Healing at Katajamäki

I stayed one week in Katajamäki community in central Finland. This was a very inspiring place for me and I felt at home in the community which has existed since the early nineties and where many people have contributed to creating a powerful and inspiring community space. Katajamäki is located on the grounds of an old sanatorium where in the early 1900s dr. Lybeck worked here with a wide range of alternative therapies. This matches the vision of the initiators of Katajamäki, who dreamt of a place to gather knowledge and build community around traditional, community-based healing techniques. Since the start of the community, many healers of indigenous cultures have visited and performed treatments or ceremonies at Katajamäki. Apart from the promotion of healing, the community has been centred around traditional craftworks like log building and felting and it functions as a second home for many.

During my stay I learned of some ups and downs during the communities existence. Most impactful has been the fire which destroyed the old Sanatorium building eight years ago, which had been the main community building where most lived and gathered. The passing of co-founder and national figure Tapani last autumn can also still be felt strongly in the community spirit. Yet I felt a warm welcome by all community members and I felt instantly at ease by the laid-back flow of the days and in the stunning natural surroundings. In this blog I explain a bit about the history and vision of Katajamäki and about my experiences and conversations during my stay.

Kataja means Juniper in Finnish, here we see a Juniper growing in the centre of the community with one of the log buildings which houses appartments of three community members behind it.

A long history of healing and gathering
Katajamäki is located about 400 km north of Helsinki next to Elämämäki (Hill of Life), a remembrance of ancient folklore about the stunning nature in this region. I was picked up from the closest town by Kirsti, one of the founding members who has lived in Katajamäki since the community was established here in 1993. Before this, they had started another community in the eighties in the west of Finland also to provide a space for gathering around traditional healing and craftwork. When this project ended, they found the current location by coincidence and could continue their vision here in the big log building which had once been the woman’s department of the sanatorium. The sanatorium of dr. Lybeck had been functioning here until the first world war, after which some of the buildings have served as an elderly care-taking home and later to host youth camps from Helsinki. When Kirsti and the other founders came across the property it was owned by Helsinki municipality and they started by renting the site as an association for traditional healing. After five years they managed to buy the property from the municipality in 1998 and Katajamäki association became full owner of the land and beautiful log buildings on it.

On my first evening in the community we had a nice communal dinner at the outside kitchen. They have a shared meal every day, for which community members and volunteers take turns preparing (although often Kirsti ends up cooking when most of the guys are busy building). Breakfast is shared sporadically by whoever starts making porridge. After the diner, Kaitsu took me on a tour across the ecovillage. Kaitsu has also been coming to Katajamäki since the beginning. He has been working to gather and promote traditional healing practices for all these years, travelling along tribal communities in many regions across the globe and experimenting himself with healing practices based on the local biodiversity. We talk a lot about his efforts to create bio-cultural rights, a concept based on the understanding that indigenous and tribal communities live in close relation and understanding of their local biodiversity and should be supported and stimulated to live on their lands and have their practices spread.

Through Kaitsu, the Katajamäki association has collaborated several years with a project supporting and promoting tribal healing knowledge in indigenous communities of India. This tipi at Katajamaki is one of the spaces used during the gatherings and ceremonies they host around traditional, community-based healing.

During the evening tour of Katajamäki it becomes apparent that the fire which took down their main building eight years ago has had a big impact on the community. The building had been meaningful and massive: housing almost all community members and many communal spaces. All inhabitants lost their belongings and living space in the fire. For Kirsti the fire has been especially dramatic since she had a big workshop and storage for her beautiful, artisanal felting work and lost everything in the fire. Kaitsu explains that after the fire they first made a small communal building on the foundation of one of the old cellars. This building is during my stay also used as community space where we talk and play games in the evening. Inside, co-founder and well-known sauna-builder Tapani made an ingenious fireplace which separates the flames from the smoke and pulls the heat of the flames into the mass around the hearth. The open fire is very pleasant to sit beside and also practical as it also provides lighting on dark days (most mass ovens have a closed stove).

A look at the small community building build on top of the cellar of the old main building after that was destroyed by the fire.
A look inside the small community space build after the fire took down the main building of Katajamaki. Inside we gather in the evenings for games and talking around the unique open mass fire place build by Tapani.

Besides this new communal space, Kaitsu shows me around several side-buildings which survived the fire and now house some bedrooms for community members volunteers as well as a communal indoor kitchen and food storage spaces. Katajamäki also has a tipi and yurt space for gatherings and three different types of sauna’s which are each used for different occasions or healing ceremonies. There is a traditional smoke sauna and a big group-sauna in the community area, and down by the lake they use a small barrel-shaped sauna. On my first evening, we had a late-night sauna down by the lake which was amazing. We could directly swim in the lake after the sauna and enjoy the beautiful scenery of a long sunset over the lake with refreshment from home-made fermented birch-juice (while trying to ignore the millions of mosquitos that unfortunately also live here).

Sitting besides the lake after a late-night sauna on my first evening in Katajamaki, talking about the history of the community and their vision of supporting traditional, community-based healing techniques, I already recognized the healing powers Katajamäki has through gathering people in this beautiful spot.

Restoring heritage for new communal buildings
After the fire, community member Kaius is taking the lead in building two large new communal buildings. He is specialized in restoring old log buildings and has been able to get two buildings from the 18th century to Katajamäki to rebuild them there as new community spaces. During my stay he was working on the roof cladding of one of the two buildings which used to be a courthouse. The vision is to use the big hall inside as gathering space and to create a big communal kitchen and on the first floor community apartments and guest rooms next to a stunning roof terrace to overlook the hills and northern lights in winter time. Tapani designed a new roof structure for the old log building, it is a shape which is very uncommon but looks magical.

A look at one of the two new community buildings under construction. The building is an old log court house from the 1700, taken apart and put back together on this location led by community member Kaius. Co-founder Tapani designed a unique roofstructure to fit on top of the traditional house.
Dragonhead carving on top of the new community building under construction at Katajamaki community. This wood carving is made by a friend who later build the dragon temple at Solbacka community.

The other old log building has already been put together completely, expect for a floor inside. It used to be a smoke house of a traditional village, where a big stove heats the whole building so that throughout the day foods and other things needing heat or smoke can be prepared. The vision of the community is to use this building for this purpose again and Tapani had started on a massive stove inside with a similar design as in the communal building.

A look at the outdoor kitchen area in front of the two old log buildings that are being rebuild at Katajamaki. I admire the approach of choosing to rebuild traditional log-buildings on the spot of their former mainbuilding, rather than choosing to build completely new buildings. Adding personalized elements like the roof and stove designs and adapting the buildings to the community needs is an inspiring example of how traditional village buildings can be repurposed for sustainable community life now.

Private living spaces in Katajamäki
After the fire, some community members started thinking about building a private living space on the land and have since then begun to build these. One morning Kirsti showed me around in her beautiful house which is still under construction. For five years community members and volunteers have been helping to build her house, which is also designed by Tapani. The house has a unique two-floor design, positioned against a slope in the centre of the community. The interior holds beautiful details and all the natural paints were chosen by Kirsti herself. Kaitsu jokes that this house will actually have the first private toilet in the history of Katajamäki community. This summer, seasonal helper Mikka is finishing the wooden staircase around the house which he is making with incredible craftsmanship. Kirsti plans to move in this autumn.

A look at the back of Kirsti’s new house, designed by Tapani and build by community members and volunteer effort. The big tipi next to it is used for the many gatherings and ceremonies hosted at Katajamaki.
A look at the front of Kirsti’s new house which has a walk-bridge leading to the main entrence. In the background you can see the traditional smoke sauna of the community.

On another afternoon, community member Sampo shows me around his self-build house. Sampo works as a builder and has started a company to build modular, transportable roundhouses of his own design. The house he build here consists of two parts on top of each other. One is a log roundhouse with big logs from a Russian forest close to Finland, he has contacts there and builds these type of log buildings across Finland. The top part of his house was first standing on the ground and is a prototype for his company called roundhouse (www.roundlife.fi). The design is based on a yurt, which Sampo finds to be the most pleasant living space because of the round shape. He uses only natural materials and paints to create a healthy living space with low impact on the environment. This modular prototype consists of twelve segments which are detachable and has a beautiful sky window which gives plenty daylight inside even on cloudy days. They also have an amazing view over the hill and lake from this space. Recently Sampo attached an entrance hall to his log roundhouse, which acts as a heat-buffer in winter. The carved owls next to his entrance make his home very personalized. His girlfriend Taina shows me around their little vegetable garden where she grows several vegetables, amongst which a special tomato variety which can grow outside in Finland.

The house build and designed by community member Sampo. The ground floor is made of big logs, the secondfloor is a prototype of his start-up company for moveable, ecological roundhouses. He build the entrance hall later to have a heat buffer for the front door and it is finished with personalized owl wood carvings.

A second home to many
It is quite difficult to say how many people are actually living at Katajamäki since the community functions as a second home for many people who come and go depending on the seasons or the work they can contribute to. Kaitsu tells me that back when they still had the old community building there could be around thirty people living in the community. During my stay I work together a lot with Sirku, who explains to me how Katajamäki is a place where she always feels welcome. She lives in Tampere, a hundred kilometres south of here, but comes several times a year to help out for a few days. She like how here she can do things with her hands which are so different from her regular work and can learn some building or gardening skills. She, like many others, also comes to enjoy the beautiful nature here. She loves how the community members are always welcoming, warm and let her take part in the work and daily life. This story is similar to many of the other people I meet at Katajamäki, who stay for shorter or longer periods of time during the year to help out and live in community here. Most of them have another home in Tampere, but this is a place where they always feel welcome and at home. They love to come here for the community feeling, to help out with the work and to spend time in the nature and on the events organized here.

The backyard of Katajamaki: a beautiful cliff overlooking the lake where throughout the year the sunset can be seen over the lake while enjoying a campfire.

From the insurance money of the main building the association has been able to buy some adjacent forest land on which they hope to welcome more families in the future who can build their private homes there and become part of the community. There are no facilities like drinking water or electricity going there, so the families will have to start from scratch. Currently, we all get drinking water from a well in the centre of the community, hot water is made on the wood stove in the outdoor kitchen. There are several compost toilets on side and there is a simple shower area with a wood stove to make hot water. There is one shared laundry machine and several shared fridges and freezers throughout the community. They have an incredible storage of self-picked berries, fermented birch juice and fermented wild plant and -mushroom mixtures. Cooking is mostly done on the wood- and gas stoves in the communal outdoor kitchen and sometimes in the indoor communal kitchen.

Gathering around healing practices
Throughout the year they host several gatherings at Katajamäki, for healing ceremonies, celebration of the seasons or gatherings around specific topics. During my stay, I helped out Kaitsu with an invitation he was writing for the yearly ‘Katajamäki summer days’. For a few years now he has been organising this three-day event where he invites people interested in community, sustainability or healing topics to gather, share knowledge and discuss about options to promote their ways. The theme of the discussions changes every year and this year Kaitsu has chosen to hold it around his personal interest for community based healing traditions, bio-cultural rights, and community supported nature conservation and restoration areas. There will also be several traditional healers performing treatments and ceremonies.

Besides these summer days, they also host twice a year a seasonal celebration festival in Katajamäki. At the start and end of the growing season. They have started this tradition after a gathering which took place several years ago in Katajamäki of members from many indigenous, northern tribes as part of a bigger project to harvest and value tribal and tradition knowledge on healing in Finland. Part of that gathering was to honour the growing season, and since then Kaitsu has made an effort to continue this tradition.

The community cat Kipina overlooking the community space from the door of my guest room. There are plenty of guest spaces in Katajamaki which allow them to host larger events and volunteers.

During my stay I also helped Kaitsu in his greenhouse where he grows a variety of medicinal plants and herbs. We sowed seeds, transplanted and weeded together in his self-constructed triple-tipi greenhouse. He also holds bees from which he not only harvests the honey, but also the propolis to make a powerful healing tincture and the beepollen which he dries and mixes with honey to create a strong immune-boosting product. Kaitsu beliefs in using local wild plants to support nutrition and healing and has devoted his time to promoting the use of the local biodiversity for this.

A look inside Kaitsu’s self-built tipi greenhouse where he grows an exotic variety of medicinal plants.

It was very inspiring for me to live and help out in Katajamäki community. I enjoyed the passion all community members have for their crafts, for living off the local biodiversity and for stimulating traditional, community-based practices. Hearing all their stories by the fireplace from the past and their commitment for living in community and in close relation with their local environment and biodiversity was very inspiring. The community is a powerful place to be, stimulated by the incredibly beautiful nature in the area. I am curious to see how the community will evolve over time when more community members settle on the land and when the big community buildings are finished. It all promises a strong recovery from the recent set-backs and the opportunity to host many more meaningful gatherings around traditional, community-based healing techniques!

One of the beautiful sunsets over Katajamaki.

Read the invitation to the Katajamäki summer days event in beginning of August here

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