Shaping Social Movements From NH to the Swedish Forest

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Sarah Freeman-Woolpert splitting wood behind a barn in Sweden.


Lille Le lake in the town of Ed, Sweden. Sarah Freeman-Woolpert photo

This is one of my favorite columns by Sarah-Freeman Woolpert. Thanks Sarah. Happy Fourth of July!
By Sarah Freeman-Woolpert,
Sarah’s View from the Borderlands

My bare toes hang off the side of the dock as the lake lies glassy and still before me. It extends for one hundred kilometers of the Scandinavian wilderness along the Norwegian-Swedish border—a beautiful, silent stretch of forest and fjords where I arrived last Sunday evening sporting an awkward little camping backpack and some oversized rubber galoshes.

I seem to have stumbled on something unexpected and unique here in the woods of Sweden. It is not only the serene silence of the trees surrounding the tiny wooden cottage where I have installed myself for the time being, nor the (surprisingly) meditative calm I feel when splitting wood out behind the barn.

This is a strange kind of trip, one I had trouble explaining to friends as I headed off from the industrial city of Tuzla, somewhat abruptly on a rickety budget airline to visit my professor in the woods.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I booked my ticket. It felt, on the one hand, like there was a high potential for us all to spend the week uncomfortably shifting around in armchairs and making forced small talk.

On the other hand, I know this professor, Jorgen Johansen, to be one of the most experienced practitioners in a field I want to pursue. I figured I could use a sounding board to talk through the increasingly fuzzy picture of what I want to do with my life.

As it turns out, Jorgen was the right person to seek out for this advice.

His life philosophy, as I am learning here, is based loosely on a quote by Marcus Cicero, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” On a remote homestead in Sweden, he has achieved a level of balance that I have heard many people describe with a faraway look in their eyes, but never seen actually brought to life.

Jorgen has devoted his life to nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, and has traveled the world as an educator, trainer, activist, and consultant for nonviolent movements and civil resistance from Bogota, Colombia to the Gaza Strip and Tbilisi, Georgia.

But in between, he returns to his home base in the forest, where he lives with his wife, Majken, growing their own food, rowing their boat across the lake to pick wild lingonberries for homemade jam, and chopping down trees to build cabins where other nonviolence educators, students, and friends can stay.

Jorgen’s land functions as a sort of retreat center and writer’s residence where he and Majken host seminars, run a small publishing company, and welcome visitors from all over the world. People come here to work on their books and dissertations, to conduct research with the many thousands of books in their library, and to spend evenings sharing stories, discussing ideas, and shaping strategies for social change over glasses of Turkish brandy or Serbian schnapps that visitors have brought as gifts when passing through.

We have spent our days roaming outdoors, playing with their flat coat retriever, splitting wood for the fire, and carrying on long conversations, from funny travel stories to politics, philosophy and current events.

Our discussions meander from the most recent drama in Donald Trump’s campaign, to a unique Norwegian prison model, ongoing controversy in several Bosnian war crime trials, and the community-led Gacaca courts in Rwanda. As we sip our glasses of wine, Jorgen will sit back in his chair, hold out his hands, palms up, and ask us, “Well, what should be done?”

It is not a rhetorical question. He wants to hear our ideas, and these conversations often turn into a kind of collective brainstorming session, a debate about how to use specific cases to find ways to make our societies more just and humane, more engaged and critical of authority.

These discussions have opened the floodgates for ideas I have been cultivating, but lacking the mental organization in this unstructured year to begin pursuing them. Since arriving in Sweden, I’ve stayed up late scrawling lists and action plans on crumpled receipts and scrap paper, which I tuck away in the back of my wallet for safekeeping.

Beyond our long talks, the time outdoors has also stimulated my mind and restored energy to my body. I have found moments of silence, looking out over the water or crunching over leaves in the woods, to reflect on how all my wayward threads of interest—youth organizing and peace building and social justice—can be tied together, even when those threads seem tangled tightly into knots.

While out cutting wood one afternoon, Jorgen calls out to me over the noise of the wood splitter, “Want a beer?”

We sit on a fallen log, boots in the mud, staring out at piles of lumber as we sip our beers together. The sun is beginning to sink out beyond the lake and the air is growing cool as we head back to the house where candles flicker in the windows and fishcakes fry on the stove.

As the sticky residue of pinesap smears over ink stains on my hands, I know that there is a form of equilibrium to be found within this life in the woods.

Sarah’s View from the Borderlands is Sarah Freeman-Woolpert’s column for Freeman-Woolpert is originally from Pembroke, New Hampshire. She graduated from The George Washington University in 2015 and is currently spending 10 months in Bosnia and Herzegovina conducting research on youth activism and civic engagement. To read more of her writing, visit her blog at