Taiga

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Plunging into the heart of darkness

Taiga is the Russian word for forest. It’s a hard, fearsome word which is generally used to describe the vast ring of trees which runs around the top of the globe. The taiga spills out from Russia into Scandinavia and over the Bering Strait to Canada. The taiga occupies more space on Planet Earth than “jungle” or “desert”, but it rarely invades our consciousness. The taiga prefers to lurk on the fringes – a kind of dreamscape populated by snow, trees and the howling of wolves. Perhaps we don’t often look at the taiga because we don’t want to see it.

British landscapes are commonly made up of two or three distant, horizontal lines. Finland is defined by an endless barcode of verticality. Within an hour’s drive north from the Finnish city of Oulo, the relentless forest began to feel claustrophobic. My personal space was being invaded by trees. I felt breathless, and would have paid good money for some altitude and a clear view. Early October is the Finnish “ruska” – a time when the woods come to life in autumnal colour. As we crossed the Arctic Circle and neared our destination, aspens roared like bonfires against the dark conifers.

In my country, woods are fussily contained by fences and walls – trees are held at bay in an otherwise open landscape. In Finland, the effect is reversed. Fields are dug out of the taiga, and the narrow strips of agricultural land wage a constant war against incursion from birch seeds and aspen suckers. Much of Finland’s ancient taiga has been managed, felled and worked at some stage in human history, but my impression of Finnish forestry was extremely harmonious. The Finns are pushing at an open door, working alongside natural processes. How different this is from Britain’s “spreadsheet/tax relief” approach, in which every tree lives and dies with the clockwork certainty of oilseed rape.

Despite Finland’s managed landscape, there are many places which have not changed since the last glaciers died. Wrinkled logistics have conspired to keep these places safe from axes and chainsaws. Finnish forests are so rich and extensive that the Finns have never had to hunt down and consume every splinter of wood as we did in Scotland, and managed forests run seamlessly alongside their ancient ancestors.

We entered the taiga on foot near the small town of Luosto. A narrow path led us away from daylight and deep into the forest. At first we were fixated upon the details. A few waxwings trilled past overhead, and we combed through a carpet of berries like children in a sweetshop. There was blaeberry, cloudberry and crowberry; islands of variety scattered in a candy-pink ocean of cowberry – red, glossy jewels like pomegranate seeds.

Here was an excessive fruitbowl of colours, textures and flavours, and there were ant nests which were taller than we were – we took photographs of one another standing alongside the massive mounds of munched-up needles.

Tall, looming spruces gathered round us and oozed their sappy scents into the mixture. It was easy to imagine that we were in some enchanted temple, and we immediately fell to speaking in hushed whispers. As long as we lingered within a mile or two of the car, reindeer bells clanked gently through the stillness to remind us of humanity. A little further along, silence fell like a thick velvet curtain.

I became less aware of fine details and began to feel for a sense of space and atmosphere. After eight miles across broken ground, my legs started to feel tired and my mood dropped. Excitement and elation blurred with weariness and gloom. I paused to ponder my surroundings and found that this forest seesawed between extremes.

Finland is home to an extraordinary variety of birdlife in the summer months. Many of Europe’s most charismatic birds travel to the far north to breed, but this tide has receded by time that leaves begin to fall. Aside from an occasional crossbill or waxwing, the heart of this forest was shatteringly empty. And yet it was still possible to imagine some places as they would have been in summer. Although empty, some parts of the forest seemed fillable – they had a capacity for life. In contrast, other parts were cold and utterly still, as if nothing had ever prospered there. A forester’s clipboard would register both as identical – the trees were similarly sound and comparably distributed, but as I moved between the trunks, I swung between pleasure and hollow, dank terror.

Jays came to us in the emptiest stretch of our walk. We had paused for a moment in a maze of spruce trees, and suddenly the air was stirred by the action of soft, spectral wings. Siberian jays are renowned for their fearlessness, and the little birds came silently out from the darkness like flakes of living snow. One bird landed above my head and hopped down a branch towards me. The little imp paused on a bony twig and bobbed his tail. I could have reached out to touch him. Trailing strands of lichen stirred in the stillness like a dead infant’s hair.

Every feather was moulded in the softest gossamer. For a terrible moment, I half expected the bird to whisper something to me. He would have a child’s voice. The hackles rose on the back of my neck – his confidence was repellent. I recoiled from the steady spark in his eye, and then within a second or two, the group had floated back into the forest as if the entire purpose of their visit was to depart and leave us even more alone. The enchanted forest somehow grew deeper and more chilling over the next two miles.

On a final, uplifting pull back to the car, we climbed up through banks of scree and snow-shattered scots pines. A hole opened in the canopy, and I had a sudden view to the east. Cloud growled over the even, steady landscape, but there was nothing except smirry rain between me and the enormity of Russia. This forest runs all the way to Mongolia and beyond. In the old days, it would have run across the land bridge and all the way to Canada’s Atlantic coast. Bears become possible on a grand canvas like this. Here (and perhaps only here) was a suitable backdrop to dream of wolves. I felt very small.

My imagined taiga had become real in a manner both thrilling and foul. Reindeer bells welcomed us back to the world, and soon we emerged abruptly onto a forest track. The spell was broken. My European DNA originated in places like these, and there were aspects of profound familiarity in the deep taiga. But if you are looking for true wilderness, be careful what you wish for.

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Siberian jay –

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