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Raised by the Forest

Saga Mariah Sandberg grew up roaming the forests surrounding her family’s farm in Sweden. Her curious nature as a child is largely responsible for the remarkable works of art she produces today. How to describe them? Authentic, beguiling, captivating and, perhaps above all, a beautifully curated celebration of Sweden’s natural systems.

Young

One morning, many years back, Mrs Sandberg walked into her daughter’s room to wake her and stood in the doorway, aghast. At first, she believed she’d chanced upon a supernatural event. Butterflies flecked every visible surface, their powdered wings newly strengthened for flight. On her daughter’s bookshelf, chrysalis husks hung from their tethers. Her daughter, Saga Mariah Sandberg, seven at the time, didn’t seem the least bit perturbed.

“I’d been collecting caterpillars,” Saga Mariah explains. “We had a potato patch that we’d leave fallow every few years and load up with animal dung to replenish the soil with nutrients. Huge bushes of nettles would grow, and there’d be lots of tortoiseshell butterflies. They feed only on nettles. I had gone into the nettle field and collected about 15 caterpillars – along with nettle leaves for them to feed on – and just let them roam free in my room, with little piles of leaves at feeding stations for them. They created little cocoons, and then they all hatched on the same day, which was amazing. That’s when I learnt that they have an inner clock. But it was another heart attack for my mother. She opened the window and chased them out and then collected the empty cocoons.”

Saga Mariah's parents (her mother in particular) often made startling discoveries of arthropods or gastropods she’d collected, rescued or enticed with bait in order to closely observe them. “Once, they found my bucket of snails,” Saga Mariah fondly remembers. "They saw the bucket and wondered what it was, took the lid off and then saw about 30 snails inside.”

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Of the teeming things she keenly scrutinised, ants held a singular fascination. To better study them, she hid small, mellifluous troughs around the house and checked on them once – sometimes twice – a day, profoundly entranced by the sight of worker ants swarming their bounty of syrup. She scrambled up trees to watch their frenzied collection of resin and of honey dew from sap-feeders such as aphids. The ant invasion in pockets of their home horrified her mother, who also grew increasingly exasperated by her youngest daughter’s agility at climbing trees. As the sladdbarn among her siblings – born last and significantly later than her two brothers and sister – Saga Mariah was independent, fiercely inquisitive and a spirited explorer.

"I remember my mother having a mental breakdown one day,” she recalls. “'Why are you just like a boy?’ she yelled. I think I had ripped my dress or something. I was laughing at her; I didn’t know how girls were supposed to act. I lived in the countryside; that’s what I knew … After a while, she caved and bought me a bunch of books, including a book on insects and an encyclopaedia on different species, as well as a book on molluscs because I found them fascinating as well.”

Värmland

The Sandberg’s farm – a Falu red dwelling, russeted over time, with several outbuildings – rises prominently out of the virid landscape. Its ample grounds are in Värmland, west Sweden, a province rich in flora and fauna including large ungulates such as moose. Eighty-seven percent of Värmland is forest (both working and protected), stippled throughout by more than 10,000 lakes. Along its middle, Värmland is parted by the Klarälven, Sweden’s longest river, which empties at its southern end into Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake and the fourth largest body of water in Europe after Russia’s Lake Lagoda, Lake Onega and the Kuybyshev Reservoir. Along the region’s western edge, the serrated Scandinavian Mountains form a natural border between Värmland and Norway.

As a denizen of the forest that surrounded their property, Saga Mariah’s childhood was an untamed existence. It was the 80s, and the World Wide Web had yet to be invented. Her family owned a TV she was allowed to watch for just 40 minutes a day, but with only three channels, the outdoors held infinitely greater appeal. As a child, her mother had been the same, wrested outside by a world that ignited her curiosity and beckoned her to explore. Being outdoors had practical significance too: her mother fished and foraged for berries and mushrooms.

“Her family were quite poor so they would eat everything [they gathered]. It wasn’t just for fun,” Saga Mariah says. “She didn’t want me to be in the house. She’d tell me to go outside and wouldn’t worry if I was gone hours in the forest, because that’s how she grew up.

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“I was a very curious child, so I would do lots of things I wasn’t supposed to. We had a lot of outbuildings on the farm where we kept all the tools for the garden. In one of them was a glass container. For some reason that I don’t remember, I would catch baby snakes and keep a secret terrarium with little snakes in there, which was not to my parents’ liking because there were so many vipers around the farm. Farm equals mice, and mice equal snakes. In my squeaky young voice, I’d try to reassure them that the venomous snakes wouldn’t bite me.

"I also had another container where I kept tadpoles I’d caught. I had my mum go to the city – we were really far away – to buy a bottle of fish food, and I would feed the tadpoles, watch them grow and turn into tiny frogs, and then release them into the pond amongst the ducks and fish.”

Saga Mariah sustained a resident family of hedgehogs on cat food and navigated the bosky terrain to find badger setts, inspecting with great interest the bones of their prey scattered about the entrances. She played among chickens and was perpetually covered in soil. Baths were taken in a portable tub filled with water from a nearby well which they heated on a wood stove. In becoming irrevocably woven into Värmland’s rustic tapestry, Saga Mariah also took time to document it. To her bright, inquisitive mind, everything gave pause for study. Unprompted, she began to draw her surrounds, repurposing her diary as a sketchbook.

“From an early age, I would draw everything around our farm – anything I saw, I drew it,” she smiles. “My drawings were studies, but we didn’t realise it at the time. I was only about eight. I would sit there with my pens and crayons and draw what I saw. I had my first exhibition when I was 11. It was at my school. My dad had been promoted at work and had been given a fountain pen. One day, when he wasn’t home, I went and took it and sketched with it. The drawings looked beautiful. My parents were at first really angry, and then they were super impressed. They showed the headteacher the drawings, and he decided to have an exhibition, so they hung my cat and bird studies in the school. I was both very embarrassed and very proud.

"I’m so happy that my parents embraced and encouraged this creative part of me. My teacher told them I was really talented for my age and that they should try to find someone who could give me guidance. So they found someone who was giving art classes and signed me up, and from 11, I started taking his classes. It was very much traditional still life painting. I’m deeply grateful to my parents because it gave me, from an early age, all the basic skills I needed to paint.”

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Stockholm

Somewhere between starting to draw and taking art classes, Saga Mariah visited Stockholm for the first time with her family. Its ancient lanes and venerable buildings were ensorceling – a fairytale city she felt inspired to be part of one day. She was nine, and for a while longer, there would still be school and the wilds of home to occupy her. It was inevitable that her talent would lead her learning, and at 15, she elected to study art. Perhaps less predictable was her decision to also study degree-level biology, but her love for the natural world was as inherently seeded as her ability to capture it.

“In Sweden, it's the amount of hours you study that is mandatory, not what you study,” Saga Mariah explains. “So I went to the principal as a 15-year-old and told her that I wanted to study English and field biology at university level. It was an unusual request. No one else had done this. She said, ’this is a bit unorthodox, I need to check with the school board,’ which she did and then came back to me and said ‘yes’.

“Field biology only takes place in the summer, so I did a whole summer of it when I was 16. For me, it was the best thing ever. I had different professors. Can you imagine? I had a professor in mycology and a professor in insects, and then, of course, there were tests on the subjects, like tests on beetles. I mean, the dream. I always thought I would use that knowledge one day and combine it with my drawing skills.”

Two years later, Saga Mariah left home to attend Berghs School of Communication in Stockholm, where she studied design. Eager from the outset to grow, the school became an invaluable promoter of innovative thinking and creativity. It was a prime environment in which to develop, and, like the caterpillars that had thrived and metamorphosed in the relative safety of her bedroom, she reinvented herself and exceeded the borders of all she once knew. What followed was a fortuitous repositioning that set her on her current, increasingly distinguished course.

“After design school, I was headhunted by an award-winning design agency to be their art director. I felt I could definitely not say no because it was such an incredible opportunity,” she says. “I was this ant-loving freak from the countryside now getting the opportunity to work as an art director at this big design agency in Stockholm. I took the job, but after two months I felt like things were completely wrong and that I didn’t belong there. It wasn’t the agency; it was me. I just felt like I wasn’t the right person for the job, and my creative processes didn’t quite gel with the systemic thinking and fast tempo of an agency. I noticed with a shock that it wasn’t for me.”

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By relinquishing her role, Saga Mariah reasoned, she was making room for someone else to excel in her stead. She called her elder sister to talk it through, and, after a brief discussion, her sister agreed it was a prudent decision. What Saga Mariah didn’t entirely anticipate was her mother’s reaction to the news.

“When I rang my parents to tell them I was thinking of leaving my well-paid, respectable job, I was worried what they would say,” she admits. “I was the girl who kept snakes and insects as a child and then did three years education at an expensive school in Stockholm and got a top job immediately, and now, here I was, about to turn it down. Interestingly, my mother said, ‘I’m so happy you are saying this because I just couldn’t picture you in an office. I just can’t see it in my imagination’. She couldn’t see me locked up inside, under artificial lighting and wearing expensive, flashy clothing, and admitted she’d be more devastated if she thought that that was going to be my life now.

“I was so happy to hear that. It was all I needed, just for the closest people in my life to reassure me that that wasn’t me. So, after three months, my very short career as an art director ended, and I very enthusiastically rented my first studio and started painting again.”

Saga Mariah took on clients, illustrating for the food and cosmetic industries until she had saved enough to buy a flat, start a web store and create the nature-themed artworks she longed to paint.


Belonging

There are differences between Stockholm and Värmland, the biggest and most obvious being that one is a city and the other a rural province. Moving from the latter to the former incurs a steep learning curve in urban living.

“I barely knew how to behave around people in the city,” Saga Mariah recalls. “I would talk to my neighbours too much, for example. Where I’m from, it’s super important that you know your neighbours. There’s a completely different relationship to one another when you live in the countryside; you know people’s routines, who is related to whom and what people are up to. You kind of have to because you watch out for one another and help one another.”

Then there’s the stupefying maze of buildings and glittering streets; the effluvia of traffic and smoke from smouldering tobacco. There’s the thrum of human activity and echoing ship horns in absence of the hinterland’s eclectic chorus: a pastiche of the Arctic loon’s sorrowful call and crepuscular skitter of pine martens, of lowing cattle and bellowing moose.

Fun, the urban way, is often had indoors, and though inarguably remarkable, the city’s attractions are largely manmade. It’s in this milieu of civic life that Saga Mariah rediscovered a fundamental truth.

“After living in the city, I really understood that I belong in the forest. I don’t belong in the city,” she says thoughtfully, “no matter how hard I try. Once I’d saved enough money to get a deposit on a mortgage, I bought an apartment as close to the nature reserve as I could, on the edge of Stockholm. I’m basically next to a nature reserve – actually, three different nature reserves. I’m 10 minutes from the lake where I go swimming in the summer, and 10 minutes from the sea, and that’s great for me. And central Stockholm is just half an hour away, so I can work with clients easily as well. I can enjoy both worlds.”

In arriving at a workable solution, she unknowingly defined a powerful motif for her art: that of belonging.

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Biotopes

Saga Mariah’s upper floor studio, situated within walking distance of her home, is a fresh, semi-cylindrical room, high-ceilinged with embossed window architraves, deep sills and beautifully crafted wainscoting. At one end, where the moulded frieze is particularly ornate, a crystalline chandelier teardrops from the ceiling. The building was originally a prodigious home, and Saga Mariah’s workspace, the old living room. She spends many sedentary hours there, listening to podcasts and painting “biotopical” artworks that carry their message of place.

When she first entertained the concept of creating posters, she felt from the outset they would be botanical in nature, and so began with what she knew and could authentically produce. Years prior, as a 16-year-old immersed in field biology, she learnt that understanding a species was inextricably linked to understanding the peculiarities of its unique environment: its biotope. She would start there. Her posters would be individual, aesthetically pleasing and biologically accurate. She would group interesting species inhabiting the same biotopes together in artworks that were both attractive and educational.

“I contacted field biologists once I’d come up with the concept for the series and a rough idea for about 20 different posters,” she says.” I then employed the field biologists as consultants to make lists of the species that would signify those biotopes, from plants, insects, mushrooms and birds.

“It was interesting to get their point of view on how important it is to preserve natural habitats and unspoilt environments. It was absolutely fantastic to have access to their pool of knowledge – the luxury of me coming up with ideas and them responding with reports and research. I did have to read through a lot of heavy reports about different biotopes, with lists of every species in that biotope. I had to research each and every species, which took such a long time. I looked at the hundreds of different species for each biotope, and then I picked those that were important and looked good together. The field biologists helped me understand the signifier species of a biotope that had to be included on the poster.”

Her posters have only been available for about a year but are already widely received. Children and adults are captivated by them, and biologists admire their veracity. One of the most visited museums in Sweden displays the entire series in their children’s exhibit. Saga Mariah finds their uptake humbling, sometimes to the point of weeping. She wept when the museum curated her work, and again at the reaction of the field biologists to her posters.

“I never thought my work would be appreciated by professional scientists," she says happily. “My expectation was that they would see it as whimsical and weird and not true enough to the species I was illustrating. So I was very moved when they said they liked my work and that it had a completely different and very lively style that feels very organic and full of life. That made me weep.”

In creating compositions so formidable and fulfilling, she hopes they give something important back.

“My hope is that either because of their love for nature or their budding love for nature, people will purchase my work and put it in their home and they will come into contact with it every day,” she says. “When they see it, they will not see me, they will see nature; they will see all these beautiful components to natural systems, and will hopefully be intrigued and inspired, and form a deep respect for nature.”

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Home

A couple of times a year, Saga Mariah becomes aware of a clamant need to return to Värmland.

“It’s like an aching to go back,” she explains, “so I book a train ticket and head home. I love to roam my forest, as you would say in Swedish. There’s this incredible sense of relief every time. I go back and the first thing I do, after a quick hello to my parents, is walk straight out into the forest for about half an hour, just to be there.”

Like wandering familiar corridors and peering into familiar rooms, she is restored by the discovery that everything is just as she left it.

“I know that I walk the same path as my mother does when she’s out there, and it’s where my father takes the dog out, and that makes me feel connected to it,” she explains. “And I know exactly where the mushrooms will grow – they grow in the same spot every year – and I know where the berries will grow, and where the moose will be. My parents live next to a peat bog, and it’s one of the few places in the world where cranes nest. There’s something magical about it.

“In Sweden, because you are so far up in the Arctic region, the sun doesn’t really set in the summer, and that’s usually when the cranes will rear their young. So I will sometimes wait up until 3 or 4 am with a cup of tea to see the crane couples with their chicks come by the kitchen window to pick bugs. It’s something that happens every year, and I know that the young ones will come back next year and rear their chicks in the same area. There’s just the feeling of something cyclical that continues on and on, and that’s also what makes it feel like my place because I’ve seen generations grow up, from the cranes to the hedgehogs. There’s also familial history there.”

In the figurative tome of familial history, Saga Mariah’s personal contribution, though relatively short, is already exceptional. The verdant grounds of the home she knows so well hold sweet, halcyon memories: of the first time she plucked up a beetle to gleefully examine its carapaced body, and of her jaunts into the forest, unencumbered by time. Of the days she fostered baby snakes and hoarded snails, grazed bark and fell in love with ants, raised butterflies and discovered a gift that has shaped her life ever since.

Each encounter, pure and profound, taught Saga Maria that flora and fauna should not merely be observed but systemically embraced, innately understood and deeply respected. In this she finds belonging. Home is her place, a place where she’s dependably refilled.

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This story is from Volume Thirteen

The Belonging Volume

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