The 1860s Memorial Wreaths initiative was a small-scale, personal intervention by me and researcher Andrew G. Newby. In the initiative, I made eight memorial wreaths that we then, touring across Finland, placed at different local memorials dedicated to the memory of the Great Hunger Years of 1860s. While this initiative served as a personal commemorative action we also wanted to bring attention to the local memorials and to the immense suffering which was endured by so many individuals, families and communities in many different parts of Finland. In this first part I open the backgrounds of this initiative.
Who should remember? What is remembering? How to give shape to remembrance?
These questions surface when looking at the experiences of hunger and poverty in the 1860s Finland. Such questions crave attention especially now: May 2018 marked a sesquicentennial of the last high peak of mortality of the Great Hunger Years. Along the summer of 1868, after many years of shortage and suffering, nature began to offer up a decent harvest, giving hope and the possibility of social and economic recovery.
The historical episode of the 1860s Great Hunger Years, with its approximately 200.000 lost lives, creates a notable moment in the canonised timelines of Finland’s history, but its sesquicentennial appears to be largely overshadowed by other events, in the first line by the centennial of the civil war of 1918. Atrocities of past are hard if not impossible to measure on the scale of their collectively traumatising effect, but there are differences in how these events are recalled. The mass graves of the 1918 civil war are strong evidence of brutally violent events, but the question, what kind of historical evidence the mass graves of the 1860s famine provide, still remains largely to be answered.
In comparison with some other countries that suffered ‘Great Famines’ (for example, Ireland and Ukraine), Finland’s 1860s Great Hunger Years have not become a key part of the national story. Nor, generally, have they been the subject of national-level commemoration. It would be wrong, however, to claim that Finns have suffered “amnesia” about this part of their history, as there are nearly ninety memorials to the Great Famine around the country, often in areas which suffered the highest mortality. These memorials usually are the work of parish committees, local history societies, or other small-scale private initiatives.
In his extensive fieldwork, researcher Andrew G. Newby has mapped memorials dedicated to the memory of the Great Hunger Years across Finland. Many of these memorials are placed in the vicinity of mass graves, which are often located at parish cemeteries. Several of these local mass graves provided the final resting place for many hundreds of people. Memorials at these sites have been since the 1930s (supplementing the memorials which were left in a few sites by contemporaries in the 1860s), after which there have been waves of activity, particularly around the centenary commemorations in the 1960s.
Responsibility to remember – responsible ways to remember
It is apparent that the 1860s Great Hunger Years are carried in the collective memory of Finnish people (however that is defined) as a traumatic experience that has been addressed at best in the local levels, as there is no national famine memorial.
In our coffee table hunger history meetings in autumn 2017, I and Andrew speculated on whether there shall emerge any national initiatives to commemorate the Great Hunger Years. Along with the more obvious “the government should do something” lines of thought we played with the idea of which parties would be logical to cooperate with in taking action to commemorate that historical episode. The Red Cross, possibly, or other organisations that focus on human aid. Or maybe the Finnish Meteorological Institute, that would be apt! So often the Great Hunger Years were blamed on the exceptional weather conditions – or at least attention was steered to that instead of the shortcomings of societal initiatives to give and organise help.
As researchers who had spent years in going through the grim history of famine(s), having shed tears of sorrow and empathy at least in our hearts when not literally, the potentiality that the memory of the Great Hunger Years would be politicised or otherwise short-sightedly interpreted to rhetorical needs appeared as unacceptable. Partly due to this reason, the personal perspective was emphasised in the initiative. Back when I was writing my dissertation, I got inspired by F. R. Ankersmit’s thoughts about the historian’s research experience and her/his ability to relate to historical events. Historian’s work can be counted as public service and as work where one needs to make use of the variety of her/his cognitive skills. There are, of course, many perspectives and mindsets about how history ought to be written, but there are less guidelines about what to do with what history research does to the historian. When studying a topic that has not won much research or public attention, there easily appears a contradiction between the benevolent advocating for awareness and the doubt about self-appointed role to do so.
I think, of course, that more attention should be given to the 1860s Great Hunger Years and to how the events of that time wounded people’s minds and how that past has continued to cast its shadow on what could be termed as the Finnish mentality. No one can be forced to do so, though. Instead, I can show how I feel about that memory – and I can make that complex set of knowledge and feeling into an object of remembrance.
I can show how I feel about that memory – and I can make that complex set of knowledge and feeling into an object of remembrance.
It was all clear then that I would make memorial wreaths and that I would make use of materials which were used as emergency foods at the time of the Great Famine, materials such as straw, lichens and pine phloem. I asked Andrew if he would like to join me in this initiative. We both had a lot of other things to do, there was no time (and even less so point) to apply for foundation funding to this initiative, so once again I returned to that tedious, overtly commercialised and needlessly sporty slogan: Just do it.
Materials and the making of the 1860s Memorial Wreaths
To collect and use natural materials in the making of memorial wreaths resonates with the 1860s famine history. Back then, it was a rather common custom to make flour of pine phloem that was mixed to bread dough. Resulting substitute bread, made of a mixture of pine phloem flour (‘pettu’ in Finnish), cut straw and maybe some grain, has become emblematic of famines and crop failures in Finnish history.
At the time of emergency in 1860s, grain was delivered to help people in areas struggling with famine, but this aid was conditioned. Especially the then statesman, J. V. Snellman, considered it important that people would work for the help they needed: craft work was seen suitable to this end. In poor houses crafts that were made in return to a piece of substitute bread or thin soup included cutting straw for bread mixture and even the making of coffins. Such practices intensified the humiliating experiences of starvation and begging for help. Same rules applied in emergency work sites, in the building of canals, roads, bridges and the railway from Riihimäki to St. Petersburg. Sometimes the claim to earn one’s keep took forms of bully and blackmail. Such incidents fed mistrust and resentfulness against the parties organising help.
It is apparent that materiality – and, indeed, the lack of it – play a significant role in the remembering of the 1860s Great Hunger Years. Many of the memorials relate to the harshness of those years. They have been crafted from plain stones or they otherwise depict the meagre circumstances, for example with reliefs of broken ears of rye or begging hands. A distinctive material choice is the use of railway tracks in the memorials dedicated to those lost in the relief work sites building the railway to St. Petersburg, a stretch of track known as ‘luurata’ (skeleton track).
The action of crafting wreaths by using certain, emblematic natural materials and the black-painted cutlery was my choice of making the remembering of the 1860s Great Hunger Years visual and concrete.
As an ironic way of commemorating the sesquicentennial, spring 2018 progressed very slowly. Snow and ice kept on covering fields and forests, and indeed, I started to collect materials for the wreaths with my skis on. As also the autumn 2017 had been challenging – indeed, crop failures had taken place again, but due to endless raining rather than frost, and with the crop failure hardly reported in the media – I was pointed to a grain field where straw had had to be left (instead of collecting and using as litter in barns and stables) that I could collect and use as the core material for the wreaths. I covered these straw wreaths with diverse found materials: lichens, usnea, mosses; pine twigs, roots and phloem; spruce, birch, aspen and heather twigs; dead leaves, pine and alder cones (NB: no living green plants were harmed!).
The making of memorial wreaths took a good part of my May 2018. Although the making of wreaths was considerably quicker than my embroidery projects tend to be, it was nevertheless a time consuming activity. Eight wreaths was an amount I was able to make for this initiative. Whereas this was simply a matter of resources, it is also my wish that this initiative with the sample of memorials and the series of wreaths could give impetus to e.g. local cultural associations to create and lay wreaths and thus to commemorate their local Great Hunger Years memorials. A showcase of the wreaths is available as a virtual exhibition.