Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

Every Person's Right

   

Porch View From Montgomery Place For the Hudson Valley Green Times

Access to Nature: Every Person’s Right
By Anthony Henry Smith

Jakob Abrahamsson and Candace Droguett were stopping over on their return trip to Sweden. They had just come from the Montreal Film Festival and their time in New York was short. They live in Stockholm, a city built on seven islands with many bridges and waterways. It seemed all the more appropriate to meet them for lunch in a seafood restaurant on Manhattan Island.

I first met Jakob during Walkabout Clearwater’s 1987 trip to the Brunnsviks Folk High School in Ludvika, Sweden. Jakob first visited the Mid Hudson Valley in 1991 and has returned several times since. In June of 1996, Mount Gulian Historic Site celebrated the 400th anniversary of the first performance of Shakespeare’s original “Midsommer Nights Dreame.” On that occasion Jakob returned to Beacon to help produce “A Masque Version of Shakespeare’s Midsommer Nights Dreame.” at the site in honor of America’s first distinguished Shakespearian scholar, Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, who lived at Mount Gulian.

Jakob and Candace were both born and raised in Sweden. Their professional experience in the film industry certainly qualifies them as keen observers of the human pageant. Who better to ask about Swedish attitudes and culture?

"Allemansratten," literally "every person's right," is a Swedish word. It refers to the fact that in Sweden everyone is entitled to the “Right of Public Access” for the purpose of enjoying the benefits of nature. People are permitted to pick mushrooms and wild berries and flowers, as long as they don’t harm protected species. One can even go on private property as long as one respects the privacy of those living there. One is allowed to use the streams and lakes for boating and swimming. Of course, one is expected not to disturb or destroy anything, including vegetation and wildlife. Special caution is necessary during the growing seasons and when wildlife may be raising their young. Dogs are permitted, but they must be kept under the control. From March through August all dogs must be kept on a leash for the protection of wildlife. Camping is permitted for a day or two if the land is not being farmed and assuming you’re not too close to a house.

People using this right are expected to be polite and use good manners. If the property owners are available, the polite thing is to ask permission to use their property. Owners very seldom refuse.

I asked how the Right of Public Access works on a day to day basis in modern Sweden. Jakob responded without hesitation.

“I think it works quite unconsciously. People don’t think about it. When traveling by car, people don’t hesitate to stop and pick blueberries or flowers in the fields or by the roadside.”

I wondered if people ever ran into problems with strangers coming on their property uninvited.

If there were any problems, neither Jakob nor Candace had ever heard of them. Jakob mentioned that his grandmother sometimes extends the “right” to include other people’s gardens, but the owners of the gardens have a sense of community. Jacob explained it like this:

“They’re most likely to assume she’s from the area (even though they know she might not be,) and so, in a way, she’s one of us. She would consider it alright because she feels she’s part of the community and if she doesn’t know the owner, it’s something that just hasn’t happened yet. This interpretation of “Allemansratt” is probably a bit too drastic for most Swedes, who tend to wear their sense of privacy and decorum on their sleeves.”

Jakob observed that although the Right of Public Access seems very ancient, it probably doesn’t go back more than a few hundred years. He thought the kings and nobility were probably not very open to allowing the common people to trespass.

Nevertheless, when laws regarding "private" property were drawn up, officials found they didn't need law to take care of many things already covered by custom and heritage.

There is no law or written statement anywhere declaring “Allemansratten” a “right.” No law covers it. People can refuse to let you use their property, but usually they don’t. The people entering private property don’t have to be polite about it, but usually they are. It’s an example of ethics in the form of manners. Both visitor and property owner act in obedience to the unenforcable manners and customs of Sweden. It's a wonderful example of how ethics and law can live comfortably side by side in the Swedish culture. It may point toward the ethic we all need to develop if we are ever to have a healthy humanity functioning within a healthy ecosystem.

I asked Candace if the subject of “Allemansratten” ever came up during her own childhood education.

“No, actually never. It’s such a common thing that you don’t discuss it. It really only comes up when we try to explain it to foreign visitors. When we do discuss it, I realize how lucky we are that we have this privilege. Even though most Swedes live in cities, part of being Swedish is to enjoy Nature.”

Jakob summed it up this way:

“Allemansratten” is similar to the right to free speech, or the right to worship freely, or the right to freedom of assembly. Those things are frequently discussed, because they might be lost. But “Allemansratten” is never discussed because it’s so unthinkable that we should ever lose it.”

There may come a time when “Allemansratten” will be universally honored and observed. We’ll know that day has finally arrived when people live Allemansratten and no longer discuss it.

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