Wintry Scenes From a Swedish Wonderland

I keep giving aspiring photographers the same advice: wherever home is, that’s where you should start.

It is not always easy to follow advice. After all, our understandable curiosity and fascination for the exotic – that which is different from what we are used to – sends us by the hundreds of millions abroad every year. And after living and working anywhere but Sweden for most of my life, I’ve been terrible at pursuing it myself.

For me, Sweden has always been a place to rest, relax and linger with the family. Until now it was rarely a travel destination that I could explore in Madagascar, Malawi or Zambia.

After all my overseas assignments and trips had been canceled that year, I decided to make the most of the closed borders and travel north from my home near Stockholm. What started as a single two-week trip quickly evolved into a series of trips that lasted several months and stretched over the year, beginning and ending in the middle of winter.

The first thing you should know about winter in northern Sweden is that sunburn is not a huge problem. The second is that you want to bring a headlight and lots of warm clothes. Sweden is roughly the same latitude as Alaska, and while climate change brings milder winters, it does not affect the length of our daylight.

And yet, when I drove over snow and ice in dog sleds, skis, or snowmobiles, or lay on my back and stared at the magical light show of the Aurora Borealis, the lack of daylight hardly bothered me. Instead, I noticed the fascinating beauty of the white, frozen landscapes and the endless shades of blue. Away from buildings and streets, the snow lit up even on the darkest of nights.

Whether I was basking in a sauna or taking a dip in the nearby river (through a hole in the ice), I spent practically all of my time outdoors – which makes exploring the northernmost region of Sweden known as Swedish Lapland so safe be made as possible during a pandemic.

I lived mainly in and around the small hamlet of Kangos, and Johan Stenevad, my host at Lapland Guesthouse, showed me a world that I had only seen in photographs before: frozen bogs, lakes and rivers; lanky elk and curious reindeer; snow-covered trees; endless snow shoveling; and a never-ending excitement when the sky was clear and the northern lights emerged.

But Johan also opened my eyes to something else. One day he turned off the engine on a snowmobile trail lined with tall trees on either side and asked me what I was seeing.

“Trees,” I replied. “A forest.”

He shook his head.

“No forest. A plantation. Soon this will be all that is left, ”he explained that the straight rows of trees were being cultivated. They were all the same type, age, and size.

Johan was right. The great wilderness of the north – the old boreal forests that once seemed endless – have been ruthlessly cut down for biofuel and paper and replaced by monoculture plantations made of spruce or pine for over half a century. Only a fraction of the boreal forest remains, and that part is getting smaller every year.

In addition, wind turbines up to 1,000 feet high are being built across northern Sweden with flashing lights visible for tens of kilometers. The previously dark nights shine like runways at the airport. Many such projects are fought against with all their might by local communities and nature conservation organizations.

“This will be the end of both tourism and our communities,” added Johan.

Meanwhile, the Sámi – an indigenous people who mainly live in northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia – are facing an existential crisis. Their life and culture are inextricably linked to the ancient forests and reindeer that populate the region.

The slow-growing lichens and fungi that reindeer depend on for survival are not found in pine or spruce plantations. The death of one means the death of the other and an uncertain future for an entire people.

“We are not visitors to nature,” said Brita Stina Sjaggo from the Luokta-Mávas reindeer herding district. “We are part of the forest and the forest is part of us.”

Your feeling resonates deep within me. It is one that too many of us have forgotten, and one that I believe is essential to our own survival and that of the natural world.

Ironically, our curious desire to travel – despite its undeniable effects on our climate – could prove to be one of our most powerful assets in the race to save the planet’s biodiversity. What we know, what is important to us and what is important to us, we are ready to fight for it. Not to mention, for rural communities, tourism is often one of the most powerful economic alternatives to logging, mining, or otherwise marketing the last of our wildest places.

We will forever be curious about the world around us. And since curiosity often leads to understanding, I see this as an incredible net positive. But “the world around us” doesn’t have to be tens of thousands of kilometers away. The number of people who describe a place as “exotic” is always greater than the number of people who call this place “home”. Perhaps we can learn to treat our local surroundings with the same commitment and willingness to listen as we do when traveling to distant destinations.

Towards the end of the year, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to explore the northernmost parts of my Swedish homeland. It really is a wonderland, especially in winter. But I am equally grateful that I have seen through the veil and can add my voice to the thousands of others who wish it to remain one of the wild wonders of Europe.

Marcus Westberg is a photographer and writer primarily concerned with conservation and development issues in sub-Saharan Africa. You can follow his work on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. You can also learn more about deforestation in Sweden here.

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