For Annika Nurttila, spring 2021 was a flurry of activity. In April she retired as head of section after a long career with the Finnish Food Authority.
In May she underwent knee surgery. During her recovery, she had time to read, listen to audiobooks, watch documentaries – and think about things.
All this eventually led her to become a University of Helsinki donor.
A transformative experience for Nurttila was David Attenborough’s book on solutions to nature loss, A Life on Our Planet (2020). In the days and weeks following her surgery, Nurttila lounged on the sofa listening to the audiobook version narrated by the author himself.
People often talk of nature loss in a sombre tone – it is a serious topic after all.
“But Attenborough’s book uses lots of examples to explain what we can do to slow down and prevent nature loss. To put it in drastic terms, I had an ecological awakening,” she says.
A new relationship to material things
The year before, Nurttila had begun to reconsider her relationship with material things. She had moved from Helsinki back to her childhood hometown of Espoo.
“I’d lived in Helsinki for almost 40 years. When I moved, I got rid of lots of unnecessary things and began to reflect on the kind of presents I’d like to give my loved ones in the future.”
Nurttila has a large family: three adult children, six grandchildren and one step-grandchild. She has been in the habit of giving presents to not only them, but also her friends and ‘co-grandparents’, or the other grandparents of her grandchildren.
But after listening to Attenborough’s book, buying Christmas presents felt impossible.
“I decided that rather than buying my co-grandparents something, I would give them hope for the future of our grandchildren. Like me, they already have homes full of things.”
Nurttila decided that the way to give hope was to donate money to a good cause. When she came across the Giving Day fundraising campaign for University of Helsinki research on nature loss, she knew it was the one for her.
“It was a real eureka moment: this is it! It was comforting to think that even a pensioner like myself could make a small contribution to an important cause.”
Passionate belief in the power of research
Donating to research on nature loss was a choice very much in line with Nurttila’s values. Research knowledge and its versatile use were key features of her old job too.
“Throughout my career, I pursued work that gave me the chance to influence social issues. For a long time, I also supervised highly experienced and qualified specialists.”
Nurttila describes herself as an inquisitive person who is curious about how things work. She says that these qualities led her to study nutrition science at university.
Nurttila came across the discipline by chance as she was considering her options and thought it seemed like an “interesting interdisciplinary human science”. She graduated with a Master of Science (Agriculture and Forestry) from the University of Helsinki in 1981 and qualified as a nutritionist in 1985.
Her relationship to nature was strongly influenced by her childhood in the Soukka district of Espoo, where she lived until her early 20s.
Back then, Soukka was a largely untouched rural village at the end of a gravel road close to the coastline.
“I liked to venture down to a nearby stream to smell the lesser butterfly-orchid growing there. House martins used to whizz around outside our house.”
Urbanisation of the area really took off when Nurttila was 10 years old. She remembers how saddening it was that the plants and animals she had come to know as a child gradually began to disappear. As a donor, she now wishes to contribute to not only stopping nature loss, but also ensuring biodiversity.
Last Christmas, Nurttila wrote her family and friends letters, explaining she had made donations in their name.
“It set off a nice chain reaction. The other grandparents of my grandchildren said they were going to follow my example.”
One of Nurttila’s children noted emphatically how a donation to slow nature loss is the only way to make a real difference for future generations.
“It may sound a bit simplistic, but there’s a grain of truth in it. If we don’t act now, will our grandchildren even know the world as we know it?” Nurttila asks.