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Swedish life is nice enough but it’s the wilderness that has me hooked

Wild open spaces are always nearby and they shape our relationship with the country, says David Crouch.

Swedish life is nice enough but it's the wilderness that has me hooked
The lake nearest David Crouch's home outside Gothenburg (exact name and location withheld). Photo: David Crouch

The elephant in the room is two metres tall, has ears like a donkey and a face like a mutant sheep on acid. The humble Swedish elk. Moody, majestic, magnificent – a quintessential symbol of Swedishness. 

And yet, elk are missing from the exhaustive list of “the most Swedish things in existence” sent in to The Local this summer. Dear readers, how could you omit this loveable monster from your register of things that are truly, madly, deeply Swedish? Why was the elk overlooked in favour of such insipid objects as the wooden butter knife, Ikea blue bags and salty liquorice? 

Frankly, it pains me to even ask this question. Is it a case of what psychologists call “inattentional blindness”, when you can’t see something in front of your nose? Is the elk for non-Swedes like the gorilla that famously walked through a group of basketball players without anyone seeing it?

God, I love elk. My heart leaps every time I see one. I love their ungainliness, their knobbly knees and silent, brooding presence. Elk are the Benjamin Button of animals, born looking rather old and weary. 

When I first came here, even a short car journey would have me straining over the driver’s shoulder in the hope of a glimpse of elk-flesh. I live on the outskirts of Gothenburg, but sightings of elk are not confined to the suburbs. One November morning a few years ago I was cycling to work near the city centre when I encountered a huge bull trotting down the pavement on the opposite side of the road. For a few minutes I chased it through side streets barely two kilometres from the university – here is my shaky video of the experience.

Sweden is home to by far the largest population of elk in Europe outside Russia, around 340,000. Some 80,000 are shot every autumn by hunters – in the countryside, Swedes are as likely to have a rifle in the house as an osthyvel cheese slicer. We tend not to think of Swedes as gun-toting rednecks, but the annual elk hunt is a big moment for around one quarter of a million locals. Schools and offices close, and city people book holidays to return to their home villages and take part in the hunt.

Elk are an example of how wilderness is an integral part of the experience of living in Sweden. The country is enormous. If you swing it round on the map from its southernmost point, it reaches as far as Rome. The population outside the main cities is tiny. Nearly 70 percent of Sweden’s surface area is forest, while just 3 percent is populated.

The nation is so vast and empty that former prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, in a rather naive response to anti-immigrant sentiment, declared: “I often fly across the Swedish countryside and I would advise more people to do that. There are endless fields and forests. There is more space than you can imagine. Those who claim that the country is full, they should show us where it is full.”

A graphic from Statistics Sweden (SCB) showing much of the country is forest or grassland. Photo: Statistics Sweden

Though much of the forest is managed commercially, wild animals are always close. Two years ago, a man waiting at a bus stop near Gothenburg’s eastern hospital filmed a wolf trotting along the road. The annual migration of hundreds of thousands of cranes to Hornborgasjön is a breathtaking sight. Further north, Sweden has a population of nearly 3,000 bears.

This aspect of Swedishness is captured beautifully in my favourite book about the country, Andrew Brown’s “Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared” (2008). Brown followed his girlfriend to Sweden in the early 1970s, and his book describes a Sweden that was very different from today’s. In the mid-2000s, Brown returns to the country and travels its length, rediscovering what it was that made him fall in love with Sweden in the first place and giving us vivid snapshots of the changes that have taken place.

For Brown, fishing in the lakes was the wilderness experience that shaped his relationship with the country. Without a work permit and sharing a house with his girlfriend’s parents in a tiny village near Gothenburg, catching pike (gädda) for the table was his main contribution to the family’s economy. Sweden has a staggering 268,000 lakes. After his Swedish odyssey, including several fishing trips, Brown writes: “Only in the scruffy forest lakes of Sweden could I recapture the sense that I had stepped into a better world.”

Whether you experience it by plunging into its clear, dark waters or through the pull of a fish on your line, a Swedish lake is an experience far from the paved and ordered comfort of city life. It means mud between your toes, the thrilling shadow of granite under the surface, and the shock of water heated only by the fickle Swedish sun. 

David Crouch on a Swedish lake. Photo: Private

Just 30 minutes from my front door, I can be floating on a lake immersed in total silence, like in another world. The lake regularly has breeding pairs of storlom, or black-throated loon – a rare and stunningly beautiful waterbird with a haunting, plaintive cry that echoes over the still surface of the water. The official guide to the area says the surrounding forest also has tjäder, the wood grouse or capercaillie. Sometimes I strain my ears and persuade myself that I can hear its distinctive, clicking call.

When I wonder idly if I could ever take my family back home to England, I realise that it is this wilderness experience that has me hooked. Other aspects of Swedishness are sufficiently pleasant, but deep down the elk are tugging at my heart.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

Member comments

  1. Thanks for your article David.
    The land-use statistics you cite are telling. Sweden is fortunately
    an under-populated country where a day in peaceful nature- or even wilderness, is never that far away.
    I can also highly recommend ‘Fishing in Utopia’.

  2. Thanks for your article David.
    The statistics cited certainly show how under-populated Sweden is, and for those who are fortunate to live here, a day in nature is within short reach.
    I also recommend Andrew Brown’s book ‘Fishing in Utopia’.

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For members


OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 

Finland, Poland and the Baltic states are stopping Russians from leaving Russia. It would be a tragedy if Sweden did the same, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 
An iron curtain is descending across Europe. But in contrast to the beginning of the Cold War, the curtain is being drawn down by EU countries – not Russia. 

Any day now, Finland is poised to ban Russians from entering the country on tourist visas, to keep out men who want to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. Announcing the policy, the country’s foreign minister said Finland was becoming “a transit country for Russians who want to leave their homeland for fear of being forced into war, and this traffic could harm Finland’s international position”. Opinion polls put 70 percent of the public in favour of a ban.

The number of Russians entering Finland doubled following Putin’s imposition a week ago of a “partial” mobilisation of men for the war effort in Ukraine. Finland’s Border Guard service is demanding a border fence 2.5m to 4m tall, topped with barbed wire, to keep the Russians out – an idea that taken seriously by the government.

Our Nordic neighbour is following a trend: the Baltics and Poland have already put an end to visas for Russians, including conscientious objectors to the war. The Czech Republic said last week that Russian deserters will not receive asylum. 

“We see them not as antiwar people, we see them as anti-fighting-the-war people,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the New York Times. “They were not fleeing Russia when Bucha happened, when Kyiv was shelled or when any other horrific things happened in Ukraine.”

Latvia’s foreign minister chipped in: “Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors. There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go to.”

The EU is under pressure from some of these countries to ban Russian tourists, and has already made it much harder for Russians to get tourist visas. But the bloc is divided. Politicians from across the political spectrum in Germany, for example, want to offer asylum to Russian deserters. 

Sweden is starting to debate this question. As a shiny new member of Nato, some Swedes feel we need to show how tough we can be towards the Russian threat. And with a new government keen to stress its anti-immigration credentials, Stockholm may also be tempted to punish Russian travellers because of their brutal government. 

In a situation already tragic beyond the imagination, banning Russian draft dodgers would only add to the tragedy in Europe.

Men of fighting age have been brought up on a diet of state propaganda, pumping nationalism, racism, militarism and hatred of the West into the Russian mainstream. Access to independent and social media has been extremely restricted. Opposition to the “military operation” in Ukraine is punishable by 15 years in jail.

In these circumstances, the mood has changed slowly, fuelled by snippets of official information, incidents such as the death of a friend, social media posts and kitchen conversations. But the steady drip drip of doubt and fear has filled the cup to overflowing. 

Then came last week’s mobilisation, and the pace of change accelerated. Family men without military experience are being dragooned into the army and sent to the front line. A wave of anger has swept across the nation, with arson attacks on army recruitment offices, thousands of arrests and a revolt in Dagestan. The country’s security service itself says 261,000 men fled Russia in barely a week. At one point there was a queue of cars 13km long at the border with Kazakhstan.

For EU nations to turn away Russians who don’t want to fight in Ukraine is to abandon them in their hour of need. At they very moment when they are most open to alternative facts about the war in Ukraine, we would conform to the Kremlin’s propaganda picture of the West as hostile, self-interested and Russian-hating. 

Denying draft dodgers the right to get out of Russia means painting them all as representatives of an enemy with whom we are at war. There might be some short-term political benefits in terms of “uniting the nation”, but this would leave a deep scar on the European psyche.

The debate in Europe has not gone unnoticed in the White House, where the US National Security Council has cautioned against seeing all Russians as universally responsible for the disaster in Ukraine. 

“We also continue to believe it’s important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian people,” a spokesperson told the Financial Times. “We wouldn’t want to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who are vulnerable to human rights abuses.”

Sweden has a history of welcoming men who don’t want to fight in unjust wars. Between 1967 and 1973, Sweden granted asylum to around 800 Americans fleeing the Vietnam war. Fifty years later, the decision by the European Court of Justice that Syrian draft dodgers can claim asylum in Europe gives Sweden the legal basis to extend this right to Russians.

What is happening now in Russia could be the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine, and of the Putin regime. Sweden should welcome with open arms all Russians who would rather get out than be sent to kill Ukrainians. And we should pressure other EU countries to do the same. 

It is likely that Russia will soon close its own borders to stop men from escaping. But let’s not give them an excuse to do so. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.