Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Oak Hatred" in Historic Sweden

On a recent trip to Sweden I was talking to a few of my colleagues about my interests in tree symbolism, while on a hike through a forested area in Stockholm featuring a few ancient oaks. My colleagues related to me the following: "a monarch decided in the 16th or 17th Century that oak were not to be cut since they should be used for warship building. This resulted in noblemen being ordered to protect oaks, whereas farmers stamped out and killed oak seedlings as fast as they could. If the farmers let the oaks grow up, they would loose usable land surface. So, on the whole, we lost oaks."

I found this accounting for the decline in oaks interesting both in terms of symbolic importance, and in terms of unintended consequences of management within Social-Ecological Systems.

I looked into this further and discovered a scholarly accounting of this phenomena by Per Eliasson, University of Lund, Sweden. He says, in a paper titled "The political history of the oaks in Sweden from the 16th to 20th century," that "The conflict in Sweden between the state power and the peasants over oak trees was one about many different values – culture, economy, politics and ecology. It was not only about ownership and timber, but also about the oaks role in damaging the crops and about the oak as a symbol of the crown." In another related paper titled "The Oak Tree, from Peasant Torment to a Unifying Concept of Landscape Management" by Jerker Moström of the National Heritage Board of Sweden, we learn of the Swedish historical expression “Tender oak trees and young noblemen should be hated,” an ironic peasant saying originating from the 18th century. According to Moström, the saying expresses the hatred within the peasant community towards the nobility and the oak trees at that time, caused by what they perceived as injustices in the contemporary Swedish forestry acts. He says that during the 17th century the oak became not only an important source of income for the nobility but also a physical symbol of the wealth and power of the aristocracy.

These papers and others can be found in the proceedings from a conference held in Linköpin, Sweden called The Oak – History, Ecology, Management and Planning, report 5617, May 2006. I found this interesting to contrast with the symbolism of the oak in the New World, especially the contemporary meanings I am exploring of the Live Oak in post-Katrina New Orleans and more broadly within the Gulf Coast region. These symbolic meanings of the oak and other trees in post-Katrina New Orleans are treated in depth in the forthcoming book Greening in the Red Zone in a chapter titled: Trees and Rebirth: Symbol, Ritual, and Resilience in Post-Katrina New Orleans.

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