Swedish Landscape Surprises

Taking a hint from George Hrab's stage show, I asked my landscape history students to write me a question each anonymously on a small note. Or rather, I asked them to ”Tell me something that surprises you about the Swedish landscape you've seen so far”. This turned out to be a good teaching tool. I went through the stack of notes and discussed them with the students.

The Finnish and Canadian students aren't surprised by anything at all. Their countries look like Sweden, because they have the same history of Ice Ages and a sparse population and are on the same latitude as Sweden. But 1/3 of the group are from the US, 1/4 are from East Asia, and 1/5 are from Germany. Here's what surprises them – and remember, they're mainly commenting on the Växjö region, a small town in a wooded province.

The most common surprise was how lush, green, pristine and “natural” Sweden is. Several respondents said the place feels so alive. To this I replied that yes, in August on a university campus where everybody's 22 you would get that impression. But of course it also has to do with one of the two great Swedish landscape determinants: a low population pressure.

Many also wondered at the great many lakes, the flatness of the topography and the many boulders and visible rock outcrops. All of these things are due to the other great landscape determinant here: the Ice Age.

Swedish buildings are surprisingly low and widely spaced. Population pressure again.

A surprising number of houses are red. This is because brick was once fashionable and expensive, while wood and red paint was cheap and abundant. The classic red pigment used to emulate brick comes from the iron-rich tailings of the Falun copper mine.

Municipal planning is also a source of surprise. There are wide bike tracks everywhere, lots of benches in the parks, and the university campus is a separate area outside of town.

On Friday I'm taking the whole bunch on a field trip to Öland to see some archaeology.


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The US and Canada are continental scale countries, so what students from those countries would find surprising will depend on what part of the country they are from. For example, the countryside in New Hampshire, where I live, resembles that of the parts of Sweden (Stockholm/Uppsala) that I have been to, even down to similar climate (but not similar latitude; we are at the latitude of southern France). Minnesota and much of southeastern Canada would be similar, as would parts of the western Cascadian lowlands. But people from many other parts of North America would be surprised: the prairie provinces and Great Plains look quite a bit different (more arid climate), to say nothing of California.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 04 Sep 2012 #permalink

Your students will see a slightly different landscape on Öland ;-) Surprise!

By Thomas Ivarsson (not verified) on 04 Sep 2012 #permalink

Californians would be surprised we have so much rain in summer; Brits would be surprised we have so much sun :-)

We are too far north to share the loess belt that stretches on through Hungary/ Ukraine/ Russia/Central and East Asia. People from there would be familiar with praire-like country.
Another difference is the mostly granite bedrock. Continental USA has sedimentary rock, with subtle consequences for landscape and flora (buffer for acidic rainfall, for instance).

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 04 Sep 2012 #permalink

I recently learned the difference between granite and gneiss, and I gotta say, Stockholm and suburbs is on gneiss pretty much exclusively.

OK; our local bedrock is...some grey boring stuff. Except for the red granite, which is spectacularly useless for anything.
The mountains are -quite logically- made of deep-sea sediments warmed over (may contain nuts).
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There is no analogue to the temperate rainforest in the American Northwest.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 06 Sep 2012 #permalink