Seeing forests and trees in Sweden

Leaving a warming Wollongong for flurries of early snow in Göteborg is exciting, but it was the trees rather than the weather that invaded my consciousness in the first week. I am living in the centre of the city, five minutes walk from everything I need, and handy to efficient trams if I want to go further. My cosy attic apartment is framed by massive oak beams, a reminder of the deforestation of the deciduous forests of Europe over the last few hundred years, particularly after the industrial revolution. The human labour involved in this endeavour is still visible in the adze marks on the beams. Inside this frame is carved a typical modern Swedish apartment, in what we have come to think of as Ikea style; lined and furnished with birch and pine, solid and veneer, in different combinations. Just down the road, municipal plans to remove diseased Linden trees – in the final glories of their golden autumn display – in the main avenues drew protests and a temporary halt. (Not to mention that the City had forgotten to apply for a permit.)

I am here as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Human and Economic Geography, where I will lead a PhD course on Sustainable Landscapes and undertake collaborative research. AUSCCER has an eclectic set of Swedish connections. The comparisons between Australia and Sweden are not always obvious, but we have found them instructive. Both are countries of the global ‘north’ with important Indigenous populations. Debates about landscape, nature and environment entwine in diverse ways with our respective national identities. And both are somewhat offset from the Anglo-American centre of (western) geography. You will have read Elsa Reimerson’s thoughts during her visit here from Umeå. Michael Adams has undertaken comparative work on conservation and indigenous rights in Australia and Sweden. I have written with Göteborg colleagues Katarina Saltzman and Marie Stenseke on the question of whether cows belong in nature. And a number of AUSCCER members over the last several years have been involved in teleconference discussions with these Swedish colleagues, as well as Gunhild Setten and Mike Jones in Trondheim, Norway. We reported on the teleconference mode in Geography earlier this year. Last but not least, AUSCCER members have contemporary and ancestral family connections more broadly in Scandinavia; in Denmark and Finland as well as Sweden.

When I first worked in Sweden in 2005, colleague Joachim Regnéll reminded me, as we traversed from the manicured agricultural fields and open landscapes of the south into the coniferous forests further north, that we were still in an agro-industrial landscape. Sweden is one example of the places experiencing reforestation over the last several decades, as reported in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. But these forests are not pristine ecosystems, they are mostly crops. Human and agricultural interaction with forests in Sweden has a very long history; forests were fundamental to livestock grazing at the time of the earliest pastoralism. Even today the forest ‘crop’ is an important part of most family farms, such as the one I visited yesterday. It is harvested and replanted on generational timescales. This is ‘populated forest’ in the anthropogenic biome – or anthrome – schema of Erle Ellis and colleagues.

Joachim and I have summarised some of this history of forest-human interaction. Nevertheless, we also showed, trees have unusually enduring power, compared with other plant types, in framing environmental managers’ views of appropriate human intervention. The pristine ideal endures for forests more than grasslands, against the empirical evidence.

The week was still young when spirited twitter exchanges with AUSCCER colleagues (@elyserstanes, @lifeofstuff, @profcgibson), working on monopolist manufacturing and craft production (including Ikea) in Australia, connected my tree thinking to broader questions of political economy and ecology. Where has my furniture come from, and with what environmental consequences? How can Ikea, or any of us, fashion better systems for provisioning our lives?

And, before I romanticised too much the compact cities and accessible public transport systems of Swedish cities, compared with sprawling Australian ones, geography colleagues and mobility researchers Erik Elldér, Ana Gil Solá and Anders Larsson showed me their paper just out in Environment and Planning A. Access to such transport is spatially unequal, and disproportionately accessible to inner city gentrifiers like visiting professors. So, I am conscious of the great privilege of being here, and aim to make the most of it in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

AUSCCER Director Lesley Head is currently Visiting Professor at the Department of Human and Economic Geography, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She is on twitter @ProfLesleyHead

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