A Christmas Tale – The two ways across urban Arctic ecology

17.12.2021 11:47

In this year’s Christmas tale, Joonas Vola ponders the problematics of urban city planning and ecology in Northern climate, and the small decision that the residents, pedestrians and cyclists do on a daily basis, while choosing their lane or path.

Luminen kävelytie Rovaniemellä
Pedestrian paths in the snow. Photo Joonas Vola.


“[…] there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.
Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.
Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
― From The Tree of Life (2011) by Terrence Malick.

Some years ago, in Rovaniemi a number of roads and pavements were reorganized, in the areas of Viirinkangas, Lampela and Eteläkeskus districts. Viirinkankaantie took a new turn across a small forest strip, creating new park-like patches around it. Also, the lanes for pedestrians and cyclists had a few changes. The latest of them concerned a green area between the buildings along Ahkiomaantie and Harjulampi pond, which was opened for light traffic. The clearing cost a few trees, while it opened up a beautiful scenery to the pond, from the houses’ balconies and when moving in-between the greenery. This lane seemed to quite naturally weave into the other lanes cutting across the newly constructed park areas. These lanes also seemed to follow some shortcuts, one of which moved among the trees, close to the pond, and one of the official lanes that was ‘blocked’ by a residential building and its yard earlier on. Never the less, as the newly planted grass had hardly grown, a new shortcut was beginning to form, to follow the curve of the pond, and to resist the more rectilinear crossings of lanes.

I have come to appreciate the idea of ‘politics of paths’, the way how the everyday practices shape the (urban)space to meet the needs of people, and resisting the bureaucracy of the rectilinear and normative city plan and design. People find their ways, and the paths are formed where they are needed, ‘correcting’ the missing interfaces or routes, never doing it alone, but conducted in a silent collective effort, often resonating also with the seasonal changes of an Arctic city. Then again, is the way we choose to move along due to our urge towards a common good and against suppressive top-down planning, or actually rather (in contrast to theology) a narrow path towards hell, paved with comfort, ease and hurry. Where one has breached the norm, others can justify it for themselves as a common practice. The road has been laid for us …

While the lanes have been opened up to take us closer to cultivated ‘nature’, we have found ways to be unhappy with the new ways, and end up adding more, and taking even more away from the green growth. We move closer to “nature”, and we consume it more. This is how it takes place, step by step:

After the fresh frost and snow have covered the ground and pavements, the earlier narrow tracks across the grass have disappeared from sight. Due to the difficulty to follow it, what follows is that the track becomes wider, and more frozen blades of grass are bend and stepped down. When the frost and snow melts, as they do multiple times during the autumn and spring seasons, the trail of bare soil becomes soft and slippery, and people start to walk on the side of it, and the moist soil breaks up more easily into mud, and the trail widens further. Also, the fact that the snow is pressed into ice on the path, causes ground frost to that spot, breaking the ground, and potentially harms the grass, since the hard-pressed ice melts later than the snow, and the grass has a shorter season for growth.

I pass this crossroad of ‘official planning’ and ‘collective resistance’, on a daily basis during the working week. As my feet are taking me to one direction, I try to keep my head, to think twice, to ponder between the way of nature and the way of grace, to follow the norm of not stepping on the ‘other’, the other that has been forced gracefully to accept being slighter, forgotten and disregarded, accepting injuries, where I have to try to find ways of being happy, to not have always my own way, to consider the others as well. This is not a choice that I can make only once. I have to make it twice a day, five days a week. In regular basis, I stray from my way. Even if it is in my nature, I have to have trust in grace. To sanction my mistakes, and not to sanctify them. Can a pair of foot make really the difference, on a direction that seems inevitable, laid in front of me by the masses? I have to keep believing so, to lower the mark of my footprint on the face of the Earth. That is the way it goes.

I hope that everybody finds their way, if not across, then around, and that it takes us all to a good place.
Seasonal Greetings, Merry Weather and Nature’s Graces from all of me to all of you!

Text and photo by Joonas Vola