Själö Poiesis: Reading with Plants. Photos by Jussi Virkkumaa

Notes on Själö Poiesis: Reading with Plants

Saaronniemi, Ruissalo
Saturday 3.9.22

“A private reading with plants from Seili. Ask the island. Let it enter your imagination, your dreams.” –Lotta Petronella.

Nestled under a huddle of pine trees in Saaroniemi, Ruissalo, artist and filmmaker Lotta Petronella carried out private readings together with, and in the company of, humans, plants, waters, sands, and a set of illustrated cards. This exercise, titled Själö Poiesis: Reading with Plants, is a long-term collaboration with artist Cecilia Westerberg and the island of Seili, and it was one of the activities presented in September as part of CAA x NPT How do you know what you know? Exercises in Attentiveness II.

Comprising a set of 26 plant cards loosely based on the cosmology of tarot, it folds into and out of a larger body of work, Själö Poiesis, which in-turn is described by the artists asa critical study of power structures through plants, especially common plants; the weeds, the vulgaris.” Reading with Plants feeds into and exists alongside a herbarium, lecture performances, a choir work, an apothecary and botanical sessions.

These notes are written by Selina Oakes, a Reading with Plants ‘readee’.


I write these reflections on the eve of a Harvest moon.

Autumn arrives, we meet. Plants, airs, waters, pines, bodies, sands, shores, cards, stories, questions, memories. It is early September and temperatures begin to cool, the winds grow with vigour, pine needles fall and clouds gather. Lotta welcomes me, with warmth, to sit with her at the fringes of a terracotta blanket laid lightly over the sand at Saaronniemi. Cushions and rolled up blankets provide a cosy place in which to rest, to settle into, for a short while.

Beside her are books, notes, stones, and plants; in front of her, a set of cards. The latter are laid face-down and bear their backs to the pines; their contents hidden yet open for the reading ahead. Deep, dark, like the coming night-skies, they show a spectral lunar motif, reminding us to attend to the approaching full moon – to its cycles and neighbouring celestial bodies. They flicker, agitated in the breeze until rocks – organic and mineral – gently ground them to provide a momentary pause and space for attentiveness.

I stay, facing Lotta and the cards, the sea behind them, and look outwards in the direction of Seili while sensing inwards for my personal connection with the island. Waves of waters, and waves of memories, bring me to that, and this, place.

Lotta begins by asking me to think of a question that I would like to ask the island of Seili, and to hold it in my mind. Shortly after, she welcomes the island’s ancestors and our marine relatives, seals, to the reading by adding droplets of seal oil to the cards. We consider, for a moment, the lives of these mammals who have been, and continue to be, hunted.

I am invited to turn a card.

A wild rose reveals itself. I am told that it is a plant that grows all around the island and can often be found living alongside the nettle. It is a plant of reciprocity and radical self care; one that, despite its thorny stems, has the potential to heal. The card itself shows a pressed flower from a sister season; its essences seep into its surroundings and out into the listener’s mind. Two circles, one green, one orange, remind me of the growth cycles of the rose – from bud to bloom and fruit – and I think about the coming season of rose hips.

I listen; the wild rose, it roams.

I draw a second card. The apple tree echoes the rose’s desire to rove while also being considered as grounded flora. My mind drifts towards home-baked apple pies, and back again. The apple tree, though thought of as common, is an enigmatic paradox: its seeds may grow close to home but every parent tree will be genetically different from each seedling. The card’s white blossoms and oval leaves fold into channels of burnt umber, while an ominous black eclipse holds steady.

I learn; the tree undergoes a metamorphosis every year of its life.

The third and last card to reveal itself is the rowan tree, a plant that grows close to many buildings in Seili and one which has long been used for protection. It, too, connects with tales of wanderings and is known as the ‘traveller’s tree’ used to guide those on a journey. It represents the outsider and the hermit, figures who are unexpectedly required for the bringing about of radical change. I observe how its deep green leaves span across the width of the card, confident in its ability to ward off harmful spirits.

My thoughts flicker to the first time I met this tree by one of its many names; to a time when we spoke of its resilience.

Lotta draws my attention back to each card, one-by-one, connecting them more fervently with stories from the island. I am told of an apple tree that was once planted by a patient inside Seili’s old hospital yard. I listen to her story; imagine hands holding seeds and placing them into the earth to grow. The reasons for her actions are unknown, but the result is a living plant that has undergone, and witnessed, multiple metamorphoses in its lifetime.

Here, thoughts and imaginaries converge across plants, the personal and Seili. The narratives begin small and close, seedling-like, before unfolding outwards into the island’s story; the island spilling back, in return, into the readee’s journey. It is reminiscent of a deep listening exercise which asks you to, first, listen to the sounds that are nearest to you, then gradually move outwards to include the sounds which are furthest away from you.

The session is brought to a close with a hydromancy exercise. Lotta invites me to take a glass bowl filled with waters from the Archipelago Sea. This bowl is a world within a world; it holds a large sedimentary rock which represents the island of Seili. I cup it with two hands, conscious at first of the responsibility given to me to ‘carry’ this world and to not let its contents fall. I watch as fine strands of algae curl around rocky edges, while smaller particles float, suspended, in this maritime soup. The surface waters begin to pucker as the easterly breeze turns them in a slow, clockwise direction.

It’s time. I come back to my surroundings, sat under the pine trees in Saaronniemi, and consider the prompts and propositions that have been given to me. What to digest now, and what to let marinate for later? Before leaving this place, Lotta gifts me a small, twine-tied parchment with an exercise to unknot at home.

I open it now, and find myself back on the journey with Seili.