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Kerstin Ekman, Herrarna i skogen (The Gentlemen in the Forest)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2007. ISBN: 9789100113209

Reviewed by Linda Schenck in SBR 2007:2

Kerstin Ekman’s collection of essays Herrarna i skogen (The Gentlemen in the Forest) is an adventurous read. In the preface, she prepares the reader: "This is not a book in which one travels in a straight line from one point to the next. The paths twist and turn. Sometimes they go nowhere. Unexpected things appear. It turns out to be impossible to avoid ugly, frightening things you might have been tempted to detour around. If you are a person who walks in the forest, this will seem familiar to you" (p. 11).

In fact, this might be a description not only of walking in the forest but of any book by Kerstin Ekman. The remarkable thing about these essays, to an avid Ekman reader, is that they not only reflect many of the strands that run through the novels, but also elucidate aspects of her other books. For instance, the place name Svartvattnet (Blackwater) that figures so prominently in her later novels, comes from Selma Lagerlöf’s Jerusalem.

Herrarna i skogen is also brilliantly illustrated. The text and the illustrations span an artistic and historical spectrum from the Middle Ages to the present, from Herr Olofs visa and The Lutrell Psalter to Ekman’s own photographs from the forests near which she lives and has lived, and where she has done much of her walking, thinking and reading.

Ekman’s dissection of the complexities of concepts such as folket and natur deserve close reading and analysis. Moreover, without being a travelogue of any kind, the book makes at least this reader curious to visit various forests, including Tividen national park, Borudan nature preserve, and Bialowieza in Poland and Belarus, the largest remaining area of virgin wood in Europe.

The title of the book invites the reader to consider it as part of Ekman’s larger oeuvre. She has previously written books whose titles refer to the men in the Swedish Royal Academy (Mina Herrar) and the The Forest of Hours (Rövarna i Skuleskogen), for example. This title encompasses them, and all the men whose books and thinking have accompanied her over the years on her walks in the forest and her cogitations about it, as well as "The eighteenth century gentlemen from the University of Uppsala who rode out to take stock of, systematize and classify everything in the countryside" (p. 166).

The adventure begins in the early summer forest, Den lövgröna skogen (The Leafy, Green Forest) and is the human dilemma:

The effort of mastering the forest was civilization. (...) Human nature is instincts. It is being prepared for what one may encounter. Programmed. Set. The rabbit knows without knowing. So does the fox. Things may end badly for the rabbit or the fox, but there is no prior dilemma. In us, consciousness is triggered and reminds us: whatever we do, it may turn out to have been wrong.

Culture is a dilemma. (p. 19)

Thus the forest becomes not only the "real" (sub-boreal) forest but also the forest that makes up civilization and culture. ("The depths of the forest are a reflection, both in more and less ambitious literature, of the human soul" (p. 183).) These essays are simultan-eously words about the woods and being in the woods as well as words about the literature that has been written on the paper that once was the woods as a result of our experiencing the woods through the prism of our humanity. Ekman describes her recurring dream, since childhood (when clay shards were discovered in her home tract, indicating that the local Stone Age potters 4500 years ago were familiar with wild grapes and grapevines), as "gliding, wingless, above a forest that had no boundaries" and quotes the poet Ragnar Thoursie:

See the birds! Not

preparing for certain

Death – but for uncertain

life. (p.30)

In the second essay, Granen (The Spruce) one of the dominant themes is power and justice:

Who owns a forest?

It’s not difficult to realize that the person who can cut it down only has the power, but not the rights. The person who feels deeply familiar with the forest without making a living off it may believe (s)he owns it. Knowledge and love endow a person with that feeling. If you are the one who has trampled paths in the vegetation and then you notice that the moose and deer have begun to use those paths and keep them open, you may be close to the sensation of owning that land. When you know who lives in each den, a she-fox or boar badger, when you are familiar with the network of fungal spores under the moss even before the chanterelles have begun to raise their heads, and when you know in which corner of a bog the cloudberry blossoms won’t be struck by the June frost, you are at home in that forest. But the feeling can be rudely interrupted. (...)

One day I wander through the woods as a powerless owner, another as the restless guest on a stranger’s land.

Who owns a forest? (p 97)

There is a special pleasure in things that extend beyond our own time on earth. They are worth our invested energies. We have no power over the future and know nothing about how those who come after us will think and act. But we can tell them how we were thinking and hope they will understand why we saved a section of valuable woods or reclaimed a drained forest bog." (p. 100)

In the third essay, Varelserna (The Creatures) we read of "fairies, dwarves, forest sprites, underground elves, mountain trolls, fabled animals, werewolves, giants, witches and wyverns" (p. 156) whose "effects were irrefutable: they created havoc and caused death." Many of these beings also figure in Ekman’s novels – this very winter I have struggled, for example, with how to describe uldor and huldabarn and trollfar in English. Here we learn how these creatures permeated human thinking and irrational feelings until, when "the steam-powered locomotive eventually puffed through Sweden along the rails (a period Ekman portrays in loving detail in the first volume of the Katrineholm tetralogy, Häxringarna (Witches’ Rings) and the pulleys began to turn in the factories, their reign was broken. The period referred to by German sociologist Max Weber as the age of ‘detrollification’ had begun" (p. 167).

Ekman goes on to describe the educated gentlemen who allied themselves with the forest folk, not least those who devoted themselves to recording the oral tradition (although, as she points out, they probably also contributed to their demise: "Not even the dangers shrouded in mist, the creatures who can change shape and guise, have any secrets left"). She puts words to a thought I have often had myself:

It is difficult to imagine what the atmosphere must have been like when a collector sat opposite an informant. He had arrived with his enthusiasm and his notebook – and later with his phonograph, his wax rolls, and even later with his tape recorder. How did they receive him? Were they timid? Or were some of them just as eloquent, quick-witted, and in possession of the gift of the gab as Mickel from Långhult (who made his notations on sheets of paper provided by a minister named Cavallius whose son Hyltén-Cavallius became a prominent Swedish ethnologist)? He was only paid a pittance for the sheets of paper he returned to the minister, full of folk tales. (p.188)

The fourth essay, Dödens trädgård (The Garden of Death) is the chapter of "still life" which, in its way, is precisely the garden of death, the making of the ever dynamic forest into a fixed motif. It is also the chapter containing the first photograph by Ekman herself, of a baby deer she (or rather her dog, who picked up the scent) discovered under a spruce tree early one morning "when spring is about to burst into summer and the wood anemones are radiant with astonishment" (p. 253).

Ekman writes, describing both a major factor in her new way of looking at the forest later in life and its parallel in terms of how we have come to portray the forest over the last century or so, no longer only through words and sketches:

The deer kid is the epitome of ultimate vulnerability. (...) It is a privilege to be so close by for a moment that I can distinguish every camouflaging spot and stripe on the otherwise defenceless coat of an animal. It is a view artists and scientists have killed for. But I was equipped with the item that has changed our attitude toward the wilderness and that ought to be a conclusive development – I had my camera. (p.254)

In the fifth essay, Förvandlingsrummet (A Place of Transformations) Ekman moves the reader from the image of the forest as a place where man is transformed to a place to be transformed by man, as the anthropocentric excesses of forest exploitation take over in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is an essay so dense and so powerful it would require a review of its own.

In the sixth essay, Katastroferna (The Disasters) Ekman is at her most bombastic. She has said that she wanted to take a clear stand on the side of the forests, and she brings curses down on the heads of those who destroy it. Here she moves from Gilgamesh to the felling of virgin forests to the damage done by storms and fires and human ignorance or greed, to the eradication of important memories through the loss of the paths trampled by men and animals when forest parcels are clear-felled.

The concluding essay, Stigens slut (The End of the Trail) brings the reader full circle as Ekman finds herself turning around on a long walk so as to avoid having to see a felled area that looks more like a crater of the moon than a home for animals, birds, insects, biologists, botanists and tree-huggers. She also returns to one of the powerful themes of her novels:

Seeing is a gift. Truly seeing. The other day I fell asleep reading in the sun. When I work up after ten minutes and opened my eyes, I wasn’t in my bedroom, as I’d imagined, with the window on my left and the bookshelf on my right. Everything was green. The leaves were dancing in the wind, and there was the play of sun and shadow. Not until the little Eastern balsam poplar, the rhubarb leaves and the hop vines entangled in the fence around my sheep enclosure became clear to me as individual parts of the green embrace did I get my bearings. But for a second, or a fraction of a second, before things cleared, I believed I was dead. (p. 535)

Hunting is a leitmotif that runs through these essays. The reader learns how moose and bears were trapped and hunted, and how the legislators in the deforested capital city have ruled over the woods and those who live near them, as well as the folk tales associated with the animals of prey, called, in the Jämtland dialect, "bjenn, skråggen and gaupa", bear, wolf and lynx. Kerstin Ekman, who began her career as a screenwriter and who went on to become Sweden’s "thriller queen" and then one of the great contemporary novelists, is now working on a feature film that has recently been shot, based on an episode from her most recent fictional trilogy, Vargskinnet (The Wolfskin). The film, starring Peter Stormare, will be playing at a theatre near you within a year or so. The Swedish title is Varg (Wolf). Stay tuned for the next exciting adventure.

Linda Schenck

Also by Kerstin Ekman

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