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Off the Path in Götaland

“Allemansrätten.” It is a right granted to every citizen by the nation’s constitution. It is a part of every Swede’s identity. It resides deep in their cultural psyche. “Allemansrätten.” The word means “every man’s right.” It is the freedom to roam. It is the idea of land belonging to the public, a collective large-scale communal garden. It allows access to wander, camp, and forage on uncultivated or unpreserved property. 

I am not a Swede, only visiting. Therefore, this permission is a privilege to me. “Allemansrätten.” I repeat the term while searching for rock pools. I whisper the word as I bypass cows scrutinizing me. I sing it floating in the chilly cove. 

At its core “allemansrätten” is founded upon trust. Trust that such entitlement will be held responsibly, with tenderness. Trust that commercialism won’t abuse the ancient sanction. Trust that individuals will regulate themselves so that wildlife habitats are not disturbed or fragile countryside destroyed. It’s an endearing, idealistic faith in humanity. I benefit from such generosity — a fellow hiker recommends a lingonberry bush for its tasty fruit, a farmer invites me to cut through a paddock as a shortcut, a moored boater counsels me on pristine bays for swimming.

Cynic that I am, I wonder how long this credo will survive. Not all who traipse the wilderness abide by the unspoken rules of “allemansrätten.” How long will it be before used food containers whip past my face at the beach, smashed drink bottles lay underneath a boulder, cigarette burns fan into a brushfire, saplings wither from trafficked routes and overeager hands? 

Companies have begun to harvest the forests for profit, due to increasing organic produce demands. Locals in resort towns complain that summer tourists are leaving rubbish for them to clean up. When will this corner change bit by bit as well? In another decade will there be railings along the cliffs with warning signs? Will trail markers indicate places not to tread? Will fences materialize to keep out “everyman”? Will the ultimate anathema to Swedes, no trespassing notices, become common decorations? 

The ratio of people to space in Sweden is such that, at the moment, all can enjoy the liberty to rove. What happens, however, as travel democratizes, as we commodify, as our species swells into less trammeled tracts? At what point do our collective feet demolish the very expanses we seek? What will be the outcome of the conflict between our impositions and the planet’s ecosystem?   

Is the concept of “allemansrätten” possible to maintain? Can we all go trampling anywhere? If not, who gets to and who doesn’t? Who decides this? How do we limit ourselves while granting each of us the right to wander the earth?

I remind myself of my duty while traipsing. I don’t give in to every pleasure. I’d like to be lazy, but I take out with me everything I bring in. I want to plunge through inviting portals, but stay on trodden paths as much as possible so as not to scar the ecology. I wish I could gorge on nature’s bounty. Instead, I observe rather than collect. 

I even run after the errant napkin that got blown away from my picnic. I want desperately to believe that my small decisions will preserve the enchantment of golden light dripping through native dense canopy. I need to cling to the conviction that my little renunciations will guard the sanctity of silver cascades burbling within a grotto. I have to sustain faith that my mindful travels will extend to future generations the mystery of wilderness.     


TRAVEL NOTE:

Leave No Trace offers educational programs to develop a population knowledgeable about outdoor ethics. To learn more about their initiatives, volunteer, or support their opportunities, check out lnt.org.


Do you think public lands can remain vital biodiverse spaces without limiting access?

I would also like to hear about responsible, sustainable, ecological tips you practice while hiking, camping, and being in rural spaces in the comments below.


 

137 replies »

  1. Oh if we could have a world full of people who think as you do. I had never heard the term ‘allemansrätten,’ but so happy to learn about this tradition. Often I am discouraged when I come across areas of trash in public places but just reading your post, I feel encouraged to keep taking those small steps and doing what I can.

    • I have felt the same way! So often discouraged that my efforts are too little and make no impact, but I’ve been so uplifted to read about how many of us are taking those active “small” steps, how many do so much without fanfare. Thank you for continuing to take mindful action, for all that you do to live sustainably and be a generous steward of our planet.

  2. Sounds like a heavenly way to live and a magical spot for being reminded of how beautiful this world can be. It seems like it would be common sense for people to pick/clean up after themselves, but why more and more people don’t is incomprehensible. It doesn’t really take much effort, and it saddens me that human beings really can be that careless/lazy/spoiled. Don’t people want to live on a beautiful earth? I just don’t get it. Hopefully our own, even small, efforts will be contagious. And in the meantime, thank you for sharing your lovely words, photos and thoughts.

    • Thank you for reading the post and stopping by to chat! A clean planet seems like an unapproachable goal these days, but I’m so heartened by how many of us are doing our little bits. I do hope we inspire more to join our tribe in making mindful decisions while enjoying the great outdoors!

  3. Wow, that is the most amazing fiery bursts of orange along the path of the cascading water…would love to experience some Allemansrätten on that patch of land. You pose some logical ideas to consider…happy traipsing.

    • Isn’t the landscape just so wildly beautiful?! The patterned rocks, the blooms growing among them, the lichen…it was all mesmerizing. I really hope it will stay looking so in the future. Thanks for dropping in on my Swedish adventure.

  4. It’s refreshing to read about someone who uses freedom (Allemansrätten) to become a more mindful, thoughtful person, instead of finding loopholes and exploiting. You’re setting a marvellous example for the rest of us. 🙂

    • Thank you! I hope I am inspiring others to consider that any type of freedom comes with equally weighty responsibility. It’s been so encouraging to discover how many others are working tirelessly in their daily, small acts to protect our marvelous planet.

  5. Such a beautiful and timely post. I often wonder how long will these beautiful places (we see) last on our planet. Exploration is a catch-22 situation — even for the serious traveller. If one sets out to explore a hidden spot, there will be some effect to the environment. And even if we’re careful, when we write about these places, there’s always a possibility of attracting more attention to a hidden (for good reason) gem.

    • “Exploration is a catch-22 situation.” I think about this all the time, and of the ways in which I can mitigate it. I do believe that curiosity about our world, whether it’s far-off places or our own neighborhoods, helps us appreciate its wonder and not take our planet for granted.

  6. Reblogged this on Urban Vyaas and commented:
    There are many fragile ecosystems that are endangered by tourism. Some of them are closed to all but scientific research teams (think of the Galapagos Islands), some islands off the coast of Phuket have temporary closed from May to October during the country’s monsoon season, one of them will not reopen again in the fall: Koh Tachai, an island that is part of Thailand’s Similan National Park. The spot, popular with snorkelers and divers, has perhaps proven too popular—local authorities estimated that a typical beach on Koh Tachai, in the Andaman Sea just north of Phuket, could comfortably accommodate 70 people, but typically sees closer to 1,000 at a time, including food vendors and boat crews.
    I don’t believe that Götaland will ever have this problem because the country’s cost of living makes it unattractive for the mass tourism industry. There is also the factor of social control who cooperates narrowly with the environment law enforcement officers to correct those who would abuse Sweden’s Allemansrätten. Wish you the best while you’re living your own Walden- experience (Thoreau).

  7. This is such a current and important topic. And, your timing is wonderful too. I just went on a yearly walk with a good friend here in Belgium. As often with me, the topic turned to humans and their despicable behavior. My friend mentioned how sad he found it that in Belgium everyone fences their property, and how, in Sweden, the wide open spaces and fence-less properties are a joy to see and walk in. My reaction was much like your post… if a Belgian would not put a fence around his pond, how long would it take before fishermen deplete his lake, garbage is left behind, and dog poop of irresponsible owners piles up?

    It is my negative opinion that there are always people who have to ruin everything, because they’re selfish, ignorant, irresponsible or uncaring. Yet, one might argue that in a unique and pristine environment, people who explore and are nature lovers do their best to maintain the area the way they found it. If I were to walk in a littered city, I would be less inclined to go out of my way to be responsible and not add to the mess. (I actually would not litter, since I’m disgusted by that attitude, but I could see others do this in dirty environments.)

    A country with the freedom to roam sounds just right for me. When my husband and I go for hikes in nature, without thinking about it twice, we always take out what we brought in (including stray napkins), never pick or remove anything, and abide by the rules “Take nothing but picture, leave nothing but footprints.” On the trails, of course. 🙂

    • How eerie that you and your friend were having such a similar discussion! I think you and Mark would love living and exploring in Sweden and would do its tradition of allemansrätten proud. After so many years of being nomads, on sea and land, you two are experts at responsible outdoor subsistence with minimal impact.

  8. Hi Atreyee, A thoughtful post and beautiful concept and your photos are terrific.
    We loved our travels in Scandinavia a couple of years ago and it was so pristine. If each traveler did one kind deed a day, pick up a piece of trash, recycle, follow the rules and model appropriate behaviors for others, it would be a good start. I have witnessed countless thoughtless- and dangerous- acts in my travels, it’s disheartening.

    • Thank you so much Jane. I too have been disheartened in my travels by experiencing so much of what I hold beautiful disintegrating. Often, I fear our love of nature and open landscapes will become a memory and a “virtual reality” in the future.

  9. If nobody chased after their napkins the world would be littered with napkins…. well, unfortunately it is in many places. I often wonder how hard it is to put a candy wrapper in the trash or a can in the recycling bin… it only takes a second. Thanks for your caring nature.

    • “It only takes a second,” and the result is so profound. I remind myself of this every time I am in danger of becoming lazy about how I conduct myself anywhere. Thank you for your kind encouragement!

  10. This sounds utopian and almost too good to be true. It’s wonderful that Sweden has been able to achieve, or at least actively strive for allemansrätten. Your photos work so beautifully with this piece, I particularly like the lily pond and the gorgeous purple flowers against the rocky background.
    We have it pretty good in Canada but I do get frustrated in my little neighbourhood where some residents who have property adjacent to public space or access to beach/parks exhibit a real sense of entitlement and don’t hesitate to show their annoyance when others use these spaces.

    • I fear that Sweden’s ethos is rather utopian and don’t think many places will be able to implement it, especially considering how our population growth is already impeding land and resources. Thank you for mentioning the photos you most enjoyed. I too love those purple flowers and how they spring out from between the rocks so beautifully.

  11. Your final lines about ‘those small decisions’ really ring a bell with me. Though I don’t travel much as a tourist, and indeed haven’t left my home country for over a decade, your conversation in this post still feels very relevant to me. I, too, often wonder whether my own small decisions — not to travel far when there is so much beauty on my own doorstep, not to leave litter on the beach near where I live, not to use plastic bags to carry my things in, not to buy a take-away lunch that comes in packaging but to bring lunch from home, not to wrap that very packed lunch in plastic film but to put it in a reusable container — make any difference. I live in Australia, which like Scandinavia has a low-density population, and yet my country’s environmental track record is, per capita, execrable. I guess I have to believe that each small act of mine adds up … because I have to start somewhere. We all do. I’m so glad to read that there are other people like you thinking and doing the same things … and writing about them :).

    • Hooray for all of our small acts of kindness towards the earth and one another! Thank you so much for sharing your outlook on this. You’ve motivated me to keep on track, to do more “because I have to start somewhere.” Most importantly, thank you for all the care you take in stewardship of your country and neighborhood. I so admire your mindfulness in traveling local and appreciating the wonder of where you live.

  12. You have such a beautiful way of seeing the world and expressing your thoughts so articulately. I’m always enchanted by your writing.

    I think it’s gorgeous you consider such things because sadly, many do not. Many natural spaces have been destroyed in Tasmania (Australia), not because of rubbish or signs, but simply the volume of people visiting and walking on the paths.

    I think the challenge is not just considering where we walk, but to support companies that are mindful of where they source their resources on a larger scale. Keep up the incredible work! ❤️

    • Thank you Kylie, I appreciate that so very much. ❤️ I do agree with you that the sheer volume of people is itself an issue when it comes to places, which makes the question of “freedom for all to roam” such a fraught one. It’s still hard to conceive of our planet as having limited space and resources, but it’s a fact. As our human population grows this will become the biggest challenge. Your reminder about our ability to choose companies wisely is so timely as I educate myself more about the appropriate tourism resources to support.

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