and two sisters’ journey as they reflect on how the damming of the river shaped their lives.
Below, we share the talk from our team member, Outi Autti, and a series of photos from the event.
The podcast you will soon listen to tells about the home river of me and my sister Kaisa, the Kemijoki.
For the families living in harsh conditions in the arctic area, the river Kemijoki has been like a life vein that provided food and income, routes of travel, and aesthetic and spiritual experiences. Kemijoki was one of the most significant salmon rivers in Europe, and migratory fish have had a major role in the history and development of cultures along the river. The annual rhythm of villages was adapted to salmon migration, and specific professions and skills were developed to serve salmon fishing. Salmon shaped people’s ways of life and their thinking.
The Second World War changed all this. Finland lost a substantial amount of hydro-power capacity to the Soviet Union due to area losses. The German army widely destroyed civilian infrastructure in Northern Finland, including an important bridge at the mouth of the river Kemijoki. The hydropower company saw their opportunity and promised to build a new bridge, but it would include a dam and a hydro-power plant. Energy was badly needed in the postwar reconstruction work, so the building of the hydro-power plant started right after the war with temporary building permits. Since late 1940s, 20 hydropower plants and dams have been constructed in River Kemijoki.
Our family lived along Kemijoki, right next to the rapids called Vanttauskoski. The whole village is named after these rapids that have now turned silent. My father, my grandfather and my great grandfather used to fish salmon and other fish.
The damming of Kemijoki focused on engineering and economic growth.
Environmental and cultural values were totally overlooked. The damming caused many damages to the people living along the river, and the impacts of the change spread to all walks of life.
There has been some scientific research on social and cultural impacts of hydropower construction. However, the experiences of local people have had less attention in research. Because of this, and because of my personal family history, I got interested in the process of damming northern rivers. I conducted qualitative interviews among people who had experienced the change in the river, and I asked what happens when home environment, or a significant place, suddenly changes or disappears? It turned out to be a paramount question, as in a way, I am still asking that same question.
The damming of the river was a death blow for rich salmon fishing culture that was centuries old. There were also significant changes in other fish species. This changed the economies of households along the river.
The damming destroyed the beautiful river landscape: now there are totally dry river beds, while elsewhere homes and places for different activities are flooded. The new built environment includes power plants, dams, bridges, roads, and electricity distribution constructions.
The essence of the river changed, as did the soundscape and scents. The rapids became silent, and the fresh scents of running water disappeared.
The change in the traditional livelihoods broke the shared reality of the generations. Older generations felt useless in the new situation. Their fishing skills were no longer needed, and their work was no longer appreciated. The younger generation left the area to study and work elsewhere.
These events caused a sudden disconnection with the environment: the active role of local people turned to passive observing, and people turned their backs to the river. This happened also in my family. We lived right next to the river, but after the change we never went there. We didn’t even have a rowing boat.
The damming of the river started a long trauma process, the impacts of which I have recently studied. Environmental change can affect health and wellbeing. Based on my interview data, I believe that the end of the salmon fishing culture, the change in the river landscape and the change in the sources of livelihood that divided the worlds of older and younger generations, have caused many an environmental trauma.
Some people adapted to the changed situation, but for some the change and finding words to their experiences was still difficult after 70 years. In my interviews, depression, melancholy, sudden heart attacks and even suicides were associated with the damming of the river.
Environmental trauma is a long-term symptom associated with environmental change. The starting point is an event that changes physical environment, but it easily extends to other areas of life. Environmental trauma typically includes disconnections, silences, and delays, and can be repressed for decades.
Environmental trauma, as trauma experiences in general, can be transgenerational and pass on in a socially mediated process.
To define an event as an origin of environmental trauma, it must include aspects that have changed the physical environment, and negatively affect the lives of people. Environmental trauma can also be activated by the threat of an environmental disaster. Sometimes the threats can be long-lasting. At its worst, environmental trauma links to important place-based aspects of life; it threatens the sources of livelihood, emotional bonding with the environment, a sense of collectivity, personal and family histories, community history and memories.
Environmental trauma can become a collective cultural trauma when the consequences are broad or affect large communities. When environmental trauma turns into cultural trauma, it is important to remember that individual therapy in this case is not enough. It is incapable of working on collective trauma, nor can it heal collective memory. Coping with collective trauma requires diverse and long-lasting cultural processing, in which the arts, sciences and journalism play a key role.
Land Body Ecologies research group has understood the collective need to process the experiences that connect to environmental change. We aim to identify, understand, and verbalize emotions that relate to unwanted changes in the environment, and want to create tools to process these experiences that are often difficult. We believe the podcast you are about to listen offers one way to deal with these issues.
Identifying and verbalizing experiences of environmental trauma can play a key role in empowering people, in recognizing their voices and rights, and in identifying power relations. LBE groups’ interest in narratives, storytelling and the relationship between environmental change and mental health also provides links between cultures: our trauma experiences may find words from similar experiences elsewhere, and understanding the pasts of others, will add to our ability to more broadly understand the fragility of human-environment relationship. It enables us to identify the disconnections between human and environment and how they affect human wellbeing.
On behalf of not only myself but also my community along river Kemijoki, I want to thank all those people who have heard our story and have found it important enough to tell it further to wider audiences. Thank you LBE members, Invisible Flock, Chris Watson and Wellcome Trust.
Images courtesy of Invisible Flock