The Old Men of the Woods Have Beards Again

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When I was a kid I often heard my woodsmen uncles talk about how old trees used to be covered in Usnea, a group of lichen that grow on tree branches and look like grey beards – hence their one English name Old Man’s Beard, which I like. My uncles, one of whom had a beard like Old Man’s Beard, talked about how long the Usnea beards had been, how entire trees had been transformed into furry creatures by it. And they where sad that they never saw that anymore, really sorry about its disappearance. I was sorry too, sorry that I could never see what they had seen all those years ago. Sorry that I had missed something so mysterious, legendary even.

The reason Usnea growths had declined was the acid rain caused by air pollutants from factories far, far away in Central Europe and Soviet Union. In Germany acid rain killed entire forests, but in Finland it caused all kinds of tree growing lichen to decline. That’s why my uncle did not see those grey beards on trees anymore.

Now they’re growing again. We saw the damage the acid rains were causing. I remember hearing a ton about it in the news during the 80s, just like and even more than what we today hear about global warming and climate change. We recognised that acid rains were caused by what we did or, more precisely, what we failed to do: to keep from polluting the air. So we invented ways of making the factory emissions less harmful. We created necessary legislation and guidelines. We stopped it from happening anymore. We did it. It was never impossible. It was just something that had to be done. Today I can find older trees that are covered in Old Man’s Beard, like the one I found growing near our log cabin. It makes me so pleased to see them. The sight of them fills me with happiness, gratitude, and pride. We have done it before. We have accomplished a huge change in our practices here in Europe. Others have done similar things elsewhere. There is a lot that needs to change and it is a tremendous, intimidating challenge, like a massif we need to climb. But in reality it is a stack of smaller challenges. We have already cleared one ridge. Let’s do the next one!

Scary Mama

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I don’t know how many of you is familiar with the Moomin Family, the lovely, inspiring creation of the late Tove Jansson, a Finnish Swedish artist-writer. The family, while being very caring, loving and accepting of each other is also rather anarchistic, and while Moominmamma is an idealistic depiction of a mother is many ways (her legendary handbag contains anything one may need) is too is a rebel. Once, when she need some time to be just by herself, she disappears for days leaving the family to survive on their own. But not before making sure there is enough food, jam in particular (you can’t have pancakes without jam!), in the pantry and leaving helpful notes around the house. She is the most comforting and reassuring figure in the history of literature.

But not this Mama. I found her in the museum centre of Vapriikki in Tampere early this year. It’s the place to visit with their numerous museums and exhibitions (anything from Finnish civil was to the ice hockey hall of fame). One of the museums is the toy museum with their exhibition called “Aika leikkiä” (officially “Time to Play” but could also be translated “Quite/What a Play”). They had this old Moominmamma-toy from the 1950s. Not so reassuring as you would expect. In fact, quite scary with its big staring eyes. Would not have liked to have HER as toy siting on my shelf when I was little. No, mam.

Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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