Lightning Rod Island
Tälstylä has an interesting past with tragedy leading to its permanent habitation. Beginning as a thriving fishing spot during the summer, a terrible storm resulted in permanent habitation noted by sheer desire to survive.
The name Tälstylä comes from the first arrival on the island. The first fishermen to arrive did so during an early summer thundershower. As they are going to shore, several of the dew see lightning strike a ‘stack’, a term for a chimney-like rocky outcropping on top of the highest point on the island. The ‘stack’ was nicknamed ‘lightning rod’ and the name stuck. Since that time the island has been called Lightning Rod or Tälstylä.
It was in the mid-1700s that a few fishermen braved the open ocean to discover Tälstylä and its waters teeming with fish. A ritual developed where a handful of fishermen made the trip to Tä lstylä an annual event. They would fish about 2 months before heading home. Each year a few young men would be hired by each boat owner to handle the work. With no harbor, Tälstylä was utilized mostly for storage with a few shacks showing up.
Each year more and more boats took to fishing the waters and a few incidents lead the fishermen to ask the King of Sweden to govern the area. Being so remote, the king turned down the request. After all, the island was so distant from the mainland that it might be questioned if the Swedish Crown had any right to the territory. The Swedish Crown suggested the fishermen form their own government in return for autonomy. It was decided each owner of every vessel fishing the waters would sit on a board and decide whatever business was needed to operate the island and neighboring waters.
As is the case for such fishermen, the waters were carefully guarded and regulated with new fishermen generally unwelcome. There was always that fear of over fishing the waters. The council settled disagreements and even regulated who could sell their wares. It was a very controlled environment yet at the same time, a great deal of freedom was had. It could be said the fishermen and their families would do virtually anything but the hired crews were certainly second class citizens with the council having authority over their every action. Still, the council was considered fair and just.
Looking for better working conditions, some of the fishermen decided to lease their farms to neighbors so the family could summer on Tälstylä . Shacks became better equipped and gardens produced a better variety of foods. Some animals were brought as well. Even a couple of merchants would come out to sell their inventory. Things were moving smoothly and the families were making a nice living.
At some point, early on, the island was discovered by the families. The island is covered with numerous lakes and ponds, so an effort to stock the lakes was developed with a good deal of success. By this point the uninhabited island had grown to a population, including fishermen, families and crews, of 300 during the short summer months.
The year of 1834 is one that will still wipe a smile off the face of anyone on Tälstylä . It could be called the year of the perfect storm. Some weather historians believe a strong arctic cold front joined with a hurricane to create a history-making storm. The early writings say the day began clear and calm but by mid-afternoon a bank of clouds from the south and a bank of clouds to the northwest were rapidly approaching. Within 30 minutes rain and wind was lashing the island. Within two hours, winds were estimated at 110 to 115 miles per hour and there were writings saying ice was falling sideways from the sky. One may only guess what the waves were like on the open seas. Daily, boats set out at dawn and arrived back before nightfall which was late in the day at this time of year. At mid-afternoon the boats could be a few hours from the island harvesting king crab and other fish.
The next day’s dawning found no ships and the buildings a pile of rubble. Not one ship returned. All the fishermen were lost, leaving the remainder of the families alone and stranded on the island.
In 1834, the remote Tälstylä wasn’t an island on a shipping lane and virtually everyone who would face the long annual journey to this remote outpost was there when the storm hit. It would take a few years before anyone would discover the stranded families. During those years, the survivors had developed a life of their own. The options were returning to an uncertain life on the mainland, or staying on Tälstylä .
Even today this isolated community is only visited in summer when their freshwater fish are sent back to the mainland, along with wool from the herds of sheep. What few supplies the island cannot supply are purchased with these exports.
Tälstylä is 42 square miles with 18 of those square miles covered by lakes and ponds. The island is grassy and flat. The land is a mix of rocky and sandy soils. The northern end of the island slowly rises to about 150 feet with a straight down cliff to the ocean below. To the south, the island barely rises more than 2 meters. Only a couple of openings can allow larger boats to come close to Tälstylä but only small boats can make it to the shoreline.
The sandy soil creates a perfect environment for creating a fresh water dome below the island. Fresh water has never been a problem.
As one goes north, enough rocks are found to aid in building homes and a couple of small forests provide more than enough wood for the islander’s needs. Rolling hills are found on the northern tip.
Once the families began to summer on the island, gardens and orchards were planted.
The orchards and gardens are amid simple small wooden and stone houses and a few sheds. Luxury and modest are not words that come to mind in describing the buildings but the people seem not to be interested in material goods. The attitude is one where extravagance and unneeded items are viewed as unbecoming and the wants of a fool. For the islanders, their home is a land of plenty, easily meeting their needs even in bad years.
The isolation caused the birth of a local language. Hints of various Scandinavian languages, especially Finnish, are evident, reflecting an influence from some of the fishing crew hired hands.
Life has changed for the better for the folks on Tälstylä . Plumbing and electricity via a wind generator and other modern conveniences have brought the island to a point of being fairly modern, yet the people live much as they did in earlier times. Today a small restaurant and a general store grace the community. Children are schooled partly via internet and DVDs. A small medical clinic with small pharmacy add to the quality of life.
There is even a road, painstakingly made by hand in the 1930s. Locals gathered rock from the island, building somewhat of a cobblestone road connecting the homes and other areas. While most of the island is reached on horseback or on foot, a few mopeds buzz up and down the road each day. The horse-drawn cart is still a favored mode for transporting more than oneself from point A to point B likely due to the enormous shipping costs in transporting cars and trucks to the remote location, not to mention the cost of shipping a regular supply of petrol or gasoline. Snowmobiles are preferred in winter.
Government known as the Fishermen’s Collective, still governs the island. They have total authority over all activities on the island. The body is comprised of one from each home on the island. Decisions are made by majority vote in their meetings that are held monthly in months when there is business to conduct. Some have said a document detailing the rights of the islanders needs to be written but the Fishermen’s Collective claims such a document is not needed as their focus is on the wellbeing of all on the island. They contend that sometimes what is good for the island is not always pleasant and that to enjoy a quality life, some hard work must be done. The people have felt little need to demand such a document and the Collective has been successful in placing those with the greatest desire for power on a short leash. There has never been a time the Collective has had serious power struggles although at times the meetings are not so pleasant. In recent years such differences have disappeared and a more unified, selfless attitude prevails.
One of the most unpopular decisions was the order that greatly devalued the currency. This was in 1918. All trade was banned because of the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. To keep islanders safe, they had to block trade. As the flu waned, World War I continued and the Collective feared the war might come to Tä lstylä if trade resumed. By the end of the war, the ban on trade continued but in a different manner. To preserve wealth on the island as the world suffered the ravages of World War I, the local money was devalued to the point that islanders could not purchase any item from off the island. The Fishermen’s Collective rationalized their decision by saying it would build reliance on neighbors and what the island could provide while retaining the value of the local money as economies off the island hit record lows. The Council outlawed all foreign currencies as many stable currencies declined in value after the war. While the islanders understood the reasons, they were resentful in having such a decision made for them. In the long run, the decision proved a good one for the social health and economic wellbeing of the islanders.
Tälstylä still lacks reliable transportation to the island. A small boat ventures out monthly, mostly carrying mail and a few supplies. In the summer, weekly visits from three more boats carry the very few visitors and most of the year’s supplies to the island, including most of the exports of the community.
As mentioned, visitors are very few. With no scheduled service, the potential visitor must make arrangements for passage on the next available boat. With no hotels, visitors stay in a home that can handle up to 6 visitors or a cabin that is limited to two people. Both are self-catered. A party of six can rent the home for a week at a rate of 805 Örtug or two can share the cabin for 400 Örtug
Dining is very limited. The only restaurant is tiny, seating only 17 people at 3 tables and 5 counter chairs. The only other option is a couple offering barbecue on Saturdays from a small room that contains his smokers. They can seat 9 but sometimes the barbecue is catered for some local occasion.
The general store stocks a good assortment of items, but don’t look for selection. Supplies can be depleted before the next boat arrives. Most families order groceries through the store as they have a wholesale account. Thus, grocery shopping is mostly for forgotten or last minute items. Still, it is a true general store where you could pick up a raincoat, .duct tape, sugar, a frozen steak, some fish hooks and a quart of oil.
What few visitors that make the journey come with a purpose. Some snorkel or lease one of the wooden eighteen foot 30 horsepower boats for some ocean fishing that lease by the week for 320 Örtug. Others come to hike and camp out. Some come to bird hunt or bag a few rabbits. A few just want to get away and spend evenings in the open air hot tub gazing at the stars. Economically, it is interesting to note, exports from the island are taxed by the Fisherman’s Collective with all money going into an account to subsidize the price of imported products as well as community products. In essence, this tax makes needed imports almost half price. Thus, in imported goods the Örtug will buy double its value because of the subsidy.
There are no local taxes levied but a one-time tax is allowed to fund the clinic and staff if their operating budget is not met through pharmacy purchases and medical visits. Such a tax is a percentage of gross income. Some of the clinic’s costs are met through fishing leases collected from three foreign vessels that fish for king crab a couple of months each year.
A recent venture is a bottled water company organized as a cooperative. As the island has plentiful water, noted for its purity and sweet taste, a Cooperative has been organized to begin bottling the water for import in glass bottles. Although it is not carbonated, the brand name chosen literally means effervescence.
While connected to the outside world, Tälstylä lives life must as it has done over the centuries. It must work for them as the youth have little interest in leaving the island permanently. I suppose their lifestyle is just most enticing than the big world beyond their shores.
I was not prepared for the utter poverty of Tälstylä when I arrived on Christian’s vessel. The islanders have very little money. The whole island only manages to earn about $8,100 a year or less than $10 a month per person. His crew of 6 were welcomed by about 35 islanders on that sunny calm morning. He was coming to Talstylä to bring me and trade for supplies. He had shopkeepers wanting Tälstylä berry jam and honey. Christian reminded me of the traveling salesman. Several large bags of clothes were brought ashore and a few crates of common utensils and tools. A frenzy of trades with an equal group looking through the clothing from a thrift shop. You might say it was Christmas morning judging by the smiles and excitement. The clothing was free but the takers insisted on paying with a coin or two. Getting something for free is not part of the Tälstylä culture. The long yearned for tins of coffee were highly prized and it took little time to heat up a pot with a cup forced upon everyone around, most importantly, Christian and the crew. They would stay most of the day waiting on more islanders. I would wait a couple of hours for my host family but that wait was be a flurry of activity as the islanders took turns asking me questions. They were in awe as I passed around pictures which they held as if it might crumble at any moment….Amazingly, the poverty did not do justice to the stereotypes. Families worked together. Neighbor helped neighbor. The word crime has no meaning. The people wore smiles and were far from unhappy with their lives. The homes were spotlessly clean and quite orderly. The people were clean, with exceptional hygiene and seemed very healthy and fit. Certainly this has something to do with the diet and physical work of farming without anything but a few garden tools…The adults, young adults or teens, as well as children were very well behaved and treated me with much respect. Many of the teenaged girls seemed almost gleeful to speak with me and made every advance possible in order to win my heart, yet none seemed to be doing so in order to find a way to escape their life…I was struggling to keep my emotions in check upon departure. I could see such sadness in all their eyes. We all knew we would likely never see one another again. It was almost identical to saying goodbye to a loved one at a funeral. For little more than four weeks, I had discovered a world and found a family I never knew. I knew they could never see my world as it would change their lives forever and I also knew I would likely never experience life in their world again. Amid all the activity of Christian’s visit, I boarded the ship, slipping quickly below deck to be out of sight. Maybe that made my leaving easier for them. I hope it did.