When my husband Dougall and I arrived in Finland on our honeymoon in September last year, we collapsed on the couch and turned on the television to immerse ourselves in the sound of the Finnish language. Although we couldn’t understand a word, we started to notice something…the advertising for a huge range of products from boots to cheese seemed to depict rugged-looking men alone in the wilderness, building fires and watching the sunset (which at some times of the year can last all day!).

There seems to be a strong cultural relationship between the Finnish people and their environment, with two main themes – the ideal of self-sufficiency, and the tradition of free public access to wilderness areas for certain activities. The latter is actually a part of the law in all the Nordic countries,  known as ‘jokamiehenoikeus’ in Finnish or ‘Everyman’s rights’. The locals explained to us that much of northern Finland is practically open to the public, so anyone can walk, swim, ski, camp, fish, pick mushrooms and berries and sometimes hunt wherever they like (within certain restrictions). But with this freedom comes a strong sense of collective ownership and responsibility for the environment. You might expect a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation to emerge, but it seems to work and the Finns are very proud of their beautiful wilderness.

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Dougall demonstrating the Finnish ideal of self-sufficiency – fire, pretzels and a good book. This popular walking area in northern Finland is well provisioned with shelter and firewood, and visitors are free to collect berries and mushrooms.

Perhaps this is an idealised view from the outside, but it seems to me that the Finnish relationship with the environment is very different to the Australian attitude.

I was trying to think of what an outsider would see in our advertising here in Australia – yes, there is still a strong theme of being in the wilderness, but with more of an emphasis on mateship than self-sufficiency. The BBQ by the beach is an image that springs to mind, but so is the tough Aussie farmer who is constantly battling the harsh and unforgiving Australian climate. Perhaps this view of the environment as something we have to bond together and fight against explains a lot of the mistakes that have been made in Australia, as the European settlers arrived here and tried to bend and shape the Australian environment so that it looked more like the European landscapes they had left. Again, almost certainly a gross generalisation, but I wonder what a proper analysis of our advertising would really tell about our relationship with the environment.

In fact, the Finnish attitude seems to bear more of a resemblance to Aboriginal and other indigenous groups around the world. It’s a very utilitarian view, which sees the environment as a source of resources, but also recognises that these resources are limited. It places humans in the role of custodians and as an integral part of the ecosystem, rather than outside the system in a position of ownership and control. And it also has a spiritual aspect, where the environment itself demands respect and even worship, rather than being a creation given to humans by the gods.

Back in Finland, Dougall and I had the fantastic experience of a quad-biking tour through a reserve. Our guide showed us where to find cranberries in the bogs and mushrooms in the forest, and how to build a fire with a knife from his army days. As we sat watching the sunset and cooking our sausages over the fire, we realised that we were sitting with the actual* guy from all the ads on TV – boots, cheese and all!

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*as some people have pointed out, I don’t mean this literally! He was just about as typically Finnish as you can get

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