The snow drops dangle their weary heads over the softening ground which is already giving way to crocus, daffodil and even tulip shoots. For those of you who aren't into bulbs, this means in translation that here on my island the first part of spring is already over and now we are already into phase 2 and even seeing the beginnings of phase 3. If you had approached me about 11 years ago and asked how I would describe this time of year I would have responded as follows: "Oh! Is it early Spring?" This would have been a cursory remark created in order to fill an awkward space in which I wondered what you meant. I might have reflected how quaint it was that you asked me about early Spring and then got on with the business of the day.
Living in Sweden has done something to me. I am suddenly called "Lindahl" most likely meaning "flax valley". I think of soup when I see the first nettle sprouting up around the compost. I long for cow manure as I see my first hungry shoots showing their tender green tips. I dream about the way that I am going to reuse the leftover hard plastic packaging from the supermarket for growing my tomato seedlings. When my certificate of Swedish citizenship arrived in the post the other day, it felt like a blessing from Migrationsverket (The Swedish Migration Board) at the end of 11 years of soil initiation.
If you are Swedish, I know that there might be some of you shaking your heads. Sweden is one of the most modern countries in the world. The vast majority of Swedes are cement dwellers, not island hillbillies like this new Swede. We are SMS'd about the arrival of our parcels; we "surf" the Internet in subway systems plastered in sophisticated art; each of us carries around a personal number that can sort out almost any administrative mix-up instantly. Living in Sweden is about so much more than the soil.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about this part of the world is a home grown brand of natural modernity. That is, the seamless ability to combine a high degree of modernity with the recognition of an ongoing need for our natural world. Of course, wherever we come from, we would be fools to believe that we didn't need nature in a practical sense. Each of us knows this myth has been deflated by depleted fish stocks, polluted soil and water, and melting ice bergs. There is no previous time when Horace's reflections in the Epistles have been truer: "You can throw nature out with a pitchfork, but it always comes running back and will burst through your foolish contempt in triumph."
What I mean about our "need" for nature is different to this practical dimension. I am speaking about the need for nature in inner life which people everywhere in modern countries are re-discovering, and which so many people in this part of the world continue to recognize. Living in the nature-friendly North on this small island has often led me back to the question of what this inner need is about.
In such questions, there is always the danger of shining the cold, rationalizing neon lights of our modern minds onto that which is inexplicable yet undeniably there. In doing so, we can sometimes destroy the beauty of it for ourselves. Asked about his reasons for settling on the dramatic island of Fårö, Ingmar Bergman scratched around for explanations but eventually concluded, "Don't ask why. Explanations are clumsy rationalizations with hindsight." Still, I cannot resist exploring the question by remembering some of my most curious early memories of living in Sweden.
My husband and I were married on our dock in Mälaren in a pagan ceremony disguised as Christian. The beginning of the ceremony seemed fairly tame and regular. The pastor wore on his generous frame a white robe with an embroidered cross on it, and held a well-leafed bible. The wedding guests who sat on the terraces facing the dock probably glanced at their watches or at the champagne trays waiting outside the kitchen. Half of them, including me, could neither speak nor understand Swedish and were therefore left with appreciating the pastor's lovely spoken lilt. I knew, of course, how to say "Ja" which I thought was the main thing.
Suddenly, in an unexpected little twist of the ceremony, the pastor laid down his bible and a great mischievous grin issued from the broad face topped by a bush of blond hair. In a rush of elation, he raised his hands to the cobalt blue of the Swedish summer sky and adopted a new tone. His voice filled with exhilaration as, with his entire generous body, he welcomed in the forces of nature into our presence. Although many of us, including the bride, could not understand the words, all of us felt the power of his call. It beckoned us to climb out of the little boxes of our minds and into the inconceivable vastness that we are a part of. There is no better way to bless a marriage than with this boundless energy.
My husband and I sailed away from the island on our small sail boat on that evening. I stood at the bow in my wedding dress in disbelief at the power of the wind, the water and the setting red sun. I was a speck and so were all of my petty struggles and circular complaints. In nature there is a determined onward flow of things - in the sap that climbs the birch and in the waves that seem on an endless pilgrimage. It is the truth that breaks all of our struggles, limitations and self-obsessed way of looking at things. It is might and it is peace, without there having to be a difference.
In all the years since then, I have wondered about these episodes. Were they a throwback to the past; a sort of nostalgia for the closeness to nature that we once lived with? Perhaps, to some extent. Yet in the outburst of the pastor and in the progression of the waves, increasingly I see solutions for our troubled planet. The way forward into true modernity may be to recognize without inhibition or embarrassment our inner need for the soil.