Twilight Zone / Island of Sanity

Life on a Swedish island, a place where the sun doesn't set, where the summer weather is like our winter and where passions rise only when a rare songbird is sighted or a wolf is shot.

GRASO - Prof. Lars-Gunnar Bravander was excited. He stood by the side of the dirt trail, his sophisticated camera and binoculars resting on his belly. The professor's shirt was faded and wrinkled and had known better days. Gleefully he jumped up and down in childlike joy. It was early morning on the island, and we were on our way back from collecting the fish nets we had cast on the high seas the night before. The extraordinarily tasty perch we had netted were now in a pail in the trunk of the car, still thrashing about.

We stopped the car. People here usually make do with a pleasant nod of the head to the neighbors, as a top-of-the-line Swedish greeting, but this time it was different. What happened, professor? Well, this morning he had spotted a fine pair of marsh warblers nesting in a tree. That small and marvelous songbird hadn't been seen here for the past five years, but now the biology professor from Stockholm University had observed two. Our host, Goran Ormestad, immediately grasped the momentous significance of the event and got excited, too. Quickly he took out his binoculars to observe the wonder. He then reported via his laptop to Swedish bird-watching sites on the Internet, not before phoning the professor, who had in the meantime left, to ask whether to add his name as a co-observer of the miracle.

Following this amazing Internet report, birdwatchers will likely stream to the island to see the little warbler with their own eyes and binoculars. One birder has counted no fewer than 180 different types of birds here, and now, wonder of wonders, the marsh warbler is once again on the list.

This is a typical display of emotion on Graso, a tranquil Swedish island in the Baltic Sea, about 200 kilometers north of Stockholm. To get here you need to take one of the big ferryboats that depart from the village of Oregrund every half hour - long rows of cars on its deck are arranged in characteristic Swedish order - mainly in the summer, when the weather resembles the Israeli winter.

A few years ago there was an even greater burst of excitement on the island. At that time, the lone family that lives on the neighboring lighthouse island - the sea here is strewn with lighthouses to warn vessels from Finland and northern Sweden of the many islands and shoals - noticed a wolf swimming toward Graso. They immediately reported the event to the island's inhabitants. A wolf vigil was declared and all the shepherds went on high alert. A farmer, one of the last sheep breeders on the island - small homesteads with 10 cows and 10 sheep can no longer make a living here - saw the wolf approaching his flock. The rest is history - bloody, painful history that disrupted the island's tranquillity for many days. With his hunting rifle, the shepherd shot the wolf dead. He then reported the incident to the police, as required, and an intensive investigation began: wolves are a protected species in Sweden. The shepherd was tried, pleading innocent because he had acted out of fear for the sheep's lives. He was convicted, had to pay a large fine and given a suspended sentence. That was a sensational story not only in the local press but in the national media, too. Such is Graso, such is Sweden. It's beyond the comprehension of an outsider, and for an Israeli outsider so are many other things.

About 800 souls inhabit this verdant isle. Shepherds and farmers, they were gradually forced to part with their small holdings under the pressure of globalization and progress. The island's "cat man," a farmer who had to give up his homestead and became a hermit, lived with dozens of cats in his humble dwelling until his death a few years ago. The house of cats is now empty and will probably soon be bought by a Swedish yuppie. The farm family who live in the house next to us still has a large flock of sheep and doesn't know what to do with it. A whole series of permits is needed to make cheese now, and this family has become poor. The shepherd who killed the wolf did away with his flock and now works in the nuclear-power plant on the mainland shore. Progress, though it may tarry, is unavoidable even here.

In the summer the island's population swells: a few thousand Swedes have summer homes here. These people are not especially rich. The homes are modest wooden structures, the Swedish flag flying in front to signal that the owners are home. Nevertheless, not one hotel will be built here, neither a B&B nor a restaurant, not a "fun beach" or an amusement park. This is Sweden.

Goran has three fishing boats, two of them moored to the wooden dock he built - and which he has to dismantle every winter because of the ice - and the third anchored at the boathouse on the other end of the island. He and his wife Susanne, both retired, lead a very rich nature life and a very narrow social life, certainly in Israeli terms. Goran and Susanne share all the hard work needed to maintain the house, from chopping the wood to smoking the fish. Every morning and evening he goes out to listen to the chirping of the birds and observe their habits. Recently he purchased a special telescope for this purpose at a cost of about 30,000 crowns - around NIS 15,000.

He keeps a daily log of what he sees and hears in the wild. The log is a collection of yellowing notebooks glued to one another year after year, day after day for some 40 years now. This morning he wrote, "Cloudy morning, heard two songbirds outside ... Went out to sea and on the neighboring island I saw ..." At this point come the names of all the birds he observed, in Swedish. Every day he checks the water and air temperature and occasionally he adds a few words about the visit of a guest, an Israeli, for example - or about other family events.

A well supplies water to the house, a wooden structure built by his father from the remnants of a cabin of Swedish soldiers in the Second World War, but the dwelling is very well cared for. Goran grows vegetables in the yard, which abuts the forest, and inserts blood-saturated sponges between the furrows to keep the deer at bay. Moose do not threaten the plants, he explains. Water for the household comes from the well outside, after being purified in a special device. It is used sparingly, lest seawater inundate the well and the pipe system, which was installed only in the late 1970s. Electricity, too, has been available here only since the 1970s. There is no sewage system: waste is channeled into cesspits. The venue for urinating is the forest, and rainwater is collected in barrels to irrigate the garden.

On the neighboring islands, many homes still lack running water or electricity. Sweden, 2011. On the way to the fishing expedition I noticed tiny islands that have a lone house on them, accessible only by boat. This too is Sweden 2011: on the mainland opposite, at a distance of about 10 kilometers from the island, loom the three chimneys of the threatening nuclear power plant. Every home on the island has a special loudspeaker system to announce any leaks at the reactor, and there are iodide pills in the pantry for any possible emergency.

There is no police force on the island, but nevertheless there are no break-ins, though the houses are almost never locked and are certainly not protected like ours. In the winter most of them are abandoned because of the cold. But when a road sign shows a maximum speed of 20 kilometers an hour on a remote dirt trail, Goran shifts gear and obeys the sign, not exceeding the speed limit by even one kilometer.

An outsider cannot understand the well-known Swedish modesty, obedience and innocence. An Israeli guest cannot help being captivated. Attending the talk I gave at the Mediterranean Museum in Stockholm last week was Mona Sahlin, the leader of the Social Democratic Party and a former candidate for prime minister. She had to bow out of the race because she bought a package of Toblerone chocolates and a package of diapers for her baby using the credit card of the government or of her party. The brilliant career of this working-class woman was abruptly ended, though she is still a member of parliament. She came to listen to a foreign journalist's talk in the museum like everyone else in the audience. When was the last time you saw a senior Israeli politician attending a talk given by someone else?

But back to the island. It's dangerous here. When, as is my custom, I entered the freezing waters of the sea one morning, to the amazement of the island's early risers, I felt that my life was in almost greater danger than ever before. A family of swans - mother, father and chicks - that was gliding across the water near me apparently felt threatened by my presence, and the father of the family started to attack me viciously. It was only by a miracle that I managed to survive the assault. Someone else who felt threatened, according to a rural legend, was the fisherman who always carried a rifle in his boat, for fear of the Russians, which stalked the Swedes for years.

As I write this, I have a view of the sea and the islands opposite; swans, seagulls and other birds are hovering above; the evergreen forest is behind me, and a squirrel darts out from it to nibble on sunflower seeds that are intended for the birds. At this time of the year the sun never sets on the island: dusk falls at midnight, there is full daylight at three in the morning and between them not a minute of dark or of quiet without the incessant squawking of the birds. In winter the sun will come up here only for a few hours and some of the birds will embark on the journey to the warmth of Africa, passing our Lake Hula on the way.

A noise cuts through the air: the neighbor is chopping wood. The sun has come out through the clouds for a few happy hours before retreating and giving way again to the pesky summer rain and with it the summer cold. Goran makes a mark with his knife on the stove when he smokes the herring he has culled from the sea. The scent of smoke from the fireplace and the stove wafts through the air.

Bergmanesque Swedish is occasionally heard, mingled with the singing of the birds. Goran comes here once a month in the winter, too, to fill the feeding device for the forest birds with sunflower seeds, easing their hunger amid the cold and snow. He has also built them nests on the trees around the house. People around here will get up early and have supper at three in the afternoon, then take a short nap and get up for another round in the forest to listen to the night birds. They turn on the television only for the news, only the public channel, without commercials and with announcers between the programs, like we used to have. Another wonder: elderly female presenters on television, heaven help us, and innocent programs in which serious talk is also heard.

Yes, a week on this island can easily disorient an Israeli. Maybe that's why I will come back here next year, in the summer. I love this island. I love its views and I love its inhabitants, especially Susanne and Goran, who are personally dear to me. They are perhaps the mirror images of the less-attractive sides of Israeliness: modest, sincere, hardworking and honest. This is my private paradise; a paradise on the Swedish island of Graso, in the Baltic Sea.