The Swan Petroglyph and the Wild Reindeer Pavilion

By David Rothenberg

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Two Stops on the Journey from Ruin to Renewal

Last summer I ran across so many examples of “Ruin and Renewal” I hardly know where to start. So I’ll just tell you about two wondrous places I’ve seen, that may or may not have anything to do with one another. You be the judge.

First, I’ve got to tell you about my friend Rauno. Rauno Lauhakangas, the instigator of some of my strangest journeys. That trip to the White Sea to make music live with beluga whales in Karelia? That was his idea. I ended up writing a whole book about it. And two weeks driving around way north of the Arctic Circle with four Russian DJs performing concerts in unlikely venues night after night? Also Rauno’s plan. And to think that in his day job this guy works in Geneva looking for the Higgs Boson at CERN. “I think we found it,” he confided in me. “I believe my work for physics is done.” Now back to what he really cares about: saving whales, building small-scale biomass energy plants in the wilds of Finland, and ancient paleoarctic rock art. “I’ve got too much else to do,” he smiles.

This summer he opened up his own museum, the Virukoda Center for Prehistoric Art, in a most unlikely example of ruin and renewal. Here is the building:

Virukoda Center for Prehistoric Art
Virukoda Center for Prehistoric Art in Palmse, Estonia.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

This is a most unlikely site, a former general store for the Soviet collective farm in the town of Palmse, one hour east of Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. The Russians moved thousands of Estonian farmers into ugly small apartment buildings which they built in the forest, as they nationalized all arable land and took state control. Each kolhoz had a magasin, and today they are all in ruins. Except this one is an unusually beautiful place, the Lahemaa National Park, a mixture of private and public land, the sort of park pioneered in New York like the Adirondack Park four hours north of my home. A very unusual kind of land preservation, and a public/private mix that the Estonians decided to follow as they deemed to preserve an area full of pristine forests, beautiful beaches, and a fabulous old castle.

Those are the things the government shows you in pictures like this:

Estonian castle.
Palmse Manor in Lahemaa National Park, Estonia.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

which is right down the road but they don’t tell you about the crummy collective farm apartment building and the old store, formerly lying in ruins. But Rauno and his friend, the retired journalist Erkki Suonio had a dream of building a museum of prehistoric Finn-Ugric rock art from the Karelian Lake Onega, near Petrozavodsk, northeast of St. Petersburg. Since the petroglyphs there were originally discovered by Estonians in the 1840s, they figured Estonia would be a fine place for their museum.

Instead of asking for big grants from the European Union, they just went to Russia, made rubbings of the 6,000-year-old rock artworks, and took over this abandoned space that no one else wanted. They built their own museum, with very little outside support. A typical Rauno project, one might say.

Here he is explaining the meaning of the image of the snake to the ancient Karelians:

Only when he saw heavy rain run over the strangely notched carving of the serpentine image did he realize that the water made the snake picture appear to move! “They were modern people, like us,” he explains. “We move images on the screen with pixels, and they moved carvings on the rock—with water.” Take that, Werner Herzog. Even Cave of Forgotten Dreams didn’t think of that.

The swan, to the ancient Karelians, was the central creature who carried the sun across the sky. A graphic and beautiful image:

Ancient Karelian rock art
Finn-Ugrick rock art from the Karelian Lake Onega region of Russia.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.
Karelian rock art: swan
Finn-Ugrick rock art, a swan, from the Karelian Lake Onega region of Russia.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

Rock art is so ancient and remote that all explanation of its meaning and function is a kind of wild conjecture. Its ancient beauty transcends the limits of our human ability to record and remember. I find it more than ironic that such images now reside inside a relic from the ruined Soviet Union. Travel there sometime and be surprised!


A few weeks later I flew off to Norway to play a concert inside a remarkable new building 1,500 meters up called the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center Pavilion, a rectilinear symbol of minimal human intrusion looking off over the tundra towards a great mountain named Snøhetta, the Snow Hat, 2,286 meters in height, one of the country’s highest peaks. The building was designed by a famous architectural firm also called Snøhetta, known for designing the brand new Library of Alexandria, the Oslo Opera House, and even New York’s soon-to-open 9/11 Museum.

This little building has won architectural prizes, and when you climb up the one-hour hike to the ridgetop and enter the space, you realize what is so great about this building. It is but a tiny human gesture, looking out over a great wilderness (view some wonderful images over at de zeen magazine).

Once inside a few days before the show I sat and contemplated what sort of music would be right inside here…

Testing music inside Snøhetta
David Rothenberg contemplates what sort of music would be right at Snøhetta.
Photo by Umru Rothenberg.

Only on the way down did I take a little side trail to read a plaque explaining the full extent of the ruin and renewal going on here. First of all, the walk up to the Pavilion went through one of Europe’s largest and deepest iron mines, which closed two decades ago. Today on the surface there is hardly a trace of it. Plus, when one gazes from the Pavilion toward the peak of Snøhetta, the view crosses the Hjerkinn Shooting Range, practicing ground for the Norwegian Army for nearly 90 years. It’s currently being restored toward a somewhat wild state, with all unexploded ordnance and land mines to be removed so that it will look something like a park by opening day, summer 2016. They have even introduced musk oxen from Greenland to add a unique sense of wildness….

Nevertheless, the Pavilion is supposed to celebrate the thousands of years of hunting and trapping of wild reindeer on the Dovre alpine plateau. Up and down the plateau are hundreds of ancient wild reindeer pits, which the animals would unsuspectingly fall into and later be captured by the hunter-gathering peoples who lived in the area over the past several thousand years. Wild reindeer still roam the viddas, in smaller numbers, but now we can hunt them with fancy rifles, wearing camouflage suits the color of rock and lichen.

As you walk up the 40-minute snaking path to the Pavilion, the ground is inset with stones marking the changing tale of the relationship between human and reindeer. At one point the tale appears that a huge tsunami wiped out all human settlements on the coastline while only the alpine reindeer hunters survived. That was a few thousand years ago. But only a hundred years ago the game seemed to be up. This line says “1900 AD: Man’s use of nature left less room for reindeer.”

Text engraved on stone.

And where are we today? A beautiful minimalist shoebox, featuring glass and wood, a tiny human gesture against the great mountain. What we see out there all looks wild, but there are thousands of years of stories linking humans to the land. There is no nature to be seen without us. But we can set up our view so the wild takes the stage.

With that in mind I played a concert there. It was me alone on clarinet plus a repeating loop of otherworldly sound I created on the spot with an iPad running Animoog. The old and the new, a recurring thought careening across history. All these memories and ironies swirled through my head. They’re still swirling:

Thanks for being part of this journey from ruin to renewal.



Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing, Thousand Mile Song, Survival of the Beautiful, and the upcoming Bug Music. His writings have appeared in at least eleven languages. His latest major label music CD, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, a duet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, came out on ECM in 2010.  Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.