The man who conquered the land of fire

In 1953,
geologist Väinö Auer returned to Finland from Argentina, the land where he made
most of his expeditions and discoveries. At that time, he was already very
pessimistic about how technological progress and modern life were affecting
nature and climate. It was 25 years since his first trip to Tierra del Fuego.

Väinö Auer
was born in 1895 in
Helsinki, at that time still a part of the Russian Empire. Although his first
steps in the University were in botany, he ended up focusing on geology and

In swamp
research, Auer was the first to use pollen analysis in Finland as a relative
timing method, and also started to investigate the geohistorical periods of
Vanajavesi, a lake/river near Hämeenlinna, regarding the layout order of beach
swamps. This classic study from 1924 built the basics for Finland’s limn geologic
lake researches.

However, it
was very far from Finnish soil where Auer made his finest researches and
expeditions. On the 15th of August of 1928, he started his first trip to the
very remote places of South America: Tierra del Fuego (Tulimaa) and Patagonia.
Other members in the trips were
Ernst Håkan Kranck, Heikki Roivanen and Esa Hyyppä. They arrived to
Punta Arenas, Chile, on the 16th of November.

The main
purpose of the trip was to practice studies of
stratigraphy (the study of rock layers and layering) in the swamps and the connections between this and the climate changes
of the Holocene period. To its surprise the group discovered in the swamps of
Tulimaa three layers with sediments of ashes, results of volcanic action. This
finding helped to define the development of the swamp surface. It was possible,
then, to show the changes in vegetation over 9,000 years.

As Väinö
Auer advanced into Tierra del Fuego, the expedition got adventurous. On
February of 1929 he left from Punta Arenas to unknown waters. Sailing with a
small boat in troubled waters near the glaciers, the expedition managed to find
a couple of new fiords in the area of the Darwin Mountains. They were named
after famous Finnish people, such as former president Lauri Kristian Relander
or J.V. Snellman.

Later that
year, Auer returned to Finland where he started a career as professor at the
University of Helsinki. However, the call of fieldwork was strong and in 1937
he decided to get back in action. From Kotka he left for Buenos Aires and the
unexplored territories of Patagonia.



During the Winter War (1939-40), Väinö Auer served as volunteer in the battlefield
against Russia. However, his major contribution to this period was in literature.
Along with Eino
Jutikkala, Auer received instructions to write a book about the historical and
geographical reasons why Eastern Karelia belonged to Finland. The result,
published in 1941, is Finnlands Lebensraum
(Finland’s living space). It was
written directly in German with the intention of convincing the Nazi German war
ministry of the necessity of returning Eastern Karelia to Finland once Germany
had invaded the Soviet Union.

The provocative
name of the book, though, was an invention of the German publisher. Auer and
Jutikkala’s original was
Das Geographische und Geschichtliche Finnland (The
Historical and Geographical Finland).


Side by side with Perón

After the
war, Väinö Auer received the call of Argentina’s President Juan Domingo Perón.
He was called to resolve the problems of erosion and dryness in the farming
fields of Argentina. He referred to this problem as the “Desert devil” (
Aavikkopaholainen). At that time his
whole family moved to Argentina.

Argentina, the Finnish geographer became a significant influence in the
community, which helping to breed a new generation of scientist, as well as
completing his official tasks in the Ministry of Agriculture. However, homesick
and disappointed with the scientific community and current technological
progress, which was harming the environment, Auer returned to Finland 1953.
There he took again his position as professor at the University of Helsinki. He
died in this city on the 20th of March,1981.


Documentaries, books and a street name

In spite of
his great achievements, Väinö Auer remained one of the less well-known
scientists in Finland, although a street in Kumpula is named after him (Väinö
Auerin katu). The main source of information about his thoughts is his diaries;
but, in the last years, two important works have brought a new perspective of
Auer’s life and work.

Pentti Alhonen and Antero Alhonen have recently published the book Vaakavarren ratsastaja, a comprehensive
study and biography of Väinö Auer. In 2001, film director Mikko Piela started
following the steps of Auer from Finland to Tierra del Fuego y Patagonia. The
result is a documentary based on the geologist’s diaries: Väinö Auer (1895-1981). “For filming the documentary”, recalls
Piela, “we did a couple of expeditions to Tierra del Fuego with our cameras. It
was a great adventure to sail on small boats and film in those remotes places”.
For the director, Auer was an ambiguous person. “He drifted from strong
nationalism to a major concern about global problems, which made him very pessimistic
in his latter days," Piela says.