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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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OPINION: Don’t be too quick to write off the Swedish model

Every time Sweden makes international headlines, somebody somewhere announces the death of the Swedish model. David Crouch begs to differ

OPINION: Don’t be too quick to write off the Swedish model

“This is epochal, a broken possibility, the end of an era, a place we don’t live in any more.” So writes Guy Rundle, an Australian writer and commentator, about the result of Sweden’s election on September 11. In a similar vein, a French weekly magazine asks: “With this very convincing result for the far right, is this the end of the social-democratic model in Sweden?” 

Almost every time Sweden makes international headlines, for whatever reason, somebody somewhere announces that this is a historic turning point (as did American news outlet CNBC last week), the end of an era and the death of the Swedish model. “The idea of Sweden as a land of equal opportunity, safe from the plagues of extreme left and extreme right, is gone,” wrote Swedish author Elisabeth Åsbrink in the New York Times last week.

If I had ten Swedish crowns for every time someone had pronounced the demise of the Swedish model during my lifetime, I would not be very rich but I would certainly have a large jam jar moderately full of Swedish crowns. 

One of my favourite such declarations is from a man who has a genuine claim to be one of the brains behind the Swedish model itself. Rudolf Meidner was a Swedish economist and one of the co-authors in the early 1950s of the “Rehn-Meidner model” of centralised pay bargaining between unions and employers – seen by many as one of the distinctive foundations of Sweden’s economy, and one of the explanations for its success.

Meidner announced the death of his intellectual baby in an article called “Why did the Swedish model fail?”, written in 1993 after the country had experienced a crippling financial crisis and the free-market Moderates had come to power. “The Swedish system, balancing private ownership and social control, has broken down,” Meidner wrote. Ten Swedish crowns in my jam jar, please.

If anyone was qualified to pen an obituary for the Swedish model, surely it was Meidner. And in 1993, it seemed he had pretty good grounds for doing so. The close relationship between employers and unions that had underpinned post-war economic growth in Sweden had collapsed. 

The atmosphere of consensus and collaboration between the two “social partners” had been replaced by full-blown confrontation. First, in the mid-1980s. the engineers’ union broke away from central bargaining, then, a few years later, the national employers’ federation SAF closed down its central bargaining unit altogether. Kaput. Slut. Done and dusted. 

But behind the scenes, efforts were soon afoot to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. By the mid-1990s, strikes had broken out and salaries were spiralling upwards. Major Swedish companies now changed their tactics, while the government prodded union leaders to reach out to the employers again. The focus had to be on Sweden’s competitiveness, without which there could be no wage rises in the longer term.

The resulting deal between the two sides of Swedish industry, signed in March 1997, set out a shared vision for an economy that could deliver wage rises while strengthening industry by raising workers’ skills. The unions were back centre stage once more, and 25 years later the relationship is still strong. A survey of CEO attitudes to the unions in Sweden in 2017 showed an overwhelming majority in favour. 

While centralised wage bargaining marks an element of continuity in the Swedish model, there is more to it than this. The new model that emerged from the economic wreckage of the early 1990s has other defining characteristics. 

First, it is a shared creature of both left and right, created by political consensus. It is no longer true to say that the Swedish model is social democratic – keen-eyed business people and the liberal centre-right are happy to espouse its key features. 

The model has made it a priority to help women combine work with having a family. Starting in the 1960s from a need to fill a hole in the workforce, Swedish family policy was driven by the notion that sex discrimination is economically inefficient. This system was expanded by liberals and the right. In this century it has acquired a further justification, with governments of left and right espousing feminism as part of a wider ambition to be a beacon for human rights. 

Another feature of the model is the preponderance of industrial owners with a long-term view of business, hardwired through the system of dual shares. Instead of anonymous investment funds or small investors focused on making a quick buck, there are strong owners with a name, responsibility and a clear role. This approach is coupled with a management style that emphasises consensus and involvement. These factors have helped a small country create some of the biggest names in global industry. In the second decade of the millennium, they also combined to create a highly entrepreneurial environment. 

Armed with this understanding of what makes Sweden different, we are better equipped to assess whether the latest change in government will bury an economic model that has worked well for the past three decades, delivering growth, industrial peace and wages that have climbed inexorably since the mid 1990s

Will the new government cut Sweden’s generous parental benefits and encourage more women to stay at home? Not a herring’s chance in a pickle factory. Will it dismantle the relationship between unions and employers? Both sides are fiercely independent and hate government interference. Will it mess around with the ownership structure of Swedish industry? If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

If we cease to see Sweden as social democratic – the Social Democrats have had barely 30 percent of the vote since 2010 – let alone socialist, then we stop thinking that the “Swedish model” is dead simply because the Social Democrats have lost power. The far right’s influence on the new government’s attitude to immigration and immigrants is very concerning, but the Swedish model itself will survive. 

As the Financial Times noted: “Think twice before calling the electoral gains of the nationalist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats a dangerous turning point in Swedish and European politics. Democracy and the rule of law in Sweden are not at risk.”

The real task is to use the Swedish model’s strengths to solve the country’s many problems – not to throw the baby out with the far-right bathwater. 

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.