By Nordstjernan columnist Julie Lindahl, September 2009

Strings of gold grow from the hanging birch. There can be no tree that succumbs so gracefully to the end of the season as this one. The fish swim in the reflection of this tree’s last grand act for the season, before it lays down its costume and recedes to bareness. A swan plucks its feathers and waits alone in our bay for the water to begin to close up around it when it will move to the next small opening, and then the next. In the skies overhead the flocks of Canada geese shriek urgency into the air: “Leave or perish!” On the ground the insects listen and crowd the still warm sunlit windows of my island kitchen with the desperation of life unwillingly at its end.


On these still islands, now deserted and where society has decided that nothing happens until next summer, a drama of greater beauty and proportion than humans will ever be able to produce is taking place. Its greatness isn’t on a horizon, in the future, in a strategic plan, or about to be invented. It is here, now, happening all of the time in the fine detail of every drone that flies at the window seeking the last drop of sunlight, every plant that wilts with the cooling mornings and in the streak of fog that rests on the lake, resisting to lift even with the coming of the morning sun.

So much happens yet so few notice it. That is the reason we have boredom, despite the number of tasks on the schedule. All around there is fascination, things we don’t know, things to explore. Yet within our four walls, we think we know, we think we’ve seen it already and we seek a new, more interesting better show on a flat screen which we never find.

In the world that most of us have returned to live in as the working year begins, there are no insects flying against the windows. The flower beds will be dug up before the frost brings down the stems, and the golden threads of the birch go unseen as people flit past them reading messages on mobile devices. The shrieks of the Canada geese drown in the noise of the traffic and the swans wait patiently for scraps from inattentive humans.

The autumn has come and most of us feel that we must return to onwards, upwards and forwards. In an incredible act of defiance, we cut loose of all nature around us and make life continue to grow at an even faster speed, no matter the light conditions, the weather and the temperature. We invent new things, make new discoveries and grow our families and companies. As the daylight hours shrink and the frost stills the earth, our engines rev up and in this we are truly unique, even miraculous.

As I move between these two worlds between my island and the city, I feel torn: wanting to remain in the graceful retreat of the birch but all of the time knowing that to survive, I must join the forward movement. Much as I would like for these two lives to connect, to find a middle ground seems difficult to achieve.

My environmentalist friend, Sara, interrupts my thoughts with an off-beat question. “Have you got a picture of a water strider?” she asks. I hesitate with a bit of embarrassment since I don’t know what a water strider is. “You know, those insects that look like they are skating across the surface of the water,” she explains, wondering what planet I’ve been living on. With a camera in hand I venture down to the pond outside and crouch with my camera, trying to catch a close-up of a water strider. There are hundreds of them on this small water surface, yet they are impossible to catch with an ordinary camera. As soon as I get a clear focus on them, they’ve skated somewhere else.

I cannot get a clear picture to send to Sara, but I do get a useful thought. What if our entire human construction is like that of the water striders? Dynamic and plentiful in its own right, but relying entirely on the surface tension of the water being as it is. Water striders need the water, but it doesn’t need them.

I don’t live between two worlds, rather in one that is entirely dependent on the other without thinking about it most of the time. The water striders who live on the water’s surface can be forgiven for not ‘thinking’. They have a different kind of intelligence. Yet for humans thinking is what we have the possibility to do best of all species on earth.

Sara who watches and thinks about that forgotten world upon which human life depends, says that science cannot entirely explain the way that water is, including its surface tension. We have to watch water to know this quality and to awaken to how special it is. The laboratories of the future and the entire forward march of humanity might in this way depend on a single golden thread of knowledge: that on the deserted islands of the earth, where nature carries on without us, almost everything that is most important to us is happening.

Julie Lindahl is an author and expert on wellbeing with inspiration from the Nordic region. She is the author of “On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Wellbeing” (Tarcher Penguin, 2005) and the editor of—the e-magazine for wellbeing with Nordic inspiration on the web. To learn more about Julie’s writing projects, including upcoming books, please visit