The Sisterhood of the Enchanted Forest: Sustenance, Wisdom, and Awakening in Finland’s Karelia by Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle (buy it used or new at SecondSale.com)
Naomi Moriyama, a Tokyo-born Manhattanite, was uprooted from her noisy but familiar New York City existence when her husband got a Fulbright to the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu, in the region of Karelia on Finland’s eastern border with Russia — the easternmost point of the European Union, a vast forested area inspired J.R.R. Tolkien.
In between jobs and at the end of her parental leave, relocating for six months seemed doable, although she wasn’t sure if she would like the isolation of rural Finland, a country she knew little about.
She pretty much loved it from the get-go though, and as she researches her new temporary home, Moriyama learns more about Finland’s robust social system and impressive achievements in education, equality, and human rights, especially women’s rights. Among other accolades: it’s got the cleanest air and water, is ranked the happiest nation (albeit with a high suicide rate, oddly) and has extensive protections for parents. Upon arriving, she’s quickly taken in by a group of women called the Marthas (rather unfortunate naming, even taking the moniker from the same Biblical Martha that The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Marthas do). The Marthas show her how to forage for wild edibles, like mushrooms and berries, and prepare foods to last through Finland’s notoriously dark and depressing winters, and how to take advantage of cultural points like the sauna and the rejuvenating physical and mental health benefits of “forest bathing” — walks in the woods.
The tranquility of the forests affected her deeply, making her reconsider the typical New York pace of life when set against Finland’s culture of quiet reflection, appreciation for nature, and focus on personal well-being. Not to mention the countries’ different perceptions of what it means to provide for its citizens.
In the United States, the words welfare state had become a term of derision, conjuring up images of welfare cheats living on food stamps and driving Cadillacs with stolen government money; but in Finland the phrase was a national badge of honor, signifying compassion and love for all members of society.”
I thought Moriyama was fair in not blindly praising the country’s social and gender equality achievements while still weighing where they’re lagging or could use improvement, with trans rights surprisingly very far behind for the otherwise progressive nation. The material could’ve been presented a little more creatively, as sometimes it reads like pages of facts and figures.
It’s filled with lots of quotes from and profiles of powerful or influential women, like the most recent young Prime Minister Sanna Marin, and Tanja Auvinen, a government official at the Finnish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, who said, “For me it feels like I won the lottery when I was born as a girl in Finland.” The juxtaposition against the US is fairly staggering.
Moriyama’s writing background is in food and nutrition (she’s done a range of executive-type work that didn’t seem related to this, but has authored a couple of diet and Japanese cuisine books) so she had a certain interest in the cuisine of the Karelian region. I was fascinated by this, especially as she includes a handful of recipes (berry- and mushroom-heavy). They all sound interesting although I’m not sure I’d attempt any. I’m curious about the brown chanterelle cookies (I guess these would be kind of nutty-tasting?) and a salmon soup with vegetables and dill that Moriyama says was her favorite Finnish dish, served with rye bread. They’re simple and hearty but she captured a good selection
I appreciated learning about the social structures and what’s worked so well in Finnish society. I think rather than just marveling at everything they’re managing to do with their tax dollars, it helps to consider these things on a deeper level. I remember a story from Humankind, where US prison officials toured Norwegian prisons and were moved to tears over the difference in conditions – and considerations of humanity — and actually worked to implement some changes based on the Norwegian model in their American prison systems. The US is far from a social state but it’s worth understanding what other countries are getting right and being open to what we can learn from them.
I found the writing a bit on the light side and it gets repetitious — we’re reminded so often in such a short book of the main points of Moriyama’s background and why she had to adjust to the slower-paced life in nature, plus cliches about the sisterhood and “tribe” aspect which ends up feeling more tell than show.
It feels a bit brief in general: she skips between her time with the Marthas and information about various political and community programs, and I enjoyed learning how all of these have contributed to bringing Finnish society to where it is now. But there could’ve been a lot more to it. I even would’ve liked more focus on Finnish cuisine and cooking, for example.
It’s an interesting if lightweight introduction to Finland’s current culture and social structures.
Published October 5, 2021 by Pegasus Books. I received a copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Some parts reminded me of another memoir I read a few months ago, Katherine May’s Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. May’s response to an unspecified illness and a corresponding depressive episode led to her feeling she needed to withdraw from the world. “I’m tired, inevitably. But it’s more than that. I’m hollowed out. I’m tetchy and irritable, constantly feeling like prey, believing that everything is urgent and that I can never do enough.”
I identified with that a lot, as I suspect many people do, even when facing burnout or just the typical exhaustion that comes with modern fast-paced life, not only depression. She writes about how she recharges and navigates this episode with self-care and embracing the urge to retreat, including by looking traditions practiced in the Northern countries that are much more familiar with coping with seasonal darkness, both inner and outer. She travels from her native England to see the Northern Lights, visiting Iceland and Norway, and experiments with saunas, makes soup and bakes, and the book often feels journalistic as she writes through her feelings.
But this isn’t really what it says on the tin, so to speak. I think any subtitle would’ve failed it because there’s so much wrapped into it. I didn’t dislike it, but I had lost all interest by the last 50 or so pages. It’s sometimes boring, it’s often about nothing, and I didn’t feel connected to the author, who doesn’t do much service in setting up her background, or interested in many of the events, places, and doings that she appreciates or feels rejuvenated by. I don’t mean that to be insensitive, because I’m very interested in reading about coping methods for bouts of depression, or the feeling that you need to retreat. I feel like I should’ve been the right audience but this felt disjointed and at times just wasn’t compelling.
The beginning is the strongest, aside from how horrified I was at her outright annoyance with her husband for ruining her birthday and their son’s beach day with his pesky about-to-burst appendix. The nerve of him! And then weirdly, she doesn’t even explain what she’s sick with. Something about this feels very haphazard, like it was put together from start to finish very quickly.
I did love her reference to the ineffectualness of social media posts meant to be inspirational in moments of crisis: “This is where we are now, endlessly cheerleading ourselves into positivity while erasing the dirty underside of real life. I always read brutality in those messages: they offer next to nothing. There are days when I can say with great certainty that I am not strong enough to manage. And what if I can’t hang on in there? What then? These people might as well be leaning into my face, shouting, Cope! Cope! Cope! while spraying perfume into the air to make it all seem nice. The subtext of these messages is clear: Misery is not an option.”
It had some nice lines and lovely thoughts, a few helpful ones even, and it’s a concept I like considering even if the book as a whole didn’t work for me. Some favorites:
“That’s what you learn in winter: there is a past, a present, and a future. There is a time after the aftermath.”
“We should sometimes be grateful for the solitude of night, of a winter. They save us from displaying our worst selves to the waking world.”
Buy it used or new at SecondSale.com
Any good winter-themed nonfiction you can recommend?