Literature is an excellent, cost-efficient, and sustainable way to travel to places near and far. And sometimes – rather magically – a book can explain cultural traditions better than a trip outside or a journey overseas. If this sounds cryptic and you are not convinced, then you must read The Sisterhood of the Enchanted Forest (2021), or its Finnish translation Lumotun metsän sisaret (2021).
After receiving this beautiful book from my sister and becoming enchanted with its perceptiveness of the Finnish culture and traditions, I got in touch with its Japanese American author Naomi Moriyama and sat down for a coffee with her. I was eager to hear why she and her husband, William Doyle, moved from New York City to Joensuu and wrote a book about “Sustenance, Wisdom, and Awakening in Finland’s Karelia,” as the subtitle of the book reads.
Meeria Vesala (MV):
- I am amazed at how well your book captures the essence of Finnish forests and their importance to both Finns and foreigners who visit here. But before we get into that, I must ask, how did you and your family end up moving to Finland six years ago?
Naomi Moriyama (NM):
- We moved here from New York City because my husband William was invited to be a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu. When we got the news, I knew almost nothing of Finland, except that it was somewhere in the Nordic region atop Europe, and it had great schools.
I had left a demanding executive job in NYC and been home with our young son, so it was actually a great time for us to try something new. But I have to tell you: I was also terrified of the big move and before we even left, William and I agreed that if I couldn’t take the freezing darkness or loneliness, I had the option to go back to New York. [We both laugh, realizing that the very opposite happened.]
- I’m glad you didn’t return to the Big Apple so soon, though the City can also be a lot of fun. Having read your book, I have a feeling I know why you stayed here, but tell us what was it that made you fall in love with Joensuu and the community that welcomed you?
- If Finland is seen as being located at the ‘edge of Europe’, then Karelia and Joensuu are at the ‘edge of Finland’ and we were well aware of this upon arriving. Geography, of course, dictates many things. We included a map of North Karelia in the first pages of our book and called it “The Realm of the Enchanted Forest” because that is how we came to experience the area. To us Karelia felt like a massive forest that had all these wonderful things in it: trees, mushrooms, berries – even fairies, some say – and all that ended up having a transformative effect on our life. For me personally, it was the community that made the biggest difference.
- Right, you were active in the Marthas (in Finnish Marttajärjestö) which, as you explain in your book, is a volunteer force of over forty thousand women and men “aiming to give people self-confidence and skills to take care of themselves and their families,” while also “sharing knowledge of food, cooking, growing produce, gardening, hygiene, budgeting, and running the household”. What was so transformative about this community of women (and men) that you call ‘sisterhood’ in the book?
- Well, people think that the Marthas are just women, but also men can join and today they’re very vocal about welcoming everyone, LGBTQ people, new generations, Finns and foreigners, everyone. I love that in Finland even school kids learn how to cook, knit, and do crafts, they see where food comes from and how to prepare it. The whole thing is like a grandmother’s wisdom: buy seasonal – which is by the way very Japanese too – and this philosophy, these values are exactly what also my mother taught me, that health is the most important thing. To achieve that, you need to eat well. And to eat well, you need to buy seasonal food and learn how to cook it. This is a very valuable skill in our society especially today. But we tend to forget this, we go to the store, spend money, and support a food industry that is not always sustainable.
The ‘sisters’ in the Marthas are smart also in other ways: they help locals in all sorts of situations, those who are struggling, as well as refugees and immigrants. The Marthas recognize that if they show people how to buy healthy groceries and how to prepare food, those people will inevitably gain self-confidence and feel empowered.
- So they are very practical about making a positive difference in people’s lives?
- Yes, the Marthas help the community through their generational knowledge and in practice. All this wisdom, this notion of having a purpose by serving the community can really drive you and give you a sense of well-being. Sharing their everyday knowledge with those who might lack it gives also the Marthas something valuable: a sense of doing something meaningful.
- Indeed. This idea of teaching by showing reminds me of the many chapters in your book where you – as if literally – take the reader to the North Karelian forest with you to pick berries and mushrooms, creating a very immersive reading experience and a magical sense of calmness of being in the Finnish forest in the summer. What was the effect of these forest visits on you?
- Connecting with nature and wellness is very important to me. Walking in the forest, or “forest bathing” (shinrin-yoku in Japanese), along with learning how to cook Finnish foods has helped me gain a specific mindset that I now carry with me. A mindset that is not dependent on location. I can be anywhere in the world and take these important pieces with me: the gardening, the foraging, the sisterhood, all of it.
And even though I realized the potential of these things in Karelia, they are not necessarily Finland-specific, Japan-specific or New York-specific, the beautiful thing is that you can create that kind of sustainable community anywhere and find it around you, if you have the right mindset. All you have to do is look. I know I can recreate that lifestyle wherever I go now.
- That is such a constructive way of thinking about wellness and culture.
- Yes, there is immense strength in travelling to different places and learning from other cultures, especially for children. Our experiences in Finland have been so meaningful, and I hope that the lessons we have learned about the Finnish culture come across in our book.
Meeria Vesala is a regular contributor to the Magazine and a SAM member.