A Sanctuary Where Trees Can Speak - an Interview with Henrik Hallgren
In the world of story and myth there is a sanctuary where trees can speak...
Last autumn in the end of November, I met up with Henrik Hallgren for an outdoor interview. He led me into a nature reserve close to where he lives on one of Stockholm’s many islands, and we followed a winding path around a forest lake.
Storyteller, author, archaeologist, teacher in eco-psychology and gode (heathen equivalent of priest in the Nordic nature religion) – Henrik Hallgren is a man with “many strings on his lyre” as folk say here in Sweden. As a storyteller, Henrik is most passionate about telling stories that reflect the relationship between humans and nature.
The soul of nature is alive in the realm of stories, says Henrik. “In the world of story and myth there is a sanctuary where trees can speak, like mythical reserves for the soul of nature. Unfortunately they are growing extinct and often it is only children who are allowed to visit the mythical reserves of nature.”
“I mostly enjoy telling stories for adults because I can see a longing in them. Some find it almost a bit embarrassing to want to listen to fairy tales as a grown-up.”
“It is not only the forest of the outer world that is being bulldozed and exploited... but also the forest of the inner world, the soul of nature, the forest spirits and mythological realms...”
If you could describe yourself as a natural environment, what would it look like?
“The first thing that comes to mind is the forest lake from my childhood, kind of like where we are sitting now. I like sitting and looking out over the landscape, at the reflections in the water, and being surrounded by life forms that are taller than me. A forest with many different kinds of trees... cliffs, and close to a lake... that is the kind of environment where I feel most at home...”
As a child Henrik grew up next to the woods and his family often went hiking. “But I hated hiking,” says Henrik, laughing, “what I loved about nature was simply being in nature, and I often played in the woods on my own, playing a game I liked to call the fantasy game where I made up all sorts of stories about all the creatures and spirits of the woods... and I would tell the stories to my friends.”
There was a tree close to Henrik’s childhood home that almost looked like a kind of living creature, and one day Henrik and his friends took a knife, peeling off the bark and carving out eyes and a smiling mouth on the tree. “When we came back a while later we got a shock,” says Henrik, “because the smiling tree had transformed into a kind of monster, with tears running down over a grotesque, distorted face. I was so shocked and thought – what have I done? It felt as though the tree was suffering and in that moment I realised that it is a living being that actually reacts to what we do, and now it is crying...”
Many years later when Henrik was visiting his childhood home, he remembered the tree and went looking for it. Finally he found it, and it was completely covered with bark again, although the bark was darker than before, and the face with two eyes and a mouth could still be seen under the bark. “It was good to see that the tree was thriving again,” says Henrik, “it was a healing process, and I learnt a lot from that meeting.”
Growing up, Henrik spent a lot of time alone in nature. There was a place next to a forest lake where he would sit for hours, writing poems and talking to the trees. “This one time I was sitting by a small rapid, and as I sat there and it was as if the whole world opened up and I connected with the movement in the water and the lake, the trees and the mountain – it was as if they were flowing through me... and as if I was in some kind of timeless space.... it was incredibly powerful... an awakening...”
After Henrik’s experience in the woods, his perception of the world around him changed completely, and he found a deeper understanding of the stories and myth that he had grown up reading. He realised that the very same powers expressed in the old myths, and in the forms of gods and goddesses, are the same powers that he sensed in nature. “I realised that they aren’t just some fantasy stories, but that they actually express the power of life...”
Henrik is a gode (heathen equivalent of priest) in the community Forn Sed Sweden and has recently published a new book in Swedish “Jordens Ande” about the Nordic nature religion. “I hope that this book may inspire readers to connect with nature in their own way,” says Henrik, “and to show people that there so many old traditions rooted in this landscape and so much to discover in our own Nordic heritage.”
In his teens, Henrik suddenly realised that there was so much to discover in his own home country, and that the landscape surrounding him was also sacred land. “It is easy to become blind to your own home country and folk traditions,” says Henrik, “and often things far away always seem to be a bit more exotic and magical somehow.”
Once, Henrik was attending a conference in India with representatives for many different nature religions from all over the world. In the mornings they would prepare a ceremony, and Henrik found it fascinating to see how every ceremony was basically the same, just with different symbols. “There was an old Indian man from a remote tribe and he did the same thing as us!” says Henrik, laughing.
Henrik is also a teacher in eco-psychology, and holds courses and workshops in Sweden. Often ecology and psychology are seen as separate things, says Henrik, as if psychology were something only experienced in the human psyche. Eco-psychology is about returning to nature and becoming aware of our place in the great psyche that exists not only in our own heads but in everything – in all of nature.
Henrik has also worked with teenagers, holding nature awareness exercises and inspiring the students to connect with their own natural instincts and senses. “One exercise that I sometimes use is to ask the students to look at a tree and describe the tree as if it were a person you met on the street. What kind of person would the tree be? What kind of story does it have?”
Learn more about eco-psychology and Lodyn here.