Read Christopher Meredith's latest dispatches from Jyväskylä, where he is Translators' House Wales/HALMA writer-in-residence Oct/Nov 2012. In mid-November, as part of the same programme, Finnish poet and translator, Harry Salmenniemi will be welcomed in return to Wales for a month-long residency. He will be working with Siân Melangell Dafydd on translations of his poetry into Welsh.
Dispatch #2 Waterland
Jyväskylä, my home for a month, is bang in the middle of central southern Finland. Imagine a city the size of Newport built inland among lakes. Most of the city is new and it’s grown very fast over the last thirty years. There are some older wooden buildings, including the Kirjailijatalo, the Writers’ House, where I’m staying, but most of the town is new and often in the softened modernist style of its most famous local, the architect Alvar Aalto. Many of the buildings are his, and one, the theatre clad in ridged ceramic, actually bears his signature in bronze. The centre of the town fits between three lakes, lying under a ridge along the north-west shore of Jyväsjärvi, with the blunt south-easterly ends of Tuomiojärvi and Palokkajärvi prodding it from the other side. Järvi means lake.
I borrowed a gearless bike, courtesy of my host from the Writers’ Union, Vesa Lahti, and cycled round Jyväsjärvi a few times, once in snow and ice. He’s too polite to say it, but I think Vesa thinks I’m mad enough to be a Finn. Suffering joggers and leisurely walkers beat these bounds along with me. I passed one old man jogging with a fixed stare at the ground, looking as if he wouldn’t last 500 metres. Half an hour later he passed me again on the opposite shore, having run it at roughly the same speed I’d cycled, still going, still with the fixed stare. Or maybe he had a twin. On the same circuit I saw a jay in the thin birches among the houses, and a flock of waxwings whirred from the trees to their next stash of rowan berries.
It’s not very far, maybe 14 km, and mostly on safe paths. Jyväsjärvi is probably bigger than any natural lake in Wales, but at the northern end, not far past the plume of the power station, there’s a broad canal cut into another lake, Päijänne. It’s suddenly more rural there, and a few police launches are discreetly moored. Päijänne is immense, over 1,000 square kilometres and nearly 120 km long, curving round to the south. Another canal, cut just twenty years or so ago with huge locks and a hydro-electric generator to boot, connects Päijänne to the north with Lake Leppavesi. This creates a navigable waterway that snakes through the country for about 300 km. What isn’t forest or town round here is mostly open water. Pull back from the map a little and you see that the three lakes the town centre sits among are tiny puddles in this strange landscape of trees and water. Many of the lakes in central Finland run roughly north to south, but there’s a strangely consistent drag-mark pattern across these on the map running from the north-west to south-east, as if an enormous, clawed geological comb had been dragged across the picture from top left to bottom right before the paint was dry. It’s hard not to connect this scraped patterning with the elongated brindling you see on birchbark everywhere here.