“It all began in the late 1970s when an Italian-born man named Ido Poloni wanted to bring with him to Sweden a dear memory from his homeland, the fabled edelweiss plant. After a summer stay at Foskdalsvallen in Särna, he found it natural to choose Dalarna's perhaps most alpine location for the planting attempt, namely Städjan's peak. Bringing about 20 plants from Cortina in northern Italy, Ido planted edelweiss on suitable rocks that resembled their natural habitat. Here the noble flower also found itself at home and is still growing on some of Städjan's rock ledges. The plant has not managed to spread by seeds, neither does it seem to reproduce vegetatively. The plants that were planted on the northern side have stopped blooming and seem to be fading.”
In search for Ido’s transplanted Italian edelweiss, _Subplots made a field trip to the Städjan-Nipfjället national reserve located in central Sweden, on traditional Sámi territory. While the flower is commonly treasured as a symbol of alpine nationalism and as a trophy of heroic mountaineering, this context appeared strangely inverted. Here, located on the ledge of a comparatively accessible summit and insubordinately introduced by a migrant, the flower hardly serves neither as a symbol of athletic bravery nor of environmental authenticity. Rather it appears as an ecological and cultural intruder, and as such provokes a few questions about contemporary conservation and belonging.
“Most of us are appalled when foreign humans are treated as somehow intrinsically dangerous. Yet the orthodoxy in conservation is to demonize foreign species in just that way.” Fred Pearce (The New Wild)
It’s easy to depict -as the local newspaper did in the 70’s- the planting attempt as a romantic folly in discord with an institutional rational, but what if the state bureaucracy is the one clinging on to a romantic idea of nature and place? The 1970’s environmental movement, including its later expression in governmental policy, was characterised by protectionism: an approach to conservation that emphasises the protection of individual species within environments where they’re considered to belong. The idea leans on the conception of the existence of an original or pristine state of ecosystems; an idea that still (romantically) lingers in many minds and regulations. And as environmental journalist Fred Pearce states in his book the New Wild, when we imagine the world as made up of tightly knit ecosystems that are perfect and stable, where every species has evolved to have a unique roll, there is little room for any appreciation for alien species. Despite how hard it is to unlearn, the understanding of ecosystems as stable and balanced is wrong. Change itself is not the threat but rather the baseline, or as Pearce would pose it, perhaps even a salvation. While it’s true that in some instances alien species cause havoc to ecosystems, the dull reality is that most of the time often-feared foreign species don’t make the headlines at all. They rarely outcompete local species, instead they usually either become incorporated as contributors to the overall health of ecosystems: pollinating crops, spreading seeds, and positively mingling with native species in the food chain. Or they fail to properly establish themselves and gradually cease away, which seems to be the case with the edelweiss on Mount Städjan.
After a few hours of surveying the characteristic volcano-shaped summit we eventually packed in without a glimpse of the flower. Perhaps we didn’t search behind the right rock, or perhaps they have already disappeared. As Städjan is well frequented by hikers, it’s also not unlikely that they have succumbed to death by picking. Indeed, long before climate change began to threaten the existence of edelweiss in the Alps, hikers desire to collect trophies from their endeavours caused it to rapidly decline and is the reason (both for being cherished and threatened by this same admiration) to why it attained protected status in the 1878, in what is known as one of the first environmental protection laws in Europe. A law whose purpose was perhaps more localist commercial than it was environmental, as it intended to preserve the flower in the interests of local collectors.
Nevertheless, on our way back down from the summit, we noticed some chickens among the rocks. On closer inspection we realised they were ptarmigans, a relic from the last ice age and one of few birds that can be classified as real specialists of the arctic-alpine zone. In the Alps, the ptarmigans are among the first animal species to be impacted by global warming and most of its habitat is threatened, partly because of the direct warming of the area, but also because ski resorts plan to move further up the mountains where the ptarmigans might otherwise seek refuge. Interestingly, to make another connection between the Swedish peak and its nearby ski slopes and the Alps; at least in the short term, the Scandinavian ski industry considers climate change not a threath but an opportunity. Because of its delayed effect in the north, the scandinavian resorts predict an increase in activity and profit as its competitors in the Alps begin to struggle. Hence, the tourist might also migrate north.