Sixty percent of the population in this area left.
They went on to be pioneers in the land of milk and honey, they ran away like rats from a sinking ship and they left 40% behind, ruins scattered all over the land, empty buildings, empty spaces, traces of destinies – they hang above our heads, the 60%, like fluffy white clouds, like ghosts.
The previous pioneers
The pioneer is an important character in modern Western civilisation. This is the myth of the rebel, this is the story of the self-reliant, independent individual, the one that got away, the one that sought new territory and created a better life. With his own bare hands.
Late 18th-century pioneers play a vital role in our understanding of self not only for the Americans but for all of us: they have become our mental images of seeking new land.
A tight family unit. A strong, hard face. A gun and a brutal slaughtering of the previously existing. (History is a ruthless storyteller; I am sure that not all pioneers were the same.)
I speak of the pioneer because we too seek new territory, as a species, as a culture – the ship is sinking!
They call this area ‘Little Canada’. I suppose there can only be so many variations on the same theme: pine, birch, cliffs, lakes, moss, sun rays and knee-deep snow. I suppose that’s why we don’t call the land by its distinctive real name: Värmland. Northern Sweden.
The emigrants took all of the names with them. What is left is the pines, the birch, the rocks and the lakes. I always dreamt vividly of Canada and Alaska only to realise one day that the landscape is the same here, but my dreams of solitude and pride had been given American names. Why? Because over half the population here left, leaving the other half with romanticised longings.
It’s not that I’m angry with the pioneers.
There was hunger here, poverty, overpopulation, religious suppression – there were sweet dreams of starting all over. They were desperate – so they packed their skills of farming and building log cabins, they kissed their families goodbye.
I understand why they had to leave. I don’t understand why they had to kill all the natives in the land of milk and honey.
It was a time of new stories fighting old stories, as if they were mutually exclusive. The new stories won, I know, because nobody speaks about the old stories any more, not even here.
We call ourselves pioneers
Two years ago we threw out all our stuff at the landfill, quit our jobs, fetched the kids from school and ran like hell, yes, we ran like hell, it was a great escape.
Nobody does anything like that without intimate knowledge of desperation: (debt) poverty, (social) claustrophobia, (ideological) suppression and such.
So we ran for the hills, yes, we ran to the forest, and here we decided to settle, we decided to become pioneers. We took down trees and built our own log cabin. We washed our clothes in the river, taught ourselves to farm, to hunt, to survive – but unlike the previous pioneers we had no skills. Nothing. Zip. Nada. We knew nothing about nothing. School didn’t teach us how to build a fire, how to forage, how to be a tight family unit, how to have hard, strong faces – we had to teach ourselves, and I won’t lie: it wasn’t funny.
And there was an anger. Why had we not been taught these things?
But then, after a while, anger drifted away to be replaced by a realisation: action. Action is the only thing that matters.
The importance of action
Our days are filled with action. Every fibre in my body is tense from action.
We don’t have running water, we don’t have electricity, we don’t have money but we do have action, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. See, I have been a passive spectator all of my life. Not any more.
Every little action has an immediate pay-off, every action is directly linked to the benefit of the action: chopping wood so we won’t freeze come winter. Priceless! Meaningful!
Even now as I sit here, I am absorbed in action: in front of the fireplace, birch logs radiate a subtle heat, a thorough heat, there is a full moon outside, frost, the lake sounds like fireworks as the chunks of ice rub against each other and the surface freezes. I just put my three year-old son to sleep, and now my action is this: know that we exist. Know that an alternative is possible.
It’s not easy. No. But it’s possible.
It seems that more and more people run for the hills. I see some of them settle.
All of the abandoned huts, all of the places that somebody left – new people move in, new people create new stories, in the ruins of the old.
We’re all a new kind of pioneer.
We’re not here to shatter the old stories, though – we’re here to carefully listen, to merge the old stories and the new stories, that´s the kind of pioneer we are. We’re reclaiming.
We’re the new pioneers. In the old land.
Inside out and outside in
My husband and I are from the countryside, but like everyone else we were raised to think that everything exciting was somewhere else.
We were outsiders looking in, we were fighting to get in, we gave up everything to be let in. The cool crowd. The creative gang. The career.
They fucked us up real good by telling us that we were nothing in ourselves, that we had to consume to become.
At one point the desperation, the passivity and the feeling of failure became too much. That’s why we ran.
That – and then for the children. This is important. Would we want for them the life we had had ourselves?
Something happened, out there, out here, in the wild: living primitively in nature, meeting the people of the forest (all the freaks and the resistance in the sewers and in the forests, like Robin Hood!) changed us. Embracing standing outside, looking in, changed our perspective forever. We can never go back. We see now how bad it is – do you see how bad it is?
One day, before we ran, he said: ‘It’s the biggest betrayal of them all – to see something, to know something, really know,but not react to this knowledge.’ I think he is right.
We ran because of the betrayal. We couldn’t betray ourselves, the kids, not any more.
We had to create a new story… it was the ethically and morally right thing to do. Postmodernism took away our action, it even took away our morals, everything has become a matter of relativity. But hey, look at us, we’re taking it back!
We had to begin at the core. Yes, there is a core.
The core is historic.
Sixty percent of the population left to find a better world, leaving the other 40% with a hole in the heart that lasted generations. Do you know how it feels to be left behind?
So the 40% embarked on a splendid, visionary journey, and together they created the Scandinavian welfare model. ‘We are all together,’ they said. ‘We are all in the same boat.’
But as the pioneers failed in America, the 40% failed in the homeland.
Enter crisis, austerity. The welfare nation crumbles.
There was a stage of sorrow and grief, naturally, but here we are, years later, with two holes in our hearts.
Left by others. Betrayed by ourselves.
There was a stage of disillusionment and despair.
As I said, nobody does what we have done without knowing despair.
Now, was this is the right thing to do? To run, to try and create a better life, with our own bare hands?
It was right for us – it might not be right for you – but listen, there’s a general question here: should one leave the existing, dysfunctional model behind, or should one stay and try to fix it?
Our culture offers two stories to describe this situation: the story of the pioneer and the story of the state.
Both stories are narrow and restricted… so let’s re-tell and redefine.
Maybe there is a middle way, I don´t know. Maybe you can be both a pioneer and a full member of a community?
Lessons to be learnt
I think the 60% in the past was right in leaving. I think seeking new territory is essential for the human being (never surrender, never surrender!) but I wonder if one could seek new territory in the homeland, instead of invading someone else’s territory, causing despair, misfortune and war.
And maybe we shouldn’t seek new territory exclusively in the material world. Maybe we should acknowledge that the two things are interconnected: mind and matter.
The old pioneers tried to conquer matter, but perhaps they forgot themselves. Roots. Maybe we shouldn’t do that.
I think the 40% was right in creating the welfare model but maybe, because of the hole in the heart, they shouldn’t have focused so much on unison and conformity. ‘We are all in the same boat’ quickly became ‘don’t rock the boat’, which made it almost impossible to change anything. In a time of drastic climate change and rising social inequality this has become a problem.
Maybe the 40% should have allowed more personal space so that we, the newer generations, don’t have to actually escape to be able to breathe, to own our actions, to own our morals?
And if we build communities, maybe we should be very well aware of this. Extremely aware.
Anyway, it was a dark, dull day in the forest today – no fluffy white clouds, just a low grey sky. Winter is acting strange. The old people say they’ve never experienced anything like this. In Little Canada there is always snow around Christmas, but not anymore.
I guess something has changed.
Andrea Hejlskov is a Danish author living in the wild woods of Värmland, Sweden, with her family of six. See the story of the family in pictures here.
The graphic illustrations in this essay are made by Danish artist Signe Kjær. These illustrations appear in Andrea Hejlskov’s book Og Den Store Flugt (not yet translated into English).