The Silent People of Suomussalmi – Kainuu, Eastern Finland

Bob from the Nature Travels Team came across something very strange and rather wonderful in the remote region of Kainuu in Eastern Finland during his visit in May 2015:

Travelling south on the main road from Hossa towards Kajaani, suddenly the thick forest gives way for a moment to an open field, where you’ll discover something very special. For this is the home of the Silent People.

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I’m no art critic – I wouldn’t even say I’m particularly interested in art – yet the Silent People really moved me. It’s difficult to say exactly why. Some might find them scary – a mute zombie army advancing menacingly, faceless ghosts haunting the endless forests. Some have said they are a reflection on the Finnish national character, particularly here in the Kainuu region. (There’s an old joke that goes, “A Swede and a Finn are having a beer. The Swede says, ‘Skål!’ [Cheers]. The Finn replies, “We gonna talk, or we gonna drink?”)

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Perhaps it was the rainy May morning, still carrying the nip of winter in the air. Certainly being the only visitor there added to the magical, other-wordly atmosphere. But I found the installation oddly thought-provoking, even uplifting. In a world of constant meaningless chatter, where else could you find a thousand people comfortable in their own silence, content to enjoy the natural beauty of the sights and sounds around them without comment?

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Just a few days before, a strong storm had swept through the region, bringing down trees and power lines and, it seems, several of the Silent People too. Some lay prostrate on the wet ground. Others were frozen in a half-fallen posture as if they’d stumbled just before I arrived and were struggling to stand. Some had lost their hats or scarves, which lay nearby in muddy puddles or entangled in the rough grass.

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As I wondered among the “bodies”, I felt oddly responsible for them. I thought of these figures standing patiently in the field, day after day, in all weathers, stoically enduring the elements and the passing of the seasons. It occurred to me that, were I in their position, I would certainly appreciate a hat. Before I knew it, I was collecting sodden items from the mud, replacing baseball caps on straw heads, draping woollen scarves around wooden shoulders.

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At first I thought how sad it was that they had been so neglected, that perhaps no-one else would care for them after I left. But according to the leaflet from the small wooden reception cabin, their heads (made from peat from the field they stand in) are repaired and their clothing attended to twice a year. The young girl quietly making a fire to brew coffee said that they would be redressed next week before the official opening for the summer.

So soon the Silent People will once again be looking their best.

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But in the meantime, I thought their dishevelled state only added to the emotional impact – echoing our own frailty, perhaps, reminding us of our own mortality.

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So if you find yourself on the road to Kajaani, perhaps coming from a snowshoeing tour in the beautiful Hossa region or a hiking trip along the Finnish-Russian border, spare a few minutes to spend with the Silent People, waiting patiently in their boggy field for your company. And if one has lost its hat, put it back, for the Silent People cannot help themselves…

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The Silent People is an installation of almost a thousand straw and wood figures created by artist Reijo Kela. For more information on the Silent People, see www.kuutamokeikat.fi

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