Thursday, October 25, 2018


In reality, this old farmhouse, this arboretum and garden are more for me than just home. Actually I have many homes, I don't even know how many. I've tried to find them in several ways. One is with the help of trees. When I find a tree that I like, the place where it grows must be one of my homes. This is of course not only true of trees but of other plants as well, of the natural environment as a whole, of the landscape. In trees the spirit of the place, the genius loci, reveals itself with more clarity and force than in other plants, even in animals and people. Maybe with as much force as in stones.

(Jaan Kaplinski, from Ice and Heather (1989), English translation by the author with Fiona Sampson.*)


Stone is what the poem begins with; appropriate, in its solidity and fixity, for a meditation on the meaning of "home". Jaan Kaplinski, an Estonian, wrote the poem around the time of the "singing revolution", which foreshadowed the independence of the Baltic states. Discontent in Estonia was fuelled by Russian plans for grand-scale mining, which it was feared would lead to demographic change similar to the Russification of the formerly Finnish Karelia.

But Kaplinski isn't essentialist in that kind of way. The individual is paramount. The individual has many homes. A place is many places, Estonia's deep history, as well as its recent history, is much more than Estonian; it can't be owned.

Nevertheless, Kaplinski owned the old farmhouse I suppose. Perhaps the feeling of having many homes depends on having one rather definite, legal, fixed home. I don't know.

Perhaps it depends too on being well-travelled, as Kaplinski is. The poem is subtitled Notes of a migrant. As the farmhouse he bought is only half an hour's drive from his birthplace Tartu, we must understand "migrant" in the sense of a restless traveller, rather than in the more recent and often pejorative media sense of unwanted immigrant.

So the poem is equivocal in its pulls both towards rootedness and rootlessness. Hence perhaps the emphasis on peoples, like the Sami and native Americans, who are both deeply native (the original human inhabitants of their lands) and until recently nomadic (without fixed homes).

Ventures into the past question the meaning of place; the stone of Estonia was deposited there from Scandinavia; geologically Estonia is neptunian ... Washed there by water, not a product of forces from within the earth like the plutonic plateau of Armenia

It's an enlightened equivocation, which I share, of the kind that has produced the rude reactions of today. To our dismay the home as fortress has asserted its legitimacy across the world.

Here's some more:


I feel that I definitely belong to an ecosystem, I have a place there, but I haven't yet found it....

At other times and in other places people had soul animals, totems as they are often called... I believe that we still have these relatives, that besides the genus Homo we belong to other genera, whether we admit it or not.

It is possible that this is not a Linnaean relationship, that we are not so much related to a genus or a family, but to an ecosystem, a plant society or a life form. Maybe it means we are related to the genius loci. In any case we do not belong, solely and sometimes not at all, to the place where we are born and grown up. Our citizenship, our origins and affinities, are much more complicated. We are citizens of the world, although this doesn't mean we are perfectly at home everywhere in the world...


... I think Christianity is agoraphobic: God got a home that was built as a fortification ... A Romanesque church was a bridgehead of the heavenly legions into this world ruled by Satan. Under the vast arctic sky of Lapland all this seems ridiculous and incomprehensible. How can people retire into their values, fears and beliefs like snails into their shells? How can one live in this world so egotistically, how is it possible to lose the sense of wonder, to live without noticing this sky, these white rocks, these crowberries, checkerberries, dwarf birch trees and diapensias? How is it possible to turn one's back on it all and build huge stone castles where there is art, music, colour, aroma and spirituality, where there are just no life and no light of men, no plantain and knotgrass, and of course no Heath plants?


A church is also a theatre where the audience is protected from outside distraction. A church is also a home, that is, a building with an inside.

"Checkerberries" is rather a surprise. The context implies Lapland plants -- the poem was partly written in Alta in northern Norway -- but Gaultheria is a N. American genus and doesn't occur in Europe.

Maybe it's just a translation mistake, but it's fortuitously illuminating about the kind of thought in the poem. It's intimate, casual, chatty and not on oath. Kaplinski tells us that Diapensia was discovered in Scotland only 20 years ago. Actually in 1989 it was 38 years ago. But the slight inaccuracy doesn't concern us, does it? In conversation things have a certain latitude, as Miss Crawford says, "Never is a black word... But in the never of conversation I do think so..." Maybe this casualness is necessary to release the ideas in the poem, to get them out there without too much preamble and circumspection.


"I have been to Lapland twice..." This seems to be Lapland in the wide sense of Sápmi, the whole transnational area where the Sami live; since the locations he names are Lovozero in Russia and Alta in Norway. People concerned about "Lapp" being an imposed colonial (Swedish) term would prefer to restrict usage of "Lapland" to the historical provinces of that name in Sweden and Finland. But the English-speaking world doesn't know enough about the complex history or sensitivities, and the Sami have never been interested in forming a nation-state (the usual means of internationally promoting a new chosen name), so "Sápmi" will likely remain unknown to common English usage, and "Lapland" will remain the commercially valuable term, the winter holiday destination, home of Santa and his reindeer.... and roughly contiguous with Sápmi.


My quotes fail to reflect the pain in the poem; the ruin of Tartu, the woman thrown back into the flames of her house, the execution of two Sami. And the envonmental catastrophes that feel even more pressing now than in 1989.


* In Evening Brings Everything Back, Bloodaxe 2004. As often, one laments and is baffled by the lack of a proofreader. I'd do it!

Jaan Kaplinski's website, with lots of work in English translation as well as Estonian:

More extracts from Ice and Heather:



At 9:25 am, Blogger Billy Mills said...

The proofreading is shocking. The line about stones reminded me of 'On a raised beach'.

At 9:48 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Cheers Billy. Yes, there's a meeting in the thought of the two poems. Hadn't read McDiarmid's poem before. Link for my benefit:


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