So, the weather has finally turned. The wind is much colder, central heating boilers all over the country are firing up from their summer hibernation and there’s a real autumnal feeling in the air. Jumpers on. Except I’m in Sweden and sitting out on the veranda under a clear blue sky and it’s just lovely.
I’ over here on a very quick, subordinately hectic ten day residency which will end up with me building a pavilion in the woods. From scratch. I’m not panicking. Honest.
The pavilion is part of a project on the Baltic island of Öland called ‘Mittlandsskogen i min Bakgård’ – or ‘The Forest in my Back Yard’ that is investigating the effect the Mittlandsskogen – the large forest in the middle of the island – has on the communities that exist in and around its edges.
There’s something about forests. On a simple level they are a large swathe of trees. The reality is they are far more complex – an area so rich in its biodiversity that they constitute a biological entity of their own. Like huge living creatures which move and breathe as one. So interdependent are the myriad of vegetation, creatures, mosses, bacteria and internal climate even that it’s hard to distinguish the point at which they start and end. Their borders become fuzzy and bleed into the surrounding land in search of room to grow and assimilate into more forest. For communities around the Mittlandsskogen, they become part of the forest. Living independent of it in that they can physically escape, but bound up as part of its entity. A symbiotic existence. The line between what is their back garden and what is forest is forever blurred.
The pavilion will be a structure which encompasses that idea of symbiosis – an interconnectedness between the forest and the pavilion and ultimately the people inside. It’s a tall order, particularly given the timescale and budget restrictions, but that’s all part of the dynamics of the project.
This is my third visit to Öland I even made a small piece in the forest last time so it’s not an entirely new terrain for me. That it’s a limestone landscape has a particular resonance for me. There’s something familiar about the colours and texture of the landscape even though it’s relatively flat and I’m working at a grand altitude of around 8m above sea level. It’s also the geology of this rocky outcrop makes it one of the most bio-diverse ecologies in Sweden.
Back in the bronze age, early settlers realised the potential of the extremely fertile environment and found that instead of hunting for food, they could actually cultivate it. While the rest of mainland Sweden was out hunting boar and deer for their dinner the population of Öland grew as the idea of agriculture took on. Over time more and more of the indigenous forest was cleared to make way for more farming and Öland became know as the bread basket of Sweden.
In the late 18th century, the royal hunting grounds were dismantled and the land was returned to the people in exchange for land taxes – ‘utmarksdelningen’. Each parish was divided into lots (Utmark) in an effort to make communities self-sufficient. If there was a shortage of land in one parish then a neighbouring parish would offer a parcel of their own land. The division was a little uneven and although everyone had access to land of their own, in practice the wealthy had the biggest and best land, the poorer had small or the not so good stuff. Deforestation of the island had resulted in a shortage of firewood and building materials so a new law was brought in demanding that a portion of each Utmark would be given over to growing trees. As cereal crops couldn’t be grown on most of mainland Sweden, the market value of these grew and consequently the idealised sustainable communities either became wealthy crop farmers or, where the plots were too small and the land no good for growing – destitute and hungry. However, a succession of bad harvests resulted in years of famine by the mid 19th century which in turn led to mass emigration to America. The abandoned Utmarks quickly reverted to natural vegetation and soon the Mittlandsskogen took over.
Most of the Utmark parcels of land exist today. Some have been planted with rapid growing conifer plantations for commercial logging. Some have been cleared for cattle and some are manicured lawns around tidy summer houses. In others the native woodland has been allowed to grow in an unmanaged state.
The Utmark I’m working in is a classic semi-wet woodland – there are two main wetland areas – still dry at the moment but populated by reeds and irises. The rest of the area is split into three layers – a top canopy layer of birch, elm, ash, lime and oak; a middle canopy of mostly hazel stands and a ground cover. The hazel is so dense in places that the ground cover is hardly there at all and only really exists in the occasional clearings. The whole Utmark is delineated by a low level drystone wall. It’s not high enough to keep anything in or out and the roundness of the field boulders in this part of the island makes them not so good for building with, but it’s a very clear boundary yet so different from the drystone walls back home.
The density of the shrub layer makes getting around the Utmark difficult and even impossible in places – no mater how hard I tried I still haven’t managed to find the back corner of the wall. But where paths have been trodden there’s a real tunnel-like appearance through the woods. It’s even more obvious on the tracks and disused railway line that goes through the forest.
I’m still not sure where all this is taking me and how the pavilion will respond to it. There’s so many layers of narrative I’m not sure how many I’ll get to cover, but at least for now there’s plenty to be getting on with.