The sign guided us off a road south of the town of Borås and along a track between tall fir trees until we reached a dusty car park and a collection of wooden huts, all of which seemed to be shuttered and closed. A map attached to one of them showed the outline of a lake with many islands and a series of trails that would take the hiker or cross-country skier on a series of loops of differing lengths. The longest was a circumnavigation of Lake Storsjön. It seemed like the obvious choice.
There are very few outdoor spaces in Europe that have not been shaped by human activity, and Storsjön and its nature reserve are no exception. Until 1909 this was farmland, speckled here and there with small lakes and ponds. The nearby River Viskan had long been a source of power for the Rydboholms factory, the first in Sweden to use mechanical looms as part of the country’s growing textile industry in the middle of the 19th century.
In 1905, the company decided to create a reservoir to increase the available water for the factory, and using tunnels blasted through the low hills to transport water from the river to a low valley, the farmland was flooded by ten metres to create the lake that stretched out before us. Also swallowed up were the existing lakes and ponds, who now gave their historic names to bays and inlets that would offer us views out across the lake throughout our walk.
As we walked we were moving through a landscape that had been dramatically altered through the creation of the lake, but that had also been shaped for centuries depending on the needs of the people who had called this place home. We came across the remnants of an unsuccessful dam, built at some point during the 19th century. There were the remains of old crofts and the outlines of what had once been cultivated fields that have now, with the establishment of the nature reserve, been left to their own devices. There was a stone bridge that had once carried worshippers from outlying farms to the church. Now, the road had been flooded and many of the old farms were ten metres below the surface.
The more we walked on our journey around the lake, the more traces we found. The foundations of six buildings at Grönemad farm. The cave that was purported to be the hideaway of a legendary robber called Busa-Jan, who was executed in Jönköping in 1758. The remains of charcoal kilns and a charcoal burners’ hut, now used as a resting place for weary walkers.
At some point the path left the lakeshore, following a track through the forest between tall trees and moss-covered boulders. Soon enough and we were back where we started, and a wide strip of sandy beach that fell away from a grassy field and down to the water’s edge. Swimming out into the lake, it was hard not to think about what was down below, in the murky depths. It was not so much a fear of oversized fish or some kind of monster, but of the stories that had been subsumed when the tunnel linking the river with the new lake had been opened, and the water rushed in.
On a map of the reserve, picked up in the next town, there were ‘sites of interest’ marked in light blue. Unlike the others marked around the lake, these were places it was impossible to visit without diving equipment. On the beach we could look out across the water and try and guess their location. The croft of Holmen (18th century). Skäggared farm (mentioned in records back in 1540). The croft of Hangssjösslätt (1857). Somewhere down there was an old log road that had been built in the 17th century and the remains of ironworks that had been producing tools as far back as 570 BCE. One of the earliest dated sites in Sweden was now at the bottom of Lake Storsjön.
On the day we followed the path around the lake and through the forest, Storsjön nature reserve was a place of peace and quiet, a landscape that felt as if it had been there forever rather than a little more than a hundred years. But from the moment the first living creatures made a movement on land, we have always been shaping the environment around us. And what was once farmland close to Sweden’s first mechanised textile mill has been, since 2014, a protected area now home to all manner of birds, fish and insects, including rare beetles and dragonflies found in very few other places.
That we shape the world around us is undeniable, and we are feeling the effects in many dramatic and tragic ways. The question that lands on us all is not whether or not we shape our environment but how. It is a question that needs an answer, and soon.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton