Right before entering Nuuksio National Park, a wooden building shaped like the goldeneye bird greets you on the left side of the road. The impressive structure sits on a hilltop, looking over a magnificent view of Lake Nuuksio Pitkäjärvi. A forest that looks like growing from the depths of the lake's water stretches far and wide into the horizon. This iconic view of Nuuksio is the home to Haltia — The Finnish Nature Centre.
Haltia's mission as a nature centre, museum, and Finland's most significant environmental educator is to bring people closer to nature. Its exhibitions provide information not only on Nuuksio but all of Finland's national parks. A visit to Haltia equips you with the know-how and courage to venture into the Finnish wilderness.
"Our main exhibition is a window to Finnish nature. If you're a bit hesitant or scared to go out into the forest, you can first come to the exhibition to see what is out there," says Tom Selänniemi, the Director of Haltia.
Haltia is run by Metsähallitus, a state-owned environmental service provider, while private companies maintain the restaurant and museum shop. Besides being a museum, environmental education is an important job of Haltia. School classes, for example, go to Haltia to enjoy a fun, guided day in the forests of Nuuksio.
"We Finns have a very special relationship with nature. From tiny kids, we are used to going out into the forest to play and pick berries. There might be some fragmentation these days, but I think we still have parts of that relationship. At Haltia, we aim to dig out those relationships and enhance them," Selänniemi says.
Haltia leads by example in sustainability
Maintaining a harmonious relationship with nature is the essence of sustainability for Haltia. First of all, the nature centre teaches its customers to treat nature with respect. And secondly, the centre wants to leave a lasting influence by inspiring them to make sustainable choices in their daily lives.
"If you're a bit hesitant or scared to go out into the forest, you can first come to the exhibition to see what is out there."
To inspire others, Haltia needs to lead by example. When the first plans for Haltia were made about twenty years ago, it was clear that the building should be sustainable and equipped with the latest eco-technology.
Designed by the well-known Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, the building is the first and the biggest public massive wood building in Finland. Combining solar and geothermal energy, Haltia is also 80 % self-sufficient in energy. The building uses solar panels to restore heat, which is then pumped down into the bedrock. In the process, cool energy comes back up in the pipeline, which the building uses to cool down in the summer. In the winter, the building is heated by taking the heat back up from the bedrock.
Director Selänniemi combines tourism expertise and passion for nature
If Haltia's job is to awaken a positive relationship with nature for its customers, for Selänniemi, a sustainable way of living comes naturally. His background as a cultural anthropology PhD with over a decade of experience in Finnish tourism is significant. However, the story of how and, more importantly, where he was offered the director's job paints you a perfect picture of him.
About eight years ago, Selänniemi was lying draped in a bear hide, with a camera in hand, in the middle of a forest when he got a call from Metsähallitus. The job offer disrupted his bear photography session — and probably disturbed any bears in earshot. But the offer gave Selänniemi the chance to use the main passions in his life — nature, sustainability, nature photography, and tourism — to inspire change in others.
Recharge your relationship with nature at Haltia
Nature tourism and sustainable travel have become increasingly popular during the pandemic as international travel has been all but impossible. To fill in the void left by cancelled travel plans, people have started to explore their local and domestic destinations.
"If there's a good side to the pandemic, it is that people have gotten used to going outdoors. We have regained part of our relationship with nature," Selänniemi says.
Haltia's current exhibition, "Recharge your brain in nature", sheds light on the health benefits of this reawoken relationship — especially that of the brain and the mind. The exhibition shows how activities like mushroom picking, hiking, or just enjoying the smells of a forest are all part of a holistic healing effect that nature provides us.
"People are slowly realising that you don't have to travel far to get unforgettable experiences. Recently, national parks close to the capital region, such as Nuuksio, Sipoonkorpi, and Porkkala, have increased their visitor numbers a lot," Selänniemi says.
"If there's a good side to the pandemic, it is that people have gotten used to going outdoors."
Selänniemi is delighted to see that more people are heading out to Nuuksio and other national parks. Nevertheless, in the end, the positive everyday encounters are the most rewarding for him in his work.
"For me, the happiest moment is when I see a school class get really excited about the exhibitions and the nature school. And when customers put on their hiking boots and go out into the national park after visiting us," Selänniemi concludes.
And maybe the smiles on kids' faces are also the purest proof of a nature education job well done.
Hero image: Haltia — The Finnish Nature Centre