“It’s actually a really beautiful bridge.”

The bridge was made of cut wood logs held together by heavy steel bolts. It was narrow enough for one to guide their hands along either railing as they walked along it. The railings were logs as well, suspended at chest height by steel cables, and were the only thing keeping us from slipping off the bridge into the half-frozen creek below. The bridge was twenty strides long, and bounced as you walked across it, the length of a tree.

I was five days into my weeklong experiential peacebuilding training in Metsäkartano Finland run by Outward Bound Peacebuilding when we crossed the bridge. Aside from going to bed and leaving the next morning, the bridge was the last experience we shared in the wilderness together. The two-day expedition was preceded by three days of theory-based training, and then followed by one more. Thirty-five experiential educators from seven different European countries and a few from North America attended the training. Peacebuilding theory was a new idea to me at the time, the flashiness of the title is what attracted me to the training in the first place, that and the opportunity to go on an expedition.

Early spring in Finland looks like winter in most other places. A meter and a half of hard packed snow covered the ground, with months of family ski outings carved halfway to the ground making notable ruts. One-meter-deep footprints were frozen in place, formed on a hot day when the snow was soft enough for a boot to break through, followed by a freeze that preserved the impression. It would have been easy to step into a frozen footprint and injure oneself, making the skis imperative.

I found it difficult to ski in the ruts as the tips of my borrowed skis kept ramming against the frozen banks. It was comfortable in a way, knowing I was on a well-traveled path meant I wasn’t going to get lost, and having the skis meant I wouldn’t break my ankle in an icy posthole, but the frequent falls and out of control skidding was frustrating. The alternative to the grooved trail was to travel off-trail, permitting freer movement at the risk of slipping into a tree, or worse, getting lost. A potentially easier option, but with greater variability.

These ruts, trails, and off-trails wrapped around the frozen lake Tiilikka in Tiilikajärven National Park that we were expeditioning through, a frozen woodland of new growth pine and wolf tracks. Our group of thirty-five was separated into smaller groups so we could embark on a day of “orienteering.”

Whole Group on the Route Home - Frozen Bog in the Sunshine

Orienteering is like so: here’s a map, go here, here, here, and here, when you’re here have a talk about peacebuilding, whatever that means. My group was made of six of us including a lean Romanian dad, a tea-loving Slovakian, a Finnish kayaker, a tall and a short German, and myself.
Our first checkpoint took us down a frozen trail that we had traveled on the day before. We had two options for travel. One was to follow the trail; this would ensure we would not get lost, but meant we would have to stick to the ruts. The other option was to go off-trail across a frozen bog, a potentially faster option but with more unknowns. We all felt the same way about the ruts, but decided the suffering we knew was safer than a potentially worse option, so we chose the trail.

This had us arriving at the checkpoint thirty minutes late, an impeachable insult in Finnish culture, but the facilitators accepted our apology. What followed was a conversation about gender inclusivity. To some it may be obvious what gender acceptance has to do with peacebuilding, but to others it may take more work. To start, there is this concept about negative and positive peace. Negative peace is the absence of violence, or fear of violence, in a society. This is very in line with how many people, myself included, tend to think of peace. Kind of as the opposite to war, but that definition is rigid and disempowering. On the other side is positive peace, the presence of institutions, attitudes, and structures that sustain a peaceful society.

Peacebuilding is an aspect of positive peace, and being a group of educators from various institutions, so were we. The way an institution engages with gender expression can either build peace in a society, or deconstruct it. A well designed institution is the difference between uplifting someone’s voice and silencing it. As educators we all carried a mighty responsibility to create a welcome classroom.

We concluded our conversation about gender and voyaged to the next checkpoint. Unlike the first one, this checkpoint only had one way to get to it, and that was to travel off-trail across the bog. It was time to abandon the ruts. At this point in the day the snowfall was heavy, making it difficult to see further than a dozen meters. What we decided to do was to take a compass bearing from one side of the bog, and ski into the dense white cloud, hoping to arrive at the peninsula on the other side.

Bogs in winter make for excellent travel. The snow piles up on them in an even coat, making for a beautifully flat field, perfect for skis. The snow was falling around us, obscuring any old paths that may have been carved into the snow and hiding the far side of the bog from us. We could not see where we were going. This created a sense of exploration. Very real anxiety accompanied us as we skied into the snowy void, hoping the plan we made was precise, that we were on our bearing. Alongside that anxiety was a difficult to explain feeling of freedom and ownership. We were crossing the bog according to our plan while making our tracks in the snow. There was no following, no rails or trails, just us. After a long feeling half hour of crossing we arrived at the other side, exactly where we were hoping to arrive. It was empowering.

The day continued on similar to the morning where we would travel to a checkpoint, deconstruct inclusion in our schools and then carry on to the next. It was not until after our fourth checkpoint did we go see Iso Mänty.

Group with Iso Manty

Iso Mänty means “Big Pine” in Finnish, and was advertised as such near our fourth and final checkpoint. We decided to check it out, curious what the “big tree this way!” sign. As we trudged out we were joking about how we would know which of the pines was the big one. Up until now every tree we had come across was the same size and age, following a reforestation process of Finland’s wilderness areas, so we were not expecting Iso Mänty to be very different. But it was.

The tree was over double the diameter of the other trees in the park, taking three people to hug it comfortably, which of course we all did. Buttresses grew off the base of the trunk, stabilizing the massive tree. If you stood directly beneath it and looked up, it almost appeared to have a star shaped pattern to its branches. It stood in immense contrast to the homogenous pencils making up the rest of the forest, making me nostalgic for an era of forest I’ve never seen.

Something about its grandeur invited a childlike sense of play, leading my group and I to dance around the tree, to throw snowballs and giggle at each other under the shade of Iso Mänty. It was like we were under a spell.

After taking a moment to hug some of the younger trees who likely never get hugged we walked away, feeling lighter than before. Our day was an immense joy and a riveting success. We had traveled to all four checkpoints without getting lost, stayed warm despite the escalating rain, worked together well, and even had time to sidetrack at the end. Daydreams of old growth forest followed us back to camp as we crossed a well made wooden suspension bridge which prompted one of my group members to say “It’s actually a really beautiful bridge.”

I recoiled at this. Here we were, hiking in the spiritual shade of an elder tree across the bones of its kin and Tobias was admiring the bridge? The corpse? How wrong could he be! Where had this bridge even come from? Was the lumber used for this bridge harvested from once great trees like Iso Mänty, or from a tree that didn’t even get the chance to grow? The questions disconnected me, and I felt at first rage towards my groupmate and then grief as the dead tree settled beneath my feet. I felt like I was living in a graveyard. The bridge was not beautiful, it was a graveyard.

These thoughts shattered for me the marketable language of peacebuilding. It’s a nice word isn’t it? Irrefutably nice and is easy to get behind. It made me think of something a Croatian cave diver at the conference said on the first day when asked what are we here to do: “We’re building bridges!”
Another poetic and easy to get behind sentiment, but what I cannot wrap my head around is how do you build a bridge without chopping down a tree? It feels wrong to destroy something beautiful to create something beautiful, there’s an inexplicable friction in my soul about it, and this was my hang up with peacebuilding. When we make these marvelous and inclusive institutions, who pays the price for them?

The school I work for does incredible work bringing people together, developing compassion and broadening perspective, but it is inaccessibly expensive. All the magnificent bridges and trails that lead people, like myself, to beautiful trees in the woods came from somewhere for my benefit. Even the sign to Iso Mänty was made of wood. How many trees fell for me to enjoy Iso Mänty? How many people were displaced to create the wilderness areas I guide people through?

It is a conflict I often face in my career, the feeling of serving the over-served. Of powerlessness over the state of the world and privilege I enjoy. The type of education I believe in, experiential outdoor education, is uncommon and unaffordable. There are all sorts of programs that provide those opportunities to wider populations but the reality of the field’s inequity tortures me. On bad nights it paralyzes me. Wouldn’t I do more good for the world if I worked to disrupt education barriers rather than providing better education to the kids who already have it pretty good? In a way, peacebuilding feels like another great opportunity that the people who really need it can’t have it. This dissonance is precisely the work of peacebuilding.

Before flying to Finland we were given a reading from John Paul Lederach’s book the Moral Imagination, a foundational work of peacebuilding theory. There is a section in it where he talks about places that spend more time at war than in peace. To those people, violence is a known and peace is an unknown, which in a twisted way makes war the more comfortable reality. It is like my group opting to stay in the uncomfortable ruts, even if there is a better, boggy-er way. At least it’s predictable.

The recoil I felt from Tobias’s comment stemmed from this resistance to change I felt in myself. I do not want to have to fell trees to make bridges. I want them both! A beautiful park with accessible infrastructure, and an untouched wilderness to explore. How do we have both?
Well we can’t. Obviously not. To have a new and different world that supports the needs of an ever-changing population we need to say goodbye to old systems, attitudes and norms. And who knows, maybe this means inviting old systems and ways of doing things back. As I tell my students, growth is not linear.

Orienteering Day - Team in the Snow

So how does this address privilege and where does this leave me. Is this my manifesto for a better and reimagined world? No. Not everyone can start their own school and reform the world. Some people just need to be good teachers, and they too have responsibility. I am, after all, a part of an institution and what I do matters. The way I address people can make the difference between welcoming them or dismissing them. Peacebuilding, we learned, is built from the ground up. That is why we spent a fifth of our peacebuilding training discussing gender, because it is a bridge.

And this brings me back to how peacebuilding addresses inequity in the world and our responsibility. Think of the concept of negative and positive peace. Negative peace is the horizon of a society without violence, institutional or otherwise. It is essential and urgent work to disempower the violent institutions that perpetuate violence and inequity. I deeply admire the work of abolitionists who seek to disrupt systemic oppression. That is the work of negative peace, removing systems of violence. That is not my work, but it is critical work. As confusing as it is, trees are meant to fall, and we can be the ones that fell them. But it means we must also be the ones to recycle the lumber, and that is the work of positive peace.

Teaching people to listen, to be curious, that too is the stuff of equity. This is what the experiential peacebuilding training taught me, that I have a role in this too. As much as I admire the concept I am not going to be the world’s feller of systems of oppression, it is just not what I am good at. Instead I am an educator, a builder. I did not learn how to fell a tree, or to distinguish the healthy trees from ill. I did not even really learn how to build a bridge, not specifically. But I did learn that there are many ways to build peace. That helping two people listen to each other can be a life changing experience, that peace is a scary journey, and that beginnings are only beautiful for following endings. So yes, my groupmate was right, it really was a beautiful bridge.

– Benji Blumenstock, April 2024