For as long as I can remember, the forests, lakes and mountains of my homeland have been my refuge. Half of the pictures from my childhood depict me with an armful of wildflowers or a bucket full of – not to mention my face covered with juices of – blueberries.
After moving abroad with my family at the age of 10 and adopting an increasingly nomadic lifestyle as an adult – over the past decade I have mainly worked in Africa and Asia, usually without a permanent base – I have developed the happy feeling of calm no matter where I was is me, almost regardless of the circumstances.
Still, all energy reserves run out. When they do, this is where I turn.
The moment my bags hit the floor, my hiking boots come on. I meander aimlessly for hours, with a basket for mushrooms or berries if the season is right. I rarely take a camera with me, and my wife knows she does not have to worry, no matter how long I stay out.
Lately – especially in the last year, for reasons that are no longer necessary to explain – I have started to explore the natural world I grew up in more seriously, partly to understand why it comforts me so much and partly because I suspected that there was much more to do to be seen and experienced than I had before.
Much of what I was going to discover came about simply because I was more present, more curious. On the edge of a forest I sometimes saw a fox crossing the road or a deer grazing on a meadow. Now I began to pay more attention to where I had seen them, and often spent hours sitting motionless and waiting.
I was told that there was a fox hole less than half a mile from our front door, and that a beaver would swim past my favorite cliff by the nearby lake every night.
I soon realized that this would only get me this far, but I reached out to those who were already in contact with the Swedish wilderness. A friend for many years, Marcus Eldh, a nature guide and the founder of a travel company called WildSweden, took me for what perhaps remains the most magical moment of my life: sitting by the edge of a lake, surrounded by a forest and the Swedish summer’s semi-darkness, listening to the wolf’s howl just a few hundred meters away. They knew we were there, of course, but chose to stay nearby, which made this hearing entirely on their terms.
But there were other worlds to discover as well.
Professional forest biologists, as well as enthusiastic amateurs, showed me scenes that are best seen through a magnifying glass: small lichens, mosses and fungi that I still overlook if I do not know exactly where to look.
Sebastian Kirppu, one of Sweden’s foremost researchers of forest biodiversity, taught me about life cycles for trees and forest ecosystems. Making friends among the Sami, a native people who mainly live in the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, got me in touch with an understanding of nature that includes ancestry, links and a strong sense of belonging.
As I explained in my photo essay on Swedish winter, I soon realized that things were far from ideal in what I previously thought was a largely untouched wilderness. Despite the extensive and expensive PR campaigns run by Sweden’s forest industry, it became very clear that we are in real danger of losing our latest forests through a process of mowing and monoculture cultivation. A curtain was pulled aside at least, and my feelings for the nature-loving country of birth are now much more confused.
Does it seem absurd to claim that I am as grateful for this insight as if I had learned the fascinating beauty of microscopic fungi? But I am. Ignorance can be happiness to a certain point, but it rarely solves existential threats.
There is a Swedish word – “home blind” or home blind – which I think is particularly relevant today, given our reduced ability to travel. We often overlook what is close to home. We travel abroad to experience the exotic, just as we donate money to support distant causes.
But daring beyond our borders does not have to come at the expense of appreciating our immediate surroundings. Everywhere at home, it undoubtedly offers a lot to appreciate and experience – as well as a lot to fight for.