In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.
– John Fowles
Here on Flåten the woods are actually moving, and in very physical terms. Small gnarled birch trees are leading a slow march up the mountainside past our cabin – aiming for the hills, one generation at a time. In the far distance, one or two tall pine trees and some larger and more erect birches are following suit. As temperatures keep rising their migration will increase in speed and there will come a time, and probably not in the too distant future, when we are no longer at the tree line. At the moment however, we are. The rolling mountains of Northern Härjedalen are still visible from the large studio window of our cabin, and the arctic tundra is just a few leaps away.
Writing in 1979 John Fowles is not concerned about climate change nor its effect on the slow migration of trees (it will be another 10 years yet before the IPCC publish their first report on climate change). In The Tree he does however address the problems that art, science and other modern endeavors have created in our relation to nature (and thereby to ourselves) by trying to capture and often find a purpose, for that which is inherently dynamic, evanescent and often without use (at least for humans). With reference to the 18th century botanist and taxonomist extraordinaire Carolus Linneus, he ponders the bitter fruit of Uppsalian knowledge and the ancient roots of human alienation from nature: an “individuating process in art and science that moves us away from total reality towards anthropocentrism”. At one point in the book he proclaims that one of two landscapes he can’t stand is the arctic tundra – but besides that, I get along with his thinking quite well.
A few years ago I became absorbed with trees. I was reading books about them, writing about them (e.g. this short piece for the CEMUS Diaries: The Forest Knows Where You Are) and had some bewildering encounters with a few of their kind. Now again I find myself thinking about trees, especially birch trees. Perhaps not so strange, as we are surrounded by them on three sides, well almost four sides by now. But perhaps also as we have committed to cutting a few of these beautiful beings down. The view we could survive without, but cold days and a poorly insulated house calls for more firewood than we expected.
However, I find myself finding excuses to not get on with the actual felling. First I spent some time figuring out what sort of tools and gear we would need. I was planning to rent an electric chain-saw from the village, and then thinking that I perhaps should do it the old-fashioned way – axe and saw. But then a new acquaintance from a village down the valley mentioned that we could use his. So we now have a chain-saw and my post-ordered ‘lumber jack kit’ has arrived. Ready to go, I then started thinking about the seasons, realizing that we left it too late to be able to dry the wood in time to use this winter anyway. Oh well, if push comes to shove, we might be able to use some of it at the very end of spring.
While trying to figure out which trees we could cut down we dug out the old property-maps.
As you can see most pieces of land are spoken for by someone up here. Most of them families who happened to live here when the state decided to enact the latest land reform in the late 1880s. Our property was bought from two of these families, first a small piece in 1951 with a small addition in 1957 and a larger one in 1965.
Looking at these straight lines across the map makes me think about the power of the nation state and the colonial heritage of Sweden, so seldom addressed in our history-lessons in school. In the book, Bury my heart at Udtjajaure, the Swedish Diplomat Lars Norberg, speaks of his attempt as head of a Swedish delegation to restore some historical justice through a renegotiation of the transboundary reindeer-herding rights along the Swedish-Norwegian border. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the issue of relations between nation states and indigenous peoples – it is as insightful and honest as it is depressing.
Back in October Ingrid and I were invited to help a local sami village with the separation of reindeer in preparation for the slaughter. Our task was to act as “dragare”, to catch reindeer calves that were identified (by our Sami friends) as those that would go to slaughter, and pull them by their horns into a separate pen. Hard work for both body and heart. But it also gave us an unexpected and welcome possibility to spend some time in the rain and mud with new friends, and to begin to listen for stories and hints of what life in Härjedalen is like for both reindeer and their people.