Article for Finnish Sauna Seura Magazine
I will never forget the first time when I was visiting Olli and Tuula-Marja and their magical smoke Sauna deep in the woods. After a long drive on bumpy roads a friend of mine and I arrived late in the afternoon that day and it grew already dark. Olli had spent quite some time to heat up the stove and had prepared everything before our arrival. He was already waiting in front of the main house when we left the car.
After a short welcome greeting we straight away passed his house and were heading to his Sauna on a small path along the edge of a forest. It was early spring and the air was still chilly. Above us the first flickering stars became visible. Some minutes later on our way the seemingly very old Saunabuilding appeared around a corner. I had never seen such a Sauna before in my life. The walls were dark brown and it was much bigger than I had expected. The whole construction looked a bit crooked and even the windows were not straight. Through the sooted glas one could see a small light inside.
In front of the Sauna were some benches with colorful towels on them, a few cans of beer and right next to benches was a small grill. My friend and Olli sad down for a talk and I went for a little walk discovering the surroundings of the Sauna. The first thing I noticed was the deep silence hovering above everything. There were no artificial noises at all and even the voices of Olli and my friend seemed somehow low. Another couple of minutes further away from the Sauna and behind a row of trees was a dark blue lake. The surface of the water was absolutely still and the air felt even chillier. A wooden boat was lying upside down near the water edge and someone was painting it with wood tar.
When I stood at the water's edge and looked out over the lake I was wondering myself how far away is the horizon. The sun was about to set and suddenly the sound of a bird’s wing flying fast over the water could be heard in the distance. When it faded away only the sound of my own slow breathing was left. After I than had returned to Olli and my friend it was finally time to go into the Sauna.
Once inside a timeless darkness was waiting for us. Until that day my understanding of a Finish Sauna was based on the notion that it is a rather hot room were you can throw water on the stones and it’s purpose is relaxation. But this sauna was so much different compared to all the saunas I had seen before as was the way of using it. Thick layers of soot were surrounding everything inside and the whole place was only illuminated by a pale orange glow from several candles next to the windows. Another thing I noticed was a sweet and heavy scent of old dry wood, smoke and birch leaves. The building was divided into two smaller and one big room. This was the actual Sauna and all it’s walls were unpainted wooden surfaces.
Olli and my friend started to take off their clothes while I was looking around. There was no shower nor electricity or other amenities of modern civilization. The whole setup was rather basic but there was a huge stove with a large amount of stones. After being out in the chilly air for some time the heat that came from the stove felt very pleasant.
Besides a few buckets, a water hose and a big metal tub with hot water right next to the stove, some sauna ladles stood in one corner. They all were self-made and of various sizes. Apparently they were made by several generations. When my eyes got used to the sparse light inside the sauna I saw more objects allover the place. The most unusual one was a large fishing net hanging from one of the walls. Not all of the objects were related to this Sauna but they were connected to a past. I did not know that past but these memories belonged to the lives of previous generations using the Sauna. A Sauna in the middle of the forest full of stories.
Silently we went up a timber stair leading to an even darker space and when we reached the topmost platform, the warmth became more intense and all-embracing. We sat down on the benches and during the first seconds I was not sure if I could handle the extremely hot wood (under my butt). Eventually I got to used to it and than the whole atmosphere developed its full effect. Warm waves of intense heat were floating around and I deeply breathed in the good smells that were just everywhere.
Without really seeing each other Olli told us one word at a time something about the history of the this place. From time to time he was throwing water to the stones and slow-growing but even more intense waves of heat were hugging us. After a while the cold lake was calling and we went there to take a swim. It was almost completely dark by than and the air did not feel chilly at all. Instead the transition between warm and cold felt like delving into an another state.
Quietly we went back to the Sauna. After resting for some time we went in again. The storytelling continued but after uncounted rounds only very few words were spoken anymore. And it was not necessary. Instead contemplative silence dominated the chamber and I totally had lost any sense of time. At one point surly the time must have left the sauna without us noticing it. Surrounded by a mellow and intense heat my mind started to wander and I thought about everything and nothing. I got totally absorbed by the atmosphere and was looking down from the platform into the mesmerizing figures of the candle lights in the water tub.
But than the sauna itself started to tell her story. First the stones begann to whizzle very quietly and soon I realized that the benches we were sitting on had been talking all the time. The Löyly joined this conversation and finally the sounds of the forest knocked on the outer door. The Sauna let them all in through the holes in the old walls, the birds, the wind and the calls of unknown animals. It was as if the walls had been disappeared completely. When I was leaving the upmost bench after the last round I already had became melancholic. I just don’t wanted to leave this place. Later we went back to the main house. I can not remember that I had such a deep and peaceful sleep in my life before.
Even several days after my visit at Ollis place I had to think about his Sauna and my experience. Soon after I decided that the cleaning practice and the rituals of the Sauna as part of every Finn’s national identity are worth being portrayed in detail. From there on I started my research project about Finish Sauna Culture in Cooperation with the Goethe Institut Helsinki and the Institut for Wilderness and Wild technologies. Until now my observations and experiences have been articulated in a visual and experiential analysis, in a publication and several exhibitions. I will continue the work on this project during the coming years and probably for my whole life. Luckily I was able to visit Olli again and I asked him about the relationship to his sauna. He did not reveal all of his secrets, but the ancient rites of sauna are still going strong.
Alexander Markus Lembke, 2016
© Alexander Markus Lembke 2019
Artist / Sauna Classicist / Independent Photography Professional