Dick: Without You Not
I was one of the founding members, back in 1976, of a Marxist organization of scientists in Finland, Suomen Tutkijaliitto. In the early 1980s, we organized annual international conferences on cross-disciplinary themes. The theme for 1982 was Humanity and Nature. I was in charge, and I put together all my courage and wrote a letter of invitation to Dick – this must have been in something like January 1982, as the conference was in late November. In those times, letters traveled back and forth across the Atlantic following their peaceful rhythm; so, it took a few weeks before I got the answer: ”If this were an ordinary professional meeting, I would not hesitate to decline, but as the organizers are so interesting, I will come.” … is what Dick wrote back.
In due time, he showed up at the Helsinki airport, and we had the Conference (the Proceedings have been sold out long ago), and Dick also gave a seminar at the Zoology Department where he was a well-known seminal name among the department’s ecologists.
Afterwards, as we had agreed, we made a trip to Lapland. We boarded a night train, with my car loaded on a specific transport wagon attached to the train (a fantastic facility, by the way!), and got prepared for a ten hour ride; the first night train ride ever for Dick. I was a bit nervous, and in the morning when we arrived at Rovaniemi, the ”capital of Lapland” located just a bit south of the Arctic Circle, I asked Dick how he had slept. He answered: ”I did not sleep, I started thinking instead.” For me, this was revelatory, if not revolutionary. In my previous experience, if a professor ventured to think he would immediately fall asleep.
Anyway, it was winter in Lapland, and we continued the trip by driving north, first to a village called Meltaus, an hour from Rovaniemi, to meet a local communist farmer Tuomo Leppiniemi (the Finnish Communist Party has traditionally had a strong position in Lapland). Tuomo showed us around on his small farm – the livelihood of his family comprised domestic garden, fields, and dairy cattle. Afterwards we continued discussion, Dick and Tuomo sharing experiences, in the kitchen, with a cup of coffee. Dick and Tuomo detected interesting similarities in a farmer’s life in Puerto Rico and Meltaus, despite the dramatic differences in conditions.
We spent the night at a research station of the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute in Meltaus. The next day we continued to the north and spent the following night in alpine hill country at a small research base of the Finnish Forest Research Institute (hospitable people in the north!). Next morning we continued the trip to Kevo, to stay for a couple of days (three nights as I remember) at a Research Station of the University of Turku. The station is located by a small lake, surrounded by alpine birch forest that resembles orchard by its low-growth and branching habitus; bare, rounded, stony hills rise up on all sides in the horizon.
It was full winter in Kevo: half a meter of snow in the valley, and the temperature down to -30 centigrades at night. Kevo is at latitude 69,9 North – that is, well beyond the zone in which the sun is visible in the early days of December. It was cloudless and calm – a standing high pressure – and quite good daylight from around nine-thirty in the morning to around three in the afternoon, although the sun was represented only by a strong yellowish–reddish strip along the sourthern horizon. But it was not dark at night either, because of the snow and the starlight.
The keeper of the station gave us a ride on a snow scooter on one of the days, otherwise we took short walks and talked, and I finished an interview with Dick for the multidisciplinary journal published by Tutkijaliitto, Tiede & edistys [”Science & progress”].
Then we faced the return trip. We left quite early in the morning, and because of the cold, it took some extra time to get my car started (the local hosts helped, of course!). Consequently, the schedule was eventually uncomfortably tight, as we had to catch a plane at Ivalo, some 150 kilometers to the south from Kevo. Well, the road was not slippery as it was so cold, and I dared drive quite fast. Nevertheless, the schedule seemed threateningly tight, and I stopped in the village of Ivalo to call to the airport that there is a passenger coming who has a connecting flight from Helsinki to the US, and asked them to wait for a minute or two. Well, they answered that they cannot really wait, but they can take this passanger directly onto the plane, if he arrives before the plane leaves. We arrived just in time: the gate to the airstrip zone was open and I drove through [albeit not too close to the airplane], and Dick climbed in the plane with his luggage, and the door was closed and the plane took off. – This sort of thing was possible back in 1982.
Dick’s visit to Finland was very impressive on many counts, quite a few people remembered his presentation at the confrerence long afterwards. As to myself, it is very impressive to spend time together with an impressive person – but the most important part of our contact and friendship followed afterwards: the co-authored book Humanity and Nature. Ecology, Science and Society (Pluto Press, 1992). It was Steven Rose who suggested that Dick and I write a book together, and he suggested the publisher; this was while I was visiting his lab in the UK on a postdoctoral year in 1983-84.
During the process of putting the book together, I got some opportunities to stay at Cambridge, altogether for two months or so, on different occasions such as conference trips; the longer visits must have taken place in 1984, 1986 and 1989. Altogether, the process was a great learning opportunity for me in thinking and writing. First of all, I am definitely able to think without falling asleep. I also hope I have learned some of the fantastic straightforward expressive language Dick is a master of. Further, Dick’s almost brutally pragmatic attitude toward building eco-social models by putting different sorts of variables together in a considered and politically sensitive way has been an inexhaustible resource during my 19 years of teaching environmental policy at the University of Tampere.
I’m very sad indeed for not being able to attend the festival-conference in Boston. This is due primarily to a certain heart condition – not serious as it is, but consultants say it is best to make sure it keeps that way.
So, finally: very best wishes from a northern European friend and comrade to all of you, and to Dick in particular. Good spring here: we are getting green stuff on the ground, and buds and even small leaves in the trees (mid-May is normal); and just now when I finish this piece, I see clear skies and a beautiful sunset (at 9:45 pm; we are at 60,75 North).
I’m with you – never mind the distance!
Professor of Environmental Policy (emeritus), University of Tampere, Finland
Attachment: Marxilaisena biologina Yhdysvalloissa. Richard Levinsin haastattelu [A Marxist Biologist in the United States. An Interview with Richard Levins]. Tiede & edistys 1/1983: 28-37.