from Gubba's Field
by Kerstin Ekman
introduced and translated by Linda Schenck
Kerstin Ekman has figured regularly in Swedish Book Review since its inception in 1983 (including a Kerstin Ekman supplement in 1995). At 85, she remains among the most prominent living Swedish authors. Her latest book, Gubbas hage, is as close as she is likely to come to writing a memoir. She paints a picture of a life in which flora and fauna are central and omnipresent, taking her examples from the various places she has lived and in anticipation of the future of our planet, about which she is extremely concerned. It is also a tribute to all that lives and grows out of doors.
Twenty years ago, Kerstin Ekman and her husband moved back down south from Jämtland, where they had been living for twenty years, and built a house. The area surrounding the house that would ‘normally’ have become a lawn completely consumed her attention with its interesting flora. And it is here that she created what was to become Gubba’s field.
When she and Börje purchased this plot of land, they decided to follow their urge to allow the lot to remain an uncultivated field. Kerstin Ekman followed its seasonal turns for twenty years. Gubba’s Field contains nearly forty erudite essays on subjects ranging from pastoral life, flowers, grasses, trees, mechanization and domestic animals to wildlife. It is dense with literary and historical references and allusions as well as being richly illustrated, largely with her own photographs. It is a book about moving and staying put, and about the changes that take place almost unnoticed when we spend a number of years in the same place.
Ekman is a devotee of uncultivated land. But the idea of having a field of wildflowers instead of a lawn did not make her and her husband welcome newcomers: ‘It seems to me that our new neighbors did not set any store by what was wild unless it could be shot during the hunting season or picked and turned into jam.’
As she was writing this book, life took its next turn, and she and her husband decided, for reasons of ageing and health, to move to a house with less land, less snow to plow and less forest to care for. Thus Gubba’s Field also became a eulogy to what was being left behind, and hopefully an aid in transition to what was to come, for them personally and for our world. The extracts below, ranging from the introduction to the final page, are intended to offer a flavor of this volume of short, interconnected essays.
Extract from Gubba's Field
This book is about half an acre of meadowland and about all the places nearby where I have walked and sometimes gotten lost. I have written things as they happened, and described the flora and fauna I have observed over the years. My companions have been numerous, most now long dead. They taught me all about the things that live and grow here.
Toward the end of his Metamorphoses, Ovid writes: Omnia mutantur. Nihil Interit. Everything changes. Nothing perishes. That was a possible thought around the time of the birth of Christ. Myself, I am not hopeful that everything which grows will continue to live in the future. Today, many species of animals and plants are vanishing, never to return.
This part of Uppland was an area with which we were familiar. When I began my walks and study of the flora in our new home neighborhood, I was returning after thirty years. In the sixties, we rented a cottage not far from the parish of Haverö. Sometimes I made my way there by bus from Uppsala almost daily. Forty-five kilometers was nothing in those days, when fuel was cheap and the road straight as an arrow, constructed for heavy transports to the paper mill at Hallstavik. Today, now that the endlessly bountiful forests have had to go on disgorging their wood for the pulp and paper and wood product industries, they have gradually been transformed into pine plantations.
Everything changes, many things perish. Things that are not destroyed are modified beyond recognition. […]
That summer we lived in our house trailer parked next to Polonius. I had named the junipers in the overgrown meadow after the characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They were just the right number and stood there, like immobile figures placed on the stage in a model of the play. There was only one deciduous tree, Ophelia, a slender little sallow. Hamlet was thin and swarthy, King Claudius rotund and topped with a pointed crown. Queen Gertrude had the figure of a middle-aged matron. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stood closely allied, short and conciliatory as courtiers. Polonius wasn’t hiding behind a screen of alpine currant bushes, but his friend Horatio was lurking at the edge of the woods. A little further in among the fir trees stood Ophelia’s brother Laertes, poisoned dagger at the ready. Farthest off, deeper in the woods, waited Fortinbras.
It was a hot summer. Polonius provided us with shade for our meals at the camping table. To begin with we had only the electricity and running water supplied by the trailer’s battery. This was enough for our lamps, TV and radio. Every evening around nine, we went down to the lake and washed our dishes and ourselves. There we watched the fishing expeditions of the heron and osprey whose nests were on a nearby islet. That summer there were nightingales right in the middle of the village, and they sang so loud their singing carried all the way out to us. I remember thinking I didn’t find it as lovely as the poets made it out to be. For once I was of the same mind as August Strindberg, who condemns all the nightingales of romantic bards in his ‘Flower Paintings and Animal Pieces’ (1888), where he expresses the view that not even the nightingale of southern climes can produce anything but ‘a few thrush strokes’.
Here the blackbird sang each evening from the woods and his singing was so melodious and musing that I felt he was speaking straight to me. Or to every Nordic soul? In any case, just like Keats’ nightingale, he made my weariness, fever and fret fade away, dissolve and be quite forgotten. Because the blackbird does not nest as far north as the mountains of Jämtland, he also banished my sense of alienation and homesickness, at least for a while.
We who live in Sweden were given a long country to live in, long and large, with pine forests and veins of iron ore in the bedrock, rivers where salmon migrate, bays where herring congregate, and woods full of wildlife. There were glades in the forest we turned into meadows and fields, where butterflies hovered around the flowers. There were not many of us to begin with and we are still so few that we do not fill up this allotted land of ours. We who feel at home in its more peripheral areas trudge off to the general store, which is threatened with closure, and watch the bus timetable dwindle. But we inhale the scent of pine forests. Here, the asphalt has not covered memories and smells.
One thing is certain. We see what we wish to see. So when my focus was on examining grasses, my eyes saw the field in an entirely different way. Yes, it was in flower, but above all it was full of grasses, side by side, and everywhere, filling the interstices between the things that had previously attracted my interest.
There were numerous species of the family Poaceae. The little sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) was the first to come up, in May. This short grass blossoms with clusters of individual flowers, so numerous they appear to be a little stubble growing from the spike. It is known for its sweet vanilla aroma, and Börje and I used to call it Zubrovka grass when we used it to flavor aquavit. […]
It only took a week or two for other members of the Poaceae family to shoot up their stiff blades and begin to spike. They were impudent and robust. Poa is Greek for grass as well as for a place where grasses grow, and in the classical Greek sense of the word, Gubba’s field is a true poa. […] Of course there were dog violets, cat’s-eyes, buttercups, water avens and milkwort, but for the moment they were still a bit restrained. The brazen grasses, however, didn’t mind the cold. They were growing furiously. Their verdure was so lush I was happy we had no visitors so I wouldn’t have to explain why we didn’t have a lawn mower.
When I began writing about Gubba’s field, my plan was to provide a detailed description of a field as a kind of fortuitous interplay, or one might say a successful type of collaboration between human beings and the things that grow where they live. It has been said countless times about fields and meadows, particularly since they have all but disappeared, that they came into being not only thanks to the natural prerequisites, but just as much thanks to mules and scythes. Rakes tend to be left out of the description. The rake was the women’s implement, and it has always been easy to disregard the labor of this half of humanity. As recently as at midsummer 2006, Stefan Edman wrote in Dagens Nyheter: ‘Meadows are the domain of scythes, of hay-making and of mules.’ He went on to say that meadows are ‘like a place for pleasurable, poetic spoon-feeding.’ But what would those spoonsful of pleasure be without someone raking up the cut grass and the weeds and stacking them? I can answer that question. The piles would be blown together and lie there rotting in the autumn storms, after which shoots of birch and aspen, ferns and thistles would take over ‘what once was meadowland’, to borrow a phrase from poet Ann Jäderlund.
Writing about Gubba’s field and above all observing in intimate detail all that grows there – things we are glad about and things we are less so – cat’s-foot as well as goutweed, has turned me into a meadow skeptic. All that remains is slightly more than one thousandth of meadowland in Sweden that is tended in the traditional way. There is going to be no return to our agricultural landscape as it was prior to the nineteenth century agrarian revolution. […]
Today in Sweden these decorative meadows serve as nature preserves for threatened flora. They are not limed or fertilized, and no pesticides are used on them. This is a nice thought, and they are attractive. But these 2,500 hectares of protected meadowland cannot provide a large, highly useful gene bank. To that end the edges of our roads and ditches might be more appropriate. However, when the Transport Administration sees to it that the edges are mown mechanically before the plants have gone to seed, the chances of survival are not great. Along our roadsides the lupines are taking over from the native flora. Their powerful root systems and shoots make them impervious to mechanical cutting. […]
The knowledge that, as meadowland, Gubba’s field will die out with the two of us who live here now came to me early on. I realized it as soon as we were told we needed to ‘plan’ how the land would be used. That instruction was given, as a matter of course, from high above, by a person sitting on a digger-excavator. I presume that whoever buys this house from us will ‘plan’ the meadow. Not a stone, not a single old molehill will remain. It will be flat and amenable to cutting with a power mower. Like all the other places around us in the village and all the way out to where the summer cottages are. That’s what Sweden is like.
Ovid’s metamorphoses are not discernible to our reality, to our warlords, who are veritable wild boars. Their innards are roars, coarse bristles and spilt blood. According to the journalists, our indifference justifies their evildoings. But we are not indifferent. We are powerless.
During the Vietnam war, the killing ceased when, even in the United States, the protests were too powerful. The demonstrators spoke the language of the perpetrators, who understood it. They were reachable. But we cannot speak or write or demonstrate against things as incomprehensible as IS and Boko Haram. Their language is that of deadly atrocities, which provoke a parallel response: air strikes, machine gun fire, death and humiliation. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Bashar al-Assad should be able to listen and understand. But they have succeeded in deadening their own humanity.
When I write that the warlords are wild boars inside, I commit the offense of seeing them as depraved, as bestial. This is not correct. There is no such thing as a psychopathic animal. Animals are not at all like humans. They are beyond that which is human and they possess innocence.
Buying meat produced in animal factories and proposing to ban Rumanian beggars on our streets are both ways of turning our backs on suffering. Looking away from anguish, removing it from our field of vision, seems to be the essential yet unmentionable prerequisite for our own wellbeing. However, this hierarchical visual field is the deathblow to our inner balance.
I used to like looking at vipers, watching them lying on the concrete slab in front of the garage door, on a rock along the country road, and even in a juniper bush they must have slithered up. […]
That is, until one day in May 2010 when Stella was bitten. Since then I can hardly even bear to see vipers in photographs. It’s not that I am afraid for my own sake; I always wear long trousers and boots or hiking shoes. But the dogs have to be protected. [….] I never want a dog to suffer as Stella did when that viper bit her on the muzzle, when she pressed up to the porch door and, as dogs do, strove to disguise her terrible pain.
It was even worse to be brought to the veterinary hospital, trapped as she experienced it, tied up and punctured with needles. She couldn’t understand. Her trust in us was undermined and she wasn’t even happy when they let us take her home. Tail between her legs, she wandered about, moaning softly. Then, on the third day, she came over, settled down in front of the armchair I was reading in, and began emitting curious sounds. A kind of guttural ‘chat’ I had never heard before. I didn’t dare say more than ‘All right, all right’ over and over again. I didn’t move. She was trying to tell me something. But what?
When the noises ceased, we went out. I asked if she wanted to go to the park (we’d stayed in Stockholm to be close to the vet if her condition worsened). When I said those words she unfurled the tail that had been rolled between her legs ever since that awful bite. Now she was back. She was with me, with us, again. Her trust had returned. This fido, I trust you, is a characteristic of both dogs and humans.
Inside me there are enchanted gardens. Once upon a time they were real, and as a child I believed they would be there forever. My grandmother and I went to visit people in them. She rode ahead of me with a large box in her bicycle clamp, in which her dachshund Sickan sat on his green baize blanket. Grandmother’s friends lived in the houses these gardens surrounded. Their husbands were master coppersmiths, master tiled stove makers, or master blacksmiths. Some of them were widowed young; others were virtually widowed although their husbands were still alive. That was what happened to Grandma’s friend who had a huge orchard and enormous flowerbeds. The gravel path leading up to her glassed-in porch had pinkish-white seashells along the edges. Her son was a sea captain. She had the sword of a swordfish on the wall in the drawing room. The master himself was bedridden in senile absence. It was not uncommon among the master craftsmen in those days that their brains eventually succumbed to alcohol poisoning.
Her best friends with a garden were the Kranses. He worked at the power plant and had invented an electric car. It had huge batteries I assume he charged at the expense of the taxpayers. I never heard anyone mention it. […]
The Kranses loved gardening. Their Reine Claude plum tree was weighted down with fruit. I don’t know how many kinds of apples they had. But of course there were the local prides, Säfstaholm summer apples and Åkerö winter apples. Two other summer varieties were Transparente Blanche and Renettes, which had a slightly sharp tang. They stored the winter apples in boxes in the attic, where the scent of apples was thick and dense. They also kept pears there. The most sensitive ones, like the chubby Greve Moltkes, were individually wrapped. Late in the summer, a profusion of little, greenishbrown pears and bergamots hung from the trees.
The Kranses had red, white and black currant bushes, red and green gooseberries, red and pale yellow raspberries. Their strawberry plants, embedded in piles of hay, were a constant source of worry, and sometimes I wonder whether the worry itself might have been at the core of their intensive interest in cultivation. They grew carrots that made Uncle Krans unhappy when they grew crooked. He thinned out the horseradish to keep the plants from producing shoots. The beets were also a source of worry if they got bugs. Overall, there were endless disappointments, against which Uncle Krans guarded himself with programmatic pessimism. When the fruit trees had blossomed, pink and white, and it looked to be a good year, someone might comment on this future luxurious excess. He would always reply in a particularly affected, peevish voice: ‘Well, just you wait until the green fruit starts to fall.’
Naturally there were kitchen vegetables such as peas and spinach and not least lima beans with their delicious innards housed in silky tufts like precious children. Dill was highly prized and some of it allowed to head into crown dill for pickling. They grew their bumpy pickling cucumbers in frames.
My memories are full of smells as I write this, and I could go on and on, as the Kranses’ garden was actually inexhaustible in scent, taste and bloom. But I must add that they made their sacrifices to transient beauty. Along the gravel path there were mignonettes, which may be quite ordinary looking but have a sweet, concentrated perfume. Behind them rose a row of hardy white, pink and red peonies. Hollyhocks and larkspurs grew along the glassed-in veranda. There were special beds for cut flowers, such as Rose Campion, sweet William, pot marigolds and late summer asters in a variety of colors. I don’t believe the Kranses ever sent a visitor home without a newly-picked bouquet, and as often as not also a newspaper cone of string beans or green peas.
Gubba’s field has afforded us pleasure year after year. Ever since we began to clear the overgrown meadow twenty years ago, new species have continued to appear – new species although they were actually old ones waiting under the ground in the form of seeds, bulbs or root shoots. Birds and winds have brought some to us as well. The field has displayed ageing (Polonius), irrepressible will to live (Ophelia), sudden, uncalled-for death (the mole), vulnerable life that sometimes escaped death (the baby rabbits). Each year it has grown, bloomed, and faded. It has demonstrated to me that my own life has reached the point where it is now, in the phase of slowly fading away, approaching winter’s rest.
I no longer hear the birds as well as I used to. Often I think about Gilbert White, who battled deafness from early middle age and lost ‘all those nice reminders and signs that come from the sounds of the countryside.’ I, too, find that the dense fabric of sounds has grown thinner and more reduced. For a long time my aches and pains have mainly been in my knees. I can no longer take long hikes. I have grieved this and rebelled against it, because I am a rambler. But you become accustomed to some things because you have to accept them and because time passes and because there is so much to see and do close at hand. I only caught sight of the female flower of the hazel when I needed to sit down to rest. A protruding bud with two gorgeous scarlet lines, it peeped out, considering, invisible to the fast-paced hiker.
Here in the parish of Haverö, we wander on our way. We are passing through our allotted chunk of time, and when it ends everything we have arranged and built will sink into the earth. Grass will grow over it, followed by birch shoots and large ferns, and ultimately the earnest fir trees, which require more than human time. But one May morning in a whole different epoch perhaps the delicate white petals of the wild cherry tree will flicker deep in the evergreen darkness.
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2018
Rights: Maria Montner, Bonnier Rights
We thank Bonnier Rights for permission to publish this translated extract from Gubbas hage.
A number of extracts from and reviews of Kerstin Ekman’s works have appeared in SBR. Most recently, Linda Schenck’s translation from Då var allt levande och lustigt (In Those Days Everything was Lively and Lovely) appeared in SBR 2016:2.
Linda Schenck grew up in the US and has been living in Sweden since 1972. She has retired from her career as a conference interpreter and enjoys spending more time translating literature.