The Surrealist Group of Stockholm

THE SVARTSJÖ EXPERIMENT

In response to question 4 of the inquiry.

In the absence of other celebrations, maybe it was even the 30th anniversary party of the group, as we went on an excursion to a castle in the countryside, on one of the big agricultural islands in lake Mälaren just west of Stockholm, named Svartsjö slott (Black Lake Castle). In 1885 a new law was passed condemning all vagrants to penal labour, and with overcrowded institutions, cell space was precious and the castle was turned into a special vagrant’s prison. Victor Arendorff, one of the early 20th century working class authors and Klara neighbourhood bohemians, wrote a book about his experiences there, ”Svartsjöfångar”. Since then remade into a tourist place with their own cake recipes, there are still two prisons in the immediate vicinity, while the naturalists and especially birdwatchers have discovered the beautiful park with old hollow trees and the shallow lakes.

The game we embarked on was the packing list for the world circumnavigation under the sea. The three of us who were there early started out by choosing one object each for the packing list, making it an assignment for one of the others to find an object physically present in the surroundings that somehow embodied or strongly resembled it. Then, taking clues from this found object to specify the next object on the list to look for during the walk. And on. So it was a bundle of three parallel object chains. We enjoyed imagining ourselves as Markov chains.

In the beginning we were finding our assigned objects very rapidly (perhaps well-trained in associating). But it was a warm day and after a few hours we were really tired and eager for coffee, and we started disagreeing on interpretations and ending up in abstract concepts.

Starting out from Crystal Ball, Wooden Box, and Cog Rattle (Ratchet), we were meandering along footpaths, pond edges, moats, ruins, trying to read the strange alphabet of bark beetle galleries, peering down the hollow trees, meeting with cattle, various dragonflies and large spiders, a dead rat, and a rare beetle, we eventually found ourselves inside the castle, stuck in Love, Stairway to Heaven, and Time as the points in the chains from where we found ourselves unable to jump on…

We decided to postpone the continuation of the search, and we focused on trying the cakes and then had a picnic under an old weeping willow by the lake, with some late arriving participants added.

One of the striking meetings during the game, but hardly an actual part of it, was a large black beetle that was flying between the old oaks, immediately recognisable as the rare hermit beetle (Osmoderma eremita). This is an endangered species which is a priority conservation species in the EU, and this species was not known from this area before. This was actually the second locality in the entire Stockholm area with strong indications of a population, and in fact one of the northernmost localities in the world.

The Swedish name of the critter means ”leather beetle” but not because of it’s perhaps leathery integument, but because the characteristic rather bitter-orange-like smell of the larvae was likened by classical authors to Russian Leather. Leather from Russia got its particular strong smell from a now extinct and unknown process involving birch oil. It was copied in certain perfumes still on the market.

beetle

After a proper inventory by a friend later, it was confirmed that the castle park holds a strong population of the beetle and that the exploitation plans developed by the municipality will be contested and fought over (among municipalities, very often those with a major element of agriculture and of very wealthy residents (the two indirectly connected by the lack of urban density, industry and housing programs) are the ones that pay the least concern to biological diversity and nature conservation).

An image of one of the participants of the game searching in a hollow oak was passed around with the rhyming title ”gubben i stubben”, ”the old man in the tree stump”, which of course sparked the association to the old paranoiac classic of British surrealism, Hugh Sykes Davies’s poem called ”Poem” 1936.

One of the persons who had missed the game found a striking correspondence between the photograph and an old drawing (in fact a picture puzzle giving the artist’s name, Hertogenbosch) connected or unconnected to the simultaneous 500th anniversary.

We have been unable so far to pick up the game, maybe these deroutes of inhabitants of hollow trees was too powerful a diversion: and we will eventually be setting sails with whatever and whomever will turn out to be inhabiting our treetrunk canoes? And the poem suggests that whatever we pack in our knapsack we might be surprised when we reach down to pick it up anyway.

Hugh Sykes Davies
Poem
(1936)

In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the rotten wood grow weasel’s eyes like molluscs, their lids open and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the rain gathers and the trapped leaves and the beak and the laced weasel’s eyes, there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and at the bottom a sodden bible written in the language of rooks. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are holes the length of a man’s arm where the weasels are trapped and the letters of the rook language are laced on the sodden leaves, and at the bottom there is a man’s arm. But do not put your hand down to see, because

in the stumps of old trees where the hearts have rotted out there are deep holes and dank pools where the rain gathers, and if you ever put your hand down to see, you can wipe it in the sharp grass till it bleeds, but you’ll never want to eat with it again.

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Issue 4 Table of Contents

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