Back in the day everything was better

My previous essay includes bits from Hannu Linkola’s article titled ‘Administration, Landscape and Authorized Heritage Discourse – Contextualising the Nationally Valuable Landscape Areas of Finland’. It refers to a report by the Finnish Ministry of Environment titled ‘Maisemanhoito. Maisema-aluetyöryhmän mietintö I’, translating to ‘Landscape management. Report I of the working group on landscape areas’, as translated by Linkola. I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look myself. The document is readily available so why not. It’s dated as published in 1993, so quite a while ago, but it is what it is. The text is in Finnish, so I’ll try my best to paraphrase it and/or provide my own translations where applicable. I’m not much of a translator, but you’ll just have to manage.

The intro (8) acknowledges that times they are a changing, as you’d expect anyone to be aware of. It is also noted that people have learned to hold the aesthetic values of cultural landscapes in high esteem. You can’t say they aren’t aware of how things change and that beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder, but something that people have acquired. That said, it is argued that (8):

“It is clear that the protection of cultural landscapes is important not only due to cultural historic and biological reasons, but also because it interests most citizens’ groups.”

It is added that (8):

“The[se] unique totalities shaped from [a multitude of elements] should be taken care in a manner that respects and caters to the previous and the future generations.”

So, in essence, while it is acknowledged that one must look to the past and also to face the future, one should nevertheless protect what’s already there. Perhaps protect is a poor translation, so feel free to read that as conserve, but I’m a bit hesitant with that, considering that it might be read as that I’m stating that it’s about conservatism, rather than conservation. I think the document actually implies both. There seems to be an interest to conserve cultural landscapes, which in this case are understood as rural landscapes. No doubt, there is a clear emphasis on the importance of the vitality of rural Finland. The future aspect is suggested to adhere to the past (8):

“The new developments, including building and land use, must fit the landscape.”

If that’s not conservatism, that is to preserve the already established, then what is? The way I read this is that new developments are welcome, but only inasmuch as they help to retain the vitality of the rural areas, which then keeps everything as it already is. This is further specified (8):

“New buildings should be built in a way that it is in line with the old, and so that the location does not differ too much from where the buildings have traditionally been built. Building roads and power lines, extensive logging and other activities must be planned in ways that do not devalue the values of landscape or hinder economic activities.”

So, in other words, whatever you do, just don’t change anything, at least not to the extent anyone can notice it. Also, what are these landscape values? Who judges them? Perhaps this will be clarified, but I’m already puzzled. The introduction (8) ends with emphasis put on these very values and how the land owners should be encouraged to take care of valuable areas, possible with financial support provided. It is then added that at the same time it should be made sure of that the cultural landscape values are not threatened by short sighted brief economic gains from activities. In other words, what is added is that land owners are free to change things around for their benefit, but only if it does not detract from the values. The introduction does little to explain what these values are and what they are based on. It is indicated that, for example, cultivated fields and meadows may become a thing of the past if the cultural landscape isn’t protected or conserved. To me what is discussed and suggested seems like rural Finland should be kept as it is, like a museum, something to be gazed at for its visual aesthetic qualities that I think are the product of a long gone rural economy. Fields should not be cultivated or cattle grazed for the food they provide, but for that in case we happen to be around we can take pleasure at what unfolds in front of us. The rural areas must remain vital, but they mustn’t change, or at least in ways that make it look like it has changed. To me it comes across as if the farmers should just grow crops and keep livestock for the sake of it, you know, like a hobby.

In the next section (10), it is clearly indicated that what is meant by landscape is not only a view, but also an areal concept. The rationale for this is also clearly stated:

“Defining landscape as an area is necessary also due to practical reasons, for example, when planning landscape conservation.”

It probably gets a bit lost in translation, but the point is that landscape is equated to an area because it helps with the management, what to actually do to keep things looking the way they are. The next few pages then elaborate the history of agriculture in Finland. I can’t help but to read this otherwise interesting historical part as nostalgic. The disappearance of, for example, ditches, streams, bushes, fences and barns, seems to be of great concern in the report (14). The disappearance of features that used to mark how things were back in the day is more or less lamented. The development of agriculture, from small scale farms to large farms, is seen as detrimental, going against the wishes of people, if that makes any sense. On the plus side, it is noted (14) that in their current more simplistic form the cultural landscapes still manage to depict the layers history. It is argued that protecting cultural landscapes is largely based on the fact that they are multilayered sites of evidence of the history of the country, the people and the nature, and their development. I grasp what it is that the report is after, yet it seems contradictory. Cultural landscapes are the archive of how things were and how they have changed, so it’s important not to disturb them. I get that, but at the same time it’s like claiming that all land, or at least land deemed valuable, is to be treated like a site of archeological excavation or a museum. Nothing should be changed, so that nothing is lost of the past, at least not by human action. In other words, it’s like living a museum, you can look, but don’t touch anything!

In the next section the report turns to applications, how to make and keep inventory of landscape areas. It is noted (15) that previously work has been done for the same purposes, but it is argued that something more granular, something more fine tuned is needed for this purpose. Oddly enough it is acknowledged (15) that judging landscapes by their natural and cultural features is tricky in Finland due to the overall homogeneity. It is stated that any shift is at best gradual, as I think one might guess when there aren’t any sharp features such as mountain ranges that acts as dividers. That is all acknowledged in the report, yet it is argued that a classification is possible, building on existing research in natural features (e.g. biogeography, geomorphology, hydrogeography), supplemented by the cultural features. It is worth noting that it is stated (15) in the report that urban landscapes were not addressed that much. Anyway, to sum it up, there is a clear emphasis on judging landscapes based on the natural features. Now, I think it’s worth objecting here, pointing out the problem of using visual observation of natural features to delineate areas. In a previous essay that focused on national parks, I referred to Mikhail Bakhtin (217) who points out in ‘The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays’ that nature itself has been turned into landscape, no longer having any real or intrinsic connection to nature itself, that is if there ever was one for that matter. What are deemed as features of nature are likely tangled in what is deemed cultural. At least it makes me wonder how one goes on about to differentiate the natural features from the cultural features, especially when and where human activity has shaped those features, as Bakhtin suggests (217). Now, one could object that there are areas that are set as off limits to human use and development, to which one could then counter that as agreeing to do is also human action, there is never any area landscaped by humans. That agreement results in a desired outcome, for humans that is. As I pointed out in my previous essay, it would be odd, at least to me, that nature would somehow care if it is like this or like that, unless it’s understood as some omniscient superorganic entity which knows how much of it is unaffected by humans at any given moment. Later on it is pointed out that areas deemed of original nature are excluded in the report (46).

I see the rationale for basing the classification on certain large scale features that have developed at least largely independent of human activity, such as eskers that are understood as glacial sedimentary developments. Mountains are probably the easiest example to use, but as Finland doesn’t really have them, except the glorified hills in the northern parts, it’s not worth going there in the Finnish context. Rivers would be another example, but what will follow should suffice. Nevertheless, one can object to this. The issue that I can think of does not have to do with who did what or didn’t do in this case, but that it is assumed that the natural features are somehow permanent. The point is that not even mountains are permanent, as it is evident from the title of Doreen Massey’s article ‘Landscape as a Provocation: Reflections on Moving Mountains’. The report does, however, make note of this in the Finnish context. It is noted (33-35) that post-glacial rebound continuously shapes nature on the Ostrobothnian coast. Simply put, what now is considered an island might be considered a hill later on. Oddly enough, the report bases some of the classifications on that development. Certain landscape areas (18) are classified as consisting of land that once was seabed. Anyway, the report clearly makes note of the dynamics, yet it fails to make the connection, undercutting its own foundation.

As already pointed out, the report pays little attention to urban areas, you know, where most people happen to live these days and I would argue was also the case when the report was drafted. Anyway, to exemplify the cultural elements more specifically, I’ll look at what is reported of the landscape area where I’m from and happen to live. First, broadly speaking, the area in question is referred to as ‘Lounaismaa’ (20) translating to as the area in southwest. The cultural features are characterized as marked by agricultural developments, estates, medieval stone churches and large estates, as well as mills, ironworks, parks and gardens (21). It is further noted that there are differences in buildings that can be traced to differences in culture, namely between Finnish and Swedish speakers (21). It is indicated that there is a clear delineation between the built environment and the fields used for agriculture (21). What is striking in the overview is how the development of built environments is elaborated (21):

“The traditional placement of buildings has more recently been forgotten near large urban settlements and in leisure developments.”

My translation probably doesn’t quite catch the tone, but at least the way I read it is that this is lamented. The placement of buildings, where they are located now in comparison to how things used to be seems to be a cause for concern, even if it is not explicitly stated in the report. It is added (21) that closely related to the agricultural landscape, fields containing juniper trees, other grazing areas and meadows are also rapidly disappearing. The way the sentences are linked together by using the word also indicates that this development is also lamented. Simply put, recent changes in the landscape are seen detrimental to it.

More specifically, my area in specific ‘Lounainen viljelyseutu’, translating to southwestern agricultural area, is characterized as the wealthiest part of the southwestern area (21) and marked by the extensive agriculture (21-22). The spread of agriculture is characterized as efficient to an extent that the contrast between the fields and the forest may appear as rugged (22). I sense lament here as well. What comes to dwelling is reported only in reference to how villages are placed or used to be placed near agriculturally productive areas and on high ground, with buildings typically situated close to each other (22). What comes to urban developments is left open as cities and towns are not included in the characterization. One can only assume that they are not deemed valuable enough that they’d be worth even mentioning. The reason for this is explained later on as having to do with the actual management of landscape areas, urban areas requiring different arrangements for their management (46). I’m not exactly convinced, but okay, whatever.

The report moves on to explain the reasons for making inventories of landscape areas and the related goals (46):

“The practical goal of making inventories of landscape areas was to find nationally and regionally valuable cultural landscape areas that depict traditional countryside landscape types. The aim was to clarify regionally distinctive and typical features. The primary concern was to find areas that are diverse by nature and cultural heritage and retained traditional features.”

It’s been pointed out a couple of times already, but it’s worth reiterating that the focus is on the countryside. Urban areas are essentially excluded in the investigation for … because they are. Anyway, it is further elaborated in the report that (46):

“It was set as a requirement that the landscape areas are visually or otherwise clearly perceivable totalities and that they have significance for the conservation of, for example, buildings and other entities that have cultural historical value, endangered or rare biological species and their living environment, traditional landscapes that are become more rate or well kept agricultural landscape and beautiful scenery.”

So, in other words, they need to be visually distinct perceivable entities, as well as have certain features deemed worth conserving. It is noted that delineating between natural and cultural landscapes, as well as the urban and rural cultural landscapes is problematic, but that it was manageable nonetheless (46).

The reasoning behind the classification is followed by a section elaborating actual definitions (47). Building on a previous report, landscape area types are split into two types: valuable landscape areas and heritage landscape areas (47). The first type is subdivided to totalities and sights (47). Those who are interested can read for themselves how they are defined bit by bit.

What I find interesting in the report is that it is highly detailed. That said, while what is deemed worth conserving is elaborated in almost minuscule detail, as a reader I’m left puzzled by the taken-for-grantedness of what is deemed valuable and worth conserving. It seems like its assumed that everyone knows and those who don’t know should be encouraged to take advice from those who do. For example, it is asserted that (84):

“Well-proportioned, countrified built heritage is the crown of the cultural landscape.”

Erm, says who and why that is? Anyway, the report keeps on giving (84):

“Maintaining, repairing and renovating buildings is a sign of the sense of culture of the owner.”

Right. That only makes sense. It is added (84) that this should extend from dwellings to other buildings, such as granaries, barns, saunas, mills, crofts, cottages and ‘milk piers’ that make the landscape more interesting by adding variety. So, as I pointed out earlier on, these built features should be retained only for the visuals they provide despite having little actual use these days. It is then added (84) that anything new built should be in line with the building traditions. It is lamented (84) that similarly to rural dwellings, agricultural buildings have been built with little attention paid to how they fit the landscape. There are also various details that are to be maintained and repaired, such as stone and wooden fences, rock piles, ditches and trees by the sides of the roads, as they add value to the landscape (85). They are deemed to add value as they are telling of what previous generations did and how the environment was back then (85). Once again, it is not pondered in the report whether these features are actually useful in agriculture these days. It is stated that roads should be kept as they are, not paving them, making them wider or adding a lane by the road for light traffic (85). So, practicality is not worth considering, nor road safety. In addition to the specific landscape features, it is suggested (83) that the countryside should remain cultivated, meaning that forest should not be let to expand or to be planted where there currently are fields. There seems to be general hostility towards forest in the report, which sort of makes sense, considering that forest kind of is the bane of landscape, as previously elaborated in one of the essays. On top of that, fallowing should be avoided, because while it is beneficial for the land, it affects how the landscape looks (83). The caption of a photo featuring horse drawn machinery is rather telling of this understanding (119). It is suggested in the caption that nature remains productive if the farming is not too intensive (119). One could say that it is a fair point to make, but then again, horse powered agriculture, really, in the 1990s? Are you serious? I’d love to hear what a farmer would have to say about this.

I can’t help but to read the report as nostalgic and antiquated in its emphasis on the importance of all things pre-modern. It think it is fairly evident already. The report is from the 1990s, but it feels like it could be written in an era when people had guest cigarettes in case someone visited the household. Conversely, there’s also what I guess one could call an anti-modern slant. Power lines get mentioned as detriments to landscape multiple times (56, 126) and skiing slopes are referred to as landscape damages (126). It is added (126) that the equipment needed on the slopes make the landscape uglier. So it is actually asserted in the report that they, alongside leisure centers and golf courses, are eyesores (126). Sure, people may even agree on that one, but once again I’m puzzled by who gets to define that. In the report it’s just take for granted.

I took a quick look at the short but updated guidelines for the landscape inventory, published in 2010. While they are clear and concise it doesn’t do much to answer what I’ve been questioning here. Who gets to decide what’s valuable? I don’t mind if things are and/or stay the same, that people retain old buildings or other features, whatever they may be, but I’m not exactly fond of the idea that what is deemed as valuable gets to be yardstick, considering that it’s not explained what it’s based on. I think that at its worst, it can make landscape impervious to change, as noted by Maurice Ronai (153) in his first landscape article. Related to this, I should also take a look at the guidelines for built environment (urban landscapes), which is separated from the rural landscape assessment, but it’s probably better to do that separately.


  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (C. Emerson and M. Holmquist, Trans.). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Linkola, H. (2015). Administration, Landscape and Authorized Heritage Discourse – Contextualising the Nationally Valuable Landscape Areas of Finland. Landscape Research, 40 (8), 939–954.
  • Massey, D. (2006). Landscape as a Provocation: Reflections on Moving Mountains. Journal of Material Culture, 11 (1–2), 33–48.
  • Ronai, M. (1976). Paysages. Hérodote, 1, 125–159.
  • The Finnish Ministry of the Environment (1993). Arvokkaat maisema-alueet: Maisema-aluetyöryhmän mietintö II. Helsinki, Finland.
  • The Finnish Ministry of the Environment (1993). Maisemanhoito: Maisema-aluetyöryhmän mietintö I. Helsinki, Finland.