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Piety among the pine cones

by
18 September 2020

Andrew Brown contemplates the Swedes’ relationship with nature and spirituality

Andreas Dress/Unsplash

THE saddest grave I know is a rough heap of turf, four days’ walk into the empty Swedish mountains above the Arctic Circle. This is a completely treeless landscape, where the only large mammals to survive are the reindeer, who can live by scraping the lichen off rocks with their teeth.

Above the grave, a cross made from two bars of aluminum tubing bears a plaque that explains that this shelters the remains of an unknown slave, probably a Russian or a Pole, who had escaped from a Nazi forced-labour camp across the Norwegian border.

His body was found when the snow melted in the summer of 1944. He had died of hunger and cold, but at least his emaciated corpse was found whole — unlike another fugitive, found 30 miles south, whose head had been chewed off and carried into the mountains, presumably by a wolverine. That skull was found 76 years after the rest of the remains.

To stand by the prisoner’s grave is to understand the mountains as an arena of bleak struggle and hostility to life. Yet I had walked to it along a well-marked trail that runs for 100 miles through the Sami reindeer-herding grounds, and which is marketed as a chance to experience Europe’s last wilderness.

Once a day, a helicopter disrupts the noises of the wind and water, ferrying tourists to the Sami village at the centre of the trail. We cannot see, we cannot even walk through, the same mountains as that desperate, starving, solitary, escapee. Something profound has changed in our relationship to the world.

 

THIS change is the subject of Granskogsfolk (“People of the Pine Forest”), a remarkable book by David Thurfjell, a Swedish sociologist of religion. Thurfjell uses a wide range of resources, from poetry, history, and interviews with contemporary urban Swedes to explore the ways in which the forests, the mountains, and nature more generally, have become the essential source of spiritual refreshment for contemporary Swedes.

The wilderness, once an alien space where death was omnipresent, has been transformed into a theatre of experience, a frame through which we can safely contemplate ourselves, our deaths, our meaning, and our insignificance.

“For the people I have talked to,” he writes, “the consolation of the forest is not a promise of change or improvement. Nor is it a hope of life after death or a promise of relief from pain.

“The consolation, if I understand them, lies in the quiet reassurance that life is as it is — that all that’s busy being born and all that’s busy dying are bound together in an indivisible symbiosis, and that we, as biological creatures, are a part of this whole. That’s how it is for plants and animals, and that’s how it is for us, too.”

The countryside, or “nature”, now fulfils for most Swedes the functions that churches or even art fulfilled for their grandparents. They feel that they need to walk in the forests for the sake of the souls that they are not sure they have, and certainly don’t know how to talk about.

 

THIS is true even of professional Christians who are — presumably — certain of their possession both of souls and of the language to talk about them. A priest friend there said to me that she couldn’t live without nature: “That’s the frame where I find God,” she said. “I can’t understand a political religion that tries to bring the Kingdom to earth when we already see the Kingdom all round us.”

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Thurfjell’s earlier book Det Gudlösa Folket (“The Godless People”) was a wonderfully subtle examination of the way in which Christianity has become an embarrassment to the Swedes, not because it was so very different, but because it was so awkwardly close to how they behaved and the rituals they observed.

The problem is not that other Swedes could not respond to the forest as my friend the priest does: it is that they would be horribly embarrassed to recognise their sentiment as one that Christians (by definition, other people) might share and celebrate.

I feel this reverence for, and refreshment from, the forests myself. I lived in Sweden for seven years as a young man — for some of that time in a cottage so remote that a wolf killed two sheep in the fields I used to walk past to reach the town.

I’ve been zapped by the Holy Spirit in Medjugorje, and consoled by silent prayer in a cathedral, but easily as profound as either of these experiences was a moment out of time on a grey, chilly day in southern Sweden, when I sheltered under a spruce tree, watching past a curl of smoke from my spindly roll-up the patterns that raindrops made beside a stand of water lilies.

 

IF THIS book were simply a description of contemporary nature mysticism, and an affirmation of its healing qualities, its worth would be limited. What makes it fascinating is the way in which it anatomises and exposes the two feelings that are most fundamental to our experience in the woods.

The first is that we love them, and wish them preserved. That is not the way in which Swedes have actually treated their forests. For most of the 20th century, they were quite ruthlessly exploited as a source of lumber and wood pulp.

The forests that still cover most of the country may look and even feel primitive, but they are, in fact, the product of a gigantic farming enterprise quite as much as the barley-covered steppes of East Anglia.

From 1960 to the mid-’70s, the mixed forests were routinely sprayed with Hormoslyr, a weedkiller with the same active ingredient as Agent Orange, to kill off all of the deciduous trees. Vast machines harvest the resulting pines — one can do the work of a thousand lumberjacks. As a result, 60 per cent of the country’s forest cover has been razed and replanted in the past 70 years.

The “nature” that Swedes love is, for the most part, just as man-made as the English countryside. Their love for the landscapes in which they feel alien does not stretch so far as to preserve the qualities that make it truly strange and distant from all human concerns.

 

THE second of Thurfjell’s attacks seems to strike at the root of the delight that we go to the forest to receive. One of the central pillars of the experience there is the sense of timelessness.

“Here is the sense of standing at a boundary,” Thurfjell writes of one of the poems he quotes, “the feeling of a personal relationship with the world around you: here is the experience of being comforted, moved, and healed, that life is an inexplicable gift, and death a merciless inevitability. Here is the knowledge that your body and your consciousness are bound into all these things.”

Such a feeling seems necessarily universal. You cannot understand how anyone in the same place and time could fail to glimpse what seems here to be revealed.

And yet Thurfjell shows how very particular it is to a particular time and culture: how the idea of nature, and so our ability to apprehend it, is the product of historical forces just as much as our idea of religion.

There are societies where “nature” does not exist because the natural world is all there is, just as there are societies where “religion” does not exist because there are only the things that everyone does and the stories that everyone tells.

Our own understanding of both nature and religion emerged only in the past couple of centuries. In Sweden, where industrialisation came late and fast, “nature” hardly existed before the 20th century.

 

THERE are still people today who simply cannot sense the sublimity of the mountains and the forests. I was married to one of them for a long time, and the pain this sometimes caused to both of us was very great.

That kind of insensibility feels like sacrilege when nature is understood as sacred. Thurfjell recalls his own distress when international colleagues, taken to a nature reserve as a treat, kept talking as they walked through the forest. Only an Estonian colleague fell into the properly reverent silence.

As I write this, a procession of protesters from Extinction Rebellion is passing the window. In scarlet gowns, with blood-red ribbons waving in the in the wind, they seem like the flagellants in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal.

They act out a message of urgent judgement and damnation; but, even in Cambridge, I wonder who will be changed and who will merely see a spectacle. Thurfjell ends his book asking whether our emotions in the face of the forest and the wilderness will impel us into action, or whether they will remain merely sentiments.

In religious terms, he is asking whether ritual can translate into theology, and theology into practice. Whether the Swedes believe they are Christian or not, they have found themselves facing the existential problem that all Churches also face.

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