Preparations on Thinking Slow

Preparations for Thinking Slow

By David Carlin

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There is a Finnish expression I learnt in Lapland, rannaton aika, which translates as “shoreless time”. When you can see the horizon but there is no land. When the mind is in a state of preparing in anticipation of the unknown. A little like daydreaming, but creating space rather than filling it with images and scenes. In a daydream a horizon is usually a mirage. Shoreless time: the term itself is shoreless, hard to anchor. One recent summer I joined a small group of artists, academics, and local tourism entrepreneurs in a tiny village called Misi, in the north of Finland. For four days, as the sun circled the perimeter of the sky, we lived and worked together making something called a Slowlab, dwelling in shoreless time.

Misi lies near the Arctic Circle, in flat, wooded country. A long, straight gravel road defines the village. At one end, the deserted train station. Nearby, the local shop, boarded up. Beside the road, many of the houses sit empty and quiet in their overgrown gardens. In between and behind the houses grow the birch and pine forests where it is said you might still come across unexploded mines left behind by the Germans in the war. One evening, in the slow-moving light, we saw a pair of reindeer wandering freely on the road, heavy end-of-summer antlers bobbing. At the far end, where the road curves, we stayed in an outsized wooden guesthouse with many wide and empty corridors and a large disused dining room, in which all the furniture was stacked up by the walls. A TV mounted on the wall was sometimes on, although nobody was ever watching. A friendly guy called Eric ran the guesthouse. Wearing camouflage-patterned cargo pants and military-style boots, his face unsanded in the shadows of his long dank, black hair and scrubby beard, he had a habit of appearing and disappearing abruptly, often while sipping from a can of beer. The women pegged him early on. Out along the road beyond the guesthouse, where it crooked and ran over a small hill, the lake shimmered beneath steely clouds. In warmer weather one could swim there.

What is a Slowlab? This was an open question: apparently, it was up to all of us to get together and work it out. One of the Finnish academics organizing the camp had come up with the name, or borrowed it. It was intended as what designers like to call a “proposition”: a homemade kite you launch to see how well it flies. We looked closely at the longer title: a laboratory of slow thinking. What experiments might be conducted in that laboratory? The idea of slow, although slow, has traveled widely: the slow food movement began in Italy in the 1980s as a protest against—you guessed it—fast food. Since that time, there have been slow cities, slow media, slow fashion, slow travel, slow gardening, and many another slow-moving bandwagon. The more that humans speed things up, from quantum computers to global warming, the more drawn we are to the scarce commodity of slowness. We fetishize it if we can afford to. We cling to it. Yes, speed is exhilarating. It promises to heighten experience—but then it ends up flattening it. Things become a blur. Speed has come to be associated with Taylorized mass-consumption, the hypercapitalist craziness of a species gone dangerously manic. Slow means stopping to smell the metaphorical roses. And to think. What the fuck are we doing? Towards what future are we madly rushing?

The road at Misi

Preparations for thinking slow:

Wake early. Too early, but allow that too early will be just okay.

Think about walking to the lake. Think that this will be a good time to walk to the lake, before breakfast, because it is early and it is late summer in Lapland, so there will always be enough light.

Get dressed—slowly, so as not to wake the other men sleeping in the room. All the rooms are large, with many single beds: perhaps it was a place for school camps once? Last night one of the men sat on a chair near your bed, where you were already lying beneath the covers, and wanted to talk. He wasn’t creepy. He opened a bottle of red wine for himself. He was interested in the memoir you had written some years ago about your father and the enduring resonances of his suicide. When the man had a fair idea in his head of what the book was about, he said he thought more people should read it. But that would only happen, he said, if you rewrote it as a novel. You should do that as soon as possible, he said, so that people would read what he considered an important story. Some people might read memoirs, he conceded, but many more people read novels (you didn’t argue about this): they like, he said, a story to be a story. He got quite a bee in his bonnet about the whole thing. Eventually you said you had to go to sleep. You weren’t sure about rewriting your memoir as a novel—it sounded like a lot of work, probably impossible and what would be the difference?

Listen: the men in the room breathe like sleepers. The man who drank the red wine is dreaming of all the novels that the world needs to be written. Now, be sure you have everything you need because you might be out for some time, the door downstairs will lock behind you, and one of the sleepers has the key. You can’t be sure which one. Walk downstairs, step outside, hear the door latch again. Keep an eye out for Eric, it’s not clear when or where he sleeps. In the carpark, go past the high stacks of fresh-picked bilberries that await a semi-trailer to collect and rush them to the warehouse and the airport. Go past the weigh station and the empty marquee where lunch and dinner will be cooked for the berry pickers. Go past the cars with trailers. Go past the berry pickers. They are making their own preparations, by the cars and trailers, for another long day of work, foraging in the open forests, hurrying to fill a quota while the berries are still fresh and ripe and fetch a premium. The berry pickers—there must be 30 of them or so—are the guesthouse’s only other guests. They fly in and out each year, all the way from Thailand for the season. Walking past them, you and they both could sense that Slowlabs are not evenly distributed.

Evidence of berry picking

At night in Misi, I read a book by Anna Tsing about fungi that thrive in ruined forests, and people who make an itinerant life among them. I wrote down this note: READING MUSHROOM BOOK “polyphonic assemblages of ways of being. Assemblages are performances of livability . . . Assemblages coalesce, change and dissolve: this is the story.” Maybe this described what we were trying to do at Misi, in the Slowlab: were we making an assemblage? Of ways of being, performances of liveability?

Circles of chairs beside pine trees. Circles of feet pointing in to look at mandalas made of leaves and twigs and flowers on the ground. Mandalas? We had to make unironic mandalas? Apparently so. A nun with an air of gravitas led this activity—she had come with one of the tourism entrepreneurs, a butch farmer who planned to transform her property into a center for silence. The nun was an expert on mandalas. We all made them. Mine wasn’t very pretty but I enjoyed gathering the twigs, berries, and flowers and arranging them on my chosen patch of grass. My friend Ann made hers inside on a table so it wouldn’t blow away which was bending the rules but nobody cared. Hers was gorgeous; she clearly has what you’d call visual flair. It turned out to be a relief to be unironic for a while.

In that spirit let me say: I loved everything about the Slowlab. I love camping, for a start, and I love little utopias, little experiments in shared and equal sociality where people can create small islands of happiness together, sit around a fire watching fish get smoked on planks of pine, make up games and play them just like children do, listen to fragile, risky stories, invent theories, laugh and cry. Why isn’t life in general more like this, if and when people are in a position to choose? Maybe it was, in fact, more like this for First Nations peoples before the Europeans came and took their land, where people might work only a few hours a day to support themselves and spend the rest of their time immersed in cultural activities. And where, in fact, there was no separation between supporting themselves and cultural activities, since labor was not yet alienated. No doubt I sound naïve, a romantic; I guess that’s alright. In my family we like burning things. My Mum loves lighting fires. You light a flame and it draws people in, animals too. Insects are curious, sometimes too curious (you can’t reason with them). Only birds are unimpressed: they don’t like what the smoke does to the air. And you burn candles for the dead, don’t you? I tell myself: next time I light a fire I will light it for my father. And I will prepare it slowly.

I love, too, the idea of preparations. You know how the time of getting ready with your friends for the party, the time of dressing up, trying things on, anticipation, is always better than the party itself? The trick is to try to extend the time of preparations as long as possible so that the party is always still to come. A lot of the time at Misi it was as if we were making preparations for a Slowlab that may or may not be enacted. We set out propositions for potential activities, and designed multiple experiments we wouldn’t have time to carry out. This is notable because the context of the Slowlab, as well as being improvisational and all of that, was practical and pragmatic. The ostensible aim was to develop “left field” (I’m trying to avoid using the word “innovative”), bright ideas to assist local small and medium-scale tourism entrepreneurs in Lapland, who would otherwise be directed towards business strategists and marketing consultants. The artists and scholars involved, I would hazard a guess, took this responsibility both seriously and with a grain of salt (at least I did). Seriously because who was to say the application of principles of shoreless time, for instance, might not be mightily more effective and less hokum than good ol’ strategic planning, with its often industrially prepared recipes of mission statements, shared values, and action plans? With a grain of salt because who was to say, indeed, whether our own subtle maneuvers would succeed or fail and how that would be measured? Artists and researchers in the humanities and social sciences, in my experience, tend to be more self-reflexively critical than management consultants.

Shoreless time is particularly relevant to tourism businesses, or so you would think, because it sounds like the kind of commodity tourists would crave; like slowness itself, a luxury good. And, at the same time, a dose of shoreless time must be potentially less ecologically damaging in the fabrication of its requisite infrastructure than many other experiences made for tourists. Surely! Although I guess it depends how far you go to get it and how fast you travel there—in other words how often the shopping malls you visit are actually airports. On the radio recently I heard a philosopher say that modern humans increasingly lack the freedom not to be addressed (by advertising, technologies of distraction, automated commercial and political messages). The ultimate symbol of luxury now is the airport lounge, where it is not so much the free food and showers that are the attraction (good as they no doubt are) as the escape from being bombarded nonstop with muzak, advertising slogans, billboards, and all the other accoutrements between security and the gate. Escape from noise, in the largest sense of the term. Never before has escape from noise been such rare privilege.

Where we gathered

If you want to know how far it is to the lake I can tell you this: it is past the houses with the neater lawns, it is past the dog on the long chain that barks at you so early in the morning and continues to bark far too long and loudly (and, as Heidegger (??) would say: Is it you or is it the dog or is it you with the dog? Do the dog’s owners and their neighbors wake up and curse the dog or do they curse you? Or you with the dog?). The lake is past the place where the dog finally stops barking. The lake is past the cemetery with the high wire fence to keep the reindeer out. It is past all the different places where solitary cars approach and pass by, each car bringing its own faint premonition of violence. There is nothing good about a passing car on this walk.

The lake is past the hill and past the pretty houses hemmed with wildflowers on long stems, chinning at the fences.

The woods and cabin

I forget the Finnish word for spoonwalking. Spoonwalking is a technical or quasi-technical term for walking one behind the other, just as spoonsitting is sitting one behind the other, just as spooning, as we know, is lying one behind the other, bodies folded in. In Misi we spoonwalked through the forest on a track leading to the chimney of a ruined house, our attention entirely directed towards listening, under the instructions of Noora, our Finnish colleague who studied soundscapes. What would we hear? Our own footsteps crunching. The footsteps of the spoonwalkers. Were those legitimate sounds or were they only getting in the way of the proper sounds presumably somewhere underneath or behind, so to speak, those sounds? When we stopped and sat down in the forest, perched on rocks like solemn garden gnomes, in sight of the chimney and the path but no other signs of human habitation, I listened. I heard the sound the young birch trees made as their leaves and branches abraded, excited by the wind. The near trees sang at a higher pitch than some distant trees—there seemed to be a copse of them out there, wherever that was, beyond the chimney. (With the sun discreetly circling the horizon like a coach watching her players, I couldn’t easily tell which way was north, south, east, or west.) Spoon-being, as we talked about later in the village hall where we would meet, was one of the distinct ways of being in bodily social relation to each other. Other formations include being-alongside, which might make one think of Joanna Latimer who writes about humans being alongside animals, and being face to face, which might make one think of Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophical concept of the same name. Or not. This came up in discussion because our focus was around notions of being (ontologies, so to speak): we were improvising ways of being consciously entangled with each other and our nonhuman neighbors in the forest, the village hall, and wherever else; we were composing experiments in naïve being-alongside and being in other formations, in attuning to our starter cultures (to use the metaphor of yogurt or of sourdough bread) of “silence” and “slow”.

One more word: liskodisko . In my fragmentary Finnish glossary gleaned in Misi, I have to say that the vast majority of terms relate either to drinking alcohol or to the activity of sauna or in many cases a combination of the two. This is not to say the atmosphere of the camp was dissolute or debauched: far from it. It was all very wholesome, I’m afraid. This was Scandinavia, after all, and we were nothing if not diligent. But it is in the nature of a camp that the campers spend, not only days, but also evenings together, not to mention nights in Eric’s dorms. Of all the things we prepared for in the Slowlab, nothing matched the preparations for the nightly sauna. Perhaps to the Finns this was unremarkable, like going to the pub after work in Australia, but for a foreigner this was as displacing as was sitting around in a large circle with the academics and tourism entrepreneurs and finding my globally dominant language put in its foreign place by the many vowels and postpositions (as against prepositions) of the Finnish tongue. The official unofficial definition of liskodisko is “the feeling of lizards having a disco dancing all over your skin when you are horribly hung over.” This sounds bad but things could well be worse: if you fall unconscious by yourself in a well-heated sauna you will, quite likely, die. Almost every Finn I talked to in Misi seemed to know of somebody who had died in this way, the Australian equivalent for which is falling asleep at the wheel, drunk on a country road at night, and smashing your car headlong into a tree.

In Misi we sampled three different saunas over four nights. Two were wood-fired, as is traditional, one of those in a basement at Eric’s guesthouse featuring an adjacent underground lounge room replete with 1970s vinyl couches and Eric himself, still smiling and drinking beer but now doing it naked, the other in a stand-alone wooden structure in the backyard of the mummola, another Finnish term referring in this case at least to the cottage of a fellow camper’s late grandmother. The third sauna, inside the now-dilapidated mummola that still had family photos on the sideboards, was an electric-powered, modern simulacra of an authentic sauna. This, as was regretted by the Finns, lacked much: the various social and technical rituals associated with lighting the fires, the authentic smells of burning pine, the huge pot of water warming over the second fire from which pot the water should be drawn in buckets to splash the loyly onto the hot stones and to wash and temper one’s sauna-ed body with. I found myself naked with my fellow males among the campers in a way I had rarely if ever experienced, an open, unhurried, un-embarrassed nakedness. Slow naked. As a man who finds it much more comfortable in general to be with women, at work and socially, this was one of the more powerful experiences of the camp at Misi. Our conversations, like our bodies, were stripped of artifice by the rituals of the sauna and the heat. Meanwhile, I tried not to be too openly curious about the shapes and sizes of their genitals, although all in all it was a pleasure to accept that such things, whatever and however they were, would simply all hang out, like the rest of us. (I wonder how many Finns accept trans people in their saunas?) Yes, it was assumed that as men we would drink beer in the sauna (the women are meanwhile traditionally directed towards local alcopops featuring grapefruit juice), and so we did, even though the Finns acknowledged this practice has its shortcomings if taken too far (viz liskodisko). I tried to explain the huge business opportunity presented by the Australian “stubby holder” for keeping beers cooler, but they didn’t get it. Instead we talked about the difference between death metal and black metal, a little about Heidegger (there was a serious, naked philosopher), and even, if I recall, a little about the problem of fathers and how they treat their sons. We shared unhappy father stories and stories of unhappy fathers too. When we got too hot we splashed ourselves with cold water and stood outside in the soft evening light, tempting the attentions of mosquitoes. Then went back in for more.

The two young men my friend Soile employed as cooks for the Slowlab joined us in the sauna, as they joined us as much as they could in general when they weren’t busy making reindeer soup or salmon with whole potatoes. One of them, named Antti, was starting out as an assistant chef, working in a restaurant down in Tempere. He was doing the Slowlab as a holiday gig, a favor for an old school friend (one of Soile’s students, Janne, who was helping to organize the camp). Antti was fresh-faced and quiet: if you were an animal or a vegetable and it was your fate to be eaten by humans you couldn’t wish for a more gentle soul to craft your transmutation. He’d brought along a friend of his, Jonni, who had a shaved head, scrawny features, and a way of moving that was always somehow diagonal. Jonni had been an apprentice cook but was currently unemployed, and maybe, it was said, a little lost. If he drank too much you could see he might be one who went on drinking, as if however much would never be enough. You could see he had not been blessed with the easy ticket in life some of us have been granted. But you could see too there was such grace inside his awkwardness. Antti and Jonni loved that week in Misi—our conversations, philosophical and intimate, in the sauna, our appreciation of the food they prepared, drinks on the steps of the mummola the last night after all the work was over and the entrepreneurs had departed, even plunging crazily into the cold lake after a mad car ride from the sauna when, around 2 a.m., at last it was almost dark. If the Slowlab had no other value for the tourism industry of Finland, an assertion the final report delivered to the funders would of course convincingly refute, some would say it was nevertheless worth it just for the pleasure and encouragement it gave to Antti and Jonni. One day in the Slowlab we all took time for essaying some reflections on what we had been doing and what thinking had come out of it. We read them to each other, and Antti and Jonni came to listen. I was so touched when afterwards Antti said he had given up reading but was now inspired to start again. I hope he might read this essay one day, and find a small piece of himself in here.

Fishing at the lake

Reach the lake— there it is at last! And here, relive the memory of the fish you caught. The lake is where the fish lived and where the fish died and you have come to the lake to pay your respects to the fish, which isn’t of course buried in the cemetery. Antti—another Antti, a bio-artist—had found the spot to catch the fish yesterday at lunchtime, and since fishing appeared to be an appropriately slow activity for a Slowlab, you had joined him. Ironically, there wasn’t much time for brief, slow fishing, but some time was better than no time if approached the right way, and the right way was bio-artistically. Antti flicked the rod to cast the line, several times, one after the other. Instead of bait a colorful lure tempted any fish that might be there for tempting, and instead of waiting patiently the fisherman drew the line in steadily as soon as the lure broke the surface of the water, since the lure was acting as if it were itself a fish skating across the lake, not waiting to be eaten. Back and forth went the rod, the line, the lure, each time directed to a slightly different landing place in the lake. Finally it happened—Antti asked you, Would you like a turn? He passed the rod across: Have you done this before? And you said Yes, a long time ago with my grandpa, when I was a kid, but I think I remember, and you cast the line out and reeled it in and cast the line out again, doing a better job of it the second time, and a fish bit the lure and was hooked, and oh my God you could not believe that! The fish ran everywhere, to and fro, and you thought: Don’t fall off, that will be too much of an anticlimax, but the fish stayed on the line like it was a long distance call, swimming to and fro, wanting the line to go where it wanted not where you wanted, all the while the line becoming shorter and shorter as you reeled it in, but not too fast or violently lest the line break or the hook dislodge from the fish’s mouth (you never considered the fish’s pain) until it was splashing in the shallows. Antti scooped it up in his hand net and lifted it into the air. Big thing it was! A pike, no less, gleaming long and thin. Still wanting to be in the water, outraged, scared. You and Antti, the jubilant hunters. Antti grabbed it firmly. He knocked it on the head with the handle of his knife then slit the artery in its throat, wanting to be respectful and merciful in the kill. He said I take my five-year-old son fishing and we talk about what it means to kill and eat another creature. Eric returned in the car to pick you both up, and gave out beers with a cheeky grin. You put yours in your pocket, and drove away.

All this you will remember, when you reach the lake. Take your time there in the early morning. Get an appetite for breakfast. If later you eat berries you will know to thank the berry pickers. Stop and notice how the sun around here moves only sideways.


This essay was made possible thanks to the Travelling Laboratories of Slow Thinking (HAML) Project funded by TEKES, Finland, and to Professor Soile Veijola from the University of Lapland: Faculty of Art and Faculty of Social Sciences/MTI.


David CarlinDavid Carlin is a writer and director based in Melbourne, Australia. His nonfiction books include The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, 100 Atmospheres: Studies in Scale and Wonder, Our Father Who Wasn’t There, and The Abyssinian Contortionist. His essays, plays, radio features, exhibitions, documentary, and short films have won awards and featured at numerous international festivals, and his recent projects include the Circus Oz Living Archive and WrICE. He is a professor of creative writing at RMIT University where he co-directs the non/fictionLab.
Read David Carlin’s essay “The Train that Night,” also appearing in Terrain.org.

All photos by David Carlin.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.