Everyone has opinions that are hard to defend. For example, some otherwise rational individuals maintain that rock music is dead (obviously, those people are grossly misguided).
In Sweden, where chauvinism is more often horticultural than political, it is an article of faith among millions of Swedes that domestic strawberries are vastly superior to those grown in any other country. It isn’t unusual to hear sophisticated and cosmopolitan Swedes go into poetic rapture when speaking about the first crop of locally produced potatoes. I have to ask: is that logical?
Even though I’m a foreigner, I also harbour a subjective and positive opinion about this country which is hard to defend on a rational basis. I am convinced that there is something special and wonderful about the quality of sunlight in Sweden.
Of course, for most of the year, sunlight is an endangered species here. Weeks or even months pass during the fall or winter when the bashful sun never shows its face at all. The dark and icy cold seasons are dreadfully long, especially if one comes from a place with a more temperate climate.
The never-ending winter period makes even native Swedes so desperate that they take special cruises in the frozen Baltic Sea on ships equipped with extensive outdoor heat-lamps and bright artificial lighting in order to create the happy illusion that the sun is shining. Other Swedes just get drunk as often as possible to make the dark months pass quickly; tens of thousands also take charter trips in December and January to brighter places like Thailand or the Canary Islands.
When sunlight finally does appear on a regular basis in Scandinavia, it is hugely appreciated. But the high value placed on sunlight here because of its relative rarity isn’t what I’m talking about. It seems to me that there is an almost magical quality to the Swedish sunlight during the months of late spring and early summer that casts a unique glow on everything. This is a stark and dramatic illumination, more white than golden, that creates razor-sharp shadows and seems to turn every leaf on a birch or oak tree into a separate shimmering mirror.
One might well argue that my enthusiasm for the local sunlight is romantic or sentimental. On the other hand, I’m hardly the first person to observe that there is something remarkable about Scandinavian sunlight. In fact, this region’s most celebrated artistic movement of the late 1800s was probably the Skagen artists of northernmost Denmark. This clique of bohemian Swedish and Danish painters bathed their favourite subjects—themselves and the local fishermen—in the brilliant natural light which graces that part of the countryside.
There is a special kind of beauty created by the typically intense, long hours of cool, strong sunlight during the early part of the Nordic summer, that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. It is a sort of grace extended to everyone, regardless of our failings or imperfections. There are plenty of reasons to complain about Sweden, and moan and groan about the rest of the planet, too.
We read in our daily newspapers about tens of thousand killed in an earthquake in China: the threats and theatrics of the dictator Robert Mugabe in impoverished Zimbabwe, horrific murders everywhere, and the blood-drenched armed conflict in Iraq. Even the polar bears of the Arctic region are said to be having a tough time.
Of course, the quality of our lives, as well as our perception of the landscape, is affected by the good or bad luck we have in finding ourselves in a particular spot on the planet at a particular time. The vast majority of us who currently live in Sweden have the luxury of sufficient time, energy, food and freedom to appreciate mundane things like a stroll in the woods, the good taste of fresh potatoes and yes, even the calming effect of summer sunlight filtering through the foliage of the Swedish forest. At the same time, we all share the same sun, whether we live in Sundsvall or Sudan, whether we are rich or starving, healthy or mortally ill.
Does that mean we are callous or self-centred if we briefly stop to admire something as ordinary but glorious as the diamond-like speckles of light which dance merrily on the surface of Lake Mälaren at this time of year?
No, you don’t need to suffer from a guilty conscience for appreciating some paradise-like aspects of our Swedish summer, including the incredible but ephemeral sunlight. I would argue on the contrary that acknowledging and placing a proper value on generous gifts of the natural world, including the glorious summer sunlight, is a nutritious meal for the human spirit—something we all need if we are to make the best of darker days.