The Importance of the farm—during the pioneer days and now—a Swedish-American connection that remains.
At age 10, I not only owned the American Girl doll Kirsten Larson, 18″ tall with the fictional story of a Swedish immigrant to the wild American Midwest of the 1850s, I wanted to be her.
She was one story in a collection of five historical American girls, except Kirsten embodied a Swede and a brave farming hero in the New World.
Like her, I had family that once spoke Swedish. I lived in the American Midwest, wild no more, but domesticated and mono-cropped. My father still owned a track of the old family farm, acres that traced our family’s history in the long-Swedish immigrant town, Swedesburg, while duly illustrating the hard work and struggles. If I rubbed my eyes to blurriness (a victim of seasonal allergies), I resembled Kirsten, too. Blue eyes, sandy brown hair and a flashy smile, as if we both held the secret to the pioneer spirit. My foray into her five-book series had taught me enough.
More than a dozen years later, at the age of 24, I was coming full circle with my alter ego Kirsten. I was going across the seas to farm. This time in the land of Vikings, trolls, Pippi Longstocking, vodka and really, truly good looking people.
Why had I come? Curious Swedes kept asking after I clarified my foreignness with any response in English. Swedish heritage, I said, to farm, to suss out what “Swedish” anything really meant. I didn’t have family to see, but my connection to Sweden felt as apparent as Kirsten’s wish to return. Like much of Sweden’s population during the 1850s, my Swedish ancestors had been poor rural farmers, a title that continued to follow them in America. And like a further 20% of Swedes (1.3 million) that fled the Motherland during the undulating crop shortages of the late 1800s, the lure of the New Homestead Act and its promise of cheap, nutrient-rich land in America had proved too great.
With only .62% of Swedes farming full time today, Sweden’s shift out reflected my family’s eventual transition, too. If I wanted to follow the farming fantasy, it’d require investigation, but I would be on one, just like my ancestors.
Yet when I was bobbing like a calm ocean buoy in horse poop, sinking deep in the rich earth, I hadn’t imagined my intro to farming exactly as so.
“You came all the way from America to shovel horse shit?” the Swedish farmer asked in a mocking, but honestly curious manner.
Swedes, even deep in the forest I affirmed, are rightfully known for their flawless English. The irony of an American girl in Sweden shoveling his horse’s droppings hadn’t been lost on him.
WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) was how. In exchange for my bobbing and shoveling, I was living in a stuga (cottage) in the Tiveden forest in the heart of Sweden. For six hours of work a day, I received free food, the stuga and through my four weeks, hundreds of mosquito mound bites on my face. If Kirsten had been humble in her books, I didn’t remember because I diverted from the blueprint, at least in my mind.
My attempts to manually saw thick birch logs failed. My technique, as I tried to slash weeds the height of native prairie grasses, equal. What I garnered through my toil was more lectures into how I was doing it wrong. While Kirsten was a supposed natural, I evidently was not.
“You know Anna, some consider it a meditation once they get the technique and rhythm down, just listening to the simple sound, thack, thack, thack, thack,” my host said in response to my question on why he chose a scythe, an archaic tool dating back to Old English, when he, in fact, had a lawn mover.
A graphic designer and organic farming hobbyist by title, my Woofing host was just another example of the growing number of city urbanites that chose to return to their ancestry’s work, farming, before they forgot how.
With budding blisters on the rise, I switched tactics from the unforgiving scythe. Weeding. Here I could meditate into how I ended up at Bergsmossen, the organic farm. The traditional Swedish red house, the greenhouse a few yards away, the stuga I called home just as near, the forest of birch trees encircling me and its fertile grounds. The symbols I knew of Sweden connecting me to the farmland.
Life moves without question, but stuck in the middle of the forest, modern, cutting-edge Sweden was obscured. Here, I could imagine myself in the folksy Sweden I had read about from Kirsten Larson and Pippi Longstocking. I was sowing my deep and growing connection to the land and country.
During my total four weeks of organic farm work through wwoof.se, I weeded, sawed birch logs (or ahem, strived), but I also planted seeds, harvested organic plants, sold grape vines, flower pots and food at the market, barbequed, fed frolicking chickens, attended a Midsummer celebration (arguably the biggest holiday in Sweden) and learned some sing-song Swedish, mycket bra, very good.
For all my previous yearnings to see Sweden: the cities, the country, the people and language, it felt oddly foreign and familiar at once. My fictional heroine, Kirsten, along with my Swedish-guided Grandmother had taught me much. But being here, working the farm, I craved more than ever to be 100% Swedish.
When can I move?
–If you want to experience more while traveling, WWOOF, in any country, is a great way to travel cheap, give back and learn.