In the mists of Älvdalen

The lakes may now be melting and the snowdrifts receding in the forests of the Swedish back country, but as the forests emerge into the clear cold light of summer and the pine needles brighten like green flames there is still a suffocating blanket of boredom over the people who have to live there, as there will be every year.

One of the most telling of Maja Daniels’ pictures from Älvdalen, a river valley in central Sweden, shows two boys of about 16 seated on the rear window of an ancient Volvo hatchback canted over on a forest trail. One back wheel is buried in a pothole. Both are swathed in dirty smoke as the driver guns the engine till the tyres burn. He isn’t trying to free the vehicle. He’s just burning rubber for the hell of it. The smoke isn’t an obstacle. It’s the whole point of the burning rubber game, a popular one in all of deep rural Sweden.

This is a world away from the sleek bright façade of Stockholm. In the cosmopolitan cities of the coast, you can live for years without speaking anything but English but in Älvdalen the longing for American culture, American cars and music is expressed in Swedish. In fact, there are still 3,000-4,000 people there who speak a language that isn’t even Swedish, but a descendant of Old Norse known as Elfdalian, which seems to have split off from Swedish in about 1300.

Although the whole of rural Scandinavia is a patchwork of dialects, all being eroded by television, centralised schooling and emigration to the cities of the coast, Elfdalian looks to linguists like a proper language rather than a mere dialect since it has not only a vocabulary of its own but grammatical features that are not found in any other Scandinavian language. It’s perfectly incomprehensible to Swedish speakers, much more so than Norwegian or even Danish. But it has been preserved in this remote valley at the centre of the country.

Maja Daniels’ photographs capture the mist of summer mornings and the thin, yearning light of summer evenings: the sense of emptiness and longing which seems to fill these forests. The people in them seem out of place almost anywhere. Apart from the farming family in traditional dress, whose little daughter jumps with delight as she is photographed, everyone else has a quality of frozen wrongness. Even some of the objects do: for me, the saddest of all these photographs is the withered cross covered in dried-out leaves because it is what remains of a midsummer maypole, around which everyone dances when it is new and covered in freshly cut wildflowers and garlands of leafy birch on the longest day of the year.

For centuries this district, Dalarna, was the industrial heart of Sweden. Long before the industrial revolution there were mines here, for copper, lead and iron. By the rivers there were workshops where craftsmen worked with minerals such as porphyry – the township of Älvdalen has had a porphyry workshop for hundreds of years. In the Middle Ages, Dalarna had its own law as well as its own languages. Only in the 20th century did this sense of special value break down. Nowadays it is part of the vast “rust belt” which stretches 1,000 kilometres up the whole interior of Sweden, where every town once had a factory or a mill but all the jobs have now disappeared.

The young people mostly leave, especially the women. Älvdalen district has the highest rate of unemployment in all Sweden. The mines and the factories can’t compete with cheap labour abroad. The farming and logging which used to keep the countryside alive have been devoured by machines. A giant logging machine can now harvest the forest as casually as a combine harvester mows down a field of wheat so that the work which once paid wages for 1,000 men now pays for five men tending the machinery.

Some farmers have imported wives from Thailand: a policeman from these parts says they are among the loneliest people he knows. Yet the people who live there still love it. Once the quiet desolation gets into your soul nothing else is quite as satisfying. The combination of small communities with huge empty spaces around them makes for a flamboyance that cities would soon quench. The two Goths, solemnly dressed – could anyone with “suicidal” written under the visor of his baseball cap be happier? The hippy with long blond hair, a heavy metal T-shirt and a kilt can walk around like that all day if he chooses and no one will hassle him.

And so these awkward, honest people have taken up their ancient language as a badge of honour.

The grandparents spoke it as a still living dialect. The young people are trying to recover it as a gesture of local pride and identity. If the government in Stockholm were to recognise it as a real minority language, and not just a dialect, it would be obliged by law to encourage and subsidise its use. But that’s not going to happen, whatever the linguists say.

For the rational economists in Stockholm or Berlin these valleys have no real use except for tourism. The ministries in Stockholm see them as a picturesque wilderness, where wolves should be encouraged to resettle. The farmers whose livestock wolves eat resent this bitterly. They have to live there. Actually, they don’t have to but there is nowhere else they would rather be, even if tourists could only see the boredom of their lives. It is still a far better life to be economically useless and unemployed in the forests than in a modern suburb and the final message of these photographs is one of struggle, and hope.

Maja Daniels is working on a film of this project, to be released in 2014

Andrew Brown’s book ‘Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared’ (Granta) won The Orwell Prize in 2009

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