A portrait of summer in Finland
On its way to Hanka, the boat puts in at Själö, a wooded island only a few miles wide, with no cars. The air of timeless peacefulness on Själö is deceptive. Like much of the archipelago, Själö has risen very recently, in geological time, from the floor of the Baltic. Parts of the archipelago are rising as quickly as one centimetre a year. Older residents are able to point out patches of dry land that didn’t exist in their youth. At the end of a winding path, a timber church appears in a clearing. It’s been re-roofed with scalloped wooden tiles and copper flashing. It was first built in 1733 for the residents of this island.
In its cool, rough-hewn pine interior, you get your first sense that something here was a little out of the ordinary. The western end of the church is separated from the rest of it with a wooden screen and the occupants of these pews had their own entrance.
From 1619, Själö housed a leper colony. They worshipped in this church, quarantined from the rest of the congregation. When the last leper died in 1785, the island was given over to a mental hospital, which finally closed in 1962.
Outside the church, the sunshine dispels any lingering disquiet. Boats of curious visitors dock at the marina at one end of the island, where Keijo Alastalo serves them coffee. He tells me that his family has been on Själö for three generations. His father was a nurse at the mental asylum. Keijo farmed as a boy, driving a pony in the hayfields that have now virtually vanished into the encroaching forests.
He has returned to spend his retirement on the island that he loves. I ask him what the mental hospital was like. ‘Not as bad as people say,’ he says. ‘The patients were free to wander the island. In the summer they’d pick berries and mushrooms. I remember working in the fields with one lady who didn’t seem mad at all. I said to her, “You seem normal. You could leave.” She looked around to make sure no-one was listening and said, “Keijo, I am not that crazy”.’